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A picture of a steam train riding along a track around some trees

Full Steam Ahead

Historians Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn bring the golden age of steam back to life and explore how the Victorian railways created modern Britain.

About the programme

Join us for our new Open University series in partnership with the BBC Full Steam Ahead where historians Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn re-live the golden age of steam and explore how the Victorian railways created modern Britain.

Find out more about Full Steam Ahead on the BBC website.

A black and white picture, featuring a close-up of the wheel of a steam train

The impact of the railways on Victorian townscapes

We think of the introduction of railways as bringing prosperity to the people, but it also brought unsanitary conditions and isolation to those who lived on 'the other side of the tracks'.

Have you ever noticed that you get a completely different view of a town or city from a train; not the public civic image but a more private, scruffy, everyday view?  Have you wondered where the saying ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ came from?  Places on the ‘wrong’ or ‘other’ side of the tracks are considered undesirable, difficult, maybe even a bit unknown and threatening.  The arrival of the railways in mid-nineteenth century towns created new marginal urban spaces which were often depressed and isolated as railway development transformed town centres taking up large stretches of land and carving up the urban space.  The railways influenced the nature of the buildings and activities that developed in different neighbourhoods.  Towns which had previously been seen as  unified places or single communities became divided physically and metaphorically into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts.  Some areas, particularly in town centres, and next to the lines, became permanently labelled as ‘undesirable’ with lower property and land values, people displaced by railway building crammed into nearby housing intensifying the slum problem.  The railway both created these poor and neglected places and allowed train travellers a view into them, a fact noted by Frederick Engels in Manchester as early as 1844.

The Victorian railway was a competitive industry and many medium and large towns were served by more than one railway company.

In the early phase of railway growth in the 1830s and '40s, railway companies located tracks and stations on the outskirts of towns where land was cheaper but they soon realised that people and goods needed to be delivered right into the centres of towns and cities.  The first railway station at Manchester, for example, was opened in 1830 on the Liverpool Road outside of the built up area of the city.  This station was closed to passengers in 1844 when Manchester’s Victoria Station opened closer to the city centre and market.  The Victorian railway was a competitive industry and many medium and large towns were served by more than one railway company.  Competition between companies meant more lines and more stations occupying more urban space. In Manchester competitor companies built their own stations for their lines and by 1890 Manchester (with Salford)  had acquired three passenger terminus stations, one goods terminus and five other ‘through’ stations.  This pattern was repeated on a smaller scale in many other places, bringing stations and lines into the hearts of towns and cities.


railways used up between 8 and 10% of the space in town centres; the larger the town, the more land the railway needed. 

The 1840 Railway Regulation Act, passed only fifteen years after the opening of the first public railway, prohibited trespass on the line which was the property of the railway companies.  The separation of people from tracks, together with the necessary fences, walls and embankments, chopped up the town landscape creating disruption and obstructions.  Traditional street patterns were destroyed and these barriers, combined with a shortage of footbridges, meant that parts of town centres became cut off, people often faced a long walk round stations and good yards and had to go quite extensive distances to find a crossing.  Railways were hungry for land; they needed space for tracks and stations but also for bridges, viaducts, signal boxes, engine sheds, maintenance depots, goods yards and housing for railway workers. The historian John Kellett has estimated that railways used up between 8 and 10% of the space in town centres; the larger the town, the more land the railway needed. 

Railway companies always tried to find the cheapest routes through, buying up slum properties or inefficient sites.  In Victorian Lincoln the first railway was built along the Fossdyke Navigation waterway as the operator of the canal had made a deal with the Midland Railway to lay the track on cheap marshy waterside land.  The line opened in 1846 and brought the trains almost as far as the High Street in the ‘downhill’ area of the town, a place which already contained breweries, mills and foundries.  This industrial activity intensified with the ability to access bulk materials and to transport finished products by rail and within two decades the industries grew significantly to employ workforces of thousands.


A picture of the map of Lincoln

National Library of Scotland under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

This 1899 map of Lincoln shows the High Street (running from the top to bottom in the centre) and the river and wharf area to the centre left.  You can see that by the end of the nineteenth century Lincoln had additional lines, two stations and three separate level crossings interrupting the High Street traffic, as well as railway crossings on other streets.  While the traditional, largely medieval street layout is visible in the upper town at the top of the map, the space in the ‘downhill’ area around the river and railway lines has been filled by large-scale industrial buildings and tight development.  


A black and white photo of Lincoln from the 1950s. A steam train is in the foreground

Copyright: National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

This photograph from 1950 shows how  the railway dominated the street, traffic and neighbourhood in downhill Lincoln more than a century after the first train arrived. In all towns, steam, smoke and coal dust made the areas close to tracks and stations dirty and unhealthy.  The noise created by trains, engines, wagons, whistles and signals continued day and night while traffic increased outside stations with horse-drawn hackney carriages (taxis), horse buses and later trams.  When combined with the growth of large scale industry and its side effects, with physical isolation and slum housing, these track-side spaces declined further.  While the coming of the railways brought mobility and prosperity to most, the neighbourhoods on 'the other side of the tracks' never recovered from their impact.


A photograph of an old-looking rotary phone

What have the railways got to do with the 999 system?

If you’ve lived in the UK for any length of time, you’ve probably dialled ‘999’ at least once.  But you probably haven’t realised that the origins of the system that you’re using lie in the railways.

In 1900, freight movements often required special trains, and events like bank holidays or works outings put lots of pressure on the networks

In the early years of the twentieth century, the railway companies in Britain were struggling with congestion and inefficiency on their networks. Whereas today’s rail traffic is highly predictable, in 1900, freight movements often required special trains, and events like bank holidays or works outings put lots of pressure on the networks. Signalmen controlled which train had priority, but there was no overview of where each company’s traffic was heading. Congestion and late arrivals were common, and increasing.

This changed in 1909 when a number of railway companies, led by the Midland Railway in Derby, introduced centralised train control. All trains were given a unique identifying mark, and signalmen used the telephone (which had only just become a mature technology) to phone Derby and report when each train had passed. At Derby a system of sliding tags on brass rails gave the train controllers an accurate visual impression of where each train was on the network: they used this to instruct signalmen about where to send trains. The control room was born, and efficiency rose.

In 1915, when the British Army went to war in France, its generals realised that they needed the most efficient supply arrangements. So they hired the man who had invented train control, Cecil Paget. He replicated his Derby system on the railways operated and built in France by the British Expeditionary Force, bringing in control rooms which relied on real-time information relayed by telephone: a new practice within the army.


Dixon was ... the mastermind of a series of plans to modernise policing to make it more efficient through the use of new technology

Phoning in reports to a control room became exceptionally significant in 1917, during the panic which followed the German daylight air raids on London. As well as precipitating the creation of the RAF, this prompted the British to bring back experts from France to create a control system, the London Air Defence Area. Sighting reports and unit readiness were telephoned in to a central map room, where the controller of the defence issued orders to fighters and AA guns. A young Home Office civil servant named Arthur Dixon liaised between the LADA control and police, whose role was to raise the air raid alarms. RAF generals who received tours of the control room included the man at the top, Lord Trenchard.

By the 1930s, Dixon was still at the Home Office: the mastermind of a series of plans to modernise policing to make it more efficient through the use of new technology. Trenchard was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. In 1934 they implemented the ‘Area Car Scheme’: police cars equipped with radios would patrol London, reporting their whereabouts and readiness to a control room, where their position was marked on a map. The main input to the control room came from the public, who for the first time could ring it directly to report a crime or incident. By cutting out its local stations and centralising its control systems like this, the Met accelerated its speed of response.  . . . but the people phoning the control room probably didn’t know that they were using something first developed by Britain’s railways.


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