Steam & Speed: Other Forms of Victorian Transport & Communication

The other type of railway developed in Britain and then used worldwide was the urban Underground. The first passenger-carrying underground railway was opened in London between Paddington and Farringdon on 10 January 1863. Steam-hauled and built on the cut-and-cover principle beneath the streets, this was the start of a rapidly expanding network which, by the 1880s, served much of central London and its financial heartland in the City, connected most of the major railway termini and was increasingly serving the expanding suburbs via conventional overground connections.

The cut-and-cover technique was used by underground networks in many other cities, for example Paris and New York. Much more demanding technically were the deep-bored tunnel railways, pioneering examples of which were the steam-powered Mersey Railway of 1886 and the cable-hauled Glasgow Subway of 1896. However, the most revolutionary was the City and South London Railway, now part of London Underground's Northern Line, whose first section was opened in 1890. From the start this was wholly electric, with hydraulic lifts linking the surface stations to the platforms, a pattern rapidly followed by other early tube lines, for example the Waterloo and City Railway of 1898 and the Central London Railway of 1900.

Another important development was the urban street tramway, which first appeared in the United States in the 1830s. The first European tramway was opened in Paris in 1853, and the first in Britain was a short-lived route in Liverpool in 1859. However, the real founder of the modern street tramway was an American entrepreneur, George Train, who opened routes in several British cities, including London, in the early 1860s. All early tramways used horses: indeed the first Tramways Act passed by the British government only permitted horse-haulage.

Although the public railway and the application of steam power to transport were pre-Victorian concepts, the widespread development of local, national and international railway networks was a Victorian phenomenon. The combination of great public enthusiasm, massive investment, highly skilled engineering and the application of modern technology ensured the rapid growth of railways in Britain and abroad. By 1850, 6000 miles of railway were in use, and throughout Victoria's reign British engineers were involved in railway construction and operation in many parts of the world, which in turn created new export markets for British locomotive and vehicle builders.

The transport of freight was always important, with the railways being directly involved with the growth of industry through the carriage of coal and iron, along with the distribution of all kinds of agricultural, commercial and domestic products, but the real impact of the railway was as an engine of social change, its universal accessibility having been underwritten by Gladstone's parliamentary bill of 1844. Among other things, this helped to encourage the creation of a huge network of local and suburban rail services, which, with their connecting tram and bus routes, formed an integrated transport system that directly affected urban and rural life.

For railways, the ever more efficient steam locomotive remained the dominant source of power, while the bulk of the bus network still relied on horse power. However, by the end of the century electrically driven tramways were in use in many parts of Britain, along with the first electric underground railways.

A further Act of 1879 permitted the use of steam locomotives, with the result that by the end of the 1880s over 50 systems nationwide were using over 500 steam trams. Edinburgh, uniquely, had a cable-hauled system, similar to that used in San Francisco. The first successful electric railway had been demonstrated in Germany in 1879, and four years later Magnus Volk opened his short all-electric line along the seashore in Brighton.

In 1884 the first urban street tramway network to use electric power opened in Blackpool. This was powered by conduits laid beneath the track. Trolley connection to overhead cables was first used at Leeds in 1891, and from that date this became the standard system for many British networks. Typically, British street tramway networks were owned or operated by local authorities. The national network grew rapidly during the last years of Victoria's reign but it did not reach its peak until 1927 when 14,481 tramcars operated over 2554 route-miles.

Despite the success of the tram, the horse-drawn bus carried the bulk of passenger traffic in urban areas throughout the Victorian period. Many artists and illustrators depicted these vehicles, drawn to comment on the way that bus travel broke down the well-defined boundaries of Victorian society.

Bus networks were established in most major British towns and cities by the time Victoria came to the throne, generally operated by fiercely competitive private companies, and by the 1850s these were increasingly being absorbed into larger and more powerful groups. For example, the London General Omnibus Company dominated bus transport in the capital from 1856. The Highways Act of 1898 permitted the use of motor buses, and the first motor bus service in Britain started in Edinburgh on 19 May the same year. Other services quickly followed, in Falkirk, Mansfield, Llandudno, Torquay and Clacton, and the first service in London started in 1899. Development was rapid and by 1910 London had more motor- than horse-drawn buses.

Self-propelled road vehicles were a source of constant interest and experimentation during the Victorian era but, until the first practical application of the internal combustion engine by Benz in 1885, the emphasis was always on the steam engine. However, the only steam-powered road and off-road vehicle to have any real impact was the traction engine. From the 1870 these were in widespread use in agriculture, for road haulage, for engineering and road building and in the fairground industry throughout Britain, and, increasingly, overseas.

The 1896 catalogue for Fowler's of Leeds, one of the major manufacturers, reveals branches in Berlin, Magdeburg, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Sydney, Calcutta, Kimberley, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires. Many makers produced so-called colonial models, adapted for wood or straw firing. Military applications of the traction engine were also considerable and were used extensively during the South African War, both for haulage and as armoured road trains. Steam and electric power were also applied successfully to cars, but the leaders in this field were French and American manufacturers.

More significant was the development of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century, but this took place largely outside Britain. Two German engineers, Daimler and Benz, independently pioneered this type of engine and its application to self-propelled vehicles in the mid- 1880s, although Edward Butler did make a motor-powered tricycle in 1884.

The popularity of self-propelled vehicles in Britain was in any case severely limited by the Red Flag Act of 1865, which decreed that any road vehicle moving under its own power had to travel at walking speed, preceded by a man carrying a red flag. This was not repealed until 1896, when the emancipation of the motor car was celebrated on 14 November by a rally of 33 decorated vehicles from London to Brighton.

The first British motor show was organised privately by Sir David Salomons in October 1895, but most early manufacturers in Britain assembled versions of German or French cars, with only Lanchester from 1895 and then Wolseley producing completely British-designed vehicles. The Prince of Wales was an early enthusiast. He had his first ride in 1893, in a French Serpollet steam car, and he bought his first car, a British-built Daimler, in 1899. By 1900, with the first 1000-mile trial, which attracted 65 starters, Britain had begun to catch up with France, Germany and Italy.

Photograph from a family album, about 1898. Museum no. E.2283:191-1997

Photograph from a family album, about 1898. Museum no. E.2283:191-1997

The bicycle: a social revolution

While the impact of the motor car as a means of personal transport was limited in Britain before 1901, quite the opposite applies to the bicycle. Crank-driven boneshakers and velocipedes were common from the 1850s. These led to the ordinary, or penny-farthing, the most popular form during the 1870s and 1880s, despite their inherent instability and dangerous impracticality. However, the real ancestor of the modern bicycle is the Rover safety machine of 1885, designed by John Kemp Starley. It was the most successful of a new generation of bicycles, featuring chain-drive from the pedals to the rear wheel, a rigid triangular frame and a low centre of gravity between two small-diameter wheels.

By 1888 the safety bicycle had been improved by the addition of gears, pneumatic tyres and good brakes, launching a cycling boom that not only made personal transport almost universally available but also inspired a major social revolution as women took to the bicycle in great numbers. Cycle manufacturers were also quick to exploit the export potential offered by their machines, particularly in colonial markets.

Electricity, the telegraph and the telephone

The widespread application of electric power, not just to industry and transport, but also to urban and domestic life, and to leisure activities, greatly changed the face of late-Victorian Britain. The technology of power generation was vastly improved during this period, not least by the application of the steam turbine. However, the phenomenon of electricity was understood well before Victoria's reign, and in the 18th century it was appreciated that it should be possible to communicate via electricity.

The key came with the understanding of electro-magnetism, following the experiments carried out in Denmark by Hans Oersted in 1820. With this knowledge Cooke and Wheatstone were able to develop the electric telegraph in 1837, which used an electric current to move magnetic needles and could thus transmit messages in code over a distance. The first operational telegraph was installed to link Euston station and Camden Town, and from there it spread all over the railway system, used both to carry messages and to introduce controls to signalling.

The same year saw the development in America of Samuel Morse's code, which then became the standard language of the telegraph, initially using dot and dash symbols on a paper roll, and then sounding keys from 1856. Duplex and quadruplex systems, which allowed the simultaneous transmission of several messages in both directions, were commonplace from the 1870s.

The electric telegraph made possible mass communication on a global scale and the networks of copper cables were soon spreading around the world. The first routes were overland, but the demands of both geography and security soon inspired the development of underwater cables and, later, the galvanometer, which made possible the transmission of messages over a long distance with a low voltage current. A telegraph connection across the English Channel was completed in 1851, followed by others across the Irish and North Seas, but the real challenge was the Atlantic.

The first transatlantic cable was completed in 1858, but it only worked briefly, and it was not until 1866 that Brunei's huge ship, the Great Eastern, managed to complete a durable telegraph link between Ireland and Newfoundland. The global network then spread quickly, with many countries establishing their own systems.

The colonial and military implications were soon appreciated. By 1878 Britain had constructed three telegraph links, two overland and one maritime, to India, part of an expanding network that by the end of the century had connected all the corners of the Empire. The first military use of the telegraph was in 1854, during the Crimean War, but it came into its own during the American Civil War.

Page from The Graphic Magazine, 1883. Museum no. PP 8 D-E

Page from The Graphic Magazine, 1883. Museum no. PP 8 D-E

Although Queen Victoria had her own telegraph machine from about 1851, the system was never designed for personal use. Far more useful in personal terms was the related technology of the telephone, patented by the Scots-born Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876, and demonstrated by him at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of the same year. Two years later Bell demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House. By 1887 there were 26,000 telephones in use in Britain (and 150,000 in the United States) and multiple switchboards had been installed in most major towns and cities.

The telegraph and, to a much lesser extent, the telephone, greatly improved communication between the British government and its widely scattered armed forces. Throughout Victoria's reign the British army was almost constantly in action, and the demands placed upon it increased significantly with the growth of the Empire in the second half of the century. Despite this, the army and the navy remained quite small in manpower terms: 99,128 in the army and 39,000 in the navy in 1850, and 153,483 in the army and 68,800 in the navy in 1890.

Most campaigns involved the extensive use of locally raised troops, which supplied the armed forces with the necessary level of manpower. Until the latter part of the century, most campaigns were fought by troops dressed in uniforms and equipped with weapons that would have been broadly familiar to soldiers on the field of Waterloo. However, the last decades of the century were marked by quite significant technological changes that affected both the army and the navy.

For the army the steady improvement in rifles and field guns culminated in the 1890s with the machine gun. From the 1860s there was increasing use of the hand-cranked, multiple-barrel weapons being developed in both France and the United States. In essence, these were merely improvements of early 19th-century technology, even if used with devastating effect during the American Civil War.

In 1884 the American inventor and entrepreneur, Hiram Maxim developed in Britain the first modern machine gun in which the recoil from the shot was used to eject the spent cartridge and reset the bolt, a process made possible by the use, from the early 1880s, of the new evenly burning smokeless powders.

By harnessing the explosive power of the cartridge, Maxim produced a belt-fed, water-cooled gun that could fire over 500 rounds a minute, operated by the simple process of keeping the trigger pulled. The Maxim gun was made under licence, and in a variety of calibres, in different parts of the world, with Vickers in Britain being a major manufacturer for both home and export markets.

The British army began to use Maxim guns in the early 1890s, notably in the campaigns in the NorthWest frontier, by which time the weapons were already being traded by arms dealers. In one campaign the British army found itself facing tribesmen equipped with British-made Maxim guns bought from a British arms dealer in Bombay. The same technology and marketing practices were used for similar guns produced by other manufacturers, for example Lewis, Browning, Mauser and Hotchkiss.

'Turbinia', steam turbine driven vessel, Sir Charles Parsons, 1894. Science and Society Picture Library

'Turbinia', steam turbine driven vessel, Sir Charles Parsons, 1894. Science and Society Picture Library

The navy was also quick to adopt the machine gun in its various forms, having come a long way from the first ironclad warships of the 1860s. The fleet review of 1897 included 21 battleships, 44 cruisers, 25 gun vessels, 30 destroyers, 20 torpedo boats and 25 assorted naval vessels, including the turbine ship Turbinia, a display described by the Portsmouth Evening News as 'nine leagues of solid and superb seapower'.

The 1887 review had included a submarine, but the navy did not acquire its first submarines, a fleet of five Holland-type boats, until 1901. The submarine was largely an American development, but the pioneering Holland boats were designed to carry three torpedoes to be fired from a bow tube.

The modern torpedo was developed by Robert Whitehead, an English engineer, from 1866. With its compressed air engine, this could travel for up to 700 yards at a speed of six knots. By 1895 gyroscopic control had greatly increased the accuracy and range.

Paul Atterbury

Paul Atterbury is a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century art and design, with an interest in the history of technology. He was the curator of the Pugin: A Gothic Passion (V&A, 1994) and co-curator of Inventing New Britain: The Victorian Vision (V&A, 2001). Publications include Victorians at Home and Abroad (V&A Publications, 2001).

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