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Steam & Speed: The Power of Steam on Land

Like the steamship, the railway predates the Victorian era. Steam locomotives were extensively used on colliery and quarry lines, particularly in the north east of England, and experimentally in other areas, during the first decades of the 19th century, with the technology being constantly improved by engineers such as George Stephenson and Richard Trevithick. However, the start of the modern railway age is usually marked by the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line in 1825.

Other early steam-hauled lines included the Canterbury and Whitstable and the Liverpool and Manchester, both opened in 1830. It was on the latter's line that the Rainhill locomotive trials were held in 1829, won comprehensively by Robert Stephenson's Rocket. With its multi-tube boiler, blast-pipe exhaust and pistons connected directly to the driving wheels, it set the standard for locomotive design. It also hauled its train easily at 30 miles per hour, proving to the world that locomotive haulage was the way to the future.

Class 5XP 4-6-0 engine locomotive, London Midland & Scottish Railway express, 1920s. Science and Society Picture Library

Class 5XP 4-6-0 engine locomotive, London Midland & Scottish Railway express, 1920s. Science and Society Picture Library

Railway building now began apace and a number of predominantly local lines opened during the 1830s. The first trunk routes to be completed, in 1837 and 1838, were the Grand Junction Railway, linking Birmingham to Manchester, and the London and Birmingham Railway, engineered by Robert Stephenson.

The same year saw the opening of the first section of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway, which was finally completed between London and Bristol ten years later. Other early lines were the Midland Counties Railway, linking Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby, and the London and Southampton, completed in 1840.

A railway boom and mania followed during the 1840s, with promoters planning lines the length and breadth of Britain. By 1845 some 2441 miles of railway were open and over 30 million passengers were being carried.

The success of the railway was in part due to the legislation pushed through Parliament in 1844 by Gladstone, which ensured that trains conformed to standards of speed and comfort and that cheap travel was broadly available. This Act also compelled railway companies to allow the new electric telegraph to be carried alongside their lines.

There is no doubt that the popularity of the railways was immediate, despite public dismay expressed by figures as diverse as the Duke of Wellington and William Wordsworth. From the earliest days railway companies ran excursions, to race meetings, to temperance gatherings, even to public executions.

In 1840 an excursion from Leeds to Hull carried 1250 passengers in a 40-carriage train and by 1844 a newspaper had commented that excursions were becoming 'our chief national amusement'. A considerable number of the visitors to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 travelled on excursion trains. This traffic greatly increased after the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, when a day at the seaside became almost a national necessity.

Public enthusiasm for the railway was greatly increased after Queen Victoria made her first journey, from Slough to Paddington on 13 June 1842. (Albert had made his first journey soon after their marriage.) Throughout her reign she travelled regularly by train, for speed and convenience, and because it gave her ample opportunity to show herself and family to her subjects, thus turning monarchy into a physical reality.

The first royal carriages, built by the Great Western and London and Birmingham companies, date from this period. Though relatively primitive by later standards, they established the pattern for royal trains that continues today. The trains were used particularly for the many journeys to Osborne and Balmoral.

Expansion of the network was rapid and continuous. Between 1852 and 1861, for example, the mileage grew by 43 percent, while the traffic carried by that mileage increased by 71 percent. Between 1861 and 1888, the mileage grew by 81 percent and the traffic carried by 180 percent. By 1900 18,680 miles were in use and over 1100 million passengers were being carried.

The great increases in weight of traffic were due more to freight than passenger movements, for from 1852 freight provided the railway companies with the bulk of their income. In the 1860s it regularly generated 30-50 percent more income, a pattern that remained unchanged until the end of the century.

Constant expansion brought problems. Accidents were frequent, the result usually of excessive speed, inadequate brakes and poor traffic control. Signalling was rudimentary until the electric telegraph and the block control system came into widespread use. The effects of accidents were often compounded by the fragile nature of the carriages, usually built of wood, and by the risk of fire that was frequently sparked off by the gas lighting. Despite the availability of electric lighting from quite an early date, gas-lit carriages were still in use as late as 1928.

Overall, improvements in comfort, convenience and safety marked the steady progress of the Victorian railway. The first lavatories appeared in family saloons in the 1860s, and the first proper sleeping cars were introduced by the North British Railway between London and Glasgow in 1873. Dining cars were pioneered by the Great Northern Railway in 1879, on the service between Leeds and King's Cross.

Locomotive technology increased at the same rate, and by the end of the century the steam locomotive was virtually indistinguishable from its 20th-century counterpart. By this time, trains were run regularly at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour.

Unlike some European countries, Britain remained wedded to steam power. An experimental electric locomotive, drawing its power from a third rail, was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London in 1882 and electric traction was subsequently used by narrow-gauge and tourist railways, tramways and underground railways. However, it was not applied widely to main-line railways until the start of the twentieth century.

The building of the railway network was a major achievement of the Victorian period, influencing in a lasting way both social patterns and the landscape of Britain. The great engineers - Stephenson, Brunel, Locke and many others - threw their lines across hills and valleys, across marshland, mountains and great rivers with determination and style, and often regardless of cost.

Viaducts, embankments, tunnels and bridges changed the landscape forever, and their stations - wondrous constructions in iron and glass, cathedrals to modernity - brought a new building type into British culture. Railway engineering is often the most tangible legacy of the Victorian world, simply because so much still survives, even if the trains themselves have long disappeared.

Their greatest achievements are too numerous to list; their legacy so rich. Sometimes it is an entire railway, such as Brunel's Great Western, built to such generous standards because of its original 7-foot gauge, and sometimes it is the sheer power of the structures, for example the tunnels through the Pennines, Stephenson's Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits, Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line, the four miles of the Severn Tunnel and, towering above everything else, the Forth Bridge.

As the railway was, in essence, a British creation, it was readily exported to many parts of the world, as a concept, and in component form. British capital and British engineers and constructors were involved throughout the Empire and also in many parts of Europe and South America.

A notable figure before 1870 was the contractor Thomas Brassey, who built railways in France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Russia, India, Argentina and Australia. In France, the entire Western Railway from Paris to Rouen and Le Havre was a British creation, paid for with British capital, engineered by Locke, built by Brassey, and supplied with locomotives and most of its components by British manufacturers.

British locomotives were displayed, and admired, at the Paris exhibitions of 1878, 1889 and 1900. By the late 1830s locomotives built by Robert Stephenson & Co. and the Vulcan Foundry had been supplied to France, Germany, Austria and Russia, and locomotives and rolling stock continued to be exported to many countries, both within and outside the Empire throughout the Victorian period.

Over 100 locomotives were supplied to the United States before 1841, and iron and steel rails, often from rolling mills in South Wales, represented a major and long-lasting export business for British companies, to North America and other parts of the world.

Imperial railway building projects were often inspired by strategic as well as commercial and industrial motives, but such activities, notably in India and Africa, opened up huge and long-lasting markets to British manufacturers. By the end of the century British locomotive manufacturers, including those owned by railway companies as well as the independent private companies, were making 2000 locomotives a year, many of which were sold abroad.

By this time, railways had come to be seen as a vital aspect of nation-building. The British provided India with one of the largest railway networks in the world and it has been seen as vital to the development of modern Indian nationalism. Canadian confederation in 1867 was to be followed by the binding of Canada together with rails of steel. The trans-continental line, connecting every Canadian province, was completed in 1885.

When the Australian Commonwealth, bringing together the six Australian colonies, was created at the very end of the queen's reign, again a trans-continental railway (not completed until the inter-war years) was part of the agreement.

Railways were vital in tapping the resources of West, East and Southern Africa, although they generally simply linked the interior to the coast, demonstrating their significance in the development of international trade. White settlers were also spread across Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand by the railways. But the Cape to Cairo line, one of the great visions of late Victorian imperialists, was never built.

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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