The Million Go Forth: Early Railway Excursions

This is a guest post written by Susan Major

PhD Excursion HandbillWhat was it really like for ordinary people? When I started exploring topics for my research degree I wanted to investigate what the new 19th century railways in Britain meant to the masses at the time, the working classes. I was studying with the Institute of Railway Studies at the National Railway Museum/University of York and keen to approach the subject with new eyes. People like Michael Portillo paint a picture of travellers sitting tidily in their railway carriages, consulting their Bradshaws, but was it really like that for most people?

After six years research on early railway excursions I can safely demolish a number of clichés and myths everlastingly reproduced in traditional railway histories. I was able to take advantage of the newly digitised British Library 19th Century Newspapers, an excellent resource for finding reports, accounts and advertisements across the country. I used this newspaper evidence to explore excursion crowds and their behaviour in the period from 1840 to 1860, when excursions were developing from an exceptional and dramatic experience into a routine occurrence. I also consulted the National Railway Museum’s unique collection of old excursion handbills in their Search Engine.

The new railway excursions of the 1840s made it possible for ordinary people in PhD Excursion HandbillsBritain to travel cheaply for leisure over long distances for the first time and return home. Their emergence caused great shocks to observers at the time. One of my most important findings has been the relatively minor role Thomas Cook played in mass mobility at the time, when compared to other agents, companies and organising groups. His market was mainly middle class, and mostly irrelevant to people who worked all week apart from Sundays and were subject to Sabbatarian forces preventing Sunday trips. Other excursion agents such as Liverpool-based Henry Marcus were much more important, carrying hundreds of thousands of people on ’cheap trips’.

There were frequent complaints about the level (or absence) of comfort. Many working class travellers were hanging on to the roof of a crowded carriage, endangering their lives, or enduring hours of travel in an open wagon in heavy rain, despite the recommendations of the 1844 Railways Act. The use of open carriages, supposedly to have disappeared after the 1840s, was frequent for many years after, although there were varying points of view as to whether it was preferable to travel in an open wagon, subject to weather concerns and jeering from spectators, or be cramped into a tight dark compartment with many others.

When large excursion crowds were expected at the station, the doors would be locked, leading to a dangerous chain of events. Stations were designed for small groups of middle class travellers to pass through in an orderly manner. This was often not suitable for the crowds on excursions and it was rare that railway companies made special changes to the physical space during this period to meet the needs of excursionists.

There was much evidence of a fear for personal safety, for understandable reasons. Railway companies and their workers were frequently unprepared and unskilled in crowd management and unwilling or unable to devote sufficient staffing or rolling stock resources. However despite the ensuing discomforts and danger, the masses clearly welcomed the incentive to travel away temporarily from their everyday lives into new spaces, at a cost that was affordable, by taking up these opportunities in their thousands.

I will be talking about some of these findings at the National Railway Museum conference ‘Making the Connection: Railway Records for Family History’ on Saturday 27 September 2014.

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The most dangerous job of all

Simon Batchelor, our Assistant Curator of Collections, continues to explore the impact of World War One on Britain’s railways.

Of all the tasks carried out by railway owned ships minesweeping was the most vital; it was tedious, it was relentless but most of all it was extremely dangerous and it had to be done every single day without fail, regardless of weather.

Even before the outset of World War One it was realised by all the powers that none had a navy large enough to maintain an effective campaign of marine blockade and that mine warfare would play an important role in any conflict. It was illegal to mine the national waters of neutral powers or international waters, so mines were laid off enemy ports in an attempt to prevent ships accessing their facilities thus starving them of necessary materials needed to continue to fight. No ship could leave port until the mine sweepers had done their job and declared it safe.

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Conserving a model wagon

This is a post written by Museum Volunteer Philippa Beesley.

Volunteering in the National Railway Museum’s Conservation Department is exciting, challenging and essential for professional development. Despite being a qualified objects conservator, the work involves the new challenge of large objects of a technical nature. There is also the chance to deal with ethical issues such as operating stock.

Philippa working on Railway Models

Philippa working on Railway Models

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Discovering my family history

In 2009, I finally became an Auntie to a gorgeous little boy called William. I began thinking about all the family stories and secrets I could tell him when he was older, however I knew next to nothing about my Grandparent’s background which triggered my research into discovering my family history.

Researching my family has become a great importance to me, as I did not just want to know what their names were, but I also wanted to learn about the types of lives they led. Whilst looking into Two Pa’s (my Grandfather) side of the tree I came across a family, who still intrigue me to this day. They were extremely unconventional and odd for a late Victorian to early Edwardian family (I won’t go into details).

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One year to research Crystal Palace subway

Today’s guest blog comes from Jules Hussey (and her colleague Sue Giovanni), on how Search Engine helped their ‘Inspired By Subway‘ research project on the Crystal Palace station.

One year to research a subway? That can’t be too hard, can it?

Crystal Palace subway isn’t just any old tunnel under the road – it’s a beautiful piece of Victorian architecture built in a style befitting the lead up to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham: a building that dominated the skyline across a huge sweep of South London for nearly 80 years. It took passengers from the High Level station, under Crystal Palace Parade (the A212) and emerged in the central transept of the palace. It was built specifically to handle the large visitor numbers expected at the Palace, but when the Palace burnt down in 1936, the High Level station was left without a destination and it was eventually demolished in 1961.

Crystal Palace subway

Crystal Palace subway (photo: by James Balston)

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Music on Rails – expect a musical treat!

On Saturday 6 September, the National Railway Museum along with MOR Music will be hosting a family friendly music extravaganza called Music on Rails.

As a huge supporter of local music, I am particularly excited about this upcoming event, especially as it will include a high quality line-up performing a mixture of musical genres. The music festival will be hosted in our atmospheric Station Hall as well as on a moving train (the Director’s Saloon) out in the South Yard.

Top (left to right): The Blueprints and Barcode Zebra Bottom (left to right): Boss Caine and According to Eve

Top (left to right): The Blueprints and Barcode Zebra
Bottom (left to right): Boss Caine and According to Eve

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Borough Market Junction Steps Out

As regular readers of the NRM Blog will know, Borough Market Junction, ‘Britain’s Busiest Signal Box’, has been the subject of a conservation programme. The resulting works have prevented visitors from gaining access to this icon of Southern Railway modernisation. However, on 21 and 22 of June, this will all change, when Borough Market Junction, complete with new steps, opens its doors to visitors.

What you will find within Borough Market Junction

What you will find within Borough Market Junction

For these two days, Borough Market comes alive, and you have the chance to explore the space where 2 signallers and 35 levers handled about 1000 trains a shift. It was no place for the faint hearted; as one signaller explained, you only cleared the signals, when you could see the whites of the driver’s eyes.

Having completed the external works, the next task is to conserve were appropriate and restore were suitable. This process will include the jewel at the heart of Borough Market Junction, the Westinghouse K series signal frame. As the responsible curator, I see this is a real step forward in the process of returning ‘Britain’s Busiest Signal Box’ to a state, worthy of its place in the National Collection and in railway signalling history. The box is now sound, watertight and able to welcome visitors. With regular washing and occasional re-paints, it will easily last another fifty years; which is more than I can say.

You can check out the rest of the 21/22 June signalling activities at NRM by following this link to the York Festival of Ideas web pages.


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