This is a guest post written by Susan Major
What 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 Britain 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.