The impact of the railways on society and the economy in Victorian Britain was immense. Britain had a growing population and was going through an industrial revolution and increased urbanization. The necessity to move larger quantities of raw materials and goods, quicker and cheaper became of paramount importance. In particular there was a high demand for industrial and domestic coal which was heavy, bulky and often difficult to move, due to location. This produced a need for a more accessible transport system.
Locomotive developments had already taken place and, together with the flood of support for the use of the railway as a transport network, provided an ideal opportunity for additional construction and investment. The railways had a profound effect on the transportation of goods and people through out the whole Country. They stimulated the growth of new and existing industries, created new employment and investment opportunities, became a means of communication and distribution and opened up new travel possibilities to many individuals.
The initial development of the railways had a huge impact on existing industries. Thousands of miles of track were constructed and laid during the ‘railway mania’ years of 1833-37 and 1844-48 and this required large quantities of raw materials. The output of pig-iron increased rapidly and by 1850 it was four times higher than it had been in 1830. During the second half of the 1840s almost 20 per cent of output was used in track construction for railways. 0,000 tons of iron were needed each year to repair or replace existing sleepers that had deteriorated and further quantities were required for locomotives, coaches and wagons. The coal industry also benefited from an increase in demand as it was used to provide the power for the railway engines.
Output rose from 30 million tons in 1830 to 56 million tons in 1850, although coal was used for many other sources of power, so this increase can not be solely contributed to the railway industry. The percentage of coal mined for use in transport did increase. In 1840 it was 1. % of output but by 1887 this had risen to 12. 5%. The railways were able to move coal quicker, cheaper and access areas that had previously been difficult to reach. This together with the enormous demand encouraged a massive expansion program that substantially increased output. Other existing industries benefited from the speed of the railways as goods could be moved to the ports quicker. This, together with the benefits of free trade and the advancement of steam-powered merchant shipping after 1950 played a vital role in increasing the quantities of British products being exported.
Speed also played an important role in the movement of livestock and perishable goods. Meat, milk and market produce could be transported cheaply over long distances for sale in towns and cities that farmers had previously been unable to reach, opening up whole new markets and sales opportunities. The whole country became accessible for the first time and this enabled regional specialization in production. For example Cornwall specialized in broccoli and early potatoes and Lea Valley in tomatos, grapes and flowers.
This specialization enabled greater economies of scale to be achieved as farmers concentrated on fewer products. New industries developed as a direct result of the railway industry. The post office was able to use the railways for the delivery of their post and introduced the ‘Penny Post’ in 1840. Thomas Cook started his business in 1841 offering special railway excursions to seaside towns and places of interest. He made his profit by taking a percentage of all the tickets he sold.
Gradually he increased his business to include booking hotel accommodation, organizing complete holiday packages and eventually extending this to overseas travel. Railway engineering became a specialized and highly skilled profession, as did civil engineering, which produced many of the railway viaducts and tunnels. Accountancy became an independent entity, separating from the legal profession, as the need to provide specialist services to the railways arose. Although railways provided an additional method of transport, for most of the century they appeared to run along side the existing systems.
They did reduce the number of trips being made by profitable long distance road haulage, as goods travelling long distances overland could be moved much cheaper on the railways. Shorter distances remained cheaper by road and this was particularly important with travel to and from the railway terminals. Competition between the railways and canals continued for many years, in 1848 canals carried twice the tonnage of the railways and remained an important extension to the coastal shipping trade.
The railways were also closely integrated with shipping and in some areas including South Wales short lines carried coal and iron to the docks before they were shipped to the rest of Britain. It took until1867 before more coal reached London by rail than sea. The competition between the railways and canals kept profits from the transportation of goods low and it was not until 1850 that railway receipts from transportation of goods exceeded those from the carriage of passengers. Huge long-term capital investment was essential for the construction of railways.
They took between two and three years to build and during that time there were no financial returns and often escalating costs caused the necessity for extra funds to be raised. These costs included the purchase of large quantities of land, the construction of viaducts and bridges, the building and laying of the track, the purchase of train engines and carriages and vast legal expenses. Each railway was run and financed as a separate concern, often competing with each other. Money was raised through private funding and until 1830 was financed by local businessmen who set up joint stock ventures.
As costs escalated and financial institutions became aware of the huge profitability and financial return, joint stock banks guaranteed funds and eventually in the 1840s the London banks became involved as railway enterprises reached massive scales. Railways helped the rate of industrial investment to increase because many businesses and individuals, including over 100 members of parliament who had substantial financial interests in the railways, saw the large returns that were being paid and gambled their profits and savings on new railway companies.
In the mid-1840s the Stockton-Darlington railway paid investors a 15 per cent dividend and had seen its shares rise from i??100 in 1821 to i??260 in 1838. Not all railway companies provided profitable returns and many lines were never completed causing investors, both large and small, to lose large sums of money. The railway industries purchased large quantities of land both in towns and the countryside. This had an immediate impact on the landscape and was often met with hostility although many landowners made huge profits on the sale of their land.
The biggest upheaval was in the towns where large quantities of central building land were purchased for the construction of railway stations, lines and yards. This permanently changed the face of towns and cities as land prices rapidly increased and houses were demolished. They built station terminals that stood as a symbol of the major advancement in technology, spending much time and effort on the designs and producing some magnificent, opulent architectural masterpieces.
This provided little comfort for those made homeless by the destruction of hundreds of houses who were left with no where to go. Many packed into the remaining houses while others slept under the great viaducts. In London 800 acres of land were purchased and between 76,000-120,000 people found themselves without homes. These were amongst the poorest people in society and needed to remain in the center of the town where their source of employment remained. As the demand for central land increased so did the value, many businesses wanted to locate factories and warehouses in prime railway locations.
What little housing remained was trapped between commercial and industrial developments and gave landlords the opportunity to wait for a substantial offer on his land before selling. Social zoning accelerated the process of residential segregation and was a common characteristic in a modern city. The methods and costs of transportation, together with social standing affected the location of housing. In London the poorest people were found in inner London pedestrian zones where they could find casual work without the necessity to travel.
The better off working class and the lower middle class lived in houses situated on the omnibus routes, the middle class in the railway suburbs depending on their income and the wealthy in the more affluent suburbs or in the country. By the mid 1950s only 27,000 commuters were arriving in London daily by train compared with 244,000 who either walked or used the omnibus. Railways remained reluctant to offer cheap workmen’s fares fearing it would drive away their wealthier customers.
In the Liverpool Street Station Act of 1864, the Great Eastern Company was forced to offer a fare of 2d on its Edmington and Chingford lines. The consequence of this was the substantial growth of suburbs along these lines during the second half of the 19th century. Its population density was greater than any other section as the better off working classes relocated to these areas. In contrast the Great-Northern Company was not forced to offer cheap fares and the areas around this line including Hornsey, Wood Green and South-gate remained occupied by the commuting clerks.
Trains provided new opportunities for travel both for business and pleasure as their capacity for carrying passengers was much greater, around 600, than horse drawn coaches, who carried around 16. The benefits and quality of travel was dependent on social class. Initially it was the wealthier class who benefited disproportionately to the rest of society. Railway stations, carriages, fares and ticket availability were designed to keep first, second and third class passengers segregated, giving an accurate picture of the extent of class divisions in Victorian society.
After the completion of the basic network in 1850, when most major towns were connected, greater sections of society were able to experience the social benefits of rapid rail travel. The railways had reached many seaside resorts and started to run special excursion trips on Sundays for the better off working population. In the second half of 1844, Brighton received over 360,000 visitors by train compared with 117,000 by coach in 1835 and became a popular resort for the middle classes.
Railways provided those living in or around Leeds with access to the coast at Morecambe and those in or around Nottingham with access to Skegness. Additional jobs were created not only in the railway industry itself but also in the other industries that were stimulated by it. Railways recruited and trained an army of construction ‘navvies’ and during its peak over 300,000 were employed. Most of these labourers were recruited from within the local population who worked on the railway until it moved on.
There were some Irish immigrants that followed the work around the country, unable to find work in Ireland due to the potato famine of 1845-7. The work was often dangerous and difficult and during the building of 71 miles of brutally gruelling track north- west from Settle to Carlise many men died. The railways continued to employ large numbers of workers through out the century. Railways also enabled greater mobility of labour, long distance could be covered in a short space of time and people were able to relocate in areas with more prosperous employment opportunities.
The railways had enormous consequences on society, industry and the economy. They stimulated existing industries and provided the foundations for many new ones. Their ability to move people and goods quicker and easier gave the basis for further advancement in an already changing society. Bringing about a more mobile population and the ability to travel to, or move to, areas with better employment opportunities. Being able to bring fresh produce to the entire population and by uniting all parts of the country enabled regional specialization in the production of goods.
Railways provided opportunities for investment and helped to stabilize economic growth. Not everything connected to the railways was positive. The demolition of buildings in town centers directly caused many poor members of society to lose their homes. Government legislation was slow and inadequate because of the internal involvement of many members of parliament in the railways. However the railways provided an advanced technological method of transport financed by private enterprise that had a significant and long-lasting effect on society and the economy.