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The coming of the railways to England

The introduction of the railways

Heavy loads had been hauled on rail systems (known as tramways) since the 17th century, when it was realised that horses could pull heavier loads more easily this way. By the late 18th century the hauling was done by a stationary steam engine, which was attached to the carts via a cable. It was not until the early 19th century that steam locomotives (i.e. steam engines that were no longer stationary) were used on the rail system.

In 1824 a group of Lancashire tradesmen resolved to undercut the cost of transportation on the Bridgewater Canal with a railway that would run from Manchester to Liverpool. The company employed George Stephenson (a steam locomotive genius) to be engineer on the line and work began. The line suffered sabotage attempts from Turnpike Trusts, canal owners and conservationists, while there are stories of landowners ordering their staff to beat up any railway surveyors who ventured onto their land. Those opposed to the railways complained that they would terrify country folk, turn cows' milk sour, stop hens from laying and encourage an invasion of town folk into the country. They were also convinced that by travelling at speeds of over 25 miles per hour the engines would combust and the passengers disintegrate!

In 1826, to solve the problem with the landowners Parliament granted the railway company the authority to make compulsory purchases of the land required.

In 1825 the world's first public steam railway opened, running between Stockton and Darlington. After this point railways began to be built all across Britain, but it was not for almost another 30 years, in 1853, that Hereford had its first glimpse of the "Steam Age" that would change transport in this country forever.

In 1829 the Rainhill Trials were held to determine which was most efficient; locomotive or stationary power. George Stephenson and his steam locomotive "The Rocket" easily beat the competition and settled the argument once and for all.

By 1844, there were over 100 separate railways companies and by 1852 over 7,000 miles of track had been laid across Britain.

Hereford was the last of the cathedral cities in England to gain a railway system and as such had remained very local in its trading and communication. The lines that were to run through Hereford would provide a significant contribution to industry as they linked up the Severn and the Mersey, enabling coal from South Wales to be brought to the industrial North and the Midlands, and allowed goods to be imported into and exported out of the county.

The impact of the railways

Like the canals and Turnpike Trusts before them, railways had a significant impact on both town and country life. The introduction of the railways created a huge new industry, which was later to employ millions of people and require vast quantities of raw materials such as coal, iron and steel. This in turn caused a massive boost to other industries as it enabled cheaper transportation and wider markets, which again increased the demand for coal, iron and steel.

The railways also marked the beginning of passenger travel for ordinary people, which led to tourist trips, seaside excursions and holidays. With the increased transport of people from region to region, local variations began to disappear as Greenwich Mean Time replaced local time. In Herefordshire we lost 11 minutes as GMT took over so that all the railway timetables would run to the same time.

The extensive and widespread communication network that resulted from the railways meant that the same agricultural produce, raw materials and manufactured goods were available everywhere. Towns now began to spread outwards and suburbs began to grow up as people no longer needed to live on top of their work and groceries and supplies could be carried by train so that fresh food and produce was more easily acquired.

The railways brought the most widespread and noticeable changes compared to the types of transportation that had gone before, and not surprisingly as the railways began to take over the canals and stagecoaches began to disappear.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]