Reviews: Railway Books Essay, Research Paper
Steamed up Locomotives of the LNWR Southern Division Harry Jack 300pp, RCTS The Railway King: A Biography of George Hudson, Railway Pioneer and Fraudster Robert Beaumont 274pp, Review Brunel: The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel Angus Buchanan 294pp, Hambledon & London Harry Jack’s brother, Ian, the editor of Granta , is a railway enthusiast who has wondered if his passion for railways and steam locomotives is a healthy one. Ian Jack hides copies of railway magazines inside important literary reviews, he says, when travelling by train, in case he is taken for a nutter or pervert. I know exactly how he feels. Admit to a love of railways in knowing, ironic, privatise-or-bust, celebrity-obsessed Britain, and you might as well strap yourself into a straitjacket and wait for the arrival of the men in white coats. And yet, for all the media’s condescension, there are millions of railway enthusiasts (a few, believe it or not, still work for the railways themselves) and any number of people for whom a steam locomotive, simple or compound, Single or Consolidation, superheated or condensing, Stirling or Churchward (don’t ask me to explain), is a thing of sulphurous beauty, a mechanical joy for ever. Harry Jack’s meticulously researched book – at least 30 years in the making – goes some way to demonstrate that an understanding of railway history is one perfectly useful and often enthralling way of interpreting and making sense of our past. There was, of course, never anything dry or dusty in the sight or sound of a “Bloomer” or a “Crampton” thundering along the world’s first trunk line from London to Birmingham, with coachloads of crinolined ladies and top-hatted gentlemen taking part in an adventure that would encompass the globe and change it for ever. Jack’s story is that of the creation, naming and running of the world’s first long-distance mainline engines. It is a story of professional rivalries, of engineering reputations won and sometimes unfairly forgotten, of cylinder diameters, boiler pressure settings and smoky adventure. It is a sober account written for railway historians and enthusiasts, who will nevertheless get a genuine buzz from watching this early and often confusingly documented railway history come into sharp focus. They will also enjoy the rainy-day lists, diagrams, engineering drawings and Victorian photographs. The importance of the London and Birmingham Railway (L&B), opened in 1838, can hardly be exaggerated. It connected the capital not just to the “workshop of the world”, but beyond its own boundaries, via the Grand Junction Railway, to the “Cottonopolis” of Manchester and the great port of Liverpool. Engineered by the Stephensons, it was intended principally for express passenger traffic. The first public train was pulled up by rope from Euston to Camden at 8.10am on September 17 1838. Off from Camden at 8.25, the 20-coach train with its 200 passen gers arrived in Birmingham Moor Street to great cheers and a lineside “rural feast” at 1.58pm after stops at Watford, Tring, Wolverton, Roade, Weedon, Rugby and Coventry. The journey time of the fastest trains was down to four hours for the 113 miles between Euston and Moor Street in 1844, and under three the following year. Early trains were not nearly as slow as most people imagine. The sturdy 2-2-0 designs of Edward Bury (1794-1858), first manager of the L&B’s locomotive department, could run safely at 50mph. Just before the line opened, the Duke of Wellington treated Marshal Soult, a former adversary in the battlefield and now the French ambassador, to a run up to Liverpool from Birmingham on the Grand Junction Railway: as thrilling as any Peninsular or Napoleonic cavalry charge, the train maintained a speed of 64mph for 10 faster-than-fairies, faster-than-witches minutes. No wonder that the great racing track of the L&B was described as “unquestionably the greatest public work ever executed, either in ancient or in modern times”. Edward Bury, a Georgian in an early-Victorian world, erred on the side of caution and reliability in the design of his stubby L&B locomotives. He suffered much from the machinations of his engineering rivals, the canny Stephensons, and resigned, exhausted, from the L&B when just 54. Because his was not the rags-to-riches story beloved by Samuel Smiles of Self Help fame, he has been all but written out of history; Jack has happily reinstated him. Bury’s is not the only ghost revived in this great adventure. Others include those of the dashing (and slightly slapdash) Irish-born James Edward McConnell (1815-83), Bury’s successor. McConnell designed the “Bloomers”. These were not highly engineered Victorian ladies’ undergarments, but high-stepping and graceful locomotives that took to the rails in 1851. They got their name from the sudden fashion for bloomers, named after Mrs Amelia Bloomer, the American feminist who invented the eye-popping garment in the year of the Great Exhibition. McConnell was forced to resign when the locomotive works at Crewe in Cheshire took precedence over the L&B’s Wolverton works, Buckinghamshire, under the direction of his rival, John Ramsbottom. Heavy British manufacturing was, from this moment, increasingly concentrated in the north. Since then, Wolverton, the first railway town, has all but shrugged off its Victorian ancestry. Locomotive production ceased here as early as 1863. The last remnant of the original workshop went in 1991. Today the site is a Tesco car park. For book-lovers, however, the great virtue of Crewe taking control under Ramsbottom, and effectively bringing Jack’s narrative to the buffer-stops, is that LNWR locomotives, unlike those of the L&B, bore a litany of lovely names: Chimera, Sybil, Onyx, Prometheus, Cygnet, Scorpion, Mazeppa . . . If you really think that travelling from London to Birmingham by road today is truly more civilised than steaming along behind a “Bloomer”, the men in white coats should be after you. The passion for rail, however, was originally rooted in riches rather than locomotives. The newly laid railways, as Robert Beaumont’s fond romp through the rise and fall of George Hudson (1800-71), The Railway King , reminds us, were seen as iron roads to instant fortunes. A Yorkshire farmer’s son, Hudson worked as a draper before inheriting a fortune of £30,000 in slightly suspicious circumstances at the age of 27. He took to the railways like a Bloomer to the track and by 1848 was a millionaire, a Tory MP and the controller of a third of Britain’s embryonic rail network. His interest in railways bought him a palatial Italianate house in Kensington and a baroque estate in east Yorkshire. Fêted by London society, tugging at his appropriately massive coat-sleeves – he was a big man in every way – Hudson was also a figure of fun because of his coarse manners and his wife’s notorious malapropisms. When the railway bubble exploded and Hudson’s accounting methods proved to be more than a little wayward, he was tipped from his throne. He served time in a debtors’ prison before going to live, a broken man, in cheap French guesthouses. The Bob Maxwell of his day as far as the Victorian press was concerned, Hudson was lambasted by any number of eminent commentators. Carlyle described him as “this big swollen gambler . . . who, in his insatiable greed and bottomless atrocity, had led multitudes to go in the ways of gilded human baseness, seeking temporary profit where only eternal loss was possible”. Lord Macaulay, the Whig historian, likened Hudson to “Mammon and Belial rolled into one”. As for Dickens, the novelist found “a burning disgust arising in my mind – a sort of morbid canker of the most frightful description – against Mister Hudson”. And yet, as Beaumont insists, Hudson was a philanthropist of sorts, as well as the man who got the railways up and running with an energy and optimism denied us in the age of Railtrack. If Hudson’s enthusiasm for building railway was exaggerated, then what should we make of the grandiloquently named Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59)? Angus Buchanan’s thorough, intelligent life of this prodigious Victorian engineer is a worthy successor to Tom Rolt’s standard biography of 1957. The image of Hudson that has come down over the years is the grand portrait painted in oils by the society artist, Sir Francis Grant. Our image of Brunel could hardly be more different: it is the famous photograph – with battered stovepipe hat, hands thrust into waistcoat pockets, broad mouth clamped on a big cigar – taken by Robert Howlett in front of the iron chains restraining the engineer’s mighty steamship, Great Eastern, before her launch on the Thames in 1858. Where Hudson’s passion for the railway age was driven by money, Brunel’s heroic engineering enterprises were inspired by a passion for making new things work. A small man, he thought and built on a massive scale. He engineered the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Temple Meads with grandeur and élan. None of Hudson’s miserly four-foot way for Brunel: his tracks were set seven feet (and a quarter of an inch) apart, allowing Daniel Gooch’s magnificent new locomotives to run comfortably at great speed. With Brunel, the railway became a work of engineering art rather than purely a mechanical means of transporting goods and people. He was, says Buchanan, “a driven man” who did more than most to change the way we live. To understand the contribution of a Hudson or Brunel, a Bury, McConnell or Stephenson, or simply to appreciate the revolutionary and compelling things they created, is to seek to understand the way the modern world steamed into all our lives. And to see that when the hunger for pure profit overtakes even such impassioned engineering marvels as Flying Scotsman and Mallard, our railways, like George Hudson, are very likely to hit the buffers.