decorated initial 'N' ot many Victorian or Edwardian novelists follow Dickens, who while pointing out some of the railway's bad effects upon the city, strongly argues for its positive ones as well. More commonly, writers describe the railway in an urban setting as largely destructive, and the artificial, mechanical sound of the steam locomotive's whistle, so beloved by modern rail fans, was often cited as the perfect symbol of that destructiveness. The sound of the steam whistle, which is often described as a "scream," intrudes in the Victorian city much as it does in the American landscape. Thus, Bulwer-Lytton's What Will He Do With It? describes how "just as our travellers neared the town, the screech of a railway whistle resounded towards the right, — a long train rushed from the jaws of a tunnel and shot into the neighbouring station." The same scream occurs in Wilkie Collins's Basil, where we encounter a character experiencing the effect of railways on the city: "It was a very lonely place — a colony of half-finished streets, and half-inhabited houses, which had grown up in the neighbourhood of a great railway station. I heard the fierce scream of the whistle, and the heaving, heavy throb of the engine starting on its journey, as I advanced along the gloomy Square in which I now found myself." In the same author's No Name experiencing the railway's irruption into the city becomes a cause for comparing past and present, much in the manner of Carlyle and Pugin, when the character arrives at the exact spot the tracks enter the ancient city of York (which now, ironically enough, has a major railway museum): "He reached the spot where the iron course of the railroad strikes its way through arches in the old wall. He paused at this place — where the central activity of a great railway enterprise beats, with all the pulses of its loud-clanging life, side by side with the dead majesty of the past, deep under the old historic stones which tell of fortified York and the sieges of two centuries since."

aerial view of St. Pancras and King's Cross

Aerial view of St. Pancras and King's Cross Stations. This photograph, which shows the extremely long train sheds, also reveals how much land the mainline tracks and railways yards occupied.

Other novels quite properly emphasize the havoc wreaked upon urban centers by the railway companies to which Parliament gave the power to seize property by eminent domain. As John R. Kellett points out in his magisterial Railways and Victorian Cities (1979), the "railroad companies' . . . renewed and determined invasion of the central core of the Victorian city in the 1860s" (p. 69) ultimately had the effect of making them owners of between 8 and 10% of the most valuable central land often with negative effects on both the companies themselves and urban life. "By 1890," Kellett reports, "the principal railway companies had expended �100,000,000, more than one eighth of all railway capital, on the provision of terminals, had bought thousands of acres of central land, and undertaken the direct work of urban demolition and reconstruction on a large scale" (2). Furthermore, "all promoters had [not only] grossly underestimated the expenses involved" (8) but they also made many decisions without any sensible cost-benefit calculations with the result that many railways lost enormous sums of money. The Great Western Railway, for example, put up the money for the Metropolitan line (now part of the London tube) and negotiated access to Victorian Station ten years before they considered how useful this arrangement would be and how many trains would be needed (p. 62), and surprised by heavy traffic from Windsor and Ealing, it opened money-losing stations at other places for which there was no need. Typically, railways built enormously expensive stations while neglecting their rolling stock, which was "filthy and poverty stricken" (78). Incredibly in the 1860s the railway companies spent between 1/8 and 1/2 per cent of the nation's total income on less than half a dozen stations! (79). According to Kellett, "in the North the railway company that played the most active part in carving out new termini for itself in Manchester and Liverpool — the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire — paid such poor dividends that the shareholders ironically suggested that the company's initials stood for "Money Sunk and Lost" (p. 80).

Not surprisingly, railway companies turned out to be even less aware of the wider effects, particularly the social costs, of building in urban centers than they were of businesslike ways of running their businesses. And as people realized as early as the 1840s, these costs were high indeed: appropriating land in the centers of cities drove up real estate prices, devastated working class housing, added to congestion, and even when residential housing was left standing it was never renewed:

It is conspicuous that where the railways passed no residential improvement took place. They were frozen, as far as renovation or improvement were concerned, as completed as if time has stopped in 1830. Capital sunk in replacing residential housing in such an environment with a more up-to-date equivalent was obviously considered capital wasted. The best plan for a proprietor was to patch the properties up, accept a lower class of tenant, and wait until a major alteration made it possible to abandon residential use altogether: until commercial or business offer was made, a corporation clearance or street widening scheme swept the district away, or the railways themselves enlarged their approaches. [p. 340]

Over the city by railway by Gustave Doré. 1872.
Doré here depicts what happens when railways cut into the heart of London.

Dickens, Punch, and many others early realized the ill effects of railways. Thus in Robert Falconer, George Macdonald, otherwise a writer of gentle fantasies, the protagonist sees "the utter wickedness of railway companies, who pulled down every house that stood in their way, and did nothing to provide room for those who were thus ejected -- most probably from a wretched place, but only, to be driven into a more wretched still. To provide suitable dwellings for the poor he considered the most pressing of all necessary reforms."

Two very different authors — Diana Mullock Craik and George Gissing — characterize a place positively because the railway has not touched it. Gissing tells us about a "No corner of England more safely rural; beyond sound of railway whistle, bosomed in great old elms, amid wide meadows and generous tillage; sloping westward to the river Dee, and from its soft green hills descrying the mountains of Wales." In Mrs. Craik's The Olgivies a city is characterized precisely because a railway has not yet entered it.

Yet there is much that is good about the place and its inhabitants. The latter may well be proud of their ancient and beautiful city — beautiful not so much in itself as for its situation. It lies in the midst of a fertile and gracefully undulated region, and consists of a cluster of artistically irregular and deliciously old-fashioned streets, of which the nucleus is the cathedral. This rises aloft with its three airy spires, so light, so delicately traced, that they have been christened the Ladies of the Vale. has an air of repose, an old-world look, which becomes it well. No railway has yet disturbed the sacred peace of its antiquity, and here and there you may see grass growing in its quiet streets, — over which you would no more think of thundering in a modern equipage than of driving a coach-and-four across the graves of your ancestors.

As this passage makes clear, the ancient city in British fiction functions imaginatively much as does the untamed wilderness in American literature — as an ideal place into which modernity in the form of the railway intrudes. Of course, as Mrs. Gaskell points out in the second half of North and South, a good bit of the beauty and charm of such ancient cities derives from its prosperous citizen's willful ignorance of the economic, intellectual, and spiritual impoverishment of the lower classes — a point wrily made by Mrs Craik when she describes the "melancholy emphasis" with which one of her chaacters points out "the line where the threatened railway was to traverse this beautiful champaign, and bring at last the evil spirit of reform and progress into the time-honoured sanctity of the cathedral town."


Kellett, John R. Railways and Victorian Cities. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979; Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1979.

The essential book for anyone who wants to learn about the relations of Victorian railways to contemporary government, industry, finance, urban life, and so on, Kellett's volume is packed with quotations from primary sources, including parliamentary reports and contemporary periodicals; it also has valuable maps and illustrations [GPL].

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Last modified 2 January 2006