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Our Home Railways, How they began and howthey are worked



In 1788, two years after Murdock had made his model steam locomotive, Erasmus Darwin, the friend of Watt and Boulton, published the poem in which occur the lines -

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer'd Steam, afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air:

an intelligent anticipation of the future - not quite a prophecy considering the facts on which it was based - which was never quoted with greater effect than on the 9th of April 1849, when the South Stafford was opened from Walsall to Lichfield, and the chairman, Mr. C. S. Forster, recalling the then forgotten stanza, pointed out that with a degree of prescience truly wonderful the Lichfield poet had ventured on a prediction fulfilled to the very letter within the walls of his own city.

Since Darwin's day the development has been great.

The story of how it came about is briefly told in these pages on the growth of the British railway system, which incidentally describe the principal branches of railway work. It is not in all ways the old story, for the discovery of old working drawings and business letters, and the publication of Pease's and other diaries and papers, have in many cases greatly modified the usual version, as have also the references to the patent specifications, the Acts of Parliament, the prospectuses, and the contemporary reports of the companies' meetings; and, in the endeavour to ensure the statements on these and other matters being correct, every article has been submitted to the companies for approval, so that it is the first book on the general subject which has been officially verified and illustrated throughout from official sources.

The illustrations are over 300 in number, and include a series of coloured plates of engines, carriages, and armorial bearings from photographs, pictures, and transfers. In many cases the photographs were specially taken for the work, and the most cordial acknowledgments are due to the managers, locomotive superintendents, engineers, and others who have so kindly assisted in its preparation, and who are far too numerous to be thanked individually, as the list would extend to several pages and contain the higher staff of every company it has been possible to include.


Have you ever tried to think what is the oldest human achievement, what is the thing which can be traced back to the earliest times and still exists as a practical necessity from which we have never been able to escape, something which is older than the rudest implements of warfare or husbandry, older than song and story or books or written communication? It is the making of roads.

On a bright September morning in many a quiet valley, from the edge of the wood stretching down the slope to and across the valley levels, you shall see hundreds of lines - apparent because along them the herbage is darker - lines fairly direct yet sometimes wavering, here turned aside by a tussock of coarse grass, there by a tuft of bracken, crossing, merging, separating again. Any countryman will tell you, if you are town-bred and do not know, that these are the beaten tracks of the rabbits, the paths from burrow to food, each beaten down by the daily passing of the animals to and from their homes within the wood and their valley feeding grounds. In those tracks, in sheep and cattle tracks along the hillside, in the runways of the water-voles under the brambles and hedge trees that overhang the stream, you have pictured the early forms of the roads which have from the most ancient of days to the era of the railways, been the most abiding indications of the necessity for human communication.

It is in this kinship of necessity with the animals that the antiquity of the road lies embedded. Hunger, the motive force of man, drove him to wander where he might find his food; and habit pinned him, once his tracks were made, to pass again and again along them. Thus his tracks were beaten to thread or skirt the swamp, to follow the course of the river, to avoid or dare the spirit-haunted woods. Par back in the mists of time we find the traces of the necessity which drove man, and still drives him, to be a road-maker; and thus we find the beginnings that have developed to-day into the railroad which has traversed desert and swamp, bridged the world's mightiest rivers, burrowed through mountain chains, linked up the threads of civilisation, and broken down the barriers of race.

The story of roads is the story of the progress of mankind. The footworn paths of Neolithic man; the caravan routes of the desert; the roads of the Romans with their hurrying chariots and marching legions; the trade roads of the Middle Ages with their full and varied life, their merchants and men-at-arms, their pedlars, pilgrims, and friars; the coaching roads with the wealth spent on them in their later days to fit them for their fruitless competition with the rail - along them passed such a pageant of life as is nowhere else discoverable, the value of which was sufficiently indicated by Chaucer, who touched but the fringe of it.

But reflect a moment more. Through all the centuries of man's development, save the last, no advance had been made in the speed of communication beyond that of the quickest horse. In this matter the Roman, the Arab, and the Tartar were the equals of the most cultivated and energetic races of the eighteenth century. And then in a space of time that is but a breath in the history of man, here is wrought a change so stupendous that few can appreciate to the full.

It was with our Home Railways that this change began. In this country it originated, though here we have no opportunity of seeing its larger developments. We have here no thousand leagues of continents to cross, no ice-capped mountains to zigzag or to tunnel; but here were first dealt with the initial difficulties of the great expansion. The difference is not in character but in degree, and the story of our railways is really in essence that of the world's greatest industrial enterprise.

The story is worth telling because the time is opportune. A hundred years ago we were just within the threshold of a revolution though we knew it not. To-day we seem to be at the beginning of another era. The flights of airships and aeroplanes suggest that these new machines are passing out of the stage of experiment into that of practical use.

Moreover, we shall do well to read this story because we are all concerned with railways. There is no one living in Great Britain who does not come into contact, somehow, somewhere, with the enormous power and organisation of our railways in the aggregate. It is not too much to say that at present our whole system of commerce, and civilisation itself, stand or fall by railways. By reason of railways London lives from hand to mouth; it is the railways that stand between London and starvation. Famines have been averted, wars prolonged or ended by railways. Every man of business knows that he is a cog in a vast mechanism of which the railways form an integral and vital part. Imagine their withdrawal, and you are left with immediate chaos. Concerning a force so potent in our national and business life it is surely wise and helpful that we should know far more than most of us do. Here is a story which not only the grave and responsible business man should read, but also every youth entering for the first time the great world of business with hope and ambition in his heart. Nor need he fear that this will be a task; rather will he find it as interesting as any romance.

Yet once again the story is worth reading because it is by railways that those who live in great cities reach all that is beautiful and sacred in our Homeland. To many, a railway journey is an infliction; this story should transform the experience into a delight. Even if it has not that power, we must not forget, as we are swiftly borne from London to Cornwall, to Wales, to the Highlands, to the remotest ends of the mighty system that has its hundreds of terminals on the coast, in the heart of the hill ranges, far up tiny river-valleys, that it is this system that makes us free of the endless and varied beauties of our own country. We too often affect a desire for places off the beaten track without thinking that but for the railways we should be as little likely to see them as were the town-dwellers of the Middle Ages.

Were it not for the railways, the scenery and antiquities of our own land would be to most of us unknown. For the ancient and beautiful things that the railways, or the consequent growth of towns, have swept away, they have atoned by putting us in touch with many more. More beautiful lands there may be, but patriotism forbids us to admit it, and we are shameless in our love for these islands when we remember how many tongues have sung their charms, how every county is a repository of some typical natural beauty, and how every hamlet, town, or city is a storehouse of historical associations or the proud birthplace of some noble or faithful soul. It is to a land of inexhaustible charm that our Home Railways have opened a thousand avenues of approach; and in this hook you read the story of the work, and the fertility of resource of which we all, to-day and every day, in perfect assurance of safety and comfort, take advantage.

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