Things Ain't What They Used To Be
The Effects of the Rise and Fall of the Railways
As the twentieth century draws to a close, many Basingstoke residents travel to work by train, and London, nearly fifty miles away, is a principal destination. As each train draws up at the buffers at Waterloo or Paddington, hundreds of people will disembark, and a fair proportion will complete their journeys by train in tunnels deep below street and river level. An hour or so after leaving Basingstoke, a typical London commuter will be ready to start his or her day's work. At the end of the working day, the travelling would be repeated in the reverse direction. Some people have chosen to live in Basingstoke specifically because it is perceived to be within easy reach of London.
As the nineteenth century opened, such a routine would have seemed fantastic to many. The horse was the prime mover, and even the latest technology - the canals - was horse-powered, and operated at walking pace. The only mode of transport capable of moving hundreds of people at once was the sailing ship.
Since 1800, the changes in Britain have been immense. At home, the population grew, and villages expanded into towns and then in some cases cities. The national economy changed from agricultural to industrial, and in the late twentieth century, industry has also declined. Abroad, Britain became for a while the predominant world power - and gained and lost a world empire.
Before there were railways, most people stayed within a few miles of their homes for most of their lives. Those who travelled any distance either did so on horseback or by horse and cart. The wealthier classes travelled by stagecoach or private coach. With a fresh team of horses, and if it hadn't been raining, a traveller may have managed fifteen miles in an hour in a coach on one of the turnpike roads, or six if travelling by cart. Because travel took such a long time, many towns had coaching inns, where coach passengers could break their journeys, either for refreshment or for an overnight stay. Basingstoke had a fine selection of coaching inns - The Angel, The Maidenhead, The Crown, The Three Tuns, The Red Lion, The Wheatsheaf, The George and The Feathers.
Canals (and, of course, Basingstoke was served by one) were used in conjunction with rivers for the transport of heavy materials, such as coal. However, the mass transport of goods and materials was very uncommon when compared with the twentieth century. If someone discovered, say, iron ore, they would be more likely to set up a foundry on the site than to start seeking buyers for the raw material.
Over the preceding 150 years or so, a network of mail coaches had been established serving the major centres of population, but this did not really resemble our current postal system - even by 1835, there were towns of ten thousand people which did not have post offices. There were newspapers in some large towns, but the national press as we know it did not exist. The pre-paid Penny Post, telegraphs, telephones, radio and television still lay in the future.
Perhaps even more significantly, the conurbations of today simply didn't exist. Clapham Junction, the busiest railway station on the British railway system, was the site of a farm. Wimbledon, only seven miles from central London, today completely built up, was open countryside before the railway came.
This is not to say that things had not started to change. The Industrial Revolution had started several decades earlier in the Midlands, and in the coalfields of South Wales and the North-East, the virtues of railways were being well demonstrated, even if only as a means of moving goods to the nearest navigable waterway. In Basingstoke, 1834 saw the construction of the town's first gas works*, and street lighting followed soon after.
* “Gas Works”: Although Britain now obtains its gas from the gas fields under the North Sea, this is a recent phenomenon. Gas was originally manufactured by chemical means from coal and other related raw materials.
This change would soon begin to accelerate. As soon as people began to be carried regularly on railways, new horizons were opened. Not only were the first passengers extremely keen on the new mode of transport, (even in the earliest days, twice as fast as the coach, and half the price), but the proprietors of the railways soon observed that there was money to be made from these passengers. Within a few years, Parliament* would be swamped by the demand for new railways. The stagecoaches soon lost out to the railways. In 1828, there were 18 separate coaches passing through Basingstoke, serving destinations as far afield as London, Bridgwater, Devonport, Weymouth and Southampton. By 1847, these had all ceased trading, and several of Basingstoke 's coaching inns mentioned above went out of business with them.
* “Parliament”: In order to construct any significant public railway, it was necessary to obtain an Act of Parliament. This could be an expensive and time-consuming business, especially when there was opposition to the proposal. Do not gather from this that Parliament chose to exercise any control over where the railways went. It did not - private enterprise and competition were left to their own devices. Parliament was just a (very expensive) "rubber stamp".
The crucial years in the development of the British railway system were 1835 to 1855. During those two decades, the skeleton of the railway system was set in place. On the whole, railways grafted onto that skeleton after that date have been pruned since. (This is not merely true for the area around Basingstoke, as you can verify by comparing the 1856 and 1995 maps, but applies all over the country.) In 1844, Parliamentary procedures were changed to make it easier and cheaper to obtain the necessary Act, and in 1845, a law was passed saying that existing railways had to accept connections from other companies, except when the other company was building a parallel line in competition. The conjunction of these two legal changes gave rise to 'The Railway Mania' of 1845/6. During those two years, over 400 new railway Acts were passed. Speculation was the watchword - over 1,000 projected railways were not accepted! This rapid expansion of the railway system had its consequences. The first effect was the increase in demand for navvies, iron and other building materials to construct the railways. By 1845, over 200,000 navvies were employed on railway construction. Many others were employed to produce the materials. Professor David S. Landes*, in his survey of technology and its effects since 1750, “The Unbound Prometheus”, says, "... it seems fair to say that by the 1840's railroad construction was the most important single stimulus to industrial growth in Western Europe." The graph below, based on estimates he collected, certainly shows that the great increase in iron production in this country coincides with the vast expansion in the railway network.
* “Landes”: his sources for the figures in the graph are given on page 96 of his book; the quotation is from page 153
Society changed to adapt to the opportunities provided by the railways. The Post Office quickly transferred their business to the rails. London's newspapers now had a means of distribution which ensured that the news was still current by the time that people in the provinces were able to read it (if they could, of course - perhaps this spread of information was itself one of the influences which propelled the development of the British education system). Thanks to another piece of 1844 legislation, the opportunities were not only available to the rich - all railways were compelled to offer at least one train each weekday calling at all stations, with fares not to exceed a penny a mile*.
* “a penny a mile”:
Whilst the railways provided the impetus to the great industrial expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century, they did not usher in the commuting age at that time. Services were too slow in that period for any thought of long-distance travelling to work. There were many factors contributing to the slowness, but the overriding one was the lack of a suitable material from which to build the locomotives and track. Iron was heavy and also brittle when cast. Locomotives were under-powered and trains were relatively light as a result. Not only that, but the earliest railways often involved significant tunnelling or embankment building, in order to keep them as level* as possible because of the low power of the locomotives - hence the vast number of navvies mentioned above. The situation changed in the second half of the nineteenth century with the development of technology to produce steel. Instead of being brittle like cast iron, steel was comparatively flexible. Its different characteristics permitted the construction of steam locomotives which operated at higher boiler pressures, and thus delivered more power. Trains were able to increase in weight and speed. The result was that more passengers could be carried more quickly.
* “level”: In addition to the mileposts, there are often gradient posts by the side of the track. These are usually designed like a "T" as shown above, with figures indicating the gradient and the position of the arm whether the track rises or falls in the given direction. The shallowest railway gradient in Britain which has actually been marked on a gradient post is 1 in 14,400 near Farnborough on the line from Basingstoke. In contrast, the line from Woking to Havant, built 20 years later, includes stretches of 1 in 70, fairly steep for a British railway.
People who had been living in the large cities began to be able to consider living away from their place of work. The cities began to reach out fingers into the countryside, along the routes of the railways. Early stations had often been built on the edge of town, or even out of town altogether, as farmland was easier and cheaper to obtain than land in the centre of town which had already been built on. As the nineteenth century wore on, many of these stations were engulfed by the communities* they served. Having contributed to the development of industry, the railways were contributing to the redistribution of population.
* “communities”: on the line from Basingstoke to Waterloo, one good example is Woking, which became the junction for the Portsmouth main line. The station was possibly called Woking Common when first opened, and lay over a mile from the community of Woking
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, other methods of transport began to be developed. In the cities, there were horse trams and omnibuses. After the turn of the century, there were, first for the wealthy, motor cars, and later for the masses, motor omnibuses. From the end of World War 1, increasing competition from motor transport began to change the equation against the railways. In 1923, the railways were reorganised into four main companies, and this amalgamation enabled some of the duplication of routes caused by the free market of the previous century to be addressed.
Even so, the tide was turning against the railways. Competition from trams and motor omnibuses brought about the first significant closures during the inter-war years, due to the worse economics of running a lightly-used railway compared to a lightly-used omnibus. The railways were not finished though. A programme of electrification of the lines south of the Thames created the largest electrified suburban network in the world. Suburbia and commuting were born, but were really the last major changes in the social fabric which can be attributed to the railways: a long decline lay ahead.
World War 2 brought about an upsurge in railway traffic, partly because of petrol rationing. The railways carried more goods and passengers than they ever had before. So many people were travelling that the Government had to ask them, "Is your journey really necessary?" During the war, several lines in the area around Basingstoke were improved, first to help guard against enemy invasion, and later to prepare for D-Day. Overall, the toll on the railways due to the War was very great. Railway yards were a prime target for bombers, as were the workshops, many of which had been used for the production of war materials*.
* “War materials”: From a start of nil in September 1939, the proportion of the workforce in Southern Railway workshops engaged on Government work rose to over a fifth by September 1942. The contracts handled by the workshops ranged from machine parts for guns and tanks to motor boats, aircraft parts and even pontoon bridges. There is a Basingstoke connection here; when the works at Eastleigh was first given the task of building assault landing craft, the technical staff and foremen were sent to Thornycroft's works for training.
The railways emerged from the war in a very run-down condition. In 'Austerity' Britain, there was not sufficient money to repair the damage, and for a number of years, services were slower than they had been before 1939. The Government nationalised the railways with effect from 1948. However, things continued very much as they had before in most cases, as the previous company structures were largely replicated in the regional structure of the national railway. Competition after the War continued from the buses and came increasingly from the private motor car. By the middle of the 1950's, the writing was on the wall for much of the railway network. The Government set in motion a modernisation plan. Steam haulage was to be replaced by diesel, and electrification was to proceed. Even while this modernisation plan was being put into effect, it became obvious that it could not solve the difficulties of the railways. Closures had to happen. The head of the railways, Dr. Richard Beeching, was given an axe to wield. As a result, in the early and middle 1960's, there were wholesale closures of lines, and of stations on the lines which remained open. Over the thirty years since that mass closure event, the railways have bounced back modestly. A few more lines and stations were closed. In compensation, a few stations have been opened on the lines which still carry trains. Overall speeds on the railways have increased thanks to the changes introduced in the modernisation plan. The subsidy provided to the railways has been progressively reduced, and railways here receive less than most other European systems.
Whereas in the boom years of the nineteenth century, the fortunes of Britain depended on the fortunes of the railways, in modern times, the situation is reversed. Traffic on the railways has risen during times of economic growth, and declined during recession. The Conservative Government of 1979-1997, first under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, laid out its plans to cede control of the railways to the private sector, claiming this would attract new investment. Whilst the changes this policy has been bringing about have been under way for several years now, their outcome is not yet clear*. The motor car is the current king; the railways are no longer a means of printing money. In a strictly commercial environment, profitability will determine which services survive. Whatever the long-term future holds for the railways, the next few tomorrows hold a large measure of uncertainty.
* “not yet clear”: Originally, I wrote that in the early days of the privatised regime, “The longer this regime goes on, the clearer it becomes”. South West Trains, the company awarded the franchise for the route through Basingstoke from London was, very early in its franchise, fined vast sums by the franchise regulator because of poor performance. There were significant numbers of redundancies among the drivers early in the SWT franchise, leaving insufficient staff to provide even the statutory minimum level of service. Record cancellations of trains resulted. One tries to be impartial about this, but the results of the policy of fragmented privatisation are now pretty plain. The author of this history is so alarmed at the situation that he has taken to documenting the problems, in the hope that publicising the problems will encourage the management of South West Trains to improve matters.
Between Basingstoke and London Waterloo, there are twenty stations, but no trains stop at all of them. Most call at Woking, and some of those also call at Clapham Junction. Services like the one pictured above at Basingstoke on 24 March 1998 call at all the intermediate stations as far as Woking, and then only Clapham Junction. The journey time on such a service is typically an hour and five minutes. (The fact that the stations are on average only two and a half miles apart, up to fifty miles out from London, must say something about the population density.)
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