Early Victorian Rail Travel
Steam Gear
Steampunk Gallery
Railroad Photos
Disclaimer: Sadly, I cannot provide all the images used in my presentation on the web, many of them were copied from reference materials that I do not have privileges to reproduce here. I can offer links to what are readily availble on-line.

What follows is a combination of my presentation notes and a paraphrasing of what I recall from my verbal lecture of November 20, 2010 at the Upstate Steampunk Extravaganza.

STEAM RAILWAYS: Trains and Travel of the Early Victorian Era
Most of us are familiar with the descriptions of the luxurious Orient Express and can imagine the romance of travel by rail in the late Victorian era. Some of us remember the glory days of dining cars, sleepers, and comfortable travel accomodation. Some of it still exists today, but we seldom make use of it. In the early days of travel by train, the luxuries we take for granted didn't exist, and unforunately, in the course of research we find some unpleasant truths along the way.

Pre-Railway Steam-Powered Travel

Before there was steam-powered rail travel, there were a few experiments with steam-powered road vehicles. By and large, the early ones were unsucessful for a variety of reasons, but primarily technological and practical. For instance, one of the earliest road vehicles was developed for the French Military in 1770 by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. His self-propelled fardier à vapeur was intended for hauling cannon, but its top speed was about 2.25 mph, it required restocking its fuel and water supply every hour, and it wasn't very stable. Wikipedia image of the Cugnot's fardier à vapeur.

London Steam CarriageRichard Trevithick The first practical demonstration of steam-powered road travel was in 1801--the Puffing Devil, built by Richard Trevithick. Unfortunately, it broke down within 3 days of its first run and was never able to operate for long periods. With his cousin Andrew Vivian, Trevithick demonstrated a more successful road locomotive in 1803--The London Steam Carriage

A little remembered, but slightly more successful, steam carriage was developed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney in 1827. Weighing in at 2 tons, it acheived a respectable 15mph on its first run from London to Bath. the original carriage was attacked and destroyed by a mob in Melsham, Wiltshire. But, undeterred, Gurney continued building these carriages, offering them for £1000 apiece. In 1831, one of them ran regular service between Cheltnham and Gloucester, making the 18 mile trip thrice daily. Based on the model displayed at The Castle, Bude, it could very well have inspired George Barris' Munster Koach of television fame. Wikipedia image of the Goldsworthy Gurney Steam Carriage

Early Railways -- The Locomotives

The earliest steam-driven railway locomotives were developed in early 1804, primarily for ironworks and colleries to move ore, coal, refined and finished goods. The first satisfactory self-propelled railway locomotive could haul about 15 tons at a speed of 5 mph. However, the first public railway to include passenger service was the Stockton and Darlington Railway--which started operations on September 27, 1825 using Stephenson-designed locomotives, the first of which was the Locomotion No.1. These first locomotives didn't have the familiar arrangement of piston-driven wheels we are familiar with today, but instead seemed to have been based on the stationary "walking beam" steam engines used to pump water from mines and operate the winches.

In 1829, the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway invited designers to submit their locomotives to a test for a £500 prize. It was these "Rainhill Trials" at which George Stephenson's Rocket won the prize for its all-round competence over its competitors, the Sanspareil and the Novelty.

Railway Operations

The first signalmen, originally called Railway Policemen, were employed in the early 1800s. Their uniforms were similar to the constables of the day, including top hat and tailcoats. These early signalmen used flags to communicate with each other and train drivers, and employed hourglasses for the purpose of Time Interval Working between stations. When clockwork mechanisms became more accurate and reliable, hourglassses were replaced with clocks. Eventually, railways had entire departments devoted to the care and maintenance of timepieces.

It was a signalman's duty to check each train that passed his signal box, looking for the red tail lamp exhibited on the trailing vehicle, the sighting of which confirmed that the train was still complete, and thus the section was clear.

Each train movement was logged, by hand, in a Train Register Book, and it was normal practice to provide a special desk to support this sizeable book. As well as train movements, every communication between signalmen and adjacent signal boxes via bell codes (when accepting trains or dealing with a token) was logged.

Improvements in signalling made railways to operate more efficiently and safely--as long as the operators remained alert and diligent! Improvements include mechanical fixed signals in the 1840s, the electric telegraph and block working in the 1850s, and proper mechanical interlocking from 1856. All of which allowed safer, more expeditious train working, and more complicated track layouts to be controlled single-handedly. Of course, single-handed does not necessarily mean 'easy' or uncomplicated!

Railway Time

Greenwich Mean Time was established in 1675 when the Royal Observatory was built as an aid to (English) mariners, however, the first time zone in the world was established by British railway companies on December 1, 1847—with GMT kept by portable chronometers. This quickly became known as Railway Time.

About August 23, 1852, time signals were first transmitted by telegraph from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Even though 98% of Great Britain's public clocks were using GMT by 1855, it was not made Britain's legal time until August 2, 1880. Prior to the establishment of GM, each town's local clock in the area was calibrated to its local noon. Therefore, each clock across England had a slightly different time. Some old clocks from this period have two minute hands—one for the local time, one for GMT.

Consider the implications of publishing an accurate railway time table under such conditions!Prior to the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time, each town's local clock in the area was calibrated to its local noon. Therefore, each clock across England had a slightly different time. In order to provides some sort of consistency for the railways, some clocks from this period have two minute hands—one for the local time, one for GMT.

Early Passenger Service

"One of the most marked characteristics in the working of the Rocket, observed very clearly during the Rainhill trials, and criticized by opponents of the Stephensons, was the swaying jerky action of the engine, attributable to the mounting of the cylinders high up on the side of the smokebox. Later engines of the 'Rocket' type had the cylinders mounted more nearly horizontal, but still outside the frames. The use of inside cylinders on the Planet in 1830 -- probably the very first case in the world -- was not wholly due to a desire to get smoother riding, but due to a suggestion made to Robert Stephenson by Richard Trevithick the great Cornish pioneer, who had found in repairing an old beam engine that he obtained an almost sensational economy of fuel by fitting a jacket round the cylinder to prevent loss of heat by radiation. On the Planet Stephenson enclosed the cylinders within the smokebox. The engine also incorporated the first use of 'sandwich' frames, which were formed of ash or oak, strengthened by iron plates inside and out. These gave flexibility and a great strength, and were a distinctive feature -- for example- of many broad gauge locomotives on the Great Western Railway in later years. The Planet was thus very much a landmark in locomotive history." [Nock, pp. 113-14]

On the Liverpool & Manchester, the coaches were color-coded to indicate class of service:
 Yellow indicated 1st class and were attended by faster locomotives
 Blue indicated 2nd class accommodation and slower travel time Note the last two cars of the first class train include a mail coach (red), and a flatcar for a carriage. The second class train shows much less protection and comfort for its passengers

Prior to the railways, there was no notion of ‘class’. Poorer members of society travelled by foot or in stage-wagons carrying goods. Railway proprietors extended travel accommodation to the poor, but the railways that served them seemed to be ambivalent about so doing. Colliery lines of the north east allowed ordinary folk to travel on them regularly, and the manufacturing districts served by the northern lines also extended such service. However, other lines made no such provisions. Gladstone’s Railway Regulation Act of 1844 institutionalized the railways’ accommodation of poorer travelers.

First Class Travel

Typical coaches had 3 compartments, each containing a pair of facing seats and could accommodate between 6 and 8 passengers. These early coaches were inspired by stagecoach designs. The panels were stylized to look like stagecoaches and are not ‘3 stagecoach bodies on a flatcar’. Typically, the gentry rode first class, and some compartments were reserved for ladies to ensure the safety of women travelling alone.
  • First Class passengers often traveled with a footman, ladies’ maid or other servant, who would ride in the Second Class cars.
  • First class tended to be placed at the rear of the train to minimize passenger discomfort from locomotive smoke.
  • Coaches reserved for the mail and flatcars with horse-drawn carriages were placed at the rear of the train.
  • Railway Guards sat on seats mounted on the roof along with the luggage.
  • Luggage was vulnerable to catching fire from embers carried in the wake of the locomotive. Eventually, this led to the development of separate carriages for luggage--known as luggage vans.

Second Class Travel

Second Class railway carriages had reasonably comfortable seats and an interior aisle, although the earliest carriages were simply open cars with a canopy in which four people sat abreast. Enclosed second class cars were introduced around 1833 and as better and better accomodations were provided to First Class passengers. Each "lower" class of traveler received a sort of hand-me-down improvements in carriages as newer ones were introduced. Typically, tradespeople and servants of the gentry rode Second Class.

Third Class Travel

Railway Regulation Act 1844 forced the railways to offer affordable transport to the working class and poor. Working people were increasingly travelling long distances to find employment in the growing industrial centres. Such third class facilities as there were consisted usually of little better than open gondola wagons, often without seats. The Act was an attempt to make train travel available – and safe – for those who could ill afford it. The Act set minimum standards for passenger accommodation, and was influenced by the railway accident at Sonning Cutting on Christmas Eve 1842 when nine stonemasons were thrown from open wagons and killed.

One of the early coach designs was the "Stanhope". It featured a roof and small holes in the floor for drainage when it rained, and had separate compartments for different classes of travel (separate cars for the different classes were one of the earliest developments. The only problem with this design is that the passengers were expected to stand for their entire trip.

Railways assumed third class passengers had no interest in scenery, light, or fresh air, but did concede that they probably wanted to be protected from the weather and someplace to sit. A 1845 Bristol & Gloucester Railway design for a third class carriage held 54 passengers, had no side windows, and no lighting. Many critics of the day pointed out that horses and cattle travelled in better accommodation than the average 3rd class passenger.

Further investigation seems to bear out the the critics' view. Based on this 1844 plan for a 3rd class passenger car from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway, the design is very much like a cargo boxcar with bench seating. It had some sliding "venetian" ventilators, 10 bench seats to accomodate about 60 people, and the 7' x 20' car had a single door on each side. 7'x20'?!? Yes, the Great Western was a broad-gauge line, and that will come up again soon....


At first, stations were simple and at ground level. Upper class passengers waited near the trainshed while poorer travelers were segregated behind iron railings at the side of the station. The idea was that the gentry could board the train and be in their seats before the hoi-polloi got on board.

Although the romantic vision of railway travel implies that travel allowed the different echelons of society to share the glory of mobility, the disappointing fact is that the classes were quite segregated--very reminiscent of the separate accomodations in the U.S. for "white" and "colored", but based on socio-economic status rather than race. Historical research isn't always pretty. As stations became more sophisticated and more grandiose, the division between the classes of travelers became more pronounced—to the point where there were separate entrances, booking halls, and waiting rooms. The railways made deliberate effort to separate the classes of travelers, including completely separate amenities. Of course, as the railways developed, larger and newer stations had improved designs that allowed passengers to embark and disembark from carriages without having to use stepstools or ladders, and be protected from the elements. Older and more rural stations received similar improvements over time.

Battle of the Gauges

You might not think that different widths of railway track (gauge) would be such a big deal to the traveling public. In fact, lack of standardization between the railways caused a tremendous amount of inconvenience as well as scientific debate. A variety of gauges meant many transfers between trains the further one travelled. The two most common gauges of the day were Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 7’ gauge (used on the somewhat immodestly named Great Western Railway) and George & Robert Stephenson’s 4’ 8 ½”

The Stephensons proposed the 4’ 8 ½” as being the de facto standard according to the wheel track dimensions that had existed since Roman times. It correlates to the width required on a road vehicle drawn by a horse between shafts. Brunel proposed 7’ as a more ideal gauge. Various railway companies used 5’, 6’, and a proliferation of 3’ gauges made standardization a difficult prospect.

Brunel’s broad gauge railways had faster and more powerful locomotives in addition to greater stability and convenience of the carriages, and thus the public seemed to prefer broad gauge. The GWR managed speeds of 53 to 61 mph while Express trains on the Stephensons’ lines managed only 36-38mph.

The ‘battle of the gauges’ became a leading scientific debate. A Royal Commission accepted Brunel’s technical arguments, however, ruled in favor of the Roman standard as best suiting the needs of the country—recommending the compulsory extinction of the broad gauge. Parliament did not completely agree until much later in the century. Up until 1866 there were as many as 30 breaks of gauge in the railways, causing much turmoil and cost as goods and passengers were shuffled between trains. Chaos at the Break of Gauge

The Railway Clearing House calculated that each change of gauge added the equivalent of 20 miles to the cost of transportation. In spite of these commercial setbacks to transportation of goods, broad gauge railways persisted until 1892.

Planning Your Trip

Railways didn’t invent reservations for travel, but they certainly made extensive use of pre-arranged reservations for seats on trains. George Bradshaw published his first railway timetable in 1838 and by 1850, ‘Bradshaw’ had become synonymous with ‘railway timetable’ However, timetables for arrivals and departures were notoriously difficult to figure out, and some railways only listed departure times—indicating that arrival times were not nearly as certain. Considering that standardized Railway Time wasn't universally accepted by the public immediately, it isn't surprising that Mr. Bradshaw didn't attempt to provide both arrival and departure times in his timetables. Trying to determine local time for every town serviced by the railways would have been a monumental undertaking.

Passenger Accomodations

On-board Amenities?
  • No restroom facilities were available on the trains
  • No restaurant (dining) cars
  • "Bed-carriages" were introduced in 1838
  • No lighting in 3rd Class
When the train stopped at a station for refueling, servants traveling "with" 1st Class passengers would attend to any needs (i.e., fetching food from a restaurant, items from luggage) British railways had a little bit of a head start on American railroads, with the first "bed-carriage" (an early sleeping car) being built 1838 for use on the London and Birmingham Railway and the Grand Junction Railway. Britain's early sleepers, when made up for sleeping, extended the foot of the bed into a boot section at the end of the carriage. The cars were still too short to allow more than two or three beds to be positioned end to end.

Dining cars first appeared in the late 1870s and into the 1880s. Until this time, the common practice was to stop for meals at restaurants along the way (which led to the rise of Fred Harvey's chain of Harvey House restaurants in America). At first, the dining car was simply a place to serve meals that were picked up en route, but they soon evolved to include galleys in which the meals were prepared. However, until such cars began service on the railways, passengers were obliged to detrain at a station to acquire a meal, or, in the case of 1st Class passengers, their servants would disembark from their place in the 2nd Class carriages to do so.

Why Did They Travel?

Holidays and day trips
Sporting events
Special trains and trips were run to take people to the races, cricket matches or the FA Cup Final, which was held for the first time in 1872.

As industry grew, so did the need for workers and a means for transporting them. Oddly enough, women were more migratory then men—factories and collierys could hire large numbers of men, but jobs for working-class women tended to be along the lines of domestic servants.

Alternatives and Costs

  • Top speed was about 10 mph
  • Stopped every 10 miles to change horse team
  • Uncomfortable
  • Rates were on a per-mile basis:
    Mail Coach: 10p for inside seat, 5p to ride outside Stagecoach: 5p for inside seat, 2p or 3p to ride outside
* An 80 mile ride (inside) from London to Dover was a full day, and cost £1 13s–more than a workman’s weekly wages
  • Top speed (early 1800’s) 40+ mph
  • Comfort depended on Class, but definitely better than the horse-drawn coach!
  • Rates were also on a per-mile basis
    1st Class : 6s or 5s
    2nd Class: 5s (inside), 3s 6d (open)
    3rd Class: 1p (after 1844)
* The same 80 mile ride from London to Dover was a half day, and cost only 7s

Today, the equivalent trip down the M20 takes about 1h 45 min

British Monetary Units
England and the British Isles are currently on the decimal system for currency, so these values are a little archaic....
20 shillings in £1 - a shilling was often called 'bob'
12 pennies in 1 shilling (1s)
240 pennies in £1

  • Binney, Marcus & David Pearce, Railway Architecture
  • Freeman, Michael, Railways and the Victorian Imagination
  • Garratt, Colin & Max Wade-Matthews, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Steam & Rail
  • Kay, F. George, Steam Locomotives
  • Mitchell, Sally, Daily Life in Victorian England
  • Riley, C.J., The Encyclopedia of Trains & Locomotives
  • Westwood, John, The Historical Atlas of World Railroads
  • Wikipedia:
    Parliamentary Train
Copyright-free images courtesy of Wikipedia.org:
  • Richard Trevithick
  • London Steam Carriage
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Images of Romney signal box, line indicator and switch levers courtesy of and © Angus Kirk

Ealdercote and the images contained therein are © 2010 J.T.Thorpe and C.M.Grewcock
Last updated November 2010