I’m going to make a confession here.
I like trains. Or more exactly, I like the social history of trains and railways.
Admitting you like trains is always dangerous. It gets you lumped in with these people who wear unfortunate trousers and have a deep fascination with valves and train schedules, or even worse these people who stand at the end of railway platforms in England collecting engine numbers – something that makes these people who flock to see rare birds almost rational.
That’s not what interests me. What interests me is how railways changed society in the nineteenth century, much as the internet has changed ours by providing new ways of doing things, and new forms of interaction.
These changes were immense – they defined the way of doing things. It became possible to order goods from afar and have them delivered, to travel, even though initially it was slow, expensive and unpleasant.
It also meant that letters no longer went at the speed of a horse, and in time the needs of signalling systems and communications gave birth to the telegraph, arguably a precursor of today’s internet.
One could go on and on, but perhaps a single example can explain.
Branwell Bronte, brother to the Bronte sisters, managed a railway station for a few months in the 1840’s during his decline into alcoholism and laudunum addiction.
Which is kind of interesting
1) Branwell had a job which was new – ten years before managing a railway station probably didn’t exist as a job
2) Working for the railway was acceptable for sons of gentry – Branwell’s other jobs appear to have been the more traditional genteel ones of tutoring and schoolmastering
3) Railways needed middle class people to do mangerial jobs and were recruiting the poor sons of local gentry – in effect building a middle class reliant on paid employment rather than land and rents
Branwell didn’t last at the paid employment thing, but these three observations tell us a lot about the impact that railways were having on rural England and the social changes accompanying them.
And that’s why I like trains …
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