Victorian Railways - Impacts on Professional Life

04 July 2023

To what extent did the new technology of Victorian railways affect professional life?


In early Victorian Britain, the new technology of the railways impacted on professional life in a range of ways to be explored in this essay. These include the emergence of new professions, the expansion of existing ones, the communication of new ideas, the advent of suburbanisation and commuting, the movement towards professionalisation, and the impact on wages and leisure. It will conclude that through all of these, railways had significant impact on professional life in early Victorian Britain.


It can be problematic to delineate which Victorian occupations were 'professions' and which were not (Hedley, 2018). Although education, income, security, responsibility, the existence of codes of conduct, and collective association may all play a part, it would be mistaken to unreflectively project 21st century notions of 'a profession' onto the dynamic occupational landscape of early Victorian Britain. Even though this essay adopts a fairly wide interpretation of 'profession', it will however attempt to justify the occupations included as professions with reference to at least some of these factors.


The advent of railways was the most important new technology of the Victorian age. It was a 'revolutionary transformation' (Hobsbawm, 1970, p110) and many developments in Victorian Britain 'can be at least in part attributed to the railways' (Wasson, 2010, p202). 'Railway' became a synonym for ultra-modernity in the 1840's (Hobsbawm, 1970, p111). They were the 'icon of the new age' (Black, 2020, p178).


In 1850 the railways carried 67.4 million UK passengers raising to 100 million in 1854 (Ackroyd, 2018, p78) and 490.1 million in 1875 (Best, 1985, p92). By this time 'trains were carrying over 150 million tonnes of goods each year' (Cartwright 2023) supplying Britain's 'rapidly growing cities with food, coal and raw materials on a hitherto unimaginable scale' (Shaw-Taylor and You, no date, p4).


Overall, Britain's railways 'helped to make the industrial revolution a permanent phenomenon' (Shaw-Taylor and You, no date, p28), and made the British economy more integrated and international' (ibid) creating 'a huge expansion in the number of people in Britain and Europe described as members of a profession' (Brockliss and Moss, no date). Strong similarly argues that 'this, indeed was the age of the professions', citing as evidence 'the roll-call of organisations they formed, such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (1834), the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (1847), or the British Medical Association (1856)' (Strong, 2018, p400). Thus, an increasingly complex society, enabled by the railways 'called for more doctors, lawyers, apothecaries, civil engineers, architects, and many other specially qualified people to meet its needs' (Strong, 2018, p401).


Concerning railways specifically, they created opportunities to quickly transport products to new markets - such as fresh fish and milk delivered into towns and cities (National Archives, no date). Based on this new consumerism, there was a 'multiplication of specialisations in goods and services' (Strong, 2018, p370) leading to new professions such as manufacturer's agents (Kellett, 1979, p296), advertisers (Karayol, no date) and auditors (Bradley, 2016, p430) being created.


On the railways, this new consumerism included newsagents, (W.H. Smith set up their first platform bookstall in 1848); travel guide writers (Bradshaws was first published in 1839 (Trevelyan, 2000, p544)); and tour operators (Thomas Cook - the 'symbol of his age' - began operating in 1841 (Royle, 2012, p301)). In addition, railways created market, business and distributing centres such as Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London (Kellett, 1979, p296), and they accelerated the development of small market towns and ports into regional centres such as Carlisle and Grimsby (Searle, 2004, p86). These new markets and commercial centres all stimulated increases of professional occupations in retail, transport, accountancy and administration.


Railways themselves became one of the largest employers - 'the sixth largest by 1875' (May, 2003, p33). The most well paid railway workers were train drivers (May, 2003, p15). Guards were responsible for the safety of the train and keeping records (May, 2003, p16). Railway Police were responsible for signalling and level crossings (Dawson, 2017, p66). The work of Pointsmen and Switchmen required 'care, attention and watchfulness, for neglect may cause serious accidents' (Huish quoted in Dawson, 2017, p73).


Could this 'swelling army of railway workers' (Best, 1985, p139) be regarded as professionals? Given they received 'steady but not high wages' (Royle, 2012, p199) and worked long hours in not always safe conditions (Dawson, 2017, p13), perhaps not. And an education was seldom required, jobs were insecure, and many tasks were 'very simple and easily understood' (Dawson, 2017, p73).


However, in the context of emergent Victorian occupations, there were professional aspects to their work. There were 'clearly defined responsibilities' (Bradley, 2016, p426) for the safety of passengers and for the care of company property and goods carried, and strict regulations for employment (Dawson, 2017, p11). Railwaymen ('few women found jobs in the railways' (Groom, 2022, p131)) were subjected to a discipline 'only a little less harsh than that of soldiers' from whose ranks many railway workers came (May, 2003, p5).


On less contestable grounds, railway engineering was a profession still in its infancy in the early years of the railways (May, 2003, p6) as was railway administration such as the Railway Clearing House set up in 1865 (Ross, 2002, p21). Railway inspectors were created by the Railway Regulation Act of 1839-40 (Dawson, 2017, p6). Architects for stations and bridges were increasingly in demand. The new profession of external auditors 'owe their genesis to the railways' (Bradley, 2016, p430). The development of professional management was 'first experienced on a large scale in railway companies' (Royle, 2012, p105) which 'became a kind of forcing house for new methods of management .... they established a new class of professional manager' (Bradley, 2016, p425-6). Even the emergence of large organisations such as railway companies 'was itself a novelty' (Bradley, 2016, p425).


Railways also led to the concentration of employment in towns and cities.This led to the creation of outer suburbs 'as workers commuted by train to their jobs in city centres' (Cartwright, 2023). It was the 'professional and middle classes who lived in the detached and semi-detached villas built by the thousand in the suburbs of the towns and cities' (Strong, 2018, p401) and 'the leafiest suburbs' were for the first class rail commuter (Royle, 2012, p35). Part of this was driven by a housing shortage created by slum clearances undertaken to make way for new railways and stations (Searle, 2004, p95). However, the major factor was that 'work-seeking migration over longer distances became more easy and usual' (Best, 1989, p91) and by 1855, 6,000 people were commuting into London daily by train (Best, 1985, p34). Further, these significant changes to the lives of professional workers themselves depended on new, emerging professions such as domestic architects and urban planners (Taunton, 2014).


The early Victorian economy also saw 'a large scale transfer of labour to better-paid jobs' (Hobsbawm, 1970, p118) and the 'combination of private investment and improved means of production and transport' had 'the inevitable effect of improving the cost of living for all but agricultural labourers' (Wilson, 2003, p72). In addition, railways led to 'the revolutionising of leisure patterns' (Best, 1985, p88) such as 'special excursion trains' run from 1840 on (Royle, 2012, p301). Blackpool railway opened in 1846 (Groom, 2022, p250) and there were also new opportunities to travel to away sporting fixtures (especially football), to attractions like the Great Exhibition in 1851, and railways even made the 'large house set in the country accessible for weekend parties' for the aristocracy and the nouveau riche (Strong, 2018, p400).


The advent of the railways also produced a rapid expansion in the flow of ideas and information (National Archives, no date). Businessmen could have 'breakfast in London, a business lunch in Birmingham, and be back again to dine in London, all in the same day' (Cartwright, 2023). The railway was pivotal to the creation of a national postal service (Groom, 2022, p153) which 'used the railways for letter post from the start' (Royle, 2012, p18). This became cheaper with the Universal Penny Post in 1840 (Cartwright, 2023).


In addition, railways transported newspapers nationally which allowed someone in Scotland to read the morning newspaper issued that day in London (Cartwright, 2023). From 1837 onwards, railways were also pivotal in the spread of the newly invented telegraph (Ackroyd, 2018, p85). All this made 'dissemination ...almost instant' (Strong, 2018, p370) and helped lead to a 'self-improving middle class culture' (Fraser, 2003, p577), and revolutionised the work of professions such as accountants, manufacturers and administrators in all sections of the economy.


Arguably, it was the professional classes who most absorbed new ideas such as technological, management and financial innovation, but also socialist ideas and professional association. Criticism of the 1832 Reform Bill led to the 1837 Chartist newspaper (The Northern Star), having the 'second largest circulation of any British newspaper' (Boyce, Curran and Wingate, 1978, p62) - inconceivable without the railways. And by the 1850s, the work of Marx and Engels was beginning to become influential (Peel Web, 2016). Further, the first New Model Trade Union (the Amalgamated Society of Engineers), was formed in 1851 (Peel web, 2016). It seemed that 'the dynamic commercial classes responsible for (Britain's) newfound wealth would no longer be denied a share in guiding her destiny' (Fraser, 2003, p525).

This essay has argued that the then new technology of the railways impacted on professional life in a range of significant ways. Unfortunately quantifying these impacts has not always been possible. New professions emerged such as auditing, advertising, and management. Existing professions expanded rapidly, especially in administration and retail. There was an enormous dissemination of ideas and information utilised by professions such as technical innovations and new precedents regarding management and finance. There was also a movement towards professionalisation and collective association. Suburbanisation and the commuting brought a new way of life to many along with improvements in wages and new opportunities for leisure.

Glenn MacDonald-Jones

July 2023


1642 words


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Victorian Railways - Impacts on Professional Life