Repeating Rail

Posted: February 3, 2014 in Modernity & Network Culture

Through history people have wanted to protect their land. You only have to look at the fences and hedges around modern gardens to realise the importance of this even today. The same feeling of ownership of space was probably just as important in Victorian Britain when a real ‘threat’ to land ownership occurred with the development of the railways. It was fascinating in the lecture to look back at maps of London and York before the onset of the railway system. At first the railways must have been seen as the work of the devil, viewed with suspicion. How could anyone begin to comprehend a machine that would tear through the countryside so much faster than a horse! There is a quote in Jack Simmons’ book that sums up one landowners despair after seeing a railway engine for the first time – “That was a sight to have seen; but one I never care to see again! How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?” Jack Simons – The Victorian Railway (1991).
It’s amazing how some arguments repeat. In 1832, the London and Birmingham railway company were trying to build their railway but surveyors had to map out the route at night for fear of gangs, recruited by landowners, trying to keep the rails off their property. They were desperate to keep their land – as Sir Astley Cooper stated: “You are proposing to cut up our estates in all directions for the purpose of making an unnecessary road,” (Quote taken from BBC News Magazine 2010)
In December last year, newspapers were reporting that the Government were ignoring the impact HS2 (the high speed link from London to Birmingham) would have on landowners who are increasingly losing land. The difference between then and now is that landowners have to wade through a 50,000 page document, prepared by the government which is supposed to put landowners minds at rest!

So will history will repeat itself? The HS2 will probably be built, but the government will have to pay landowners huge amounts of compensation just as the London and Birmingham Company spent a fifth of its entire share capital paying off landowners in 1837. One thing I guarantee will not repeat itself – the timescale! The Victorian line was up and running just six years after the proposal had first been put to Parliament. The HS2 will take approximately 20 years to build and there is little doubt that the railway has and will have a huge impact on our landscape and our lives. Some people simply could not function without the railway network taking them to and from work, not just in this country, but all over the world. But I can’t help thinking that there is some truth in Michael Freeman’s words: “Distance, of course, will no longer figure in the maps, but time will be the substitute. ‘How many miles?’ will be altered into ‘How many minutes?’ (pp 78,1992) We can never go back to narrow horizons and a time when life was always slow. I have less space around me than ever before and yet I can reach more places than ever before – does that mean I can get to more space more quickly or more places with less space? Think I need a railcard to find out!

  1. Gillian Swanson says:

    Try to avoid overgeneral statements, eg ‘Through history people have wanted to protect their land. ‘ – this isn’t something you can demonstrate, and leads you to speculation ‘ownership of space was probably just as important in Victorian Britain’ so keep to what you can state with supporting evidence.

    The most important thing: lead with the material we’ve been examining, ie the way that the Victorian railway recast space and time, and how that was addressed by contemporary commentators, rather than picking another topic – HS2 – and drawing in a few points from the reading now and then without an in depth discussion of them.

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