Off to see the world

The Oldie - - BOOKS - CHRIS­TIAN WOL­MAR by Su­san Ma­jor

I love books that de­bunk myths. Just as Edi­son did not in­vent the light bulb and Mar­coni did not in­vent the ra­dio, Thomas Cook was the not the first to run rail­way tours. In­deed, rail­way ex­cur­sions pre­dated his fa­mous 1841 tem­per­ance tour be­tween Le­ices­ter and Lough­bor­ough by al­most a decade, but thanks to his name be­com­ing, like Hoover or Biro, syn­ony­mous with the prod­uct, he is al­ways re­garded as their in­ven­tor.

As Su­san Ma­jor points out in a book that vividly brings to life a Vic­to­rian phe­nom­e­non that swept through Bri­tain from the early 1830s, it was not out­side agents such as Cook who cre­ated the rail­way ex­cur­sion but the rail­way com­pa­nies them­selves. They had good rea­son to: profit. The rail­ways were ini­tially con­ceived to carry freight, but as the own­ers of the first ma­jor line, the Liver­pool & Manch­ester, opened in 1830, rapidly dis­cov­ered, pas­sen­gers were a lu­cra­tive form of in­come too. And ex­cur­sions, by al­most guar­an­tee­ing full trains for the whole jour­ney, be­came an im­por­tant source of ex­tra rev­enue.

At first, the jour­ney it­self was the main en­joy­ment. Ma­jor re­counts a trip in July 1835 or­gan­ised by the Whitby & Pick­er­ing Rail­way for a jour­ney of just two miles that was un­der­taken by more than 1,000 peo­ple, many of whom sim­ply rode for­ward and back along the line. Soon, though, longer trips were taken, of­ten in ‘mon­ster’ trains that al­most match to­day’s gi­gan­tic freight ser­vices in the US. In Au­gust 1840, 3,000 peo­ple were car­ried by a Mid­land Coun­ties Rail­way train be­tween Not­ting­ham and Le­ices­ter that con­sisted of 67 car­riages that re­quired, not sur­pris­ingly, four steam en­gines to haul it.

Ex­cur­sions were or­gan­ised both by the rail­way com­pa­nies them­selves and the vol­un­tary so­ci­eties that sprang up as a re­sult of the rapid in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and dis­place­ment of peo­ple, such as Me­chan­ics In­sti­tutes, Tem­per­ance So­ci­eties and church groups.

The ex­cur­sions opened up the world for their pas­sen­gers. Be­fore the ad­vent of the rail­way, the po­ten­tial for travel was deeply con­strained by poor roads and high cost, and the rail­way of­fered un­prece­dented op­por­tu­ni­ties. The

ex­cur­sion­ists were off to see the world be­yond their lo­cal vil­lage or town for the first time. The sea­side was the most com­mon des­ti­na­tion but by no means the only one. Spa towns were pop­u­lar, too, and large conur­ba­tions such as Liver­pool and Manch­ester at­tracted both coun­try­side dwellers and the in­hab­i­tants of smaller neigh­bour­ing towns.

The best chap­ter of the book, ‘What Was it Re­ally Like?’, beau­ti­fully con­veys the sense of adventure, ex­cite­ment and even dan­ger for these early ex­cur­sion­ists. It was for many the first ex­pe­ri­ence of crowds but there was an over­all sense of bon­homie. On oc­ca­sion the trav­ellers broke out into spon­ta­neous song, as mu­sic was an im­por­tant part of early Vic­to­rian life. There were, though, men who took the op­por­tu­nity of the Tube-like squashes to grope any un­lucky women who hap­pened to be close and there were greater risks given that ex­cur­sion trains, of­ten over­laden and sched­uled at times when sig­nal­men did not ex­pect them, had more than their fair pro­por­tion of ac­ci­dents. The pas­sen­gers them­selves some­times courted dan­ger by hang­ing on to the roofs of crowded car­riages or jump­ing out at un­sched­uled stops.

Over­all, though, de­spite the crowd­ing, the oc­ca­sional mishaps and the de­lays, the ex­pe­ri­ence was largely pos­i­tive. And it con­trib­uted to the break­ing down of hith­erto rigid class bar­ri­ers. As Ma­jor concludes: ‘The rail­way ex­cur­sion in the mid-19th cen­tury did much to change so­ci­ety’s views about the work­ing classes en masse, gen­er­ally in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion.’ The ex­cur­sion was there­fore an im­por­tant phe­nom­e­non in many re­spects, not just in open­ing up travel op­por­tu­ni­ties but in ex­pand­ing hori­zons.

As for Cook, who Ma­jor says ‘played a very mi­nor role in mass mo­bil­ity in this pe­riod’, helped by his son, he went on to run train trips in many parts of the world and cre­ated an in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion that still bears his name. But he did not in­vent the rail­way ex­cur­sion – and let’s hope that Ma­jor has killed off this myth once and for all.

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