The Railways: Nation, Network and People
By Simon Bradley
(Profile Books, 640 pages, £25) At more than 600 pages, this is a huge book in every sense of the word: a comprehensive history of Britain’s railways characterised by exhaustive research yielding a plethora of delightful anecdotes and arcane facts. Simon Bradley has a fine eye for the telling details and has mined diaries, letters, novels, poems, films and archives to find them.
The experience of railways is brought alive through tales such as Gladstone being spotted travelling with his feet on the upholstered seat opposite, tobacconists selling ‘railway pipes’ adapted for concealment in non-smoking carriages, and Brunel removing his ring to present to the foreman at the breakthrough in Box Tunnel.
Bradley is also willing to challenge historical orthodoxies as well as political decisions that have affected the railways, especially in recent times.
Unfortunately, there are a number of areas where radical editing would have benefited the focus of the book, not to mention its portability. Dispensing with research material is painful, but there was a need here for some ruthlessness and fewer diversions from the mainline.
Bradley offers a rich history of passenger experiences, engineering and architecture, changes to social and economic life, cultural approaches to the railway, trainspotters – one of the best explorations of the phenomenon that I have seen – and heritage railways.
The one surprising omission is railway workers. They take centre-stage occasionally with reference, for example, to the harsh, early conditions for navvies and drivers, along with welcome nods to the rise of tradee unionism, However, in this massive book, surely railway workers warranted a dedicated chapter. That aside, the book converts impressive research into an entertaining read for railway specialists, if perhaps less so for non-railway buffs. But as a reference work on railways and social life in the last two centuries it is a treasure trove.
Jill Murdoch has a doctorate in
Railway Studies and teaches at
the University of York.
Loading luggage onto the carriage roof – a detail from William Powell Frith’s