Early Victorian Railway Excursions : The Million Go Forth
There is a widely held belief that Thomas Cook invented the railway excursion. In fact the railway excursion is almost as old as the railway itself, dating back to the 1830s, when hordes of people from one town would descend on another for a 'cheap trip'. Susan Major has carried out much in-depth research for this book, drawing on contemporary Victorian newspapers, and discovered that in fact Cook played a very minor role, mainly in encouraging middle-class people to go on more expensive excursions.
Her book fills an important gap in railway history. It explores for the first time how the vast majority of ordinary working people in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century were able to travel cheaply for leisure over long distances, in huge crowds, and return home. This was a stunning experience for the excursionists and caused great shocks to observers at the time.
These 'trippers' had to overcome many obstacles, particularly from the Church of England and the non-conformist movement, who were affronted by the idea of people enjoying themselves on a Sunday, their only day away from work.The book takes the story of the early railway excursions from the 1840s to the 1860s, a dramatic period of railway and social change in British history. It looks at how these excursions were shaped and the experiences of working class travellers during this period, demolishing a number of cliches and myths endlessly reproduced in traditional railway histories. While Michael Portillo paints a picture of travellers sitting tidily in their railway carriages, consulting their Bradshaws, many working class excursionists on their trips were hanging on to the roof of a crowded carriage, endangering their lives, or enduring hours of travel in an open wagon in heavy rain.
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Susan Major's account of early Victorian railway excursions is a very welcome addition to the published material on the social impact of railway development. It is an interesting and thoroughly researched narrative that captures the mood and spirit of those heady early days when the populace was able to move about en masse. Indeed, the sub title, The millions go forth, precisely identifies the nature and scale of those early railway excursions.
The book is divided into nine chapters, each taking a different theme or perspective of the nature, organisation and outcome of the growing popularity of excursions. Increased mobility, something that was a wondrous novelty for most working class people who lived in a '4 miles-per-hour walking pace world', wrought considerable change and not a little anxiety amongst the middle and upper classes of Victorian Society. For some the train became a monster; its utility reshaping the structured order of Victorian society. The masses were now on the move. Excursions offered an escape from the rigors and deprivations of factory life, the mill and other places of labour.
There are chapters discussing the role of the railway companies, the Excursion Agent and wider social attitudes about Sunday travel, societies and church groups, and the conditions of what it was really like to travel. The author discusses the growing entrepreneurship, and social tensions that developed, to encourage new opportunities for travel. Excursions not only provided liberation through mobility, it also had an impact on social behaviour. There are two interesting chapters on travelling conditions and men's behaviour towards women, and their safety, in what were very crowded carriages. There is a considerable amount of detail and interesting cameo examples that are set out in an easy to read style, making the book accessible and a pleasure to read.
There is a good selection of illustrations, with a very comprehensive set of notes and sources, together with an effective index. I have no hesitation in recommending this book, either to the casual inquisitive reader or someone more steeped in the knowledge of the railway and its social impact.
Dr Tony Wakeford
Friends of The National Archives