Michael Freeman Railways and the Victorian imagination
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 264pp.
also Jeremy Paxman's The Victorians

Introducation: with the arrival of Jeremy Paxman on this page (because he/it does not deserve one to itself), KPJ's review of Ian Carter's study of railway enthusiasm and one or two other studies which have wandered into KPJ's gaze it is becoming evident that a "perception of railways" web page is needed. Freeman and Simmons would be at its core..

This is a very significant book on the semiotics of railways. It is doubly of interest to KPJ through his life-long interest in railways and his later professional interest in semiotics and semantics gained whilst attempting to establish "meaningful" automated indexing methods. On one level the book can be treated as a coffee-table work through its carefully selected choice of illustrations, from both great and minor art and literature. To an extent one finds what might be expected: Wordsworth's condemnations and Turner's awe-struck interpretations,  but there is far more both in the illustrative, and vastly more significantly at the fundamental level. The contents listing provides a clue to the book's coverage, but Freeman takes the time and space to introduce each chapter in turn following the section which is quoted in full (with annotations) below. Surprisingly, the book did not appear to be reviewed in Backtrack, but a New Statesman review by Christian Wolmar is appended at the end.

The book is in some ways dangerous in that like many other "railway histories" engineering is treated very superficially, which taken to its limits led to the Hatfield railway disaster, although Freeman's comments on Smiles are valid. Excessive reliance is placed upon Marxist interpretations of history, and in consequence some of the greatest of Victorian thinkers are ignored: one looks in vain for John Henry Newman, for instance. In some respects Freeman is very out-of-date. It is not clear whether Freeman's choice of final picture of the tawdry Thomas the Tank Engine damns the book itself completely, or whether Freeman considers that railways themselves are an anchronism in an age of EasyJet, extra runways, and that absurd notion of global warming?


The history of the English railway is probably among the most prolifically researched of all facets of the nineteenth century [cites the Oxford Companion]. Library shelves bow under the weight of railway company histories, detailed narratives of individual lines and encyclopaedic offerings on motive power and rolling stock.[citing Ottley] In parallel, there exists an astonishing photographic record of the railway era which has helped to fashion a nostalgia industry perhaps second to none. Indeed, publishing houses have been built upon it.[citing David & Charles and Oxford Publishing (KPJ: Ian Allan might have been a more enduring citation and perhaps shows a certain intellectual prigishness by the author] Within the more confined realms of academic study, the railway has provided a central focus in debate about Victorian economic growth and business performance.[cites M.C. Reed] Under the revisionist gaze of social scientific analysis in the 1960s, however, the railway lost its pride of place in the cavalcade of Victorian economic progress. Amid flights of statistical ingenuity and manipulation, its role was reduced to a few percentage points of GNP, a catalyst for particular regional industrial economies within particular spans of years, but not the kind of sine qua non that many commentators had traditionally suggested for it.[several major texts] However, as the scientific vogue waned in the humanities and in social studies over the 1970s, to be succeeded by such widely divergent discourses as structuralism and post-modernism, there has been no corresponding reconsideration of the railway age.[Gourvish] As the interpretative focus shifted from composition to context - in fields as far apart as art history and the history of science - and as cultural materialism and the sociology of knowledge came to figure as prominent frames of reference in many branches of the humanities, the railway age appeared to remain a foreign field. Save for Wolfgang Schivelbusch's brilliant pioneering study, The Railway Journey (1977), the formula for railway history has, with a few other isolated and not always successful exceptions, remained largely institutional in mould.

The central ambition of this book is to re-engage the railway with the age of which it was part. It is a study not of railways per se, but of their cultural relations. It is an examination of the railway as cultural metaphor. The familiar litany of lines opened, tons of coal moved and financial performance can never provide more than a partial view. The railway was deeply embedded in the evolving structures of Victorian society. It both echoed those structures and interacted with them. It had educational, intellectual, emotional and psychological dimensions. It was enmeshed in the spirit of the age, an un diminishing zest for bigger and better, for an all-pervasive machine technology and, in concert, a perpetual fascination with a sense of becoming, of living in an age of transition, in anxious and sometimes fearful contemplation of what the future held. The high drama of the Victorian railway is laid bare for all to see in contemporary texts in periodicals and newspapers, in art, literature, poetry and all manner of other forms of representation. It is even apparent in the first railway histories, which were being penned long before much of the system was complete. Here, railways were cast not as institutional undertakings but as social phenomena. So breathtaking were the changes they brought that history was being written in the present. This book tries to present the 'imaginative history' of the railway, addressing the railway as 'human experience'. There are 'moments' in history when historical processes suddenly show themselves with extraordinary clearness - 'and which through that clearness can stand for the whole inexpressible uncapturable process'. Nineteenth-century geology also functions as a powerful cultural metaphor. Writing on its history in the nineteenth century has recently undergone a remarkably parallel kind of transformation. Evidence is no longer just sought in the geological treatise or in the field notebook, but in painting, map-making, poetry, religious discourse and a host of other forms.

The time is therefore long overdue for a new portrait of the railway at a critical turning-point in the history of society. With such a goal in mind, this book is structured in eight chapters. All are concerned with different aspects of the railway as cultural metaphor, and with what have been called 'Illuminations' or 'Moments of Vision'. Apart from the brief commentary offered in the Prologue, no attempt has been made to give a full-scale narrative of the growth of the railway system; material of this kind is readily available in a wealth of different forms elsewhere. To try to include such an account would be to undermine the book's central claim that the railway cannot be disengaged from the wider economic, social and political fabric.

Review entitled Time travel by Christian Wolmar (New Statesman, 17 January 2000)

One of the unhappinesses of rail privatisation is that several of the new rail companies have taken on names from their Victorian predecessors, such as Great Western and Great Eastern. The current crop of rail operators, however, are mere franchises, which run services on someone else's lines using someone else's carriages. To call them even a shadow of the great Victorian companies that carved the railways out of the land at great financial and, often, human cost, and thereby changed the world, is to give them too much importance.

The purpose of Michael Freeman's book is to explain how those rail companies were not just transport operators but were responsible for much of the industrial revolution's impact on the masses. Picture Britain before the advent of the railways in the late 1820s, when stagecoaches trundled across the countryside covering a mere 100 miles a day in great discomfort and contrast it to barely 30 years later, when much of the trunk network that still survives today had been built. Hardly any aspect of the lives of those who lived through the dawn of this era was unaffected, and Freeman's book documents this transformation.

The world is full of books for trainspotters, but this is not one of them. The trains themselves are almost incidental to the impact of the railways, and the choice of illustrations, many of which are breathtaking, makes this quite clear. These are not railway pornography, close-up photographs and paintings of chuffa trains, but images of the creation of modern Britain, the mastery of the nation by a technology whose power, exemplified by trains in full steam pounding across the countryside, is represented as an object of great beauty.

Freeman, however, is clearly a closet trainspotter, and that gives his narrative much of its charm. He loves the inconsequential detail, the little anecdote and the telling statistic; for example, he tells us that 621,000 people worked on the railways by the end of the 19th century, a staggering 5 per cent of the working population.

He also tells us that, as early as 1843, "the average speed on all lines was 21.5 miles per hour", and that top speeds of 60mph were already being recorded. The railways, as Karl Marx, himself a railway clerk, put it, resulted in "the annihilation of space by time".

But the railways did so much more than that. Freeman shows how the railways were not an adjunct to Victorian life in the way that they were in the late 20th century, with just 6 per cent of the transport market, but a feature so central that they dominated it. The railway companies were the equivalent of today's multinationals, with one, the London and North Western, being, as Dickens put it, "wealthier than any other corporation in the world".

There are so many other consequences of the development of the railways, both big and small; cheap excursion trains almost created the notion of holidays; the construction of suburban railways together with the requirement to provide penny-a-mile services underpinned urbanisation; the cheap movement of freight led to huge changes in working practices; a whole industry of toy trains grew up, as did a railway press; and family life was often transformed, with mealtimes being set by train schedules.

It is possible to quibble with Freeman's claim that his is the first book to present an "imaginative history" of the railway, because The World the Railways Made, written by my former Independent colleague Nicholas Faith, was just such an attempt, albeit more modest.

However, the meticulousness of Freeman's research, the erudition and the illustrations, which, despite their beauty, are never allowed to dominate, ensure that this excellent account will stimulate others of a similar genre. So, just as rail is enjoying a renaissance - in that the 19th-century invention is carving out a new role for itself in the 21st century as an escape route from congested roads - so is its literature.

Jeremy Paxman
The Victorians: Briatain through the paintings of the age. London? BBC Books, 2009. 255pp.

This book is a by-product of a five part television series which appeared to be well received in terms of viewing figures, but cut no ice with KPJ which may be due to his physical state at the time of transmission and the time of showing. The book is much better and as at impinges upon railways, and our perception of them, it is considered here mainly within that limited context, although the reviewer cannot resist sending some sharp barbs on the nature of this corporate enterprise and its interpretation of things Victorian and in particular the work of Holman Hunt. The introductory material makes it very clear that the team who devised the programme and book had a thesis that Victorian art fulfilled a similar role to television; namely, the transmission of visual material to a large audience. In consequence much play is made of the large numbers who made the effort to see many of the paintings shown, and of the many reproductions made of popular images in the form of engravings, etc..

Firstly, it must be stressed that the illustrations are superbly reproduced, and the television programmes appear to heve been designed to exploit high definition technology without which much was lost. The book appears to have been a corporate venture with Neil Hegarty pulling the whole thing together and writing much of it, and in bibliographical terms being grossly underplayed. The illustrative material was similarly handled by teams of experts. The work of some artists has been overplayed, notably that of Elizabeth Thompson: there was a shortage of female artists at that time, but that is no excuse for giving one of the few excessive exposure.

Turner's Rain, steam and speed is mentioned twice, but is not included as an illustration, whereas the more popular but less central to the theme, Fighting Temeraire is included. Surprisingly, John Osborn Brown's Belah Viaduct is included and is mentioned in the test in the same paragraph as the Turner masterpiece. Belah Viaduct is impressive, but only in the same way that John Bourne's work is: in this book Bourne is limited to his Euston Arch. Another engineering structure, the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait is clearly visible in John Lucas's Conference of engineers, but those seeking a key to those present, whether factually or fictionally, will have to refer to John Marshalls' Biographical dictionary of railway engineers.

Both William Powell Frith and Abraham Solomon receive a great deal of attention: the former for his The Railway Station and the latter for his class perceiving railway carriage interiors. The Railwsy Station is an accurate portrayal of Paddington, but it is noted that the artist's art dealer, Louis Victor Flattow, is portrayed Hitchcock-like within this painting: in this case conversing with the engine driver. Two other popular Frith paintings depict excursions that were greatly fascilitated by the arrival of railways: The Derby Day and Life at the seaside (Ramsgate Sands).Abraham Solomon depicted First claas – the meeting and Second class – the parting. The former had originally offended Victorian sensibilities by depicting a sleeping gentleman, presumably the young girl's guardian, and the opportunity which this afforded the young man within the compartment for daliance. The public demanded a more attentive guardian and the painting had to be modified.

The text notes that "the railway was a catalyst for social change": further "the railway carriage itself opened limitless opportunities for spiced encounters". It also observes that "thousands of people bought shares in the ever-expanding railway network", although the final word is an unfortunate choice as it may convey a sense of organization and control which was frequently lacking in British railway capitalism. The Dickensian aspect of railway activity: the ultra-close juxtaposition of the working class with the putrid fumes from steam locomotives receives less attention (presumably because it was not depicated by society artists. Thus one has to turn to page 101 (not in the index) to find Over London by rail by Gustav Doré which shows a locomotive on a viaduct dominating the humble dwellings beneath.

It must be stressed that railways, and even technology in general, form only a small part of the overall text where the far greater topics of religion, Royalty, warfare, empire, the family, morality and mythology receive far greater attention. The text relating to William Holman Hunt's great English Ikon The Light of the World fails to make reference to Newman whose absence is extraordinary. He was even the subject of a painting by Millais. Catholicism is depicted in mainly negative terms: for instance, as an unholy influence in Millais's depiction of the Holy Family, and especially the Virgin. Thus it is a rich book which may like rich food lead to indegestion.