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Railways and the Victorian Imagination

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by Michael Freeman. Yale University Press, 1999. 264pp. £25

Between 1830 and 1852 some 6600 miles of railway were built in Britain, writes Andrew Cross. The semblance of a national network, similar to the one today, was already in place by 1845. Then, in the half-century before Queen Victoria's death in 1901, the mileage tripled.

The profound impact that the railways had upon Britain's economy and landscape is undisputed but the speed at which it occurred was shocking. No less alarming were the forms that railways took - bridges, architecture, locomotives - and the influence that they had upon people's understanding of time, space and place. (It was the railways that introduced time zones). But what was the effect of the railway age upon the culture of the time? It is answers to this question that Michael Freeman offers.

The history of British railways is among the most prolifically researched subjects of the nineteenth century so, not wishing to add to the library shelves that 'bow under the weight of these encyclopedic offerings', Freeman aims to 're-engage the railway with the age of which it is part' . This is a welcome approach as the railways were as much embedded in the evolving structures of Victorian society as they were in its industrial convulsions.

Freeman is a human geographer and he treats his subject under such chapter headings as Capital, Urbanisation, and Territory. But he sets himself a very difficult task. Beyond understanding the forces at play it is extremely hard for us to comprehend what it meant to live through the changes of that time. Though the book is full of facts and comprehensively illustrated, one feels that it is only the introduction to a deeper study. There is little reference to comparable twentieth-century developments, but for Eric Hobsbawn's parallel between the railway of 1850 and the harnessing of the atom. (Perhaps the Internet is another equivalent.)

Interestingly, like today's anti-road campaigners, there were those who attempted to resist the railway age and they based their arguments on a range of spiritual, moral and environmental reasons. However, unlike Swampy and his colleagues, they were members of the same land- owning gentry who would eventually recognise that they where living in a new order of capital and power.

Andrew Cross is an exhibition curator, photographer and writer

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