Victorians: Networks

The international trade links forged in the Victorian age, on which Britain’s wealth depended, relied on effective communication networks – railways, steamships and the electric telegraph – which in turn exploited new technologies.

The Engine House at the Great Western Railway Works, Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1846

The Engine House at the Great Western Railway Works, Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1846

RAILWAY MANIA

When Queen Victoria came to the throne, Britain was on the cusp of the railway age. In 1837 the longest railway lines yet projected, from London to Birmingham and London to Bristol, were already in progress and shortly to open. ‘Railway mania’ took hold in the 1840s, and by 1850 about 6,000 miles of railway had opened. By 1860 track had reached every major town and city in the British Isles.

The development of the railways was more of a patchwork than a planned campaign. Almost all railway companies – promoted by private capital – originated from outside London. Many were funded with money from the north, especially from Liverpool.

Even so, these privately funded enterprises were able to equip not only Britain but the rest of the world with railways, often providing engineers, contractors, technology and the capital to build lines abroad.

The Royal Border Bridge, spanning the river Tweed between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tweedmouth, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1850.

The Royal Border Bridge, carrying the railway over the Tweed between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tweedmouth, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1850. By 1860 the railway network had reached every major town and city in England, and more and more towns were being connected by railway lines.

SUPPLYING THE CITIES

The speed of rail travel made it possible for the first time to move perishable goods great distances overnight, ensuring that cities were adequately supplied. London’s population of about 1.5 million in the 1830s was considered barely sustainable, but thanks to the ready supply of food to the capital, it had risen to more than 6.5 million by 1900.

Railways also supplied coal for heating and for making coal gas or ‘town gas’ – which kept cities warm while turning them black with soot. Advances in technology improved the supply of fresh water and the disposal of sewage, which in turn produced gas that could be harnessed for lighting.

Local networks were supplemented and then supplanted by national ones. By creating a national market, railways created the conditions for self-sustaining economic expansion which exceeded population growth in the 1850s and 1860s for the first time in history. Economic growth in the modern sense had arrived, as a direct result of the railways.

STEAMSHIPS

Like the railways, the invention of steamships pre-dated Victoria’s reign. But it was in 1838 that the SS Great Western, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, began regular trans-Atlantic crossings. Thereafter competition between shipping lines resulted in ever-faster journeys.

The operation of Britain’s vast empire relied on fast, reliable steamship services, and the Royal Navy played a crucial role in protecting shipping routes and supply bases.

One of two sets used to demonstrate the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House in 1878.

One of two sets used to demonstrate the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House in 1878. The telephone had been patented two years earlier by Alexander Graham Bell; after his successful demonstration at Osborne, the telephone gained nationwide publicity. By 1879, telephone exchanges had been established in Britain’s major cities.
© Bridgeman Art Library

ELECTRICITY

Towards the end of the century electricity began to supplant gas as the main source of artificial light.

The spread of electrical generation resulted in better trams, which proliferated in British towns towards the end of the 19th century, and cleaner underground trains in London. The Northern Line, the first Tube line to run electric underground trains, opened in 1890.

A young woman with a bicycle in 1900. Bicycles became extremely popular among women in the 1890s: they provided an independent means of transport, and allowed women much greater freedom than at the start of Victoria’s reign.

A young woman with a bicycle in 1900. Bicycles became extremely popular among women in the 1890s: they provided an independent means of transport, and allowed women much greater freedom than at the start of Victoria’s reign.

NEW COMMUNICATIONS

New methods of communication appeared in many forms and at dizzying speed.

The young queen’s head appeared on the world’s first adhesive postage stamp (the Penny Black) in 1840. Even more significant was the development of the electric telegraph, which from the 1840s allowed people to send messages across continents and oceans, creating a global telecommunications network.

In January 1878 Queen Victoria put her ear to the receiver of Alexander Graham Bell’s brand new invention, the telephone, which he demonstrated to her in person at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

And women of all backgrounds were liberated by the invention of the bicycle, which became a symbol of emancipation for the growing suffragette movement.

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