The Impact Of Railways

This exercise helps children to understand that the development of public railways brought a fundamental change to the speed at which people and goods could travel. It does so by enabling them to compare the journey time of a stagecoach travelling between Preston and Colne in the 1820s with that of a steam train making the same journey in the 1860s.

Local Primary Source Material

  • A contemporary map extract is used in this version of the exercise, but a more modern map may suffice. The map’s main function is to enable the children to locate the towns mentioned in the exercise, but they can also use the scale to work out the distance between the towns.

Source: Post Office Map of Lancashire, North Division (1864)

  • Trade directories primarily give local business information, either for towns or counties, including classified lists of firms and details of transport services. One of the county directories has been used to trace the journey time of the Invincible stage coach as in travelled between Preston and Colne in Lancashire in 1825. The time the stage coach left each town was noted from the directory entries, so that a timetable could be compiled. 

Source: Edward Baines, History, Directory, and Gazetteer, of the County of Palatine of Lancaster, II (1968 reprint of 1825 edition).

  • The railway timetable appeared in a local newspaper. Enquiries at local references libraries may prove fruitful. If not, the facsimile copy of Bradshaw's August 1887 Railway Guide (David & Charles, 1968 reprint), obtainable through inter-library loan, can be consulted. It gives train times for the whole country.

Source: Southport Visitor, 27th January, 1863.

Children’s Activities

Class discussion might elicit children's ideas about the speeds that horse-drawn vehicles could travel and about how much faster steam trains were. By comparing the stagecoach and railway timetables, their ideas can be tasted.

1. The stagecoach journey

Below is the daily timetable for a stagecoach called the Invincible as it journeyed between the towns of Preston and Colne in Lancashire during the mid-1820s. As the timetable shows, the coach travelled through Blackburn and Burnley. It stopped at the Hotel, in King Street, Blackburn, the Bull Inn at Burnley and probably the Red Lion Inn at Colne. Children can trace the journey on the map provided.

Invincible timetable, 1825

Town Departure time
Preston 08.30 am
Blackburn 10.00 am
Burnley 12.00 am
Colne 13.00 am

Clearly, there are opportunities for mathematical calculation here, even if some children will not be able to go as far as others. The essential point to be derived from the timetable is that the complete journey was scheduled to take 4 hours 30 minutes.

The point might be further developed with regard to the average speed of travel. The distance the coach would have travelled between Preston and Colne was about 28 miles, so its average speed was about 6.2 miles per hour. Children might consider that the stops, which might involve changes of horses and perhaps refreshments for the passengers, would reduce the average speeds, as would the steeper inclines that were encountered. Inclement weather and other hazards may also have taken their toll, of course.

2. The railway journey

Below is part of a railway timetable relating to a journey between Southport and Colne in 1863. It gives the times of two trains. As can be seen, the trains passed through the same towns as the stagecoach. A slight complication is that the time the trains’ arrived at Preston is given rather than the time they departed, though they would not have stopped there very long.

Trains from Southport to the under-mentioned places, 1863

Stations Weekdays A.M. Weekdays A.M.
Preston 9.00 10.55
Blackburn 9.35 11.35
Accrington 9.55 11.50
Burnley 10.15 12.22
Colne 10.35 12.35

Children work out that the train was scheduled to complete the journey in 1 hour 35 minutes. They further work out that the train journey was almost three times faster than the coach, saving almost 3 hours on the journey time.

Armed with the train journey times, the children might work out the average speed of the train as it travelled between Preston and Colne. If the assumption is made that the road and rail distance between the towns was roughly the same, they will find that the average speed of the train was about 19 miles per hour.

Discussion might take place on the fact that the train would have travelled faster than 19 miles per hour during its journey, but that the journey time would have been slowed down because the train made several stops and because it would slow down as it reached stations and take time to gather speed as it left them.

Further Considerations

  • Strictly, it is the scheduled journey time by train that was three times as fast as that by stagecoach. As children are likely to know from their own experience, actual journey times can often take considerably longer than anticipated. This point could lead to discussion on the reliability of historical evidence.
  • Undoubtedly steam-powered locomotives, which first offered a regular service for travellers on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830, enabled people and goods to travel at unprecedented speeds and at speeds that increased as more powerful locomotives were introduced. As a result, day trips for leisure purposes, including those to seaside resorts and sporting events, became possible, their popularity increasing in Victorian times as cheap fares and shorter working hours were introduced.
  • Under Gladstone's Railway Act of 1844, train companies had to provide on each of their lines conveyance for third-class passengers at the cost of 1d per mile. And they had to do so at least once a day in each direction. To gauge the impact of this measure, comparison can be made with the cost of stagecoach travel. Thus the fare charged on a stagecoach travelling between Blackburn and Preston in 1825 was 4s inside and 3s outside. Since the distance was nearly ten miles, the price was about 5d per mile inside and about 4d per mile outside (Blackburn Mail, 25th September, 1825).
  • The proposition that rail travel might be seen to be more comfortable than stagecoach travel might be debated. Both for outside coach passengers and for second- and third-class rail travellers who, in the early years of rail travel, sat in open-topped carriages, travel could be singularly uncomfortable, not to say dangerous. Even so, rail travel was likely to have given a smoother ride and, at least when corridor carriages came in, allowed passengers to stretch their legs as they travelled. And, under the provisions of Gladstone's Railway Act of 1844, carriages had to be covered.
  • The drawbacks of railways might also be considered, bearing in mind the views of contemporary railway critics.