Where history happened: The birth of the railways

The first steam locomotives helped make Britain the most powerful nation in the world. We visit eight places associated with the dawn of rail travel

Watercolour by John Dobbin showing crowds gathered at the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

Thundering along at previously unimaginable speeds, early steam locomotives were a frightening prospect for their Victorian passengers. Before the opening of the first major railway line, the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830, there were fears it would be impossible to breathe while travelling at such a velocity, or that the passengers’ eyes would be damaged by having to adjust to the motion.

Little more than 20 years later, their fears allayed, people flocked to this exciting new form of transport, and by mid-century, millions were dashing across the country on tracks stretching thousands of miles. From professional football and the Penny Post to suburban living and seaside excursions, the railways changed the face of Victorian Britain.

“The railways were absolutely central to the spread of the Industrial Revolution,” insists railway historian Christian Wolmar. “Britain could not have become, for a time, the world’s dominant economic power without them. But it’s also impossible to exaggerate the social impact. Almost anything you can think of was transformed or made possible for the first time by the railways.”

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