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Subject: ‘Railways’

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London Underground began with the Metropolitan Line in 1863

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the London Underground first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Metropolitan Railway opens,  picture, image, illustration
A station on the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 by Pat Nicolle

Snorting, plump-bellied horses clattered along the London streets. With their harnesses jingling and the springs of their carriages creaking, they paraded through the busy thoroughfares with the dignity of true, thoroughbred carriage horses.

Clearly, they were the lords of the highway. And their fashionable passengers sitting in open carriages behind them, dressed in their finery for all to admire, oozed with aristocratic refinement.

At intervals, however, a horse’s well-fed, dappled belly found itself poised over one of a number of holes, covered with gratings, that had begun to appear in the road. And at regular periods, there would be an eruption like a miniature volcano from the hole. Thick, sooty smoke, scalding steam and showers of sparks would belch forth from it.

If an unfortunate horse happened to be passing over the hole at the exact moment of the eruption, it received a hot blast on its belly that made it bolt in terror. A gentle jaunt became a steeplechase, and the passengers found their sedate carriage transformed into a rocketing projectile.

Meanwhile, just below the road, the device which had caused the horse’s discomfiture would be spinning along the track of London’s first underground railway. The culprit was a steam locomotive which created a great deal of smoke. To enable this to escape, “blow holes” were cut in the tunnel roof, and the resulting eruptions frequently caught horses unawares.

However, even the horses got used to it in the end, and the problem was later lessened by the introduction of improved locomotives.

Nevertheless, Londoners were pleased with their underground railway. It had been opened in 1863 and ran for 3 ¾ miles from Bishop’s Road, Paddington to Farringdon Street in the City.

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George Hudson – the gruff railway king who fiddled the books

Posted in Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport, Travel on Saturday, 15 March 2014

This edited article about the railway age first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

George Hudson,  picture, image, illustration
When George Hudson was elected an M.P. the police came out in extra numbers to deal with the Sunderland mob

Railway mania! It seemed in the 1840s that the entire population of Great Britain had gone railway mad, and it was hardly surprising. Think of the excitement when Man first set foot on the Moon, think how our grandfathers felt in the early days of flying. Multiply that excitement by ten and you still would not begin to imagine what the early Victorians felt about railways.

The reason can be summed up in a single word – speed!

For thousands of years men had never been able to go faster than a horse at full gallop, but suddenly, from the 1820s onwards, all this changed. By 1837, an engine driver was getting into trouble for going at 45 m.p.h., thrilling as his passengers found it. Every year Britain seemed to be shrinking, every year travel became more and more popular. It was a true revolution. By 1848, 5,000 miles of track crisscrossed the country, built by rough workers called navvies, who could conquer any obstacle.

There were giants in those days who planned and directed those campaigns to build the railways, who designed and built locomotives, bridges, tunnels; famous names like George and Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And there was also George Hudson who, before scandal blighted his name, was known throughout the land as the railway king.

Hudson, one of Britain’s first millionaires, was a Yorkshire farmer’s son. Like many great Victorians – engineers, explorers, inventors – he was a human dynamo, part genius and part rule-breaker. He himself, businessman that he was, was also something of a land pirate!

He was a strongly-built, rough, bluff, swaggering man, born in 1800, and his education was strictly limited. He started as a draper’s apprentice and he did well, wisely marrying his boss’s daughter and soon becoming a partner in the firm. Suddenly, in 1827, he was left £30,000, worth about ten times as much as it would be today, and he seized his chance to enter politics and, more importantly, to plunge headlong into the booming world of the railways.

He was no engineer, but a born businessman, to put it mildly. He poured vast sums into railway schemes, got to know the great George Stephenson and became his friend, and was elected Lord Mayor of York. He opened his first railway, the York and North Midland, in 1839.

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John Henry, a sinewy giant steel driver with an awesome hammer

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Music, Railways on Friday, 14 February 2014

This edited article about American folk legends first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 552 published on 12 August 1972.

American Folk Tales,  picture, image, illustration
American Folk Legends including John Henry (bottom, centre) by Richard Hook

Man has always written songs, ballads and poems about heroes and their deeds. These stories have then been passed on from man to man and from generation to generation, surviving the ravages of time even through centuries. In England much of what we know of such people as Robin Hood, Rob Roy, Hereward the Wake has been handed down to us in ballads, songs and poems. This process exists in practically every country in the world. Although America has a history that is much younger than that of England, it is just as rich in folk songs, ballads and work songs telling of the heroes of long ago.

One such legend is that of a giant black American, John Henry. Obviously the stature of John and his deeds have grown with each telling of the story; but there is little doubt that John Henry, a giant fellow of more than average size and strength, did exist and did work on the construction of the Big Bend tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad towards the end of the 19th century. This version of the legend is pieced together from many of the folk ballads telling John Henry’s story, many of which are still being sung today.

Even as a baby John Henry showed signs of his future strength and size. His appetite was incredible. His mother did not feed him on the normal baby diet, but on such sundries as hog jowls and turnip greens. Then a colossal helping of black-eyed peas, for which John never lost his appetite. Then, to keep the child quiet while his next meal was being prepared, he was supplied with a ham bone to help him cut his teeth. John grew very fast. He developed gigantic muscles, and upon reaching manhood stood at a height of over seven foot tall.

John Henry left the tiny homestead of his childhood and set out to find employment or adventure suited to his strength. During his travels he met his wife. We know little of this lady apart from her name, Polly Ann, and that she proved a devoted and faithful wife, staying by John’s side through thick and thin. Farming, wood cutting, factory work – John tried them all, but none of these jobs contented him or proved any challenge for his strength; for a challenge was what he was seeking.

Then Henry found his vocation. His travels led him and Polly Ann to the construction sites of the C and O railroad line. The construction foreman, instantly recognising the man’s enormous strength, presented John with a hammer. His job was to “drive steel” – to hammer cold steel drills through rock and stone.

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The fluctuating fortunes of High Victorian architecture

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, British Towns, Famous landmarks, London, Railways on Friday, 7 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 547 published on 8 July 1972.

St Pancras Station,  picture, image, illustration
The St Pancras, Midland Railway Station, London, erected in the years 1866-69

Fashions change. Victorian art, architecture and interior decoration and, indeed, Victorian costume are all very much “in” things at the present time.

Forty years ago you could not have given away odd bits of Victorian bric-a-brac, like vases, glassware, paper-weights, and similar oddments, all of which fetch enormous prices nowadays. In the years between the two World Wars, Victoriana was a great big joke and no aspect of Victoriana was more laughable than its architecture. Someone coined a jibe to the effect that the Victorians were jolly nice chaps, but that they should never have been allowed to get their hands on bricks and mortar.

However, there has been a reappraisal of Victoriana, and of Victorian architecture in particular – since this has a way of standing around and continuing to make itself known long after its creators, and their beliefs, have crumbled away to nothing.

Our light-hearted look at architecture, so far, has really been a matter of examining various architectural styles in relation to the people who did the building, and the environment in which they lived.

Nomadic people, like desert Arabs, dreamed up a portable house of sticks and skins and called it a tent. Firmly established in the rich and fertile Nile valley, the Ancient Egyptians went to the other extreme from the temporary and portable dwelling, and built their homes to last for ever.

It was the good Greek eye, sharpened by the clear atmosphere and the revealing sun, that devised the perfection of the Classical style. Those go-ahead and pushy fellows the Romans took over Greek architecture and bent it to their own needs; adding the techniques of building in brick and concrete, and exploiting the dome and the arch.

The Gothic style grew out of religion and added techniques that enabled men to show their adoration of God by extending slim shafts of stonework towards the skies of Northern Europe, towards Heaven.

All these architectural styles evolved for a reason. They were and are immediately recognisable because they each sing with one voice, in tune. They all have coherence.

By the 19th century, architecture ceased to have any coherence. There was no more singing in tune, everyone was singing solo.

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Victoria Regina reigned over a quarter of the globe

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, London, Politics, Railways, Royalty on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about Queen Victoria first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Victoria and Albert, picture, image, illustration
Victoria and Albert arrive by train on a Royal Visit, by Ron Embleton

In his arms above the font, the Archbishop of Canterbury held the beautiful, chubby Royal baby. He was about to christen her when a heated argument arose between the Duke of Kent, who was the father, and the Prince Regent. Others joined in, while the Archbishop – and the baby – waited.

That was the scene in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace on June 24, 1819.

It was the strangest Royal christening on record. The first name, Alexandrina, was accepted by all. The second christian name, the father demanded, must be Elizabeth.

Although the baby girl was only fifth in succession to the Throne, the Duke of Kent firmly believed that his daughter would one day be Queen of England. He wanted a name that would be fittingly regal, and he had set his heart on her becoming Queen Elizabeth the Second.

The Prince Regent thought that “Elizabeth” was too regal. He did not want people looking forward to a new Elizabethan age when other relatives were so much closer to the Throne than this baby girl. It was asking for trouble, he believed.

The argument ended when the Prince suggested his mother’s name – Victoria. The relieved Archbishop quickly intoned “Alexandrina Victoria” and it was too late for further discussion.

So it was that a tiny baby, exactly one month old, was given a name that was to mark an age of unparalleled material progress and social change for Britain – the Victorian age.

Yet the family background of the baby girl who was to become ruler of the great world-wide British Empire and the most powerful woman on earth, was one of financial distress and even poverty.

It is impossible to imagine today a member of our Royal Family being in the position in which the Duke of Kent found himself. He had debts of nearly £250,000 and the House of Commons refused to help him by increasing his grant. So in order to economise he rented a small house at Sidmouth in Devon. There he lived in very poor circumstances with his wife, a former German princess, and their baby daughter.

Before Victoria was a year old her father died from a lung infection. Six days later King George the Third died, and his eldest son, the Prince Regent, became George the Fourth.

The Duchess, mother of the child who was now third in succession to the Throne, was penniless. She did not even have the fare from Sidmouth back to London, and money for this, together with the Duke’s funeral expenses, was sent from the Continent by her brother, Prince Leopold.

For Victoria life was lonely. Almost no friends to play with, and no pretty clothes to wear, for her mother was too poor to provide them. Little Victoria wore darned and patched dresses as she wandered alone with her watering can tending the flowers in the gardens of Kensington Palace.

As she worked at her school lessons Victoria had no idea she might one day be Queen. When the death of the Duke of York in 1827 brought her another step nearer the Throne, she noticed that she was becoming a centre of attention. Lords and gentlemen always raised their hats to her, never to anyone she might be with. She asked her governess why.

The governess slipped a table of genealogy into one of Victoria’s history books. Victoria saw it and understood at once. And when George the Fourth died in 1830, what had once seemed a distant possibility had become almost a certainty.

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The coming of the Union Pacific Railroad to the Wild West

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport, Travel on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

This edited article about American railroads first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 539 published on 13 May 1972.

Union Pacific movie, picture, image, illustration
One of DeMille's finest westerns was Union Pacific which captured the dramatic story of building the railroad, by Luis Arcas

In 1865 the American Wild West was living up to its name. In Texas, cattlemen with five million longhorns on their hands were planning the first of the great drives in search of a market. Gold strikes in Virginia City were being fought over, and on the great plains, veterans of the Civil War were steadily slaughtering the great herds of bison that meant life to the Indian tribes. And yet, only twenty five years later, when the President of the United States set out to visit the legendary home of violence and adventure, he found cowboys asking after the latest football scores, women wearing Paris fashions and men earnestly discussing the best selling novels of the day. Almost overnight, it seemed, the rip roaring old West had gone.

But what had brought about the change? The answer lay in the gleaming steel rails that stretched out, mile after mile, from coast to coast. For the Western states were no longer to be reached only after months of weary journeying by covered wagon. Now they were readily available to anyone within a matter of days. The truth was that America had shrunk.

At long last the transcontinental railroad had become a reality.

It had all begun in 1862, when Congress had authorised the building of a railroad that would span the country from coast to coast. Four years later the Central Pacific’s track from California was already pushing out towards Nevada. But on the eastern end work was going much slower, for the Union Pacific company had been held up during the war and no more than forty miles of track pointed West from Omaha. Someone was needed who could take over the enormous task of getting the line through, and the directors of Union Pacific searched the country for the organizing genius they felt would be equal to the job. Eventually they decided on General Grenville Dodge, who had spent the years of the war between the states running railroads and building bridges for the Union army.

Dodge’s opposite number and Chief Engineer of Central Pacific was one-time shop keeper, Charlie Crocker. At first sight he could hardly have been more different from General Dodge, but they had a surprising number of qualities in common. Not the least of which was 1,800 miles of track waiting to be laid from Sacremento to Omaha which seemed to have its half way mark somewhere near Promontory City in the flat expanses of Utah. Not unnaturally, the whole operation became a race to see which railroad would complete its section first.

Dodge hired crews of Irishmen and set to work. As a sheer labour problem the task was formidable enough, but even this was secondary to that of getting the necessary materials. There was no timber on the plains, which meant that the “ties” or sleepers had to be brought in from the forests of Michigan and Minnesota at $2.50 each, an enormous figure in those days. The steel rails came from Pennyslvania, stone for bridges from Wisconsin, to say nothing of the massive quantities of food, fuel and technical provisions that were simply unobtainable in the wilderness. Soon it was needing the contents of no less than forty freight cars for every mile of track laid.

A dedicated engineer, Dodge knew that he was helping to build the future prosperity of his country. But his views were not shared by everyone, particularly the Indians who had realised at once that the coming of the “Iron Horse” would mean the end of the bison and the old, free, plainsman’s way of life. They attacked the track laying crews savagely and had to be fought off, while the bison crossed and recrossed the route in herds so enormous that they were almost impossible to drive away.

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The Trans-Siberian railway was originally an American dream

Posted in Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport, Travel on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about Russian railways first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 529 published on 4 March 1972.

Trans-Siberian railway,  picture, image, illustration
The Trans-Siberian railway

It was an idea dreamed up by an American, who crossed most of Siberia by boat in order to make his original survey. Built over a hundred years ago by almost entirely unskilled labour that included Chinese coolies and the inmates of Siberian prison camps, this 4,950 mile long rail link between the Ural mountains and Vladivostok was the big joke of the engineering world.

“You had better let us help you,” the top railway experts of the West had said to the Russian authorities. “After all, we understand how railways like this are built.”

The Russians said politely that they thought they could manage the job themselves. Only the fact that they knew virtually nothing about railways enabled them to go ahead and tackle a job that any sensible engineer would have known was impossible. And with unskilled labour they started to put down a track of such poor quality that people said it wouldn’t support a single cattle truck, let alone a full sized train. Yet when it was opened it worked, and it went on working. It was – and still is – the longest continuous railway line on earth, the product of incredible determination, courage and hard work. Plus the vision of a New York businessman called Perry McDonough Collins.

Collins’ enquiring mind had already taken him profitably through the gold rush of 1849. Having by chance read a book on the natural wealth of Siberia, he promptly headed for Russia to see if he could make something out of it. The fact that for a non-Russian to cross Siberia was in those days only slightly less adventurous than flying to the moon did not put him off in the least. He allowed himself three months in which to learn the language, then set off with a friend to cover the wastes of Russia at a speed that nobody had imagined possible. “We determined to make the journey a frolic,” he wrote home. And a very rapid frolic it was. Collins and his companion managed the first 3,545 miles in something under 35 days, changing horses over 200 times.

Collins was fascinated with the possibility of opening up Siberia for trade, and put forward plans for a railway that he estimated would cost 20,000,000 dollars. The Russians decided the cost was too high, so Collins went home and applied himself to a new scheme, a telegraph line that would go right round the world.

Thirty years later, the Russians themselves were forced to reconsider the American’s idea. Chinese were drifting over their borders in ever increasing numbers, and a railway would be the easiest way of moving defensive troops. The great railway project was put up before the Tsar, Alexander III, who scribbled in the margin of the report: It is time. It is high time.

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The Tay Bridge disaster wounded Britain’s industrial pride

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Railways, Scotland on Thursday, 23 January 2014

This edited article about Victorian railway disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 524 published on 29 January 1972.

Tay Bridge disaster, picture, image, illustration
The Tay Bridge disaster by Andrew Howat

Over 80 men, women and children died on that tempestuous night in 1879 when the Tay Bridge broke and a train was hurled into the boiling waters below. But it was more than a human tragedy. The new bridge had seemed a triumph in the story of British civil engineering.

Beautiful railway bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope God will protect all passengers
By night and by day
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay . . .

That hope of William McGonagall, “poet and tragedian,” born in Dundee in 1830, was in vain.

Within nineteen months of writing those lines to mark the opening of the first Tay Bridge in May, 1878, he was to write:

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay
Until it was about midway
Then the central girders with a crash gave way
And down went the train and the passengers into the Tay.

* * *

On December 28, 1879, the last Sunday of the year, at about 7.20 in the evening, and in the fiercest gale anybody living along the Firth of Tay could remember, 1,060 yards of the Tay Bridge crashed 100 feet down into the river. It took with it into the seething waters engine No. 224 of the North British Railway, five carriages and the brake van of the 5.20 from Burntisland to Dundee, together with over 80 men, women and children.

The longest bridge in the world was down. Twenty years in the dreaming by its designer Thomas Bouch, six years in the building by six hundred workmen, twenty of whom lost their lives. It stretched 1 mile and 1,075 yards from Wormit on the South Bank, to Magdalen Green on the North. It consumed 3,700 tons of cast iron, 3,500 tons of malleable iron, 87,000 cubic feet of timber, 15,000 casks of cement, 10 million bricks and over 2 million rivets. It cost £300,000.

Now it was down, and over 80 people had died horribly.

The whole of Britain was stunned. For swept away that night, too, was some of that Victorian pride in industry and achievement that had been swelling its chest since the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

But on the fearsome night itself, the disaster was a story told in human terms, particularly of those passengers who might not have caught the train but for a chance element of fate.

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George Westinghouse persevered with his brilliant idea for a compressed air brake

Posted in America, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Railways on Tuesday, 14 January 2014

This edited article about engineering first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 511 published on 30 October 1971.

Westinghouse brake in action, picture, image, illustration
A disaster was averted thanks to the braking system developed by George Westinghouse

For many months, 22-year-old George Westinghouse had been worried about the safety of the trains he travelled on. His career as an engineer and inventor took him to numerous towns in America where he sought sponsors for his various devices, and frequently the coaches he rode in were either derailed or damaged in senseless collisions.

The trouble was that the engines could not stop quickly enough if there was an obstruction on the line. The primitive braking system then in use involved putting a man in every second carriage to apply his particular brake. This meant that, even if the men worked in unison, it took hundreds of yards for the train to pull up at its destined stop or station.

In an emergency, there was no way of speeding up this process. As he puzzled over the problem, George happened to read a magazine article telling how some Italian engineers had used a compressed air drill for boring the Simplon Tunnel through the Swiss Alps.

This immediately gave him the idea of constructing a brake based on the same principle. A compressed air-pipe running the full-length of a train could produce a force that would work the brakes without unnecessary and disastrous delay.

At the time – 1868 – George and his young wife, Marguerite, were living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It was there that the dedicated engineer designed and manufactured his revolutionary new brake. Within a few months, he felt confident enough to submit it to the directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Although the officials were worried about the increasing loss of life and goods, they did not view the air-brake with any great enthusiasm.

The famous steamboat and railway tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, granted George an interview but told him: “Engineers all over the world have been trying to evolve a safe and speedy brake. Your idea is no more or less crackpot than any of theirs. It just won’t work, young man.”

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George Stephenson – railway pioneer and true inventor of the miners’ lamp

Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Railways, Transport on Tuesday, 14 January 2014

This edited article about railways first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 507 published on 2 October 1971.

The Rocket, picture, image, illustration
George Stephenson's Rocket by James E McConnell

It was a gala day for the North-East of England – the opening of the much-heralded Stockton and Darlington Railway. For hours the thirty miles of newly-laid track had been lined with excited spectators, the men in their best and shiniest top hats, the women wearing their most colourful bonnets, the children as clean and well scrubbed as they had ever been.

In Stockton itself flags and bunting waved in the air, a brass band played stirring military music, the Mayor prepared to make a speech of welcome. Then, as the excitement almost reached fever pitch, the sound of the steam engine Locomotion was heard – a strange, intimidating sound which increased in volume and put the brass band to silence.

The crowd waited expectantly as the train of thirty wagons – some piled high with coal, others packed with passengers – rattled into view at the seemingly reckless speed of twelve-miles-an-hour.

To those who had not seen a steam engine before, the Locomotion presented a terrifying sight. It was belching a fiendish mixture of white, grey and black smoke. Its single funnel had turned bright red with the heat, and it was no wonder that the children ran for cover, the women screamed, and the men held on to their hats in amazement.

But to George Stephenson, who had designed and masterminded Britain’s first goods and passenger carrying railway, the scene on September 27, 1825, was just a foretaste of the progress to come. “The Stockton and Darlington is really only a colliery line,” he said prophetically. “Soon there will be railways operating wherever there are heavy goods and fare-paying passengers to be transported.”

For the 44-year-old engineer the event was the highlight in a career which had started in a humble mining cottage in the village of Wylam, near Newcastle. Like his father, a fireman at the local colliery, young George never went to school and as a boy was unable to read or write.

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