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Extracts from Railway Documents

Welcome to the first in an occasional series on Extracts from 'interesting' railway documents.

Many early railway documents make for some fascinating reading, sometimes serious, sometimes humorous and the wording, well this could best be described as flowery to say the least; a common ending was ... I remain, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant ... a typical letter from a goods agent to a potential customer around 1850 and this formal ending was common into the early 20th century.

Many memos and forms between companies and or stations were sent out only to be returned with the reply written across the original text horizontally so as to make both the first letter and reply totally unreadable even on the occasions when the reply was written in red ink.

The start of the story

With the thought of large profits to be made from railways, many entrepreneurs were ready to part with their money to make even more money, a bit like the modern day revolution. The process generated a fair amount of paperwork, from the setting up of committees to letters from lawyers, company secretaries, boards of Directors and a many others. The bulk of starting up a railway company was to be the parliamentary paperwork and petitions to interested parties.

The construction of railways around the country also caused some interesting paperwork; consider the number of literate people around from 1830 to 1860 and the amount of printed railway matter from this period, one wonders how much of the official bumf was read, let alone understood.

The itinerant farmer who receives a letter from a firm of solicitors (acting on behalf of a railway company) asking to allow his agents to enter upon the farmers land in order to mark out a line of route. Did the poor farmer understand that the railway would cut his farm in two and the compensation was meagre, it is doubtful?
Of course had this been the land belonging to gentry the railway would not have had such an easy time (unless the land owner was a supporter of the railway), the result would often depend on who had the best lawyers and many fractious disputes would often ensue, only being solved by a sometimes contentious act of parliament and generating a wonderful selection of paperwork as evidence for and against the proposal.

Many is the company who failed to get any further than the gates of Westminster, for every successful act at least two failed, which has the benefit of leaving us many interesting papers to study. Imagine the reaction from certain parties when you went to Parliament for an act for the Micheldean Road & Whimsey Railway ...whimsical in the least!

The Commercial Railway in London was, from the start, a cause for considerable alarm. Running from the Minories to Blackwall, and only 3.3 miles in length, it had to demolish 758 dwellings some of which are described in a pamphlet of 1836, published by the railway, as "very low and wretched and in one alley (which was required to be demolished) of 290 feet long there are 48 tenements. It must however be particularly noticed that the destruction of houses will be much more than compensated by the new houses which will be constructed; for the arches of the railway will be so built that each arch will contain two tenements."

In the early days a lot of notices were sent out seeking support for various undertakings and asking the recipient if they assent, dissent, or are neuter to the undertaking. A few of these make interesting reading where they have been returned and say such things as "I will assent to your undertaking on the following provisions" ... there then ensues a long list of demands for compensation as to the taking of lands, replacement of structures, a new well, and in one case two new cows!!! I wonder if Network Rail would be happy to supply two new cows in exchange for the new Thameslink route over Borough Market?

Surprisingly there is very little in the way of documents dealing with the often difficult times during construction of a railway, a good idea of some the construction problems encountered, are described in a book by Duncan Kennedy (The Birth & Death of a Highland Railway), who details the work of construction along the Ballachulish branch of the Callander & Oban Railway.

The two letters shown, show some of the problems amongst those working on railway construction. Disputes between landowners and the navies were often affairs caused by the hardship of the navies and reluctance on the part of land owners who had already sold the land.

Not so modern times

As commuting developed more lines were added to ease the burden of large flows of traffic in to major town and cities, there now follows an extract from the prospectus for the Great Northern & City Railway taken from minutes of evidence before the Lords' and Commons' Committees:

Evidence in favour of construction was give by numerous dignitaries such as Sir Henry Oakley General Manager of the GN:

"We are carrying the public very badly indeed. They are overcrowded every night and every morning. We cannot help ourselves. It has arrived at this pitch, that the difficulty of dealing with this suburban traffic is a burden on our minds."

and the same argument from Mr Cripps QC:

"It has been one of the troubles of our lives. We have been in the throes of congestion for the last year or more, and it is for that reason that we hope this scheme will fructify."

The bill for the GN & City was vehemently opposed by the Metropolitan Railway in to whose territory the new line would encroach.

These were just some of the problems wrought by the construction of the railways in London. Today we have Thameslink and Crossrail and a need for rail extensions in London for the Olympic Games. For yesterdays ignorance and illiteracy today we have a compulsory purchase order and public enquiry - que sera sera!