The Age of the Railway

The Age of the Railway

The years following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 were punctuated with much unrest, prompted amongst other things by high prices for foodstuffs and the government’s attempts to preserve the status quo. Whilst the pattern of wealth was changing, parliamentary ‘democracy’ was not, and the pressure for reform grew ever stronger in the late 1820s. This was also a period of technological development and invention, when many workers found their livelihood under threat from newly introduced machinery. Their anger was vent upon such labour saving inventions as threshing machines and in many places in England such machinery was smashed. Hayricks were set on fire, property ransacked and farmers and their families terrorised.

In 1830 matters came to a head, when gangs roamed the countryside threatening extortion and death to machine owners, who often received such threats in a letter signed by the enigmatic ‘Captain Swing’. Mrs Langley living near Kingston received such a letter, although it was not signed by the ‘Captain’. Postal historian James Grimwood-Taylor discovered the letter a few years ago and made a transcription of its scribbled contents. It began:

‘Maddam Do Not be Surprised at this letter, for all your Nabours have Got the Same, or will Receive the Same, and Every one Reffusing the three Requests that are Demmanded will Suffer the same as the(y) have Suffered in . . . other Parts in Surrey that we Come threw, the first request are to Destroy yor Mashines. Second to give your men fifteen Shillings a week, third to send out ten Pounds By one of your Sevents . . .’

We do not know if Mrs Langley complied with these demands but perhaps, because there is no record surviving of damage to her property in Kingston, she did. In the rest of Surrey, riot and sometimes arson were reported at several places during these ‘Swing Riots’, including Molesey, Oxshott, Dorking and Woking. At Albury the village mill was destroyed and the culprit, a local labourer, was hanged for the crime. In nineteen other cases which came to court, eleven defendants were acquitted whilst eight received prison sentences. The riots had petered out by 1832 and Captain Swing, real or imaginary, was never heard of again.

By 1832 the forces of reform finally had their day and the first Act to remove the many abuses associated with Parliament was forced onto the statute book. Many ‘pocket’ boroughs lost their right to send MPs to Westminster and in Surrey the most infamous of these was Gatton. This ‘rotten borough’ had sent two burgesses to the House of Commons since about 1450, but for most of the time the total number of electors amounted to one man – the Lord of the Manor. In 1541, Sir Roger Copley, describing himself as ‘Burgess and oonly Inhabitant’ duly cast his vote and Gatton returned its ‘freely chosen and elected’ Members of Parliament.

The borough of Haslemere also lost its two MPs in 1832.. This small town had been sending burgesses to Westminster since 1584 as strong supporters of Queen Elizabeth, especially when it came to voting her money, which is undoubtedly why she made Haslemere a parliamentary borough in the first place! Its most famous MP was James Oglethorpe, founder of the State of Georgia, who lived at Godalming. He had a nominal address in Haslemere in order to qualify but was hardly ever there, preferring London, Godalming, Cranharn in Essex which he acquired through marriage, or Georgia, which is about as far as you could get in those days from the representation of your constituents in Haslemere!

Just six years after the first reform of Parliament, an invention which was to touch, then ultimately transform, the lives of almost every inhabitant rattled its way across the open Surrey countryside. The steam railway had arrived. It brought Surrey into London and the capital came out into Surrey. A blanket of brick eventually engulfed the northern part of the county, smothering ancient agricultural communities. Village after village was absorbed by streets of villa residences, new homes for those who could work each day in the city and then come home to the countryside their presence soon destroyed. In some parts of the county, the railway created entirely new towns, which sprouted in places once thinly populated.

Surrey could boast the first public railway in the world – the Surrey Iron Railway, which ran from Wandsworth to Croydon. The railway had a branch to Hackbridge on the river Wandle, which was later extended as the Croydon, Merstham & Godstone Iron Railway. The first section of line was officially opened on 26th July 1803, an event reported in The European Magazine and London Review the following month: ‘The Iron Railway from Wandsworth to Croydon was opened to the public for the conveyance of goods. The Committee went up in waggons drawn by one horse; and, to show how motion is facilitated by this ingenious and yet simple contrivance, a gentleman, with two companions, drove up the railway, in a machine of his own invention, without horses, at the rate of fifteen miles per hour.’ This was no steam railway and the intended motive power was the horse – the ‘simple contrivance’ probably being something akin to a platelayer’s hand-operated trolley. As reported, the railway was ‘a conveyance for goods’ and was not built to carry passengers.

In 1805 the line was continued to Merstham but that is as far as it ever reached. It had been the intention to construct a line all the way to Portsmouth, making it of great strategic value in the fight against Napoleon. However, after the decimation of the French fleet at Trafalgar, the British navy reigned supreme and support for the expensive iron railway collapsed. Forced to rely mainly on only local traffic, the railway was never a financial success. It could not compete against steam railways when they began their march across the county – the section to Merstham closed in 1839 and the remainder in 1846.

On 21st May 1838, the first steam-hauled train to carry fare paying passengers in Surrey rumbled into Woking Common station. It was the end of the line at the time and its passengers were decanted into some of the most barren and thinly populated countryside of Surrey. However, the first week of the line’s existence proved auspicious, for it attracted about 10,000 customers, many of them racegoers bound for Epsom and the Derby. Woking Common, over a mile north-west of the moribund market town of Woking, was now but an hour from London.

The final destination of the railway was Southampton and the completed line was opened on 11th May 1840. Meanwhile, Woking Common had become a mecca for travellers throughout west Surrey who converged on the station by carriage, cart, horse or foot. There was little in the way of comforts for these earliest of commuters, nor anywhere for them to stable their horses whilst they were in London. Then a shrewd local business man, Edward Woods, opened The Railway Hotel and the new town of Woking had began. It was not long before the coaching trade on the nearby Portsmouth Turnpike dwindled and the inns along the route fell into decay.

The modern town of Woking has a curious and unique history. In spite of Edward Woods’ enterprise there was no mad rush to build in the area, now just a short ride from the capital. It was not as the living that Londoners first came to Woking to stay, but as corpses in their thousands. On the heathlands near the station it was proposed to open a vast cemetery which would cater for all the dead of London. The population of the city was growing fast – it was just under one million at the time of the first census in 1801 with this figure reached two and a quarter million in 1851. With the birthrate rising dramatically, the death rate also substantially increased. The authorities were faced with a huge problem of where to bury all the dead, for they were very rapidly running out of burial space.

In the existing graveyards there were scenes of utter chaos. Graves were constantly being disturbed, dug up and reused and their previous contents left on the surface for the scavenging poor. A lucrative trade grew up in secondhand coffin furniture and firewood, whilst tons of human bones were gathered up to be crushed into fertilizer. The mass of decomposing corpses so near to habitation was being increasingly recognised as a health hazard by the medical authorities. They thought it poisoned the air but it certainly contaminated drinking water in adjacent wells. Matters came to a head in the great cholera epidemic of 1848-49, which claimed over 14,000 Londoners. An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the establishment of separate cemeteries away from the metropolis, but other government schemes to alleviate this massive problem came to naught.

It was at this point that Sir Richard Broun and Richard Sprye put forward their proposal for the establishment of the London Necropolis at Woking – a vast cemetery to cope with London’s dead for ever. Essential to the scheme was the railway to carry the coffins and mourners to the grave and take the mourners home again. It was a business that could not fail to be highly profitable. Before Broun and Sprye could turn their idea into a commercial proposition, it was poached by another group of entrepreneurs, who formed the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. Woking Common belonged to the Onslow family as Lords of the Manor and many villagers had commoners’ rights upon the heath. It therefore needed an Act of Parliament to inclose the common and expunge those rights. This Bill duly received its Royal Assent on 30th June 1852, but not without opposition from some Surrey MPs. The MP for East Surrey, P.J. Locke King, raised no objection – he was a director of the Necroplis Company!

The necessary land, 2,328 acres of Woking Common, was purchased from the Onslows for £38,000. The commoners were bought off with £15,000. The Act specifically forbade the erection of any buildings on the site, other than those for cemetery purposes or staff accommodation. But it was not long before the company was drawing up a Bill to present to Parliament to allow them to sell off surplus land. Meanwhile 400 acres near Brookwood and furthest from Woking station were laid out for the cemetery, which opened on 7th November 1854 – the first burials being those of Mrs Store’s still-born male twins, interred at the expense of her parish.

In 1855 Parliament gave permission for the selling of parts of the company’s land around the station and Knaphill. It is clear from this Act that the establishment of a new town was envisaged, for it stipulated that five acres should be set aside for public buildings such as a church and a school. By 1869 the Necropolis Company had gained permission to sell for development all but 560 acres of their original purchase and the new town of Woking had begun its growth into Surrey’s largest town. The original settlement of Woking, on the banks of the river Wey, was forced to adopt the prefix ‘Old’ to differentiate it from the new neighbour which had usurped its name.

The railway’s march across Surrey was relentless. It reached Croydon in 1839 – the railway company bought the Croydon Canal, filled it in, and used much of its course for their line. Guildford was reached from Woking in 1845 and Godalming in 1849. Stations opened at Richmond in 1846, Epsom in 1847 and Chertsey in 1848. The good people of Kingston had disapproved of the railway in 1838, so it was routed via Surbiton. Very quickly afterwards a suburb of solid respectable villas grew up adjacent to the new Kingston station, as the station at Surbiton was first called.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the county, a second ‘railway town’ was beginning to sprout amongst once thinly populated damp green fields. Reigate had shunned the railway when a route to Brighton was proposed which would have passed close to the town. In the event, the railway went further east and spawned the town of Redhill. The railway to Brighton opened in 1841. From Redhill travellers could now reach London in just over the hour and from the capital be propelled right across Surrey into Sussex in a mere one hour and 17 minutes. In 1842 the railway at Redhill became a junction, when it was joined by the line from Tonbridge and in 1849 Redhill was linked to Reading via Farnborough, Guildford, Dorking and Reigate. By 1870 the new town of Redhill was well established, complete with all the facilities expected of a thriving Victorian town, including a market hail and several churches.

Innovation and change were not the sole prerogatives of the new towns of Redhill and Woking. In Guildford, Godalming and Reigate, for example, the railway brought newcomers and soon each place had its own share of suburban villas. Initially, the increase in population put the limited public services, such as water supply and sewerage, under serious pressure. In Godalming there was no mains water of any sort until 1880. Sewage disposal was limited to the occasional emptying of cesspits. These were often situated at the rear of premises, only a few feet from the well where water was obtained. As a result, the town suffered regular outbreaks of typhoid and even the dreaded cholera. The story was little different in nearby Guildford. In 1849 the author of a pamphlet written to draw attention to the dreadful state of the town’s sewers described in detail ‘the open mouth of a sewer disgorging its filth’, which ran straight into the river Wey by the side of the Town Bridge. There were several outbreaks of cholera in Guildford, the last being in 1866. Eventually, between 1889 and 1895, the town was provided with what at the time was one of the most advanced sewerage systems in the world. At the same time an efficient method of rubbish collection was also introduced.

Guildfordians had had the benefit of gas street lighting as early as 1824, but it was left to the little town of Godalming to be the pioneer in the introduction of electricity. In 1881 the town council made the auspicious decision to abandon gas street lighting and change to electricity. The electricity was supplied by a generator driven by a waterwheel at the nearby leather mills at Westbrook. Later the generator was moved to White Hart Yard behind the High Street and driven by a steam engine. The electricity was also available for supply to private homes and here was the great innovation. The equipment set up at Westbrook was in fact the world’s first public power station and thus marked the birth of the electricity supply industry. Unfortunately, in those early days the system was not a great success and the town reverted to gas in 1884. However, a start had been made and once the equipment had been perfected, electric lighting began to oust gas from the streets of towns and cities throughout the world.

The church was the other light at the centre of any Victorian town or village in Surrey as, indeed, it was throughout England. From the late 17th century the Church of England had faced increasing competition for worshippers from the Nonconformists, especially following the Act of Toleration in 1689, which had allowed unmolested worship for religious groups such as Congregationalists. Baptists and Quakers. In the 18th century the Methodists were the driving force, led by John Wesley, who found England a more fertile preaching ground than Georgia, where he and his brother, Charles, had gone with James Oglethorpe in 1735. John Wesley rode the length and breadth of England preaching to all who would gather and listen, but it was in Surrey, at Leatherhead, that he preached his very last sermon in February 1791. A week later he was dead.

The Wesleys had brought a religious vitality into the lives of many ordinary folk, which seemed missing from the Church of England. But the Victorian period was to see a resurgence of zeal in the Established Church, one result of which was to have a lasting visual impact in so many of Surrey’s towns and villages. The growing size of congregations, coupled with the desire to improve the status of the church within the community, led to a massive programme of church rebuilding and ‘restoration’ throughout the county. The result, as Ian Nairn wrote, was that ‘the lightly restored churches of Surrey can be counted on the fingers and toes’ but, as he continued, ‘as the 19th century left Surrey richer in Gothic Revival churches than almost any other county, perhaps the result was worth it.’

Architecturally, the leader of this revival throughout England was Augustus Pugin. In Surrey, he tinkered with churches at Albury and Peper Harow but it was his pupil, Benjamin Ferrey, who made the first impact on the county’s churches. Brockham church, built in 1846, is probably his most pleasing one, when viewed from across the picturesque village green. Some of the best Victorian churches in Surrey are by local architect Henry Woodyer, who was born in Guildford. His finest are undoubtedly at Buckland, built in 1860, at Hascombe, dating from 1864, and at Dorking, which was built four years later. Woodyer was also responsible for the church at York Town, where a thriving community had grown up on the infertile sandy heathland to serve the Royal Military Academy at nearby Sandhurst, over the border in Berkshire.

The Academy had been founded by Frederick, Duke of York, in 1812 – hence the name of the settlement. It marked the beginning of a permanent army presence in Surrey, which was to grow ever-stronger as the century progressed, especially following the establishment of barracks at Aldershot in the 1850s. Next door to York Town the Army Staff College was opened in 1862 and the villas, terraced houses and shops erected adjacent to it were named Cambridge Town after the then commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge. Confusion with the famous university town, particularly in matters of postal deliveries, led to the name being changed to Camberley. Camps and barracks were built in many places in the county, particularly following the army reforms of the 1870s. These included Guildford, Deepcut, Pirbright, Blackdown and Caterham, where the Guards’ Training Depot was transferred from Warley, Essex, in 1877.

The Royal Navy also had an important presence in Surrey during the first half of the 19th century. Before the invention of the electric telegraph, an ingenious method of rapid communication between the Admiralty in London and the fleet at Plymouth and Portsmouth was devised. A chain of towers was built across the country, each one visible by telescope to those either side of it. Messages were then passed down the line by semaphore. Several of these semaphore towers have survived in the county. The best is at Chatley Heath near Cobham, which has been restored and is now open to the public. It was in use between 1822 and 1847 and lies at the junction of the lines to Portsmouth and Plymouth.

In 1853, as war with Russia threatened, it was decided to hold a great military camp on Chobham Common, as a show of strength. On 14th June nearly 10,000 troops gathered on the common, where they took part in various military manoeuvres, including a mock battle, at a camp which lasted until 25th August. The highlight of the proceedings was the visit of Queen Victoria accompanied by Prince Albert, who reviewed the troops on 21st June, watched by a crowd estimated to be 100,000 strong. Details of the event were recalled in the Chobham parish magazine of March 1901, in memory of the recently dead queen. The magazine reported that ‘Waterloo was besieged, 14,000 tickets were issued for Chertsey in three hours, and when all the “specials” had left the station the platforms still swarmed with eager passengers, many being ladies dressed in riding habits. From 300 to 400 horse-boxes were despatched.’

At Chertsey, demand for horse-drawn transport to Chobham was so great that only those who could afford the charge of up to £1 got a ride. Many thousands walked whilst Chobham experienced its first traffic jam.

The queen and her party travelled down from Nine Elms to Staines, from where she was driven in an open carriage to the camp. ‘Punctually at 11 o’clock the Royal Standard was hoisted, and announced to the waiting thousands the queen’s arrival. To the delight of all, she alighted and mounted a dark bay horse with rich gold trappings, she wore a dark blue riding habit with basque jacket setting close to her figure, having on her breast a rich gold aiguilette and brilliant garter star, on her head a round riding hat with a military plume of red and white feathers in front.’

The Times reported: ‘It is quite impossible to exaggerate the brilliancy of the scene as the Royal procession at a slow pace passed from regiment to regiment, each drawn up on its respective parade ground, the band of each saluting with the National Anthem and presenting arms. The splendour and extent of the cortege was a thing of itself worth going some distance to see.’ After the inspection the Royal party watched a sham fight and then came the ‘finest feature of the day’s proceedings’, as all 10,000 troops paraded past the queen. Finally Queen Victoria and her party took lunch in a large marquee before returning by carriage to Staines station.

Once the queen had departed it began to pour with rain, bringing a stampede of spectators along the road to Chertsey where, as the Chobham parish magazine reported, ‘the station was a scene of wild confusion, and night descended before the enormous traffic could be overtaken.’ In this way there came to an end Surrey’s most spectacular military event in peacetime, its splendour soon to be marred by disease and death upon the stark battlefields of the Crimea.