York, Swindon, Crewe, Derby, Peterborough, Wolverton and Eastleigh are very different places, cities and towns spread across Britain. From ancient cathedral cities to metropolises that barely existed two centuries ago, they all share one thing; they are amongst Britain’s railway towns.
Railway towns owed their economic success and booming populations to the arrival and patronage of the railways. To be a true railway town, it wasn’t enough to be served by the railways; instead, the railways forged entire communities by concentrating factories, workshops and repair yards in a single location.
It isn’t surprising that the railways had the power to create towns and even cities: by 1900 over 620,000 people (just under 5% of the entire population) worked for the railways. Millions more were dependent on their wages, spending and the ancillary economic growth they brought.
The population statistics demonstrate the explosive impact of the railways. Crewe had been two separate villages before the Grand Junction Railway moved there in 1843. In 1841 these two villages had a combined population of 500. By 1900, Crewe was a town with over 40,000 people.
Similarly, Swindon developed from a market town of 2,000 in 1840 to a railway centre of 50,000 in 1905. The decision by the Great Western Railway to base its operations in Swindon ensured its growth: in 1905 the GWR employed 14,000 in the town.
Swindon’s rise as a railway town owes as much to a canny bargain as its location. When the Great Western Railway was being built, Brunel was under considerable financial pressure. He therefore readily took up an offer by the contractors to build the station, the railway works and the worker’s housing at their own expense. The price they extracted for this was to have a lease on the station’s refreshment rooms and a covenant that for the next one hundred years all Great Western Trains would stop at Swindon for ten minutes and the railway had to “refrain from offering alternative catering”.
Doncaster was similarly dominated by railway production, with the Doncaster Works becoming a byword for industrial excellence and innovation. The Flying Scotsman and the Mallard were two proud examples of Doncaster’s railway history.
A less radical population change was seen in York, as it was already a city of political significance and some industrial development. But the impact of George Hudson’s desire to: “mak all t’railways cum to York” can be seen in a doubling of York’s population in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whilst not all railways came to York, the main eastern line did and brought with it the main works of the North Eastern Railway. York’s population swelled from c. 40,000 in 1841 to over 90,000 in 1901.
Perhaps the most dramatic change came to Middlesbrough. In 1801 four farmhouses made up this hamlet with a population of 25. A hundred years later, the town had a population of 92,668 and was one of the iron producing capitals of the world. Derby, Peterborough, Wolverton and Eastleigh also feature on the long list of Britain’s railway towns.
The railway towns forged a strong identity, with a high degree of worker loyalty. This loyalty was rewarded by particularly paternalistic employers who provided schools, hospitals, housing and leisure facilities to their workers. The downside was a level of discipline and company control that seems intolerable to modern eyes.
In 1877, the London & North Western Railway ordered its workers in Crewe to vote for company officials in local elections. Another downside of the dependence on a single industry was only felt in the 20th century. When British Railways closed some of its works in the 1980s and 1990s local economies were devastated.