Noblesse oblige

The proponents of High Speed 2, the planned railway connecting London with Birmingham and the north, face considerable public opposition. This is nothing compared to the nineteenth century when angry aristocrats tried everything to put the breaks on developments on or near their estates.

From their first beginnings, railways have divided the public and attracted formidable opposition. The Earl of Darlington opposed the initial plans for the Stockton and Darlington Railway on the grounds that it would cut across coverts and thus hinder fox hunting. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was almost blocked by Lord Sefton and the Marquis of Stafford and only progressed when the Marquis was able to take up a quarter of the railway’s equity.

Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway - not everyone was as delighted at the prospect of the development

The London and Birmingham Railway was subject to vociferous aristocratic objection. The Earls of Essex and Clarendon objected on the grounds that the railway would intrude on their Cassiobury and Grove Estates respectively. The Earls’ objections were dealt with only by the expensive recourse to building a mile-long tunnel north of Watford.

On 22 June 1832, Lord Brownlow of Ashridge voiced his opposition to the line in the House of Lords to: “the forcing of the proposed railway through the land and property of so great a proportion of dissentient landowners”. Another opponent, Sir Astley Cooper, told George Stephenson in no uncertain terms of his objections:

“You are proposing to cut up our estates in all directions for the purpose of making an unnecessary road. If this sort of thing be permitted to go on, you will in a very few years destroy the nobility.”

Ashridge House via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, the railway’s route through Hertfordshire was modified and, in May 1833, the line received royal assent. The line would instead follow the River Bulbourne instead of the River Gade, skirting around the edge of Hemel Hempstead to protect Sir Astley Cooper’s interests. This is why Hemel Hempstead railway station is located a mile outside the town centre at Boxmoor.

One way to deal with landowners’ opposition was to wield the company chequebook. It is estimated the London and Birmingham ended up paying £320 per acre for the thin strips of land necessary for the track; the equivalent of around £16,000 per acre in today’s money. Christopher Wolmar has estimated that the London and Birmingham Railway spent a fifth of its entire share capital paying off landowners.

The Avon viaduct on the London and Birmingham railway By Roger Griffith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mr Berkeley, a Member of Parliament for Cheltenham, declared in a public speech: “Nothing is more distasteful to me than to hear the echo of our hills reverberating with the noise of hissing railroad engines running through the heart of our hunting country, and destroying that noble sport to which I have been accustomed from my childhood.”

Colonel Sibthorpe stated that he: “would rather meet a highwayman, or see a burglar on his premises, than an engineer; he should be much more safe, and of the two classes he thought the former more respectable!”

The hypocritical response of the aristocracy to the railways was captured in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, when Lady Marney explains how Lord Marney’s initial opposition gave way to consent:

“ “I suppose Lord Marney gives them all the opposition in his power.”

“There is nobody so violent against railroads as George,” said Lady Marney; “I cannot tell you what he does not do! He organized the whole of our division against the Marham line!”

“I rather counted on him,” said Lord de Mowbray, to assist me in resisting this joint branch here; but I was surprised to learn he had consented.”

“Not until the compensation was settled,” innocently remarked Lady Marney; “George never opposes them after that. He gave up all opposition to the Marham line when they agreed to his terms.” ”

Benjamin Disraeli By Cornelius Jabez Hughes, British (1819 - 1884, London, England London, England) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick S. Williams noted the riot of opposition a proposal could bring: “A rumour that it was proposed to bring such a thing as a railroad within a dozen miles of a particular neighbourhood was enough to elicit adverse petitions to Parliament, and public subscriptions were opened to give effect to the opposition.”

Connected to the aristocracy were other Establishment objectors. The Great Western Railway did not have to contend with a ruffled nobility on quite the scale as faced by the London and Birmingham Railway (but did still have to pay out £750,000 in land purchases). But it did have to deal with the combined objections of Eton College and Oxford University. Eton’s master was horrified that building the line may encourage the boys to “seek the doubtful dissipations of London town”.

For many years, the University of Oxford and its landowning constituent colleges were opposed to Oxford having a railway station. For a number of years, the nearest station was at Steventon, 10 miles south of the city. Cambridge University was similarly opposed, explaining why the railway stations for both the ancient universities are some distance from the city centres (half a mile and mile respectively).

Another way the railways sought to win favour and mitigate their impact was by building aesthetically pleasing structures and landscaping the lines to hide away the belching locomotives. Brunel was a leader in this movement, and his Great Western Railway boasted decorated stations, tunnel mouths and viaducts in a variety of styles. His railway would employ classical, Tudor and Jacobean styles to try and make the railways architectural wonders in their own right.

Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway route Phil Williams [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons`

In the end, many aristocratic families benefitted hugely from the railways. Thin slivers of their land had been sold or leased for small fortunes. The railways brought huge economic dividends, especially to those fortunate families whose estates covered coal fields (such as the Duke of Sutherland, the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Marquesses of Bute and Londonderry).

In the end, the upper crust bought into the convenience offered by railways. Even Queen Victoria gave in to trains and Windsor would come to boast two rival railway stations. Stations at stately homes became a must have, and several survive to this day: Dunrobin Castle (the Duke of Sutherland), Castle Howard (the Earl of Carlisle), Bolton Abbey (Duke of Westminster), Breamore (for Breamore House), Althorp Park (Earl Spencer), Quainton Road (for the Duke of Buckingham’s Wooton House).