The Victorians lived in an age of great industrial expansion; and the railways made communication easier.
The railway network grew as did the rapid increase in the number of railway companies throughout the country. What made travelling easier was George Bradshaw’s Railway Timetables.
A copy of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide: April 1910 is available from Amazon, as is Bradshaw’s Handbook – A Facsimile of the Famous Guide.
George Bradshaw was born on 29th July 1801 in Pendleton, Salford and was apprenticed to Mr J Beale an engraver. In 1820 the family moved to Belfast where George began work as a printer and engraver but soon returned to Salford in 1821 in search of work.
By 1827 he had become devoted to maps and as a consequence his first projected, engraved and published work was a map of his native Lancashire.
This was followed in 1830 by a work detailing the canals of Lancashire and Yorkshire, a set of three known as Bradshaws Maps of Inland Navigation.
‘Seldom has the gigantic intellect of man been employed upon a work of greater utility’, said the magazine Punch in 1865. By the time of his death George Bradshaws Railway Guides had become a national institution, quoted in contemporary novels and on the music hall stage. The full version of the 1876 music hall hit by Albert & Leigh is reproduced here.
1830 was the year that George Stephenson’s Rocket won the railway trials between Manchester and Liverpool and by 1855 there were over 8000 miles of railway track between all the major cities. Railway mania overtook England as the number of rail companies outstripped the profitable routes.
The BBC series Great British Railway Journeys presented by Michael Portillo with his trusty Bradshaw to hand is now available on DVD from Amazon.co.uk
The eight page edition of 1841 had grown to 32 pages by 1845 and to 946 pages by 1898. By comparison the current Great Britain Passenger Timetable runs to 2150 pages. In 1918 a Bradshaw would still only cost two shillings and in 1937 half a crown.
In 1844 Parliament passed legislation forcing railway companies to run at least one train every weekday at a fare that ordinary people could afford. It did not immediately trigger a nation of commuters but it opened up the possibility of cheap travel for the masses and day trips to the seaside. Very soon rail became the only way to travel.
As travel increased – and in particular tours around Europe – it was not surprising to find that in 1847 Bradshaws Continental Guide became available. It eventually grew to over 1000 pages, including timetables, guidebook and hotel directory. More recent is the European Rail Timetable Summer 2011 .
Jules Verne was one of many authors who found the attraction of Bradshaw irresistible. As Phileas Fogg sets out from Charing Cross on his epic Around the World in Eighty Days , what was he carrying:
‘Under his arm might have been observed a red-bound copy of Bradshaws Continental Rail and Steam Transport and General Guide, with its timetable showing the arrival and departure of steamers and railways.’
Although many other rail companies issued their own it was a Bradshaw to which the Victorians referred when they asked for a timetable.
Owing to its sheer size, Bradshaw gained a reputation for impenetrability, echoed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who has Sherlock Holmes commenting that ‘the vocabulary of Bradshaw is nervous and terse, but limited’. The selection of words would hardly lend itself to the sending of a general message.
Of course, the Victorians were not so much interested in literary quality of the prose as getting from A to B which was Bradshaws ‘raison d’etre’ and strength.
It could be inferred that Bradshaw’s own strength was his religion. Although far from wealthy his parents at first sent him to study under a Mr Cowards who was a Swedenborgian minister.
The Swedenborgians were one of the many dissenting groups active in the industrial heartlands devoted to the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher and mystic who interpreted the scriptures as the immediate word of God.
After continuing his education at a school kept by a Mr Scott at Overton, George Bradshaw joined the Quakers (Society of Friends) at an early age. In this group he became an associate of other Manchester radicals, such as Richard Cobden who was one of the most active supporters of the Anti-Corn Law league.
The Quakers were a pacifist organisation, promoting peace conferences and whose greatest achievement was in the abolition of slavery.
George Bradshaw married in 1839 and joined the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1842. He visited Norway in August 1853 where he succumbed to Asiatic cholera. He was buried in the cemetery adjoining the cathedral of Christiana.
George Bradshaws legacy to the nation is a picture of travel at the height of Victorian eminence. The last Bradshaw, number 1521 was printed in June 1961. An almost complete collection of Bradshaws was handed to Manchester Public Library (housed in the Social Sciences section) when Blacklocks Printing Works closed in 1971, having succeeded Bradshaws and Blacklocks.
No more will Holmes cry ‘the games afoot’ and head for the South coast as in The Valley of Fear; or Archbishop William Temple, headmaster of Repton set the task of finding the best way from Great Yarmouth to Exeter without passing through London as an imposition for an erring schoolboy. They might, had they a Bradshaw to hand.
© John Barber – originally published in Lancashire Magazine November/December 1998, revised for Railway, October 2001.
This page and more in a similar vein comes from a collection in my eBook An echo from the Green Fields .