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Friday, 19 November 2010

Religion and the Early Victorian Railway (a Research Black Hole)

For some reason, as an atheist, I have been increasingly interested in the way that religion interacts with society and how different people’s views are informed by its presence. Therefore, being a railway historian, it was almost inevitable that I would become interested in religion’s interactions with the railway industry. Indeed, because the new railways were the first big business it was almost inevitable that there would develop different types of relationships between the railways and, in the case of Britain, the Christian Church.

Early Victorian railways were clearly an environment where religion interacted with the industry in different ways. Therefore, while Francis Webb, the London and North Western Railway’s Locomotive Superintendent in the 1870s, coerced the men at the works at the Crewe works to go to,[1] there seemed to be nothing religious about the London and South Western Railway who refused to pay for a scripture reader for men building the Hampton Court branch.[2] On the Great Northern railway in 1854, the board asked the shareholders to vote £8000 for the building of a church, and encountered fierce resistance from them; while on the Taff Vale Railway in 1856, religious observance was woven into the employees’ lives by a rule which stated that the company ‘earnestly requested that each of its servants ‘on Sundays and holy days when he is not required on duty…will attend a place of worships; as it will be the means of promotion when vacancies occur.’[3] Thus, there seemed to be no uniform policy to religion adopted by railway managements.

Quite clearly, companies’ religiosity, or lack thereof, was dependent on the religious leanings of management or those sitting on the board. Channon argued that the board members of the Midland Railway shared ‘religious (non-conformist) and political (liberal)’ values.[4] But how this played out within the company is unknown. Contrastingly, from my research on the London and South Western Railway I have developed the impression that its board was never really concerned with religious matters. Yet, from the evidence above, it is clear that the Taff Vale board felt that church attendance was an indicator of an individual who was worthy of promotion, and, thus, there is no doubt that religion shaped the development of that companies’ management.[5] Further, Webb, cited above, had religious beliefs that shaped who the management class in the works were. While the staff was generally of liberal and nonconformist religious tendencies, a commentator stated that the foremen employed to supervise them were ordinarily conservative and adhered to the Church of England. Clearly, he was trying to engineer religious changes amongst the workers by promoting those who had similar views to him.[6] Thus, overall, it is clear that the religiosity of companies’ managements and board were not the same.

Evidently, from the lack of evidence presented here, more research on how religion shaped the early Victorian Railways needs to be done. I have shown that there are examples of how the religious views of individuals or groups may have impacted on policy. Yet, to what extent it shaped the industry’s development unknown. If I get time, I would to undertake research on this in the future.

[1] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1840-1970, (London, 1980) p.48

[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/2, Court of Directors Minute Book, 14th April 1848, Minute No.989

[3] Simmons, Jack, ‘Religion,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.418

[4] Channon, Geoffrey, Railways in Britain and the United States 1830-1940, (Aldershot, 2001), p.102

[5] Simmons, Jack, ‘Religion,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.418

[6] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1840-1970, (London, 1980) p.48

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