Cathedrals of steam

Railways dramatically altered the urban environment.


Despite their green image today, the physical changes railways wrought during the age of steam were often for the worse.

St Paul’s Cathedral might just as well become a railway station.

They displaced populations and created polluted slums set amidst urban wastelands of sidings, sheds, workshops, warehouses and marshalling yards. They spread towns and cities to new suburbs, but as viaducts and embankments strode across cities like Manchester and Leeds they set new physical frontiers to development that remain to this day.

Railways demolished historic buildings, like the medieval Trinity Church in Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-Tweed’s castle and parts of the city walls in York and Newcastle. In 1864 the satirical magazine Punch asked ‘Are there no means of averting the imminent destruction of the little beauty which our capital possesses?’ and argued that St Paul’s Cathedral might just as well become a railway station. Railway construction even disturbed the dead – St Pancras burial ground was uprooted in the 1860s to make way for the Midland Railway’s new line into London.

By 1890 railway companies owned about ten per cent of urban land, and in the city of Manchester alone had probably forced 50,000 inhabitants from their homes during the course of just sixty years.

Railways brought filth and squalor to towns and cities, contribu ting to the damage already done by coal fires and industry. Steam locomotives continued to pollute Britain into the 1960s, their legacy still seen in blackened buildings and smears of soot at the entrances to stations and tunnels.

But many changes they brought were for the better, like Newcastle’s High Level Bridge across the Tyne, which linked the city with Gateshead. The most outstanding features of the urban railscapes, however, were the stat ions. These were monuments of their age, combining industry with art and technology with architecture. They changed notions of public space, with their vast train sheds of glass and iron fronted by imposing buildings such as Euston’s classical portico or the neo-Gothic brick hotel of St Pancras.

Railways extended their eclectic mix of buildings across the country, constructed in a wide variety of styles and designs, from the vernacular to the grandiose. These buildings became a familiar part of both rural and industrial landscapes. They ranged from the magnificent to the cheap and nasty, but were nearly all recognisably ‘railway’.

Background: Class 87