The Coming of the Railway


The first successful railway locomotive train ran in 1804 and Stephenson’s Rocket was designed in 1829. Railways then started to expand across the UK. Eventually the railway reached Cambridge during the Victorian Era, in July 1845. The first ever timetable for Cambridge trains was published on 22nd July 1845 and was used on 30th July that year, on the day the railway was officially opened to the public. When Cambridge station opened the first trains travelled to London and Norwich. The old Great Eastern route to Cambridge has some of the fastest trains on it- with a train recorded at going at 70mph on route! The trains had a non-stop time of 72 minutes from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, covering 55.75 miles on its journey.

The Victorian design of the station was mainly the inspiration of architect Francis Thompson and was extremely grand in comparison to other stations on the route, with its arches and columns.

The coming of the railway led to lots of jobs being created and meant that more houses were built in the area to accommodate railway workers. The Railways Men (Workers on the Railway) mostly lived within walking distance of the station, such as in the Railway Cottages on Mill Road, by the Railway Bridge. 

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find useful to use in class:

The Coming of the Railway (ppt)

The Coming of the Railway (pdf)


The first successful railway locomotive train ran in 1804 and Stephenson’s Rocket was designed in 1829. Railways then started to expand across the UK. Eventually the railway reached Cambridge in July 1845, when the first trains made their way there from both London and Norwich. Two years later, in 1847, the line from Peterborough to Cambridge was built, with stops at both March and Ely on the route.  There was also another line, going west towards St. Ives and Huntington.  The route of the old railway tracks is now the route that the guided bus uses to get to Cambridge. The old Great Eastern route to Cambridge had some of the fastest trains on it- with a train recorded at going at 70mph! The trains had a non-stop time of 72 minutes from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, covering 55.75 miles on its journey. 

The Victorian design of Cambridge railway station was mainly the inspiration of architect Francis Thompson. The very first station opened in 1845 and had just one platform for trains to go both up and down on. However, the design of station was seen to be more impressive than the other stations along the line, with its grand columns and arches. It also had decorative cornices and friezes- some of which you can still see in the station today!

When the Victorians first built the station there was just a wooden platform for passengers to stand on while they waited for their train. There was no tunnel or footbridge for people to safely access the train, so people just climbed down onto the line and walked across the tracks to get there- which was incredibly dangerous! This was later replaced with a larger ‘island platform’ with a tunnel and footbridge, which was much safer.  It was dangerous working on the Victorian railway and many railway workers were seriously injured or killed whilst  at work. The Eastern Counties Railways did however offer a subscription to a kind of hospital healthcare from Addenbrooke’s, which cost employees 10 guineas a year. As there was no free healthcare from the NHS back in the Victorian Era!

However it was not all bad news, one of the great positives of the coming of the railway was that it provided the opportunity for people of all walks of life and class to travel. The train was much quicker, cheaper and more reliable than travelling by horse drawn coach, which was the main way that Victorians travelled long distance. The railway provided the opportunity for working class people to travel. They were encouraged to use the excursion trains to go on day trips on a Sunday for a cheap fair, such as visiting Cambridge for 5 shillings, or visiting the seaside. The Directors of the Eastern Counties Railway decided to allow their staff to go on daytrips to the seaside in East Anglia, such as Walton-on-the-Naze and Cromer.

The coming of the railway also meant that fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and fish could all be transported much quicker than by horse or boat. This meant that fresh produce could be delivered from different areas of the country and from ports, to be sold at market much more easily. National newspapers could also be delivered via train, so more people could read newspapers than had done before. 

Many railway workers lived in and around the Mill Road area to work on the railways. One of the Victorian workers on the railway was William Bright, who was described as a ‘good staff man’ and was the station master from 1884 to 1894.  He was the first person to live in Morcombe House, which was the Station Master’s House for many years. It was quite a spacious house compared to the houses of other railway workers. It stood where the Mill Road Butchers Shop now stands at number 128 Mill Road, on the corner of Devonshire Road. 

William helped to promote St. John Ambulance Brigade in Cambridge, which trained people to provide free ambulance services to railway workers and other local people (as there was no NHS then). Records show that in 1893 he oversaw a demonstration of the St. John ambulance work and 59 people were presented with badges and certificates in the Railway Mission Hall for their achievements. The Hall was just round the corner from William Bright’s house, so very convenient for him to get to meetings. 

During William Bright’s time, around 1892/3 the Cambridge Railway Band was formed. It was a brass band for local people to join, which was very popular, with about 30 members. They played in a number of local venues, such as the Railway Mission Hall on Devonshire Road. The Railway Men (Workers on the Railway) usually lived in walking distance of the station. The Victorian Railway Cottages where workers lived can still be seen on Mill Road today. Once the railway grew workers then moved over the bridge into other areas close to the station such as Romsey Town.  

So not everyone lived in such spacious houses like the Station Master. Most railway workers would have lived in cramp conditions. For example in the No. 28, one of railway cottages on Mill Road, there were 5 members of the Butler family and 9 members of the Linsey family all living in the same house, so 8 people earning a wage and 6 children under 15 years old.

Eric Lee was 7 years old when the planes bombed the Railway Cottages during World War II. He lived just round the corner on Great Eastern Street and remembers the bombing happening. 

“On the day of the Mill Road bombing we came out of school in Ross Street ? my brother Tony and I. We ran all the way home and on the way the air raid siren went. We looked down the railway track and there was a German plane, and he came up the line dropping bombs. We ran in the house and hid under the stairs with our Mum as you did in those days. The Cambridge Daily News must have sent a photographer early the following morning (a January afternoon would have been dark by 4 p.m.) as the following remarkable photographs and commentary appeared in the newspaper of 31 January.”

The Herbert family also lived in the Railway Cottages. On 6th May, 1938 Roger Simpkins was born in the Railway Cottages. He was 3 years old when the bombing happened.  He shared this memory with the Mill Road History Project: 

“Dad was a messenger boy when he first started with the railway, but when they were bombed out he was a guard, a goods guard during the war. Ours was actually knocked down because me and mum were in it. I can’t remember it because I was too young but mum went under the stairs, we got under the stairs and I suppose it all come down on us. They must have dug us out. I know she got a cut, I didn’t get nothing, me, but Mum had a cut on her head. I suppose that was quite serious. I never heard anyone else was injured.”

Roger’s brother Robin (who was born a year after the bombing) continued the story: 

“The old chap, my dad, used to say he came back from a work shift early in the morning about 3 or 4am and walked over the bridge from the Argyle Street side. He met a policeman who said ?So where are you going?’ and he said ?I’m just going home; I live just over the other side of the bridge’. The policeman said ?I’m afraid your home isn’t there any more.’ Apparently he always used to say to Mum ?If anything drops out of the sky get under that staircase’.”

“I was 13 in 1941 and went to Central school. January 30th was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. She lived in Mawson Road so after the funeral the family apparently collected back at Mawson Road. And as I was thought to be young to attend the funeral I was staying with a neighbour at 37 Ross Street.

   And of course the bomb fell. As far as I can remember I was expected back at the house about four o’clock or half past three, but I thought they said leave at four o’clock and of course my parents panicked because when the bomb dropped I could possibly have been on the bridge. My father walked as far as the bridge and he had quite a job getting over because they were stopping people coming over at the time, but when he explained that his daughter could have been on the bridge they let him through to check I was still at Ross Street.

Charles Langley picked up a fragment of the bomb on 30th January 1941 and recalls his story:

"I remember him arriving at Ross Street , great great relief. And of course then we had to go back and they let us back over the bridge. I can’t remember what it looked like at all. They must have been holding people back; there was very little traffic in those days; it was mainly pedestrians. I’ve no idea when he picked up the bit of bomb…. this is completely guess work.. I would have said when he was asking permission to go over the bridge, when he was standing there. I don’t recall him stopping when we were together but I really don’t remember. I remember the gap in the bridge, about half way up where the bomb caught the railing. They didn’t start mending that for a long long time, till after the war I think.  Somehow we’ve kept that bit of the bomb all the time, through all the house moves.”


Discover More

Online Resources:

The Railway Cottages Report- from Capturing Cambridge
Capturing Cambridge- Mill Road Area- further information
The National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum Collection- with hundreds of railway images, posters etc. 
Victorians: The Coming of the Railway in 1845


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