B) Coming of the Railways


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. When Cambridge station opened the first trains travelled to London and Norwich. The old Great Eastern route to Cambridge had some of the fastest trains on it- with a train recorded going at 70mph! 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.


This history trail is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. 


Trains, ships and buses all developed as methods of transport in the Victorian period, but it was the arrival of the railways that had the biggest impact connecting people and places speedily.  Train travel was only possible when steam powered engines were invented, which uses coal fired up in a boiler to heat water to make the steam to power the engine. The first successful railway locomotive train ran in 1804. And after that the famous Stephenson’s Rocket was designed in 1829. People were a bit scared of trains at first because of accidents, but Queen Victoria used train travel, and the railway tracks expanded everywhere in what was known as railway ‘mania’, with rival companies competing for territory.

However, building railway lines and a station in Cambridges was not easy because of objections from the University. Whilst many places have a train station near their city centre, Cambridge’s station is curiously located by Romsey, over a mile from town with tracks that bend around rather than running through the centre.  This was because over 20 locations were turned down. Colleges objected to the prospect of noise and amidst fears that the students would be tempted away on daytrips. There was also the possibility of girlfriends or boyfriends being attracted to visit distracting the students from their studies!  So it was that the University agreed to a station as long as they could employ watchmen to spot and stop any university students who had bought a ticket with the intention of sneaking off for the day!

So eventually work started on a Cambridge line and the first ever timetable for Cambridge trains was published on 22nd July 1845. Just over a week later on 30th July the railway was officially opened to the public. The first lines went to London and Norwich. The Great Eastern Company had some of the fastest trains - with a train recorded going at 70mph on route to London! The trains had a non-stop time of 72 minutes from Liverpool Street to Cambridge, covering 55.75 miles on its journey. This was much faster than the coach and horses which took a whole day to get to London.

You may find this hard to believe but before the coming of the Railways, clocks around the country didn’t show the same time at the same time - which is a bonkers fact to get your head around!  So your pocket watch in Cambridge could be showing a different time from your friend’s in Ely or Peterborough or Birmingham or York.  Once a train line was going to go north linking all these places together, it was essential the clocks were synchronized. So it was that in 1880 “British tibme” was standardized across the whole country. Now trains could run to a set timetable.

As the railways boomed so Cambridge’s stagecoach buses, drawn by horses, declined. The old medieval routes of rivers with barges, and roads with horses , that had once made Stourbridge Fair so successful were replaced by railway tracks with locomotives. And then, following on from the coming of the railway, Stourbridge Fair declined.

Those who benefitted were the Navvies, many of whom had emigrated from Ireland where the Great Famine forced people to flee abroad to find work and food. Navvies took their name from “navigators” who had built the canals in the previous century, but in Cambridge they had other names too! Patrick Macgill, the Cambridge man known as the “navvie poet”, (because he had himself worked as a Navvie) called his colleagues “muck-men” and “moleskin slaves of the ditch” because of the nature of the dirty work, and the way that they shaped the landscape “one shovel of dirt at a time”.  It was a dangerous job. Every mile of track that ran through easy terrain cost one man his life; for tunnels each mile cost three lives.

The Mill Road area was dominated by railway workers and their families, with one street in the 1901 census housing a huge number of railway workers including 4 porters, 2 fitters , 5 drivers, 1 boiler maker, 1 signalman, 2 guards, 3 railway clerks, 1 foreman, 1 shunter , 1 coal porter and an inspector.  That’s a large number of railway workers, doing different jobs, but all living in one street. Historyworks commissioned a fun song about this fact, it was written by Dave Cohen, the CBBC’s Horrible Histories songwriter and it’s  called ‘The Railway Workers’ song. You can find it on the website.

The coming of the railway led to lots of other jobs being created and it meant that even more railway workers had to be accommodated. They mostly lived within walking distance of the station in places like the Railway Cottages, which are still there, in a row, by the Railway Bridge on Mill Road. But there were even more workers who needed even more houses. Factories producing bricks and tiles lined Newmarket Road, Coldham’s Lane and Cherry Hinton, and a huge cement factory was located further down Mill Road.  All these workers eventually became upset about wages and working conditions. They demonstrated in the famous General Strike of 1926, parading down Mill Road, singing and chanting.  Because of the political activism, the area was often called ‘Red Romsey’ or ‘Little Russia’ with the combined name for the area being: ‘Russian Romsey’. Many people in Romsey are proud of this history and a big ‘R’ sculpture has been built by sculptor, Harry Gray to sit on the corner of Mill Road and Cavendish Road.

Not only did the railways create work and speed up trade routes for fresh produce and newspapers and post to reach destinations swiftly, it also provided the first opportunity for working class people to travel long distances for leisure at affordable prices. They were encouraged to use the weekend excursion trains for a cheap day return.  I’ve written lyrics for a new poem and song, based on the Victorian posters, advertising day trips to the Crystal Palace Fireworks in London in August 1868, and day trips to the seaside at Walton-on-the-Naze in August 1876. It is called ‘Cambridge Railway Excursions’ and you can find the song and a film of me reading the poem on the website.  Enjoy! 

B) Coming of the Railways


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