Railways were not invented in the 19th Century. If you consider a track made from timber, you have a railway. These kind of trackways have been found on the causeways of the Somerset Levels and dating to around 5000 years ago! Moving forward, miners used wagons drawn by animals on tracks in Cumbria during the reign of Elizabeth the First.
What really changed the concept of railways was steam. The James Watt steam engine heralded a new generation of engineers with a fascination in propulsion. The first steam locomotive was invented in 1803 by Richard Trevithick. It might just have been faster than a snail, hardly a commercial success. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway offered £300 to anyone that could pull 3 times its weight at a speed of… 10 miles an hour. The Rocket, built by George and Robert Stephenson managed thirteen miles an hour. The railways of the industrial era was born.
The Rocket used to live in the Science Museum in London, but in 2019, it was relocated to perhaps a more appropriate setting, the National Railway Museum in York, a sister museum, and part of the Science Museum Group. The York museum had for years only had a replica of the locomotive on display. There, the diminutive, authentic Rocket sits among other great engines of the British Railways. The Mallard, which holds the world record for the fastest steam train, a record it set in 1938 and remains unbeaten; The Flying Scotsman, employed on the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), from London to Edinburgh, and the crimson sleek Duchess of Hamilton, another steam locomotive built in the thirties in Crewe, the key junction station which is fondly the home to so many trainspotters.
But the national museum took time to be established, which given there is never a shortage of railway enthusiasts in Britain, is a surprise. The problem lay in the different Railway companies operating across the country. The LNER was keen to preserve engines, the other big companies were less so. The GWR had a small collection of small objects hoarded in a long corridor at Paddington station. The LMS kept its at Euston station. The Southern Railway had no policy and managed to preserve three carriages at Waterloo.
Don’t forget the small societies who have their own initiatives, and still preserve countless engines up and down the country; there are numerous steam engines chuffing away or resting in diligently maintained stations. Some are set in amazing surroundings, especially the Welsh Highland railways in Ffestiniog with its fourteen miles of stunning scenery. Other specialist locations have been used in films such as The Railway Children and of course, Harry Potter.
The basis of the York museum was due to a JB Harper who started collecting trains in 1880 and the LNER, who opened an exhibition in 1928. The Science Museum had the relics of The Rocket, and other historically significant engines, which they housed in York using the repair shops of the York and Midland Railway. The nationalisation of the railways in 1948 helped consolidated the collections, and in the 1960s the Beeching report recommended British Rail shouldn’t be running the railway museums. BR was required to provide premises for the National Railway Museum in 1968, and outside London (controversially), and this included the iconic roundhouse.
The museum was opened in York by Prince Philip in 1975, and from there it has grown into the largest railway museum in world. There is everything now to celebrate the railways, from Thomas the Tank Engine books, ambulance trains, photographic collections, a Japanese bullet train, Queen Victoria’s Saloon Carriage and a signalling school (where you learn how to signal), and of course, the original Rocket.
Fancy a bit of train-spotting?