Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Steam railways and a new generation by Stuart Hylton

Not long ago, I was on the platform at Oxford station when an express train, drawn by a steam locomotive, came through at speed. For a moment, all activity on the platform stopped – it was as if we had all been transported back in time. Another moment and it was gone, and all that was left were wisps of steam and the happy smiles on the faces of the travelling public. Surely no piece of our industrial heritage has a warmer place in the nation’s affections than the steam railway engine.

For no other piece of machinery comes closer to having the attributes of a living, sentient creature. One of the first people to witness a primitive prototype of a railway locomotive was Thomas Grey in 1812, and he certainly saw the kinship between these early ‘walking horses’ and their flesh and blood counterparts:

The superabundant steam is emitted at each stroke with a noise something similar to the hard breathing or snorting of a horse – the escaping steam representing the breath of his nostrils and the deception altogether aided by the regular motion of the beam.

Steam Engines and Steam Railways pic 1 A safety valve, doing its job. (c. Steam Engines and Steam Railways, Amberley Publishing)

Small wonder too that another pioneer, Richard Trevithick, the unacknowledged father of the steam locomotive, found the best advertisement for his engine Catch me who can was to offer a speed trial against the finest race horse Newmarket had to offer.

I belong to a generation whose childhood memories include a railway that was almost entirely driven by steam. The sights, sounds and smells of it are still fresh in my mind and for me a steam engine evokes a whole host of memories. From standing on another platform and enjoying a little childhood frisson of fear, as a Great Western express thundered through on its way to the West Country or Wales, to being my own master of the universe as I created my own little railway world on the sitting room carpet, courtesy of Messrs Hornby and Triang.

But my generation is growing old and those that follow will not have the same store of memories, on which an attachment to steam can be built. How will they view steam locomotion? Will it just be another historical curiosity, as far removed from their direct experience as the stagecoach or the penny-farthing bicycle? Will they even be remotely interested? Perhaps more to the point, how many of them will be interested enough to put themselves through the lengthy and demanding process of learning to drive or fire a steam locomotive?

 

Steam Engines and Steam Railways pic 2 No. 31806. This U class locomotive started life as something rather different - a K Class tank engine. (c. Steam Engines and Steam Railways, Amberley Publishing)

Since retiring from my day job I have devoted part of my time to being part of the education team at the Didcot Railway Centre, home of the Great Western Society. Our main activity is introducing parties of up to a hundred or more school children to the world that the steam railways helped to create. One of the things this brings home to myself and my fellow guides is how far the world has changed in our own lifetimes. We find ourselves having to explain what coal is and, for many of our car-centred young visitors, the very idea of travelling anywhere by rail is a novelty.

Steam Engines and Steam Railways pic 3 Gladstone, the first in a class of thirty-six locomotives built for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway from 1882. (c. Steam Engines and Steam Railways, Amberley Publishing)

But one thing I have learned from my experience is that heritage railways offer a rich potential for engaging young people’s interest and a way into a variety of areas of the school curriculum. For history, there is the story of the industrial revolution, which could not have happened in the way it did without the railways. It gives an insight into the lives of all classes of the Victorians, from the Royal family to the poorest travellers, enduring the harsh conditions of early third-class journeys. For all of them, the railways changed their lives in a way that no other development, before or since, has done. For more modern history, a staged ‘evacuation’, with the children being assigned to new ‘foster carers’ at the end of the journey, can provide the basis for a wide range of teaching about the home front during the Second World War.

For the sciences, we have the physics and mechanics of how steam engines work and the dramatic development of that technology, which meant that the main operating principles of the steam locomotive for the next hundred years had been worked out within about a decade of the opening of the first modern railway, in 1830. Then there are the engineering feats of the giants of railway building such as Brunel and the Stephenson’s, which redefined the boundaries of the possible in railway building.

For those of us who care about the future of steam locomotion, one of our priorities must surely be to help educators to make the most of this rich history, and use it to fire the enthusiasm of a new generation of steam railwaymen.

9781445656687

Stuart Hylton's book Steam Engines and Steam Railways: A Young Person's Guide is available for purchase now.