How trains damaged the power of Britain's ruling classes in the nineteenth century

Kieran Hughes (Feb 2018).

It was not war, poverty, protest or even revolution that brought down the powerful British aristocracy; it was the humble train! Of course, parliamentary reform, education, industrialisation and unionism all played a part, but it was underpinned by a development of transport in the nineteenth century. More specifically, it was physical mobility that crushed the stationary, social perocialism that had encouraged and facilitated a traditional societal structure. 

For hundreds of years the powerful British aristocrats proudly sat on horseback looking down on the peasants of the countryside; the countryside they happened to own. The horse was a symbol of grandeur, power and supremacy. This had been the case since William the Conqueror’s horsemen had demolished Harold Godwinson in 1066. Horses were bred and raced by the aristocracy, whose own thoroughbred pedigrees were likened to that of the finest horses. It was this pedigree that supposedly established timocracy, which perpetuated into a plutocracy, as the country’s landowners created a financial and political stranglehold on the country for hundreds of years. John Wade’s Black Book of 1820-23 highlighted the corrupt and excessive pensions, prizes and sinecures and William Cobbett described the ruling classes as ‘a prodigious band of spongers.’ [1]

The development of the nation’s railways cut the ruling classes down to size. The tracks and the locomotives did what the Industrial Revolution and the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 failed to do. The immediate and long-term effect of building railways is only comparable to the effect of the 1911 Parliament Act and the introduction of inheritance taxes in 1896. The mobility of the masses desecrated the natural hierarchy of the land. For the first time, the authority and natural order of the agricultural based ruling classes was challenged by the movement of people rather than by their demands. Trains, and later cars, formed part of a transport revolution which according to David Cannadine ‘was an integral part of those broader economic, political and social changes which undermined and eventually marginalised the aristocracy.’ [2]  

The once grand transportantion of aristocrats in their ostentatious processions became an historical anachronism. Travel before the advent of trains was often a theatrical scene with the nobleman at the centre of it all, mirroring their social grandeur and frivolity. With the advent of trains, our grand dukes, earls and barons almost slipped into obscurity, unrecognised with the newly enriched and successful upper-middle classes, sharing their first class carriages. The riff-raff were attached to them in second and third class. The once celebrity barons and nobles were no longer centre stage. The layout of trains was similar to Britain’s triadic social structure; first class, second class and third class. The lowest classes travelling by train had no roof, abused by the elements as they had been in the fields of work, as their masters enjoyed the luxurious and ‘roofed’ ride in life. The irony, of course, was that trains were financed by the ruling classes and built on their land that was sold at a premium. They had sold out for cash and their greed had financed their own social downfall.  Marjorie Bloy said the railways had a serious impact on the British economy and society, breaking down social isolation and unifying the country. [3] This was a far cry from the aristocratic stranglehold once endured by the nation. Transport facilitated freedom and togetherness, not the main qualities of a ruling aristocratic elite.


[1] I. Dyck, William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture,  (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 72.

[2] D. Cannadine, Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain, (London: Penguin, 1994), 55.                                                                                                                      [3] Effects of the Railways,, (Checked Jan 2018).