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'The wrong side of the tracks': The impact of the railways on Victorian townscapes

Updated Thursday, 30th June 2016

When we think of the introduction of the railways we might think of it bringing prosperity to the people, but it also brought unsanitary conditions and isolation to those who lived on 'the other side of the tracks'. Explore more...

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Have you ever noticed that you get a completely different view of a town or city from a train; not the public civic image but a more private, scruffy, everyday view?  Have you wondered where the saying ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ came from?  Places on the ‘wrong’ or ‘other’ side of the tracks are considered undesirable, difficult, maybe even a bit unknown and threatening.  The arrival of the railways in mid-nineteenth century towns created new marginal urban spaces which were often depressed and isolated as railway development transformed town centres taking up large stretches of land and carving up the urban space.  The railways influenced the nature of the buildings and activities that developed in different neighbourhoods.  Towns which had previously been seen as  unified places or single communities became divided physically and metaphorically into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts.  Some areas, particularly in town centres, and next to the lines, became permanently labelled as ‘undesirable’ with lower property and land values, people displaced by railway building crammed into nearby housing intensifying the slum problem.  The railway both created these poor and neglected places and allowed train travellers a view into them, a fact noted by Frederick Engels in Manchester as early as 1844.

In the early phase of railway growth in the 1830s and '40s, railway companies located tracks and stations on the outskirts of towns where land was cheaper but they soon realised that people and goods needed to be delivered right into the centres of towns and cities.  The first railway station at Manchester, for example, was opened in 1830 on the Liverpool Road outside of the built up area of the city.  This station was closed to passengers in 1844 when Manchester’s Victoria Station opened closer to the city centre and market.  The Victorian railway was a competitive industry and many medium and large towns were served by more than one railway company.  Competition between companies meant more lines and more stations occupying more urban space. In Manchester competitor companies built their own stations for their lines and by 1890 Manchester (with Salford)  had acquired three passenger terminus stations, one goods terminus and five other ‘through’ stations.  This pattern was repeated on a smaller scale in many other places, bringing stations and lines into the hearts of towns and cities.

The 1840 Railway Regulation Act, passed only fifteen years after the opening of the first public railway, prohibited trespass on the line which was the property of the railway companies.  The separation of people from tracks, together with the necessary fences, walls and embankments, chopped up the town landscape creating disruption and obstructions.  Traditional street patterns were destroyed and these barriers, combined with a shortage of footbridges, meant that parts of town centres became cut off, people often faced a long walk round stations and good yards and had to go quite extensive distances to find a crossing.  Railways were hungry for land; they needed space for tracks and stations but also for bridges, viaducts, signal boxes, engine sheds, maintenance depots, goods yards and housing for railway workers. The historian John Kellett has estimated that railways used up between 8 and 10% of the space in town centres; the larger the town, the more land the railway needed. 

Railway companies always tried to find the cheapest routes through, buying up slum properties or inefficient sites.  In Victorian Lincoln the first railway was built along the Fossdyke Navigation waterway as the operator of the canal had made a deal with the Midland Railway to lay the track on cheap marshy waterside land.  The line opened in 1846 and brought the trains almost as far as the High Street in the ‘downhill’ area of the town, a place which already contained breweries, mills and foundries.  This industrial activity intensified with the ability to access bulk materials and to transport finished products by rail and within two decades the industries grew significantly to employ workforces of thousands.

1899 map of Lincoln showing the railways Creative commons image Icon National Library of Scotland under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

This 1899 map of Lincoln shows the High Street (running from the top to bottom in the centre) and the river and wharf area to the centre left.  You can see that by the end of the nineteenth century Lincoln had additional lines, two stations and three separate level crossings interrupting the High Street traffic, as well as railway crossings on other streets.  While the traditional, largely medieval street layout is visible in the upper town at the top of the map, the space in the ‘downhill’ area around the river and railway lines has been filled by large-scale industrial buildings and tight development.  This photograph from 1950 shows how  the railway dominated the street, traffic and neighbourhood in downhill Lincoln more than a century after the first train arrived.

Lincoln railway in 1950 showing how the railways dominated the neighbourhood Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

In all towns, steam, smoke and coal dust made the areas close to tracks and stations dirty and unhealthy.  The noise created by trains, engines, wagons, whistles and signals continued day and night while traffic increased outside stations with horse-drawn hackney carriages (taxis), horse buses and later trams.  When combined with the growth of large scale industry and its side effects, with physical isolation and slum housing, these track-side spaces declined further.  While the coming of the railways brought mobility and prosperity to most, the neighbourhoods on 'the other side of the tracks' never recovered from their impact.

Further reading:

Denise McHugh, 'Visions of Victorian Lincoln; the production of an urban image 1846-1900' in S. Brook, A. Walker and R. Wheeler, Lincoln Connections: Aspects of City and County since 1700 (Lincoln: Society for Lincolnshire History & Archaeology, 2011)  





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