Railroaded in the Regency, a Guest Post from Colin Rowland

Outlining plots, which I have been engaged in for severak weejs, is always a voyage of discovery for me. Not having lived during the Regency (no, really? who’da thunk!), I got to thinking about the movement of goods in the early 19th century. How did shops in England get the goods they sold?

I realize that much of a merchant’s inventory was locally sourced, especially when it came to food, but there were many items that had to have been produced elsewhere and brought to the business. How these items were transported got me wondering how common rail travel was. Turns out, not very, at least not in the first three or four decades of the century. They existed, but their usage was limited to a select few applications, such as mining and quarrying, for the most part.

The first recorded operation of a steam locomotive was February 21, 1804, in Pen-y-Darren, South Wales, and seemed to come about as a result of a bet. Its inventor, Richard Trevithick, built an engine that hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles from Pen-y-Darren at a speed of five miles per hour, winning the railway owner 500 guineas in the process. The man was too far ahead of his time(about 20 years), and his invention was regarded as a novelty. His creation never made him any money, and he died penniless.

Mr. Trevithick’s was not the first attempt to harness the power of steam, though. The idea had been kicking around since the late 1700s and various tinkerers had attempted to create a working model. In 1784, a Scottish inventor built a small-scale prototype of a steam road locomotive, and a full-scale one was proposed by William Reynolds around 1787. But Trevithick’s idea was taken by others, and by 1845 there were over 2,400 miles of track, carrying more than 30 million passengers per year in Britain alone.

Rail lines themselves were not new. Britain had them in the 18th century, but they were horse-drawn and used almost exclusively in quarries.

As the network expanded, rail’s advantage as a cost-effective way to move both goods and people made it ubiquitous in Britain, and throughout the world. Here was a form of transportation that anyone could use, for a myriad of reasons. It was almost impervious to the whims of mother nature and was incredibly efficient as well.

This is where the expected nugget of information from me is passed along. In comparing any type of wheeled conveyance, from horse-drawn wagons to trucks, or cars, or trains, and yes a train is a wheeled conveyance, the rolling resistance of a train is far and away less than that of any other vehicle. It turns out that steel on steel is extremely efficient!

That’s not to say that the trains were comfortable. This new mode of transportation used wood to fire the boilers and some of the obvious by-products of burning wood were ashes, which tends to settle on anything handy, and burning embers, which were known to start fires. Unfortunately, the fires were not always confined to the surrounding forests and fields. Passengers had to pay attention to embers landing on clothing and starting fires that could quickly get out of control because the first iterations of passenger cars did not have much in the way of windows to keep the outside world at bay.

Conditions did not improve a whole lot with the transition to coal. While the prevalence of burning exhaust was reduced, soot and odor replaced ash and embers. Coal is not a clean-burning fuel, as anyone who has ever lived in a home with a coal-burning furnace can attest. My family lived in a couple that I can still remember from my childhood, and I can clearly recall two things from those years. The smell from the furnace used to permeate your clothing, and the coal chute into the basement made a fantastic slide for a five-year-old boy. (Mom used to get so mad when it came time to wash clothes because she had to wash my blackened trousers and shirts separately from everything else. Ah the joys of youth,)

This blog came about because I wanted to find some way to introduce travel by rail into the plot of a potential story. I suppose I could, but then Mr. Darcy would have to either own a quarry or work in one, and that might go over like the proverbial lead balloon. Bringing Elizabeth into the tale would be even harder. The only person I can see as easy to include would be Wickham. Him I can see as a train robber, although a bit of a bumbling version. Of course, my vision of him is close to Don Knotts’ character in The Apple Dumpling Gang. He’s an easy fellow to make fun of.

Until I can find a way to incorporate my idea into a novel it will have to remain on the back burner. Ms. Austen might have heard of such a thing as a train, but they would have been in their infancy when she passed away, and as much as I’m tempted to stretch the setting of a story I can’t move it by 20 years or more. I guess it’s back to the drawing board for this plot point, although I have some ideas for other new for the era inventions.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Railroaded in the Regency, a Guest Post from Colin Rowland

  1. Glynis says:

    I imagine people must have been very brave to be the first to travel on a train! As a child in the fifties we often travelled by train. They were steam trains and had either individual carriages or a corridor with carriages off it. I loved them (although you did learn to keep the windows closed while going through a tunnel!). I can imagine Darcy investing in a railroad! As well as delighting in taking Elizabeth on one.

    • Do you recall the scene from the series Victoria where she and Albert ride a train? I believe it took place in Scotland. When you said Darcy would delight in sharing a ride with Elizabeth, that scene flashed into my mind.
      I, too, rode trains when I was younger. When I was doing a presentation at the Smithsonian on Austen some ten years back, I took the train from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. It was a fun trip.

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