Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain by Christian Wolmar - review by Stephen Halliday

Stephen Halliday


Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain


Atlantic Books 384pp £19.99

Christian Wolmar’s claim to have written a new history of the railways in Britain is a bold one, given the extensive literature already available on the subject. The book certainly contains many nuggets which were new to this reader and which lodge in the memory: for example, Louis XIV had a railway built near Versailles to amuse his guests, though it fulfilled no other purpose; the standard 4ft 8½in gauge owes much to the dimensions of a horse’s rump; the Brontë sisters made an early and poor investment in their local railway; Queen Victoria’s choice of Balmoral was influenced by the proximity of rail transport (though she forbade her drivers to travel at more than 40 mph, thereby wreaking havoc with the timetables of other trains); and the introduction of comfortable seats for third-class passengers by the Midland Railway in 1875 was criticised for ‘pampering the working classes’. 

Elsewhere, the author deals fairly but more firmly than usual with some sacred cows of railway history. The heroic and ubiquitous George Stephenson is shown to have been a skilled practitioner of dirty tricks when dealing with opponents. Likewise the full extent of Brunel’s folly in persisting with the Great

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