Railroaded in the Regency, by Colin Rowland

Railroaded in the Regency, by Colin Rowland

Outlining plots, which I have been engaged in for a week, 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.


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March 18, 2022 8:54 PM

Thanks for sharing your research.

Rebecca L McBrayer
Rebecca L McBrayer
March 13, 2022 8:21 AM

Mr. Collins could be the Tim Conway to Wickham’s Don Knotts, having met at Rosings while W was trying to thwart Darcy by seducing Anne! Great article that tied into my 2nd grader’s history work this past week! How about adding in a sewing machine? They came pretty early in the 1800s, I think.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
March 9, 2022 8:10 PM

What a fun article! Yes, I could see Wickham ready to do mayhem, but to also thoroughly scre it all up! And I loved the comparison to the Apple Dumpling Gang! I think I must try to rent that movie…it has been far too long!

March 9, 2022 5:43 PM

We used to use the trains a lot when I was a child as we didn’t have a car. These were steam trains and I used to love it if we could get a compartment to ourselves. We also had a coal fire. Both my grandmothers had a range fire and I used to love staying there as my night clothes were warmed in the bread oven ready for bed!
I agree with Jeanne’s idea of Darcy using advanced technology of the time at Pemberley such as finding a way to have running water in the house as well!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
March 8, 2022 10:51 AM

I was a child at the time we had a coal-burning stove. It was the pot-bellied type and you had to be careful since coal burns so hot… you didn’t want to overheat the stove as it would glow red. It also dried out the air and mom kept a pan of water on top at all times to get moisture back into the house.
Here is a thought. It is possible that a very intelligent Darcy might experiment with
innovations on his own property. He first became interested when he was very
young and they were visiting their Scottish estate. They could have seen the small-scale
prototype from the 1787 exhibit. When he was a bit older, he and his father
might have visited exhibits where steam innovations were discussed. They would
discuss and consider it for Pemberley.
Who would condemn [them] him for trying to ease transportation issues from the farthest reaches of Pemberley? I was thinking small scale, of course. I had visions of the Disneyland trains. LOL! He could move products, personnel, and even animals if he chose. Neighbors would simply think him eccentric. It wouldn’t matter the timeframe since you have already established the 1700s as a start to steam experimentation. Darcy liked playing with steam and his father indulged him. You could get as extensive as you wanted. The world is open to your imagination.
I hope you do consider this idea. It sounds like fun.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
March 9, 2022 8:11 PM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

Great idea!

Gianna Thomas
March 14, 2022 12:55 AM
Reply to  Colin Rowland

Might work, Colin, a couple of decades into Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage.

Riana Everly
March 8, 2022 8:47 AM

I remember taking the train on holiday as a kid from Jo’burg to Durban. It’s not THAT long ago (well, not as long ago as the Regency), but I still remember the smell of smoke from the engine and having to be careful that embers didn’t fly in through the windows.

You could always set a variation a few years into the Victorian era. Austen’s stories work so well in different time periods. I think that’s what makes her so universal.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
March 8, 2022 7:23 AM

I wonder what Jane would have thought of trains! Hope your book comes along, I think Wickham would make a good robber!lol

Gianna Thomas
March 14, 2022 12:53 AM
Reply to  Colin Rowland

Might make a humorous variation, Colin. 🙂

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
March 9, 2022 8:14 PM
Reply to  Colin Rowland

You are killing me with these hilarious comparisons. And it gives away my age completely to know who Snidley Whiplash was!

Gianna Thomas
March 14, 2022 12:52 AM
Reply to  Jean Stillman

I know what you mean, Jean, about giving away our age. 🙂

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