Book review: ‘Railway Empire’ by Anthony Burton

The story of how Britain gave railways to the world

I learned a new word from the very first line of Anthony Burton’s engaging and revealing book, ‘Railway Empire: How the British Gave Railways to the World’ (Pen & Sword, £20, ISBN 9781473843691): “This is a story of great adventures, of men in sola topees hacking their way through the jungles of uncharted lands.”

I didn’t know that ‘sola topee’ was the equivalent of a safari helmet, favoured by  19th century British engineers and contractors during their persistent and truly heroic endeavour of bringing railways to all five continents of our planet, the story of which is retold here with expertise, passion and – occasionally – a touch of humour.

Of all humankind's great inventions (telephone, radio, electric light bulb and so on), railways are probably the most important, for with them often came education, culture and prosperity. At times, military incursions too...

And although, as Burton rightly notes, “the British invented little that was new in terms of the civil engineering of railways,” we cannot ignore the fact that they first came up with the very concept of transport on rails: trucks running on wooden track in the early 17th century German mines and known as Englischer Kohlenweg - as well as that of ‘the metal plateway’, precursor of the railtrack, first introduced  in 1776 by the mining engineer John Curr. The British then became the undisputed world leaders in “a whole new transport system: the steam engine.”

Here we cannot help mentioning Richard Trevithick, the creator of the first steam locomotive to run on rails. Significantly, as Burton points out, his grandson, Francis, following in his granddad’s footsteps, played an important role in the development of Japanese railways by designing the country’s first home-built (as opposed to exported from Britain) engine.

A lot of space in the book is given to Thomas Brassey (1805–1870), Britain’s most distinguished civil engineering contractor, with whom the history of railway contracting as such actually begins.

Senior railway engineers in the 19th century were a rare breed, and their numbers were simply not enough to carry out all the projects of the boosting railway industry both in Britain and overseas, so they decided to resort to the practice developed during the canal-building era: to limit themselves to consulting and supervising roles and leave the actual work of surveying, planning and supervising the workforce to specially hired contractors. In the Appendix at the end of the book, we find a lengthy list of Brassey’s overseas contracts between 1841 and 1870, with commissioning bodies being foreign governments (Russian, Italian, Danish etc) alongside large engineering companies and famous engineers, like Locke and Stephenson. According to some sources, by 1847 Brassey could be credited with building a third of all Britain’s railways, and by 1870 with one in every 20 miles of all railways of the world, including three-quarters of the track in France and major lines all over Europe as well as in Australia, Canada and South America.

I can boast of having ridden British-built overseas railways not only when living in Australia, where many station buildings still look like they’ve come straight from the 19th century suburban England, but also as a child in the Soviet Union. The first railway in the formerly Ukrainian Crimean peninsula (given to it as a ‘gift’ from the Russia Federation by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 and now forcibly annexed by Putin), where I was routinely taken for summer holidays by my parents and grandparents, was built by the British. The initial purpose of its construction by the legendary (“neither as wicked as the myths suggested nor as heroic as the popular press would have wished”) English navvies, however, was rather more jingoistic than peaceful: its role in the messy, albeit eventually victorious 1853-1856 military campaign against Russia, is hard to overestimate. To quote Burton again: “Railway engineers and railway builders were among the few who emerged with credit from the sorry mess of the Crimean War... The railway too saved lives, by shortening the miseries of the campaign.” 

I could quote endlessly from this fascinating book, with chapters devoted to the enormous contribution of the British to the construction of railways in each of the five continents (with a separate chapter on the Crimea). But any interested E&T reader (and, from what I know, most our readers love railways) would do better by simply buying a copy and enjoying it from beginning to end.

Having started this review by quoting the book’s eye-catching opening sentence, I can’t resist the temptation to finish with reproducing its equally meaningful closing paragraph – even if purely for the sake of symmetry:

“Britain brought railways to the world. Whatever the motives might have been, the systems they built are a reality that have long outlasted them. The faults of the British were no doubt great, their attitudes sometimes deplorable, but nothing can take away from two irrefutable facts: the labour was enormous; the achievement was immense.”

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles