Rides on Railways with Samuel Sidney

To continue this series on Victorian writing about Wolverton, I turn to Samuel Sidney. He was actually born Samuel Solomon in 1813 in Birmingham and trained in the law; however he pursued a career in journalism and adopted the name Sidney. His main field of interest was agriculture and he took a great interest in the development of Australia. He gets a mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography – another example perhaps of an Englishman better known abroad than in his own country.
Our interest in Sidney is that he wrote a book called Rides on Railways, first published in 1851. Mostly he describes his travels on the various lines of the London and North western railway, which by 1850 were quite extensive. Wolverton, naturally is featured, and Sidney offers some insights, in particular the observation about the egalitarian nature of Wolverton society:
When work is ended, Wolverton is a pure republic—equality reigns.  There are no rich men or men of station: all are gentlemen.  
And certainly for a century after this held true. Wolverton people comprised by a large majority skilled tradesmen. There were few professional middle class people and virtually no poor or unemployed. Wolverton people organized their own Co-ops, horticultural societies and light orchestras; nothing was directed from the top.
Wolverton, the first specimen of a railway town built on a plan to order, is the central manufacturing and repairing shop for the locomotives north of Birmingham.
The population entirely consists of men employed in the Company’s service, as mechanics, guards, enginemen, stokers, porters, labourers, their wives and children, their superintendents, a clergyman, schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, the ladies engaged on the refreshment establishment, and the tradesmen attracted to Wolverton by the demand of the population.
This railway colony is well worth the attention of those who devote themselves to an investigation of the social condition of the labouring classes.
We have here a body of mechanics of intelligence above average, regularly employed for ten and a-half hours during five days, and for eight hours during the sixth day of the week, well paid, well housed, with schools for their children, a reading-room and mechanics’ institution at their disposal, gardens for their leisure hours, and a church and clergyman exclusively devoted to them.  When work is ended, Wolverton is a pure republic—equality reigns.  There are no rich men or men of station: all are gentlemen.  In theory it is the paradise of Louis Blanc, only that, instead of the State, it is a Company which pays and employs the army of workmen.  It is true, that during work hours a despotism rules, but it is a mild rule, tempered by customs and privileges.  And what are the results of this colony, in which there are none idle, none poor, and few uneducated?  Why, in many respects gratifying, in some respects disappointing.  The practical reformer will learn more than one useful lesson from a patient investigation of the social state of this great village.
Those who have not been in the habit of mixing with the superior class of English skilled mechanics will be agreeably surprised by the intelligence, information, and educational acquirements of a great number of the workmen here.  They will find men labouring for daily wages capable of taking a creditable part in political, literary, and scientific discussion; but at the same time the followers of George Sand, and French preachers of proletarian perfection will not find their notions of the ennobling effects of manual labour realised.
There are exceptions, but as a general rule, after a hard day’s work, a man is not inclined for study of any kind, least of all for the investigation of abstract sciences; and thus it is that at Wolverton library, novels are much more in demand than scientific treatises.
In Summer, when walks in the fields are pleasant, and men can work in their gardens, the demand for books of any kind falls off.
Turning from the library to the mechanics’ institution, pure science is not found to have many charms for the mechanics of Wolverton.  Geological and astronomical lectures are ill attended, while musical entertainments, dissolving views, and dramatic recitations are popular.
It must be confessed that dulness and monotony exercise a very unfavourable influence on this comfortable colony.  The people, not being Quakers, are not content without amusement.  They receive their appointed wages regularly, so that they have not even the amusement of making and losing money.  It would be an excellent thing for the world if the kind, charitable, cold-blooded people of middle age, or with middle-aged heads and hearts, who think that a population may be ruled into an every-day life of alternate work, study, and constitutional walks, without anything warmer than a weak simper from year’s end to year’s end, would consult the residents of Wolverton and Crewe before planning their next parallelogram.
We commend to amateur actors, who often need an audience, the idea of an occasional trip to Wolverton.  The audience would be found indulgent of very indifferent performances.
But to turn from generalities to the specialities for which Wolverton is distinguished, we will walk round the workshops by which a rural parish has been colonised and reduced to a town shape.
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WOLVERTON WORKSHOPS.—To attempt a description of the workshops of Wolverton without the aid of diagrams and woodcuts would be a very unsatisfactory task.  It is enough to say that they should be visited not only by those who are specially interested in machinery, but by all who would know what mechanical genius, stimulated as it has been to the utmost during the last half century, by the execution of profitable inventions, has been able to effect.
At Wolverton may be seen collected together in companies, each under command of its captains or foremen, in separate workshops, some hundreds of the best handicraftsmen that Europe can produce, all steadily at work, not without noise, yet without confusion.  Among them are a few men advanced in life of the old generation; there are men of middle age; young men trained with all the manual advantages of the old generation, and all the book and lecture privileges of the present time; and then there are the rising generation of apprentices—the sons of steam and of railroads.  Among all it would be difficult to find a bad-shaped head, or a stupid face—as for a drunkard not one.  It was once remarked to us by a gentleman at the head of a great establishment of this kind, that there was something about the labour of skilled workmen in iron that impressed itself upon their countenances, and showed itself in their characters.  Something of solidity, of determination, of careful forethought; and really after going over many shops of ironworkers, we are inclined to come to the same opinion.  Machinery, while superseding, has created manual labour.  In a steam-engine factory, machinery is called upon to do what no amount of manual labour could effect.
To appreciate the extraordinary amount of intellect and mental and manual dexterity daily called into exercise, it would be necessary to have the origin, progress to construction, trial, and amendment of a locomotive engine from the period that the report of the head of the locomotive department in favour of an increase of stock receives the authorization of the board of directors.  But such a history would be a book itself.  After passing through the drawing-office, where the rough designs of the locomotive engineer are worked out in detail by a staff of draughtsmen, and the carpenters’ shop and wood-turners, where the models and cores for castings are prepared, we reach, but do not dwell on the dark lofty hall, where the castings in iron and in brass are made.  The casting of a mass of metal of from five to twenty tons on a dark night is a fine sight.  The tap being withdrawn the molten liquor spouts forth in an arched fiery continuous stream, casting a red glow on the half-dressed muscular figures busy around, which would afford a subject for an artist great in Turner or Danby-like effects.
But we hasten to the steam-hammer to see scraps of tough iron, the size of a crown-piece, welded into a huge piston, or other instrument requiring the utmost strength.  At Wolverton the work is conducted under the supreme command of the Chief Hammerman, a huge-limbed, jolly, good-tempered Vulcan, with half a dozen boy assistants.
The steam-hammer, be it known, is the application of steam to a piston under complete regulation, so that the piston, armed with a hammer, regularly, steadily, perpendicularly descends as desired, either with the force of a hundred tons or with a gentle tap, just sufficient to drive home a tin tack and no more.  At a word it stops midway in stroke, and at a word again it descends with a deadly thump.  On our visit, an attempt was being made to execute in wrought, what had hitherto always been made in cast iron.  Success would effect a great saving in weight.  The doors of the furnace were drawn back, and a white glow, unbearable as the noon-day sun, was made visible, long hooked iron poles were thrust in to fish for the prize, and presently a great round mass of metal was poked out to the door of the fiery furnace—a huge roll of glowing iron, larger than it was possible for any one or two men to lift, even had it been cold.  By ingenious contrivances it was slipped out upon a small iron truck, dragged to the anvil of the steam-hammer, and under the direction of Vulcan, not without his main strength, lodged upon the block.
During the difficult operation of moving the white-red round ball, it was beautiful to see the rapid disciplined intelligence by which the hammerman, with word or sign, regulated the movements of his young assistants, each armed with an iron lever.
At length the word was given, and thump, thump, like an earthquake the steam-hammer descended, rapidly reducing the red-hot Dutch cheese shape to the flatter proportions of a mighty Double Gloucester, all the while the great smith was turning and twisting it about so that each part should receive its due share of hammering, and that the desired shape should be rapidly attained, sometimes with one hand, sometimes with the other, he interposed a flat poker between the red mass and the hammer, sharing a vibration that was powerful enough to dislocate the shoulder of any lesser man.  “Hold,” he cried: the elephant-like machine stopped.  He took and hauled the great ball into a new position.  “Go on,” he shouted: the elephant machine went on, and again the red sparks flew as though a thousand Homeric blacksmiths had been striking in unison, until it was time again to thrust the half-welded cheese into the fiery furnace, and again it was dragged forth, and the jolly giant bent, and tugged, and sweated, and commanded,—he did not swear over his task.  At length having succeeded in making the unwieldy lump assume an approach to the desired shape, he observed, in a deep, bass, chuckling, triumphant aside, to the engineer who was looking on, “I’m not a very little one, but I think if I was as big again you’d try what I was made of.”
Since that day we have learned that the experiment has been completely successful, with a great diminution in the weight and an increase of the strength of an important part of a locomotive.
We have dwelt upon the picture because it combined mechanical with manual dexterity.  A hammerman who might sit for one of Homer’s blacksmith heroes, and machinery which effects in a few minutes what an army of such hammermen could not do.
If our painters of mythological Vulcans and sprawling Satyrs want to display their powers over flesh and muscle, they may find something real and not vulgar among our iron factories.
After seeing the operations of forging or of casting, we may take a walk round the shops of the turners and smiths.  In some, Whitworth’s beautiful self-acting machines are planing or polishing or boring holes, under charge of an intelligent boy; in others lathes are ranged round the walls, and a double row of vices down the centre of the long rooms.  Solid masses of cast or forged metal are carved by the keen powerful lathe tools like so much box-wood, and long shavings of iron and steel sweep off as easily as deal shavings from a carpenter’s plane.  At the long row of vices the smiths are hammering and filing away with careful dexterity.  No mean amount of judgment in addition to the long training needed for acquiring manual skill, is requisite before a man can be admitted into this army of skilled mechanics; for every locomotive contains many hundred pieces, each of which must be fitted as carefully as a watch.
If we fairly contemplate the result of these labours, created by the inventive genius of a line of ingenious men, headed by Watt and Stephenson, these workshops are a more imposing sight than the most brilliant review of disciplined troops.  It is not mere strength, dexterity, and obedience, upon which the locomotive builder calculates for the success of his design, but also upon the separate and combined intelligence of his army of mechanics.
Considering that in annually increasing numbers, factories for the building of locomotive, of marine steam-engines, of iron ships, and of various kinds of machinery, are established in different parts of the kingdom, and that hence every year education becomes more needed, more valued, and more extended among this class of mechanics, it is impossible to doubt that the training, mental and moral, obtained in factories like those of Wolverton, Crewe, Derby, Swindon, and other railway shops, and in great private establishments like Whitworth’s and Roberts’ of Manchester, Maudslay and Field’s of London, Ransome and May of Ipswich, Wilson of Leeds, and Stephenson of Newcastle, must produce by imitative inoculation a powerful effect on the national character.  The time has passed when the best workmen were the most notorious drunkards; in all skilled trades self-respect has made progress.
A few passenger carriages are occasionally built at Wolverton as experiments.  One, the invention of Mr. J. M’Connel, the head of the locomotive department, effects several important improvements.  It is a composite carriage of corrugated iron, lined with wood to prevent unpleasant vibration, on six wheels, the centre wheels following the leading wheels round curves by a very ingenious arrangement.  This carriage holds sixty second-class passengers and fifteen first-class, beside a guard’s brake, which will hold five more; all in one body.  The saving in weight amounts to thirty-five per cent.  A number of locomotives have lately been built from the designs of the same eminent engineer, to meet the demands of the passenger traffic in excursion trains for July and August, 1851.
It must be understood that although locomotives are built at Wolverton, only a small proportion of the engines used on the line are built by the company, and the chief importance of the factory at Wolverton is as a repairing shop, and school for engine-drivers.
Every engine has a number.  When an engine on any part of the lines in connection with Wolverton needs repair, it is forwarded with a printed form, filled up and signed by the superintendent of the station near which the engine has been working.  As thus—“Engine 60, axle of driving-wheel out of gauge, fire-box burned out,” etc.
This invoice or bill of particulars is copied into a sort of day-book, to be eventually transferred into the account in the ledger, in which No. 60 has a place.
The superintendent next in command under the locomotive engineer-in-chief, places the lame engine in the hands of the foreman who happens to be first disengaged.  The foreman sets the workmen he can spare at the needful repairs.  When completed, the foreman makes a report, which is entered in the ledger, opposite the number of the engine, stating the repairs done, the men’s names who did it, and how many days, hours, and quarters of an hour each man was employed.  The engine reported sound is then returned to its station, with a report of the repairs which have been effected.  The whole work is completed on the principle of a series of links of responsibility.  The engineer-in-chief is answerable to the directors for the efficiency of the locomotives; he examines the book, and depends on his superintendent.  The superintendent depends on the foreman to whom the work was entrusted; and, should the work be slurred, must bear the shame, but can turn upon the workmen he selected for the job.
In fact, the whole work of this vast establishment is carried on by dividing the workmen into small companies, under the superintendence of an officer responsible for the quantity and quality of the work of his men.
The history of each engine, from the day of launching, is so kept, that, so long as it remains in use, every separate repair, with its date and the names of the men employed on it, can be traced.  Allowing, therefore, for the disadvantage as regards economy of a company, as compared with private individuals, the system at Wolverton is as effective as anything that could well be imagined.
The men employed at Wolverton station in March, 1851, numbered 775, of whom 4 were overlookers, 9 were foremen, 4 draughtsmen, 15 clerks, 32 engine-drivers, 21 firemen, and 119 labourers; the rest were mechanics and apprentices.  The weekly wages amounted to £929 11s. 10d.
Of course these men have, for the most part, wives and families, and so with shopkeepers, raise the population of the railway town of Wolverton to about 2,000, inhabiting a series of uniform brick houses, in rectangular streets, about a mile distant from the ancient parish church of Wolverton, and the half-dozen houses constituting the original parish.
For the benefit of this population, the directors have built a church, schools for boys, for girls, and for infants, which are not the least remarkable or interesting parts of this curious town.
The clergyman of the railway church, the Rev. George Waight, M.A., has been resident at Wolverton from the commencement of the railway buildings.  His difficulties are great; but he is well satisfied with his success.  In railway towns there is only one class, and that so thoroughly independent, that the influence of the clergyman can only rest with his character and talents.
The church is thinly attended in the morning, for hard-working men like to indulge in rest one day in the week; in the evening it is crowded, and the singing far above average.
To the schools we should like to have devoted a whole chapter now, but must reserve an account of one of the most interesting results of railway enterprise.
There is a literary and scientific institution, with a library attached.  Scientific lectures and scientific books are very little patronized at Wolverton; astronomy and geology have few students; but there is a steady demand for a great number of novels, voyages, and travels; and musical entertainments are well supported.
The lecture-room is extremely miserable, quite unfit for a good concert, as there is not even a retiring room, but the directors are about to build a better one, and while they are about it, they might as well build a small theatre.  Some such amusement is much needed; for want of relaxation in the monotony of a town composed of one class, without any public amusements, the men are driven too often to the pipe and pot, and the women to gossip.
In the summer, the gardens which form a suburb are much resorted to, and the young men go to cricket and football; but still some amusements, in which all the members of every family could join, would improve the moral tone of Wolverton.
Work, wages, churches, schools, libraries, and scientific lectures are not alone enough to satisfy a large population of any kind, certainly not a population of hard-handed workers.
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WOLVERTON EMBANKMENT was one of the difficulties in railway making, which at one period interested the public; at present it is not admitted among engineers that there are any difficulties.  The ground was a bog, and as fast as earth was tipped in at the top it bulged out at the bottom.  When, after great labour, this difficulty had been overcome, part of the embankment, fifty feet in height, which contained alum shale, decomposed, and spontaneous combustion ensued.  The amazement of the villagers was great, but finally they came to the conclusion expressed by one of them, in “Dang it, they can’t make this here railway arter all, and they’ve set it o’ fire to cheat their creditors.”
On leaving Wolverton, before arriving at Roade, a second-class station, after clearing a short cutting, looking westerly, we catch a glimpse of the tower of the church of Grafton, where, according to tradition, Edward IV. married Lady Gray of Groby.  The last interview between Henry VIII. and Cardinal Campeggio, relative to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, took place at the Mansion House of this parish, which was demolished in 1643.
About this spot we enter Northamptonshire, and passing Roade, pause at Blisworth station, where there is a neat little inn.