For better or worse? The impact of the railways upon Berkshire, by Richard Marks

On the 30th March 1840, Reading would change forever. The Great Western Railway (GWR) had arrived. The original station opened as a temporary terminus on Brunel’s main line to Bristol followed quickly by the completion of the line throughout, a new branch line to Basingstoke (opened 1st November 1848), the Berks and Hants line which would eventually reach the West Country via Newbury and Exeter and the completion of the Oxford and Great Western Union railway to Oxford and beyond to the Midlands.

 Figure 1: Reading Stations, 1865 The South Eastern Railway Station is on the left, the Great Western on the embankment to the right (Unknown Author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In order to take a share of the London traffic from the GWR,  the Reading, Guildford, and Reigate Railway was proposed to join Reading to London Bridge via Reigate, supported by the South Eastern Railway (SER) who operated the line from its opening on the 4th July 1849, absorbing it in 1852. The London and South Western Railway (LSWR), supported and later absorbed the Staines, Wokingham & Wokingham Junction Railway which opened in 1856, with running powers over the Wokingham to Reading section of the SER.

Figure 2: The Railways Around Reading

Histories of the railways and the Industrial Revolution, would have us believe that the network of railways should support a massive upsurge in economic and industrial development in the county, but there is a problem.

The histories of the Industrial Revolution and the Railways are based upon the big cities and the industries therein and appear limited in scope. Whilst the conclusions drawn are certainly correct for the United Kingdom as a whole, they do not appear to reflect the situation at a local level or within individual industrial sectors in those places.

A study of the industrial sectors operating in Reading at the time suggests something very different was happening.

One could assume that, with increasing population during the nineteenth century and the arrival of the railways, the need for manufacturers of footwear would increase.

Figure 3: Boot and Shoe Makers in Reading

It would seem, from the local business directories, that something at odds with the histories had occurred. The Great Western Railway opened to Oxford in 1844 in turn to Birmingham and the Industrial Midlands, including Northampton and Leicester, which were specialising in the mass manufacture of footwear. The cheaper goods from these places would appear to have impacted negatively upon the small manufacturers in Reading, for whom, it seems, the arrival of the railways was nothing short of a disaster.

Contrastingly, footwear retail seems to have experienced a huge growth later in the century, the number rising to 33 in Reading by 1884. The increase would suggest that these companies were taking advantage of the railways to access cheaper mass-produced products, and also of the availability of the railway telegraph to increase the speed of commercial communication to a level not far short of that provided by modern email.

Direct evidence of how successful retailers took advantage of the railways but to the cost of local businesses can be found by examining surviving account books. The account books for the Heelas and Sons stores in Wokingham and Reading fortunately survive for most years of the nineteenth century. The early years show a business trading locally, with suppliers based close to the stores. The account book for 1890-1911 shows a very different picture. The clerk who kept the books, has made a note of the telegraph addresses of their main suppliers, which suggests that this method of communication was now important. The supplier accounts contain the addresses of the companies concerned, which gives a useful picture of from where goods were being sourced for sale in the two stores. The majority of suppliers are located in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Plymouth, Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury (Leeds). This suggests a shift to longer distance trade within the UK, facilitated by the availability of fast, cheap logistics through the railway companies.

It would appear that the picture is very different at a local level from that expressed in the histories of the railways and the industrial revolution. The conclusions drawn therein cannot be applied locally and seem to be generalisations. It appears that the impact of the railways is very different across industry and place and that general conclusions may not be made.

Richard Marks is a PhD Student researching the impact of the railways upon industry and economic development in Berkshire between 1830 and 1900.

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