Blood, Sweat and Imagination

They’ll never work! They’ll blow up!

The arrival of the railway in the 19th century was met with mixed opinion. In the 1830s, early canal companies protested about competition from these railways by producing satirical cartoons showing how dangerous the locomotives were. Others made fun of the endless claims that the new-fangled steam engines might be put to. These were subjects that fascinated Sir Arthur Elton (1906-73), collector and documentary film maker, whose extensive collection of the art of the Industrial Revolution is held in the Library & Archives. The collection also includes paintings and engravings ranging from the 1780s to the 1860s showing ideas of locomotives, railways and stations that were more feasible, and the herculean labours of the workers that turned them into a reality. When ‘railway mania’ gripped in the nation in the 1840s, even everyday items such as jugs, bowls and cups depicted the new mode of transport.

All pictures and objects in this online exhibition are from the Sir Arthur Elton Collection, The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

To find out more about our collections or to plan a visit to the Library & Archives email or call 01952 435 900.

The Pleasures of the Rail-Road-Showing the Inconvenience of a Blow-up

Hugh Hughes (1790-1863). Hand-coloured etching, 1831, published by S. Gans, London. AE185.777

In the early years of the railways satirical artists frequently depicted steam coaches and locomotives blowing up. In reality there were few accidents caused by such explosions. However, the dangers of steam locomotion were recognised by Victorian travellers. The Elton Collection contains a pamphlet, The Importance of a Constant Preparation for Death, advising would-be railway passengers to make their peace with God before embarking on their journey in case of an accident.

The March of Intellect. Lord how this world improves as we grow older

William Heath (1795-1840). Hand-coloured etching, c. 1829, published by T. McLean, London. AE185.506

Every conceivable form of steam-powered transport is covered, including even a steam horse. But Heath also showed other forms of power and technology to render travel faster and more direct. For instance, a direct vacuum link with India, a long-span bridge to South Africa, and the harnessing of fish power.

Studies of workmen, horses and spectators at the building of the London & Birmingham Railway line

John Cooke Bourne (1814-1896). Pencil, ink and grey wash, 1837. AE185.128

Some of these sketches may be the basis for groups of navvies and horses that appear in the artist’s lithographs of railway buildings around Camden Town and Hampstead. Bourne makes rare appearances in reference books of artists. It seems as if his admiration for the technological and social changes which he illustrated made him unpopular with the artistic establishment, who therefore ostracised him, denying him the recognition he deserved.

The Railway Station

Francis Montague Holl (1845-1888) after William Powell Frith (1819-1909). Line engraving, 1862, proof before letters (signed by Frith). AE185.210

The station is Paddington, the London end of the Great Western Railway. The Railway Station is one of Frith’s masterpieces. In this picture, Frith managed to record almost every emotion and incident to be seen on a platform and with which his public would have been familiar – the late arrival, tearful goodbyes, lost luggage and even the arrest of a criminal.

St Pancras Station Hotel

Owen Jones (1809-1874). Watercolour, 1865. AE185.150

Own Jones was an influential architect and designer. In 1865, he unsuccessfully entered a competition to design St Pancras Station hotel. Unwisely the design paid too much attention to the railway shed, which had already been designed by William Barlow and R. Ordish, and Jones lost the competition for the hotel to Sir George Gilbert Scott. The destinations on the end of the shed were never added to the final scheme, but the station was successfully adapted to become the London terminus of the Eurostar route in 2007.

Porcelain coffee percolator in the shape of an early steam locomotive

J. B. Toselli & Cie, Paris, 1850s. AE185.1833

In the 1840s ‘railway mania’ gripped the nation. By 1851, 6800 miles of track had been laid, and everyday items such as jugs, bowls and cups now depicted this new mode of transport, or as this coffee percolator shows, were made to mimic the shape of a locomotive.

Jigsaw puzzle

London & Birmingham, and Liverpool & Manchester Railways, c. 1840. AE185.1877

Charming though this jigsaw puzzle appears to us today, it must be remembered that at the time it was made, railways were the most modern form of transport available.