The slave lines – how compensation from slavery helped build Britain’s railways

The railways transformed Britain when they were introduced as a mass mode of transport in the 19th century. For the first time we had a nationally integrated economy where major brands were established, professional sports leagues blossomed and seaside excursions became possible for many.

Towns that were on main lines boomed, while those bypassed by rail services often became mere backwaters. Places like Manchester were built on the passenger and freight connections to the rest of the country.

And whether you find train travel a pleasurable experience or not there’s no getting away from the fact that railways dominate our lives today. 1.4 billion passenger journeys are now made on the national network every year – the highest figures since the 1920s, according to data made available by the Association of Train Operating Companies.

But what fascinates me, aside from the practicalities of how such vast infrastructure projects were carried out in the early days without the vastly superior tools and machines we have today, is how the companies were financed.

Clues as to where the huge sums of capital came from can be found on a new website from University College London which tracks the £20 million paid in compensation for the loss of “property” when slavery ownership was abolished in 1833.

The database has details of around 46,000 individual claims and awards to those who either owned slaves or benefitted indirectly from ownership. Through the search tools on the site, it’s possible to find out whether your ancestors owned slaves, which could prove uncomfortable discoveries for many.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, ‘railway investment’ seems to dominate on the categories front. The site has no less than 523 records of 162 individuals financing schemes up and down the country.

Exactly where they put their money is clearly recorded – for example a Daniel Green Pretyman put £2500 into the London and York Railway.

From looking at this closely, I’ve calculated that total over £4 million was invested in the railway on the proceeds of the compensation for slavery, which is of course no small sum. In today’s money that would be worth somewhere in the region of £280 million.

During the ‘railway mania’ of the 1840s, investors saw the vast returns that the initial schemes produced and believed they too could make their fortunes through investing in this way. In reality, away from the main routes, what many were actually gambling on were merely branch lines and so when, naturally, passengers didn’t materialise they went bankrupt.

Dr Richard Beeching, appointed Chairman of British Railways, wiped out some of the network in the 1960s through his rationalisation plan which saw 2,000 stations closed and thousands of miles of track shut, but many of those bits of line that I’ve seen on the UCL’s website as financed by compensation from the slave trade remain in use today. Something to think about as you head to work or for a weekend away with friends.

Categories: Society

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