Some historical geography of the railways of the British Isles

My family swirls around the railways. I have always loved them, and this has played a big part in my career trying somehow to articulate the feelings and excitement around movement, speed, being transported somewhere new. I inherited this from my father who worked for British Railways and like seemingly everyone who did was an enthusiast for all things connected to the permanent way.

In the deeper past my own existence, the connections that brought my ancestors together and into place, is dependent on the railways, their construction and the opportunities for movement and employment they gave working people in nineteenth-century Britain. This is the how and why of the various strands of parts of my family coming together in the early to mid nineteenth century.

Before the railways and other industrial development people were more closely tied to their village and the land. With their advent, labour was needed in new ways, and as cities boomed people could move to them.


My great-great-grandfather – he and I have the same name – devoted his entire working life to the North London Railway, working as a guard on their routes from the docks at Poplar around what is today’s London Overground line and more than likely to points beyond. His father, another Thomas Hall, was a railway labourer, or a navigator: a navvy. With his brother William, and thousands of others, he dug the early railways into existence.

In doing so he left his home in Staffordshire, spent time in Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire where he met his wife, who he appears to have left with two young children and living with her parents while he went off to work somewhere, elsewhere, then moved to Islington and on to Bow. Part of what WG Hoskins called ‘a vanished race of men’, his work would have been incredibly hard, and may account for his early death. Along the way he must have made good enough connections to get his son a job on the North London, as their record books say.


The images of the life of navigators are reminders in themselves of the remoteness of this time and this way of life. Queen Victoria was not yet on the throne when railway building was having its first boom. By the death of Prince Albert much of the country’s lines were in existence. Their toils predated photography, and are captured in long-view sketches of giant earthworks. The London to Birmingham Railway was described as the greatest human achievement since the pyramids, and while this is fanciful the scale of labour is comparable. The popular image of navvies is that they fought and drank their wages away by night after herculean efforts by day. Along with their faults to modern eyes they were heroic working men. This Thomas Hall may or may not have done these things. He may have just excavated railways, took his wage and gone home at the end of a gig. There aren’t records but there are grainy illustrations to stare at with no clues.


In this picture navvies are guiding barrowloads of earthworks up a rather steep embankment along a trackway of planks, assisted by a rope pulled by a horse. All the illustrations here are from an old copy of The Railway Navvies by Terry Coleman.

All this is like much family history a little mind-blowing. Another great-great-grandfather met a grisly end falling from scaffolding on a gasometer in Dublin, not long after fathering his only child, my great-grandfather. All quiet voices from the past that have brought my family and I to this point. The impossibility of knowing these people, the distance from their lives is fascinating and in some ways troubling. Any life has crossroads, decisions and milestones. Pass the pickaxe will you? It is time to dig on.

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