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Travelling by train through time

Published: 11 April 2024

Here at the Science and Industry Museum we don't only have the world's oldest surviving passenger station, the terminus of the world's first inter-urban steam railway, but also a collection of historical railway engines that showcase a century of innovation.

What happened here at our site changed the world, triggering a revolution in trade, technology, travel and time, driven by railway engines like the ones in our Power Hall gallery.

From the tiny Pender to the hulking all-electric Ariadne, the engines are very different, but so too were the journeys of the passengers who rode the trains they pulled. Manchester-built locomotives like these travelled to every corner of the world and the train passengers came from all walks of life, including merchants, monarchs, holidaymakers, refugees and commuters. These journeys connect us to countless human stories and histories, sometimes exciting and exhilarating, sometimes mundane, and sometimes discriminatory, exploitative or tragic. 

Two centuries after the first passenger train steamed out of our 1830 Station, we still make train journeys and it's easy to feel a connection with the experiences of these past travellers, even if their journeys were very different to ours today. These engines now rest in the Museum's Power Hall, off public display at the moment until Spring 2025 as we complete a large-scale conservation and improvement of the space, but what was it like being a passenger on one of their trains in their heyday?

1829 – Novelty: A false start?

A replica of the Novelty locomotive on display in a museum Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Novelty in the Power Hall (2004)

The oldest locomotive design in the Power Hall is a reconstruction of Novelty, combining the original wheels and a cylinder with new parts added when the engine was rebuilt in 1929. This engine was originally developed in 1829 by John Braithwaite and John Ericsson for the Rainhill Trials, a competition organised to find the best engine design for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

It was three o'clock when the 'Novelty' was again fit to run… She went her first distance at seventeen and a half miles per hour, and then discarded the load for a waggon full of forty-five passengers, which she whirled along at upwards of thirty miles an hour.

Charles Vignoles (1829)

Novelty was fast, but it was lightly built and broke down, leaving Stephenson's Rocket to win the Rainhill Trails. This wasn't quite the end for Novelty, which was soon rebuilt to improve it. In the 1830s it was used to pull construction trains during the building of the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway, and later the North Union Railway. Although there is one eyewitness account of Novelty pulling passenger trains at St Helens—made up just one carriage—it never really had the chance to show how it would have performed as a passenger engine, but it was probably too lightly built to have been reliable.

An 1830s artistic impression of how Novelty might have looked pulling a passenger train Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for An 1830s artistic impression of how Novelty might have looked pulling a passenger train
An 1830s artistic impression of how Novelty might have looked pulling a passenger train—if it had worked properly…

1830 – Planet: Out of this world?

A replica of the Planet locomotive on display in a museum Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Planet on display the Power Hall c. 2005.

Our journey properly begins with our replica of Planet. The original was built by Robert Stephenson & Co in 1830 for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first inter-urban steam railway in the world, built to boost business between the growing towns. Planet was the Liverpool and Manchester's engine No.9 and its journeys would likely have taken it to the Liverpool Road Station, now part of our historic site. 

Many things were experimental about the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, including how to transport people. First class carriages were like stagecoaches, with compartments featuring comfortable seats, glass windows and a roof to keep out rain and smoke. Wealthy passengers could even travel in their own horse-drawn carriages loaded on railway wagons. However, second class passengers had no such luxuries. Their journey would have been cold, wet, windy and smoky. They sat on hard wooden benches in open trucks, to which roofs were only fitted after engine sparks burned passengers' clothes.

An illustration of an early train Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for An illustration of an early train
Planet pulls a train of first class carriages, 1830s.

Whatever class they travelled, the journey was bumpy by modern standards. The short carriages had primitive suspension and brakes, but it was still better than slowly jolting down muddy roads on a horse-drawn stagecoach. Passengers wrote of their surprise at train journeys being smooth enough to read or write despite travelling at incredible speeds, of perhaps 30 mph. The actress Fanny Kemble, for instance, was lucky enough to travel on the railway a few days before it opened to the public and wrote of her astonishment at travelling 'swifter than a bird flies' on a train pulled by a 'curious little fire-horse'.

You can't imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath… Thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies... You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible, too. I could either have read or written… When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.

Fanny Kemble (1830)

1873 – Pender: Holiday train

A 19th century tank engine with its internal workings exposed, on display in a museum Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for A 19th century tank engine with its internal workings exposed, on display in a museum
Pender on display in the Power Hall in 2014.

Our next stop is Pender, a narrow gauge 2-4-0 tank engine built by Beyer, Peacock of Manchester for the Isle of Man Railway in 1873. Before railways, few people would have travelled for holidays, but by the 1840s entrepreneurs were organising trains to take people on day trips and seaside vacations. As tourism developed in the 19th century, the Isle of Man became a popular holiday destination, particularly for Lancashire mill workers on their annual 'wakes week' holiday. In 1873 the Isle of Man Railway opened to promote commerce and the tourist trade.

The invading hand of science as civilisation has brought the inevitable railway. The Isle of Man railways are, like many of the other arrangements of the place, unique… they are very tiny, very noisy, very rackety, and very convenient.

Manchester Evening News (Saturday 30 August 1879)

To keep costs low, the railway was simply built, using narrow gauge track and lightweight trains. The early carriages were basic and small, little more advanced from those of the earlier Liverpool and Manchester Railway in many respects. To Victorian travellers used to heavy express trains thundering down the mainlines of the mainland, the Isle of Man Railway must have already seemed quaint. The little trains ambled slowly between seaside towns and ferry ports, with stops at points of interest for tourists to explore and ample opportunity to just watch the scenery go by. This was passenger travel for fun, but by 1876 it was transporting half a million passengers a year and helping to boost the development of the tourist industry.

Visitors should not omit to avail themselves of the delightful scenery along the routes of the railways, which is unequalled in the island, as every point of interest can be seen to the best advantage from the lines.

Birmingham & Aston Chronicle (Saturday 4 September 1886)

A Beyer, Peacock & Co tank engine, similar to Pender, pulls a train on the Isle of Man, 1961.

1911 – Pakistan Railways No. 3157: Empire and independence

Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157 at MSI Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for Pakistan Railways SP/S 3157 at MSI
3157 in the Power Hall, 2004.

Our next train to arrive is Pakistan Railways No.3157, an SP/S 4-4-0 tender engine built by The Vulcan Foundry Limited in Newton-le-Willows for the Indian North Western Railway (NWR) in 1911, when India was a British colony. The British Empire built the first railways in India to further its colonial control and economic interests—including the movement of soldiers to trouble spots and the transportation of cotton for export to Lancashire's mills—but to the surprise of railway planners, Indian people took to railway travel enthusiastically. Most of the railways' business came from transporting passengers, and most of the passengers were Indian.

Under the racist hierarchies of the colonial system, the level of comfort for passengers differed sharply depending on race and class distinctions. The travel class system was confusing, offering various combination of first, second, third and sometimes intermediate or fourth-class travel, with different carriages for European and Indian travellers, and sometimes separate carriages for families and for women. Most of the travellers in first and second class were European and their journeys were eased by such luxuries as tinted glass in the windows, comfortable seats, servants, and even early air conditioning. Amongst such travellers was the American writer Mark Twain, who wrote of his comfortable 1894 journey across India.

On each side of the car, and running fore and aft, was a broad leather-covered sofa to sit on in the day and sleep on at night… you have a big unencumbered and most comfortable room to spread out in. No car in any country is quite its equal for comfort (and privacy) I think… what a handsome, spacious, light, airy, homelike place it was, wherein to walk up and down, or sit and write, or stretch out and read and smoke.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

Yet the overwhelming majority of passengers, including most Indian passengers, travelled third class. The fares were cheap, but conditions were poor. Third class passengers often sat locked in their compartments, on hard benches, with bars on the windows, no toilets and awful overcrowding. Conditions were often even worse for the many thousands of pilgrims who began travelling by train to holy sites at particular times of year, but who were often crammed into goods wagons due to shortages of proper carriages. 

Despite making huge profits from carrying so many third-class passengers, the railway companies constantly found excuses to delay making improvements. Discontent with the unfairness of the situation added to resentment of British rule, and Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who travelled extensively by third class to connect with the Indian people, even wrote an essay on the subject.

The carriage was packed already… My admission was certainly beyond the authorised number. This compartment was constructed to carry 9 passengers but it had constantly 12 in it… The compartment itself was evil looking. Dirt was lying thick upon the wood work and I do not know that it had ever seen soap or water.

Mahatma Gandhi, Third Class in Indian Railways (1917)

3157 probably spent the first decades of its working life pulling trains like these, until independence from British rule in 1947 resulted in India's partition into two countries: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. With post-war Britain in economic crisis and wanting to withdraw from India as quickly as possible, Partition was rushed. Many people were left on the wrong side of the new borders. As violence broke out between different communities, millions of people left their homes to cross the border to safety. Many travelled by train, but the journey was hard and dangerous. 

Overloaded passenger trains filled with refugees were often attacked and countless passengers were murdered. We do not know for sure what 3157 was doing during this time, but photographs show engines of the same type pulling trains of refugees on their hazardous escapes. The route of the NWR passed through areas that saw extensive violence. It is likely that 3157 was caught up in these tragic events and the locomotive has been researched and interpreted in terms of its probable activities during Partition

Black and white photo of Muslim refugees crowded on a train during Partition. Daily Herald Archive
Refugees make the dangerous journey across the newly formed India-Pakistan border in 1947. The locomotive is an SP/S 4-4-0 of the same basic type as 3157 and also manufactured by Vulcan.

After 1947, 3157 became part of the newly established Pakistan Railways and continued its journeys for over 30 more years. Its boiler plate records it as travelling 1.5 million miles between 1931 and 1980. In 1982 it made its final journey when it was gifted to the museum by the Government of Pakistan and shipped to Manchester for display in the newly opened Power Hall.

1929 – Beyer Garratt 2352: For King and Coal Country

2352 In the Power Hall, 2004.

Beyer Garratt GL class No.2352 is the largest locomotive in the Power Hall, weighing in at 214 tons, the equivalent of about eleven Penders. Built by Beyer, Peacock and Company in Manchester for South African Railways, 2352 was designed to pull heavy coal trains, weighing as much as 2,000 tons each, on lines running through hilly terrain. The Garratt was well suited for this sort of work. The engine was large and powerful, but its weight was spread over 14 sets of wheels so it could travel over lightly laid track, and the articulated design allowed it to bend around tight turns. 

Until the fall of the racist Apartheid system in the 1990s, South African Railways imposed strict racial segregation on its trains. There were separate carriages for passengers of different races, with the best facilities reserved for white people. While smaller Garratts were used on passenger trains, the enormous 2352 spent its career mostly hauling coal, but it did pull at least one passenger train. In 1947, King George VI and the Royal Family began a two-month tour of South Africa aboard the ivory painted carriages of the 'White Train'. 2352 pulled the royal train for part of the trip through eastern South Africa.

The Royal coaches, with their beautifully furnished lounge, staterooms and bathrooms sealed from outside air and noise, are, above all else an impressive example of British workmanship.

Birmingham Daily Gazette (1946)

In 1947 the British Empire, which included South Africa, was on the verge of slow collapse as colonies began gaining independence from Britain. This prestigious royal tour was intended to bolster support for the crown and to encourage South Africa to remain within the British sphere of influence. 

The Royal Family travelled nearly 5,000 miles in the White Train, which was virtually a palace on wheels. Its carriages were air conditioned, panelled in maple and walnut, and tastefully furnished with powder blue curtains, green porcelain bathrooms, beds, settees, armchairs and other home comforts. 2352 may have only pulled one passenger train that we know of, but it was probably the most comfortable journey offered by any of the Power Hall's locomotives.

Photograph of South African Railways Beyer-Garratt GL No. 2352 pulling the royal train between Glencoe and Vryheid during the visit of George VI to South Africa in February 1947. Copyright of South African Railways
Photograph of South African Railways Beyer-Garratt GL No. 2352 pulling the royal train between Glencoe and Vryheid during the visit of George VI to South Africa in February 1947.

1954 – Ariadne: An electrifying future

An electric locomotive on display in a museum, with two men working on it. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for An electric locomotive on display in a museum, with two men working on it.
Ariadne being moved during the present Power Hall renovations, 2023.

Our journey ends back in Manchester in 1954 with Ariadne, an EM2, or Class 77, Co-Co electric locomotive manufactured in Gorton British Rail. The EM2s were built specially to haul express passenger trains over the Woodhead Line, Britain's first all-electric mainline, which linked Manchester and Sheffield. The route was a difficult one, crossing hills and valleys and passing through the three-mile-long Woodhead Tunnels. Mostly used by heavy coal trains, the tunnels were badly ventilated and an uncomfortable part of the journey when trains were pulled by smoke belching steam engines.

Passage through the tunnel is an unpleasant business owing to the density of the smoke which penetrates into the most tightly closed compartment to a well-nigh suffocating degree.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Tuesday 18 March 1913)

In the 1950s the Woodhead route was electrified, with a new tunnel built. The passenger trains pulled by the electric Ariadne were not greatly faster than the steam trains they replaced, but they were quiet, modern and clean, offering passengers a comfortable journey free from fumes and coal dust. The Woodhead route was closed in 1970, but Ariadne was sold to the Netherlands' state railway, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, where it worked until 1986, often pulling express trains from The Hague to the German border, a long way from the Pennine hills they were designed to cross.

I had a trip in one of these electric trains… I can say right away, you'll like them. Each train has three coaches—six in peak periods—which are bright enough to shoo away the morning doldrums. They are modern, well lighted.

Manchester Evening News (9 April 1954)

A 1954 British Rail poster advertising 'Britain's First All-Electric Main Line' Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Image source for A 1954 British Rail poster advertising 'Britain's First All-Electric Main Line'
1954 British Rail poster of an EM2 locomotive pulling a passenger train, whilst an earlier EM1 electric engine hauls a coal train on the other line.

Journey's end

Six locomotives, six different histories, all together under one roof and linked by their Manchester connections. Most of the engines were brought together in the 1970s and 1980s, when the founders of the museum began building up the railway collection. Their hope was that the collection would show the progression of technology through time, but also showcase Manchester's contribution to railways around the world.

Journey's end

This farsighted decision has given us a unique collection with a rich, but sometimes complicated history. Our engines helped people travel faster, further and more conveniently than before. The journeys they made allowed countless human connections and experiences across the world. Yet the colonial contexts in which some of them operated also involved exploitation, inequality and tragedy, raising many questions about how they should be displayed.

As part of our commitment to inclusive storytelling the Science Museum Group is currently undertaking research to better understand the colonial context of our collections.

What is certain is that passenger journeys give us a very human way of appreciating these historic locomotives. Most of us have travelled by train and, whilst our journeys today are very different, it's easy to feel a sense of empathy with these travellers from the past.

Further reading

  • Anthony Dawson, The Liverpool and Manchester Railway: An Operating History (2020)
  • David Lloyd-Jones, The Manx Peacocks: A Profile of Steam on the Isle of Man Railway (1998)
  • Susan Major, Early Victorian Railway Excursions (2015)
  • Christian Wolmar, Railways and The Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India (2017)
  • Laura Bear, Lines of the Nation: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self (2007)
  • Hilary Sapire, 'African Loyalism and its Discontents: The Royal Tour of South Africa, 1947', The Historical Journal (2011)
  • Gordan Pirie, 'Racial Segregation on South African Trains, 1910–1928: Entrenchment and Protest', South African Historical Journal (1988)