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Before our own era, "only for the affluent"?

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Calthrop

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Something which comes up now and again for me, in conversation with other railway enthusiasts. There seems to be a perception that active railway enthusiasm is a pursuit to follow which, needs a fair modicum of both leisure and money. People go on to conclude from this, that before the late 1950s at best, “railwaying” as we nowadays know it was beyond the reach of all but a lucky, moneyed élite (largely, the “idle rich” and the affluent and privileged self-employed, and maybe some of the clergy); and that those of said élite who liked railways, were the only ones in those days who were able to, and did, play the game. (Rider implied, that those of us who were born from about 1950 on, have been uniquely fortunate in this respect.) I feel that this proposition holds some truth; but that it’s a case which some folk simplistically over-state, and a drum which they bang too vigorously and too insistently.

I don’t have hard statistics about this stuff: I just have an instinctive feeling that this matter wasn’t as simple as those who propound the theory, make it out to be. Obviously (as above), a good deal of truth in it: but, I feel, not the whole truth – and some personal history and lore of which I’m aware, suggests an alternative “take”. My mother and her four siblings, in their teens in the 1930s, were from a fairly average middle-class family for the times – for sure, no “silver spoon” there – their widowed mother worked as a primary-school teacher to put food on the table (to be fair, there was help, including financial, from less-close members of the family). Nonetheless (they lived in Chester) – they had leisure time, in which they did stuff including trips into neighbouring North Wales – there was a holiday-cottage set-up in the Conway Valley, in which they took summer holidays – some of the siblings were mountain-lovers, and regularly cycled from Chester to the Lake District and back, and did mountain stuff in the Lakes. None of this brood were gricers (I seem in that respect, to be a one-off “sport” in the family); but if they had been – going by what I gather as above, they’d have had a fair bit of time and resources and opportunity for gricing, at least in their – fairly extensive – corner of Great Britain.

To hear some of the “it was only for the lucky wealthy few”-merchants – my mother and her siblings’ situation as heard and relayed by me, must have been a fairy tale – for them in reality, every farthing would have to had to be carefully watched; they’d have been confined to Chester and its immediate environs, all of them would have had to find miserably-paid part-time work taking up virtually all of their leisure time; and they would have been among the relatively fortunate middle-class folk; as for the proletariat... (the “Four Yorkshiremen” thing cannot help but come to mind).

Again – I don’t deny that things were tougher for people in general, 80+ years ago – just: I feel that the proponents of the “only the very fortunate 5%” idea, have a less-than-completely-accurate view of those times – in some cases, perhaps they are dedicated “class warriors”, for whom “faith trumps fact”?

In my eyes – there were, seemingly, just so many railway enthusiasts doing their stuff pre-circa-1955 – there are the magazines dating way-back-when, and the books, to prove it – it just seems too facile for people to say, “they have to have been only the fortunate wealthy few”. In conversation on this matter, I’ve cited L.T.C. Rolt’s Railway Adventure, telling of the saving for preservation of the Talyllyn Railway in the very early 1950s – an era which, according to the pervasive doom-merchants, was grey and deprived and miserable, and Britain was bankrupt in the aftermath of World War 2, and nobody had any money or any chance to do anything beyond working and just barely providing for their families. I ask – so how come there were the resources to save the Talyllyn? The “gloomsters” riposte, “Nock and his associates here, were among the fortunate few wealthy self-employed types who had the luxury of being able to take time off and do this stuff”. Some truth here, maybe – but I seem to get from the chronicles of the revival of the Talyllyn and, a few years later, the Ffestiniog: that the privileged and wealthy leaders couldn’t have achieved the saving of their lines, without a lot of support in one way or another (“a little given by many, amounts to much”) from ordinary “worker bees” of the time: working folk surviving on a shoestring, students, pensioners subsisting on next to nothing, National Service conscripts in their leisure hours... somehow, these lowly types managed to find the time and opportunity; where the gloom-merchants suggest that they could not possibly have.

This is a bit of a “hobby-horse” which I have developed – in the great scheme of things, it is very insignificant; but it concerns what I see as a “received idea”, harboured by many, which rather annoys me. My position tends toward “people are very ingenious at somehow carving out the time and opportunity, for having fun”. It is a puzzle to Shakespeare scholars, as to how the poor who flocked to the theatres in Tudor times to enjoy plays for an admittance fee of a penny or two, were able to do so. Legislation of the time, supposedly enforced employed persons’ being at their place of work for approximately the twelve hours of daytime, Monday to Saturday inclusive; and the law enforced closure of the theatres on Sunday. Theatre performances took place in the early afternoon, to take advantage of the daylight. In theory, there was no way that the working poor could have got to the theatre: but somehow or other, many of them wangled it. I see this as a “constant” through history: gricers managing against the odds, to do at least some gricing, several centuries after London’s working stiffs managing to play truant to go and take in Hamlet or Macbeth...

Would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter – unless it’s an obscure thing thought of only by myself and a few equally odd friends?
 
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telstarbox

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To an extent there can be an overlap between 'active railway enthusiasm' and being an everyday passenger, and of course the railways have been transporting the masses since the days of third class.

And there was more railway to 'enthuse' about up to the 1950s...
 

John Webb

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The first Ian Allan books were 'demanded' by young and not so young lads in the 1940s and the numbers sold indicate this was far wider audience than just the rich and leisured. My own father was something of a railway enthusiast at the time, although work and family left him only modest amounts of free time. But we went everywhere by train; he refused to get a car as he felt the roads were too crowded even in 1950! Being in SE London we had no preservation projects close to hand, although we did visit the Bluebell line in its early days, before the Ardingly line was closed.
 
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Shaw S Hunter

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I would say that the "only for the affluent" idea has a certain merit in as much as the active travelers of 60 to 80 years would have been a tiny minority of the total enthusiast community. That's not to say that the less affluent didn't save up to afford their trips but clearly they would have had fewer opportunities to do so. Nowadays, in spite of the perceived high cost of current rail fares, I would suggest that nearly all rail fans find ways to afford trips on a reasonably regular basis.

An obvious indicator of this is the idea of line bashing to achieve route coverage, a branch of the hobby undertaken by plenty on this forum. It is of course travel for the sake of travel without there necessarily being a specific need to visit a particular location other than getting the line "in the book". This could easily be described as frivolous and would have been thought largely extravagant in days gone by and therefore not worthy of any expenditure. Not to mention the network was rather larger so the possibility of covering it all was rather more remote.

More generally we are in broad terms more affluent today than in the past. Consider how many people consider it a normal expectation to afford at least one foreign holiday each year or to have the latest smartphone or other tech. There will always be different levels of affluence across the population and doubtless some would still consider optional travel an unaffordable luxury but I'm reasonably sure that the proportion of people so affected is somewhat smaller than in say the 1950s.
 

Xenophon PCDGS

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O.S.Nock, both in his books and well-written articles at least brought rail travel and technical information to many who could not afford the opportunity to do so.

Speaking as a 71 year old, a point well worth remembering is that the working week 60-80 years ago did not allow for so much leisure time that is taken as the norm today.
 

Greenback

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I'm not in much doubt myself that the amount of leisure time and the amount of disposable income for the average person both undermined the ability to travel very much on the railway in days of yore (I'm talking about pre WW2 and immediately afterwards).

Naturally, there were still plenty of enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that they would have spent more time on the lineside and on platforms, rather than on the trains.

The reason for this is that there is much more travel in general these days. People live further away form their place of work than ever before, take more holidays and days out, and the range of cheap rail fares is much wider than years ago. In addition, there are more passenger trains now, so all in all there are far more opportunities for rail fans to make trips by train than there would have been back int he 1920's or 1930's.
 

ChiefPlanner

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I'm not in much doubt myself that the amount of leisure time and the amount of disposable income for the average person both undermined the ability to travel very much on the railway in days of yore (I'm talking about pre WW2 and immediately afterwards).

Naturally, there were still plenty of enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that they would have spent more time on the lineside and on platforms, rather than on the trains.

The reason for this is that there is much more travel in general these days. People live further away form their place of work than ever before, take more holidays and days out, and the range of cheap rail fares is much wider than years ago. In addition, there are more passenger trains now, so all in all there are far more opportunities for rail fans to make trips by train than there would have been back int he 1920's or 1930's.


Very well put and an area for some research. (in terms of actual costs of fares compared to actual disposable income for the working classes in particular) I suspect most communities were much more "local" -so that days out were more limited than now - My own grandmother never went to London -and her pleasure journeys would have been limited to monthly trips by bus to Swansea or Neath, weekly to Ammanford. Rarely by train anywhere - bar the rare Sunday School type excursion to Tenby or Porthcawl (the latter always being looked at as more "risque" (a funfair for example!)


With regard to "classism" - the Railway Club was set up in 1897 pr so- and had a Central London venue .......but I suspect that "railway interest" was fairly rare - disparagingly called "Railwayacs" by the industry.....

In terms of authors - whilst O S Nock was a prodigous writer - (see Steam Index for a review of his literary contribution) - his works were just a bit biased towards shaggy dog stories on his recent footplate runs and on signalling projects he had been engaged on ,with some considerable padding out and diversions in all directions. C Hamilton Ellis - especially in his biographical works - was far more relevant in my experience. The post WW2 boom in railway writing was a huge boon to the development of "enthusiasm" ....
 

Greenback

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Very well put and an area for some research. (in terms of actual costs of fares compared to actual disposable income for the working classes in particular) I suspect most communities were much more "local" -so that days out were more limited than now - My own grandmother never went to London -and her pleasure journeys would have been limited to monthly trips by bus to Swansea or Neath, weekly to Ammanford. Rarely by train anywhere - bar the rare Sunday School type excursion to Tenby or Porthcawl (the latter always being looked at as more "risque" (a funfair for example!)

Your family's experiences mirrors my own. My grandparents hardly ever went anywhere, the most that they managed were very occasional excursions. They all lived in Swansea, and it was considered a treat to go to the seaside for a few hours, never mind anywhere else, which contributed tot he great popularity of the sadly missed Mumbles Train during the post war period.

The other great 'treat' of the times according to family recollections, at least for the men, were the rugby trains that ran to the capital of Wales when internationals and big matches were being played there. Normally these had special fares too, just like trains to Barry Island and Porthcawl.

Like any trip in those days, money had to be saved up, and local communities would often travel together, choosing which trip they would all go on. At least, that's what my grandfather and father used to to tell me in their stories of the old days - and that was the old days from the perspective of the 1970's!
 

Taunton

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the very early 1950s – an era which, according to the pervasive doom-merchants, was grey and deprived and miserable, and Britain was bankrupt in the aftermath of World War 2, and nobody had any money or any chance to do anything beyond working and just barely providing for their families.
Such concepts are generally hyperbole. The 1950s were a time of considerable housebuilding, with many moving out from squalid city accommodation to something better. Travel by air mushroomed at this time, often growing by 20% a year. Car ownership (and production) likewise. The railways were provided, by the government, with enough money to completely replace their steam loco stock with modern traction in about 10 years, imagine that happening nowadays! Unemployment dropped to historically low levels. Get my point?

You read the same about the Depression in the USA in the 1930s, which ironically had many of the same features, the increase in car ownership (and presumably affordability of such), considerable suburban development, etc. Yes, the US railways had a notably bad time of it, but the main cause was different travel methods that the public found better came along.
 

Calthrop

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Thanks, all, for your thoughts. I feel, on the whole, vindicated in my "take" to the effect that "it weren't all that grim, back then": most people's horizons would have been narrower than in more recent times, but there was still plenty that they could, and did, do.

An obvious indicator of this is the idea of line bashing to achieve route coverage, a branch of the hobby undertaken by plenty on this forum. It is of course travel for the sake of travel without there necessarily being a specific need to visit a particular location other than getting the line "in the book". This could easily be described as frivolous and would have been thought largely extravagant in days gone by and therefore not worthy of any expenditure. Not to mention the network was rather larger so the possibility of covering it all was rather more remote.

This aspect of the hobby was not totally unknown in times gone by; but, I concur with you, practical considerations made it out of the question for most enthusiasts. There was T.R. Perkins (fl. late 19th / early 20th century), on whom I previously started a thread in "Railway History & Nostalgia" -- the chap who travelled over all the public railways of the British Isles, taking something between forty and sixty years to achieve his objective. For sure -- he wasn't one of the idle rich; but his means of earning a living and his marital situation, were remarkably favourable for his carrying on and completing his mission.

Speaking as a 71 year old, a point well worth remembering is that the working week 60-80 years ago did not allow for so much leisure time that is taken as the norm today.

I'm 67 -- but life went thus for me that I didn't properly join the workforce until circa 1971. Concur: less leisure time back then; but there was some, and my impression is that people made the best of what they did have.

Naturally, there were still plenty of enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that they would have spent more time on the lineside and on platforms, rather than on the trains.
As above -- I basically agree here; or what travelling they did, would mostly have had to be within their local area (which could be surprisingly big -- as in my OP, Chester being the gateway to a lot of North Wales).

Rarely by train anywhere - bar the rare Sunday School type excursion to Tenby or Porthcawl (the latter always being looked at as more "risque" (a funfair for example!)

I have little first-hand experience of South Wales; but recall reading about Porthcawl (where I've never been) that it was, for very long, reputedly South Wales's "Las Vegas", where the working population loved to go for their holidays, and engage in (fairly tame) high jinks.

With regard to "classism" - the Railway Club was set up in 1897 pr so- and had a Central London venue .......but I suspect that "railway interest" was fairly rare - disparagingly called "Railwayacs" by the industry.....

"Nothing new under the sun" -- IIRC in the late 1960s / early 70s, re people working in BR's management sector who had hopes of rising in their career: if they were actual railway enthusiasts and fond of the "quaint and archaic" aspects of the scene, they had to go to considerable lengths to hide this "vice" from their employers.

In terms of authors - whilst O S Nock was a prodigous writer - (see Steam Index for a review of his literary contribution) - his works were just a bit biased towards shaggy dog stories on his recent footplate runs and on signalling projects he had been engaged on ,with some considerable padding out and diversions in all directions. C Hamilton Ellis - especially in his biographical works - was far more relevant in my experience. The post WW2 boom in railway writing was a huge boon to the development of "enthusiasm" ....

I'm no great admirer of Nock. He knew and did a lot -- but, as per your words above, I feel that he tended (not uniquely among railway authors of his generation -- Hamilton Ellis as you mention, was at least usually good fun to read, and with a benign "feel") to get conceited and "up himself" -- territory of "what I like, and opine, is right and admirable; what I despise, I rightly despise; agree with me on both fronts, and acclaim me as the learned Master, or else you're worthless scum". I consider Nock's book in the Railway Holiday series, on Austria, a disgrace: confined to the relatively narrow range of Nock's particular expertise and interest -- totally not in line with the overall purpose of that series of books.
--- old post above --- --- new post below ---
the very early 1950s – an era which, according to the pervasive doom-merchants, was grey and deprived and miserable, and Britain was bankrupt in the aftermath of World War 2, and nobody had any money or any chance to do anything beyond working and just barely providing for their families.

Such concepts are generally hyperbole. The 1950s were a time of considerable housebuilding, with many moving out from squalid city accommodation to something better. Travel by air mushroomed at this time, often growing by 20% a year. Car ownership (and production) likewise. The railways were provided, by the government, with enough money to completely replace their steam loco stock with modern traction in about 10 years, imagine that happening nowadays! Unemployment dropped to historically low levels. Get my point?

You read the same about the Depression in the USA in the 1930s, which ironically had many of the same features, the increase in car ownership (and presumably affordability of such), considerable suburban development, etc. Yes, the US railways had a notably bad time of it, but the main cause was different travel methods that the public found better came along.

The human race seems to have an odd kink by which they positively enjoy hearing, and believing, depressing / downbeat / horrible stuff ("no news is good news; good news isn't news"). A thing which I don't get -- perhaps I'm a weird outlier among my species. Somehow: telling of a particular time-and-place being utterly crap, is sexier and more fun and more exciting for people, than any alternatives thereto. If people weren't this way, the spite-and-hate tabloid newspapers wouldn't thrive -- they'd have very few readers, and would, with any luck, go under. "We're strange catttle..."
 

Bevan Price

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I think that Ian Allan, and his locospotters books were a big factor in making railway enthusiasm easier & more popular. Before then, there was information about the locomotive fleets, provided by some railway societies, but not in a convenient form for keeping concise, systematic records of what you had seen.

Also, in the years after WW2, there were not a wide range of things to do at weekends or in school holidays, especially if you were no good at sport. Many had no money to buy musical instruments, there were no computers or video games; some had bikes, but there were often only few interesting locations to visit regularly, etc. It also became something of a "fashion trend" for boys to watch trains - (and it was almost entirely boys).

Only a few families had cars; adults often worked on saturday mornings, and if you were lucky, adults might get 10 days annual paid leave - 15 days was a luxury. So - maybe an annual holiday including a rail journey - for those who could afford. (Mostly) ladies might go by rail on occasional shopping trips to big towns or cities, but would do most of their shopping locally, maybe involving a short bus ride.

Pre WW2, my late father once told me he had an interest in trains, but did not record numbers. It probably helped that he lived near a railway, but even if they had been available, there is no way he could have afforded to buy spotters books - nor as a schoolboy could he have afforded "spotting trips" by train -- and he was typical of many members of working class families, existing on low pay, but fortunate to be one of the millions of unemployes in the great depression years of the 1920s & 1930s.

Before railways, people either worked locally, or had to move to another town/village to get work. The development of daily commuting was a gradual process, and only because very widespread relatively recently, partly because "rural" and "small town" industries declined as major sources of employment - and partly because housing became less affordable in London and some other big cities. (Yes, there had been limited commuting into big cities in the early 1900s, but it was nowhere near as extensive as it is now.)
 

Calthrop

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Pre WW2, my late father once told me he had an interest in trains, but did not record numbers. It probably helped that he lived near a railway, but even if they had been available, there is no way he could have afforded to buy spotters books - nor as a schoolboy could he have afforded "spotting trips" by train -- and he was typical of many members of working class families, existing on low pay, but fortunate to be one of the millions of unemployes in the great depression years of the 1920s & 1930s.

For what it’s worth: I’ve always loved railways, but – financial resources quite aside -- the number-spotting thing has never held any appeal for me, either (and I was a kid in the 1950s, the apogee of the “spotter”). In part, probably, because I’m borderline innumerate.

Those who deal in pop psychology / anthropology, often tend to wax eloquent about it being chiefly, though not completely exclusively, the male half of the human race which tends toward collecting-type hobbies – including rail-unit-numbers – because of its having been in primeval times, the tribes’ males who were the hunters, who ranged far and wide picking off whatever game they could; whereas the females stayed much more in one place and gathered vegetable-type food, and generally kept the home going, and lacked time and opportunity for the males’ stuff – this dichotomy passed down from then to now. I admit to a different “take” here, re matters dating from ancient times: i.e. suspecting that dreaming up attractive but half-baked theories basically out of nothing, is a thing which people have been doing ever since there have been people.
 
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