Steam Travel – How Steamships and Railways Opened Up the World to Victorians

It was 10 am, 19th July 1843. Prince Albert stepped from the royal train which had arrived in Bristol from London as the band of the Life Guards played works by Labitsky and a selection from the “Ballet of Alma”.

Launch of the SS Great Britain

Large crowds had gathered to see the spectacle. Streets were lined with flags, banners, flowers and ribbons. It was a mass of colour, an atmosphere of celebration, and a public holiday.

The prince had come for a special purpose—to launch the greatest ship the world had ever seen, the SS Great Britain.

At over 100 feet longer than her rivals, and the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, wrought iron ship, SS Great Britain would go on to cross the Atlantic in just two weeks—a journey that would take less than a week by the end of the century.

It was the successful development by the Victorians of steamships and railways, together with the electric telegraph, that gave them their unique place in history.—V&A Museum.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, longer journeys were being shortened by several days.

Bigger ships brought higher standards of luxury and comfort.

Preserved steam locomotive
Preserved steam locomotive

Like the steamship, rail travel opened the world to Victorians.

Legislation pushed through Parliament by Prime Minister Gladstone in 1844 helped trigger a railway boom. It also ensured that trains conformed to standards of speed and comfort whilst remaining cheap enough for most people to afford.

Excursions were a chief source of entertainment for Victorians. Many visitors to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 travelled on excursion trains.

After the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, a day at the seaside became a national necessity.

Queen Victoria’s patronage greatly increased enthusiasm for railways. Throughout her reign, she travelled regularly by train. Not only were railways fast and convenient, but they provided Victoria and her family the opportunity to be seen by the people, giving the human touch to monarchy.

Comfort, convenience and safety would continue to improve over ensuing decades. The first lavatories appeared in the 1860s, and the first real sleeping cars were introduced between London and Glasgow in 1873. Six years later, passengers enjoyed dining cars on the service between Leeds and London.

By 1845, some 2441 miles of railway were open, with over 30 million passengers. By 1900, 18,680 miles were in use and over 1100 million passengers.

Imagine if you will the year 1895. Take a journey with me as we tour some of the beautiful places Victorians could visit thanks to the power of steam.

The Kurhaus, a famous beach resort in the Netherlands
The Kurhaus, a famous beach resort in the Netherlands
The Singel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The Singel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Halle Gate, Brussels, Belgium
Halle Gate, Brussels, Belgium
The beach and the casino, Dieppe, France
The beach and the casino, Dieppe, France
Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile, Paris, France
Hotel de ville, Paris, France
Hotel de ville, Paris, France
Seven bridges, Paris, France
Seven bridges, Paris, France

Avenue de la Gare, Nice, French Riviera
Avenue de la Gare, Nice, French Riviera
La Concha, San Sebastián, Basque Country, Spain
La Concha, San Sebastián, Basque Country, Spain
Algiers, Algeria
Algiers, Algeria
Resting Bedouins and the Grand Pyramid, Cairo, Egypt
Resting Bedouins and the Grand Pyramid, Cairo, Egypt
Sailboat on the Nile, Cairo, Egypt
Sailboat on the Nile, Cairo, Egypt
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Constantinople, Turkey
Constantinople, Turkey
The Galata Bridge in Istanbul
The Galata Bridge in Istanbul
Plaza and church of San Francesco di Paola, Naples, Italy
Plaza and church of San Francesco di Paola, Naples, Italy
Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
San Giorgio from Doges' Palace, Venice, Italy
San Giorgio from Doges’ Palace, Venice, Italy
Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
Sigmaringen, Germany
Sigmaringen, Germany
The Great Forest, Debreczin, Hungary, Austro-Hungary
The Great Forest, Debreczin, Hungary, Austro-Hungary
Kursalon Stadtpark in Vienna, Austria
Kursalon Stadtpark in Vienna, Austria

Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany
Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany
Tivoli park, Copenhagen, Denmark
Tivoli park, Copenhagen, Denmark

Helsingborg harbor, Sweden
Helsingborg harbor, Sweden
Svolvaer, Lofoten, Norway
Svolvaer, Lofoten, Norway
Babbacombe Beach, Torquay, England
Babbacombe Beach, Torquay, England
Fifth Avenue at Fifty-first Street, New York City
Fifth Avenue at Fifty-first Street, New York City, USA
Mulberry Street, New York City
Mulberry Street, New York City, USA

Washington. West façade Library of Congress
Washington, West façade Library of Congress, USA

Wasatch Range from the Valley of the Jordan, Utah
Wasatch Range from the Valley of the Jordan, Utah, USA




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