One hundred and eighty years ago, Liverpool and Manchester became the first two cities in the world to be connected by a railway.
The driving force behind this was profit based on geography; Manchester’s damp atmosphere was good for spinning cotton and Liverpool’s proximity to the sea was good for shipping that raw cotton in and manufactured goods out. The railway shrunk the distance between the two, cementing their growth, but this was not just an important moment in the history of these cities, it was an important moment in the history of the world.
No industrial development has had such a sudden and transformative effect as the steam railway. It fuelled a revolution that not only changed the way we live fundamentally, but even the way we thought and perceived the world. Though the railways were built for freight and profit, they had the almost unintentional tandem effect of making passenger travel much easier and faster, speeding up communication and thus the spread of ideas, concepts, cultures, and, ultimately, change.
Information from London could be transported to the north of Scotland in a newspaper in a day. The slow shifts that would have once happened over many generations were replaced with a rate of change that destroyed old patterns of existence much quicker than anything had done before. The railway even revolutionised time itself, as scheduling led to the first standardised measure of time across the country. The effect of these changes can only be understood by us in the context of the transformative effect the internet has had in our own living memory.
This speeding up of the world was controversial at the time and many fought it, from William Wordsworth and John Ruskin to The Duke of Wellington, who feared that railways “will only encourage the lower classes to move about needlessly”. Doctors suggested that human organs could become displaced while travelling at these new speeds and farmers feared that thunderous locomotives running through the countryside would stop cows milking.
The last two never came to pass, but the railway and the Industrial Revolution it helped power did have ill-effects on countless people’s lives. Many migrated to the expanding towns for better wages, but found themselves working in dangerous factories for long hours, tied to the routine of a machine and living in squalid, cramped conditions. Yet the Industrial Revolution also freed people from the fields, increased wealth in general and, gradually, conditions did improve. Life expectancy increased and education spread. Despite the massive upheavals, people adapted, survived and prospered.
The human capacity for innovation and overcoming barriers continues to accelerate to this day, and we’re becoming used to it. We expect obsolescence and change, we expect newer, faster and more powerful. These forces driven forward by the intense development of technology and that most human desire it seems, always to advance. One hundred and eighty years ago a newspaper travelling from one end of the country to the other in a day was wondrous. Today the fibre-optic wires that carry the internet aid the transfer of information globally literally at the speed of light. The Industrial Revolution that the railway heralded has passed. We now live in an Information Age.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was a giant leap forward in the speeding up and shrinking of the world, but this has come back to haunt the towns and cities on its route. As the twentieth century drew to a close, industry in the Western world, and the culture that had grown up around it, declined and a post-industrial revolution swept across North West England.
Like the Industrial Revolution before it, this changed society immeasurably, and was also driven by technology and transport. The development of the container shipping reduced transportation costs so much that it became cheaper to make things in the Far East and ship them back through docks in southern England than it was to import the raw materials through Liverpool and make them here. Finally our speed of consumption overtook our speed of production.
Just as the Industrial Revolution was resisted by those who wished to protect old ways of life, as was de-industrialisation. Yet it seems that such revolutions are inevitable however much we may try to resist them. It can seem like the end of the world when such changes are ushered in, and for some cultures and some people, it unfortunately can be. Somehow though, in the end, humanity always seems able to adapt, survive and thrive in changed conditions. That is not to revel in the upheaval and destruction of ways of life, but to accept the inevitability of change and marvel at the continued capacity of the human race to move forward.
What then is the future for Liverpool and Manchester, who both rose up by creating a faster world only to be cast back down by it? Today, both cities are trying their best to be centres of the Information Age, with new developments on the sites of now long gone industry that aim for a high-tech future. Is this the start of a new age of success for the two cities? Or, was our age of consumption one to mark their end?
Edge Hill, on the route of the original Liverpool to Manchester line, is the oldest operational passenger railway station in the world. It is also home to Metal, an organisation trying to forge a new creative culture in the heart of an old industrial area. If anything can make the places that line the route of this railway relevant again, it’s new, creative, revolutionary ideas. Fostering such a culture can only help with the hope that these cities will continue, and that maybe even the wheel of history will turn in their favour once again.
Whatever happens, the journey continues. It never ends.
By Kenn Taylor
The piece originally appeared in the exhibition guide accompanying the ‘Dream Machine’ exhibition, held at Metal, Edge Hill as part of the Liverpool Independents Biennial 2010. A digital version of the guide is also attached: Dream Machine Exhibition Guide – Metal