Entertainment and Railways

Much of Brighton's Victorian history is still easily accessible. Seaside holidays were among the fastest-growing industries in Victorian Britain, and Brighton was the biggest and most famous of the resorts. Investment in new amenities included two piers and an aquarium, and a burst of expansion in the 1870s took the population past 100,000. Below, you can see the Volks Railway. The London-Brighton railway link opened in 1841.
Astley's stages the Battle of the Alma, postcard, lithograph in black and red, mid 19th century.
The Palace Lancers music cover celebrates the opening of the Palace Theatre of Varieties in London's Cambridge Circus. The theatre originally opened in 1891 as the Royal English Opera House, built by D'Oyly Carte to house Sullivan's serious operas.
Although it can be traced back as far as the 16th century, mentalism really came to prominence in the 19th century during the hayday of mediums and spiritualists.
George Stephenson examining William Hedley's Puffing Billy
Stephenson's Rocket. It was the fastest steam locomotive of its time, with a speed of 36 miles (58 kilometers) per hour.
A lithograph of the Northumbrian (1894)
'The Pleasures of the Rail Road
The Death of William Huskisson


The most popular forms of entertainment varied by social class. Victorian Britain, just like the periods before it, was very interested in literature, that is if they could read and write.

The writers became very famous during this time; people such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Bronte and her sisters were all very popular as a number of others were too.

Then there were the arts and theatre, coupled with music and drama.

The most popular musical theatre around that time was a series of fourteen comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Gambling at cards became very popular and as it did so, places were opened where gambling could take place quite legally; these were named ‘Casinos.’. That in turn annoyed and alarmed such groups as the Evangelicals who saw it as the ‘road to ruin.’ They made very concerted efforts to stop such things as gambling, drinking and prostitution, all of which were on the increase. It is fair to say that even today all three are very popular and, if anything, continue to increase.

Another popular place of entertainment was ‘the Bandstand,’ where people could go and listen to brass bands and the like. It was common during these times to stroll through a park and hear the music being played.

The Victorian era marked the golden age of the British Circus. Astley’s Amphitheatre in Lambeth, London, featuring equestrian acts in a 42 feet wide circus ring, was the epicentre of the 19th century circus. The permanent structure survived three fires and as an institution lasted a full century. The managers during this time included two very well known people, Andrew Ducrow and William Batty, who managed the theatre in the middle part of the century. William Batty went on to build his own 14,000 person arena, known as ‘Batty’s Hippodrome’, in Kensington Gardens and drew huge crowds from The Crystal Palace exhibition.

There were also travelling circuses which toured the provinces, such as the most famous one, Pablo Fanque’s. (Fanque would also enjoy fame again in the 20th century when John Lennon would buy an 1843 poster advertising his circus and adapt the lyrics for the ‘Beatle’ song ‘Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite.’)

Fanque also stands out as a black man who achieved great success and enjoyed great admiration among the British public only a few decades after Britain had abolished slavery.

Another popular form of entertainment was the theatre where conjuring, mesmerising and communication with the dead quickly gained popularity. These activities were very popular, in fact became more popular in the Victorian times.

However, possibly the fastest growing ‘activity’ was all aspects of ‘Natural history.’ This hobby became not only very popular here but also in the United States, in fact anything to do with birds, butterflies, beetles and wild flowers and a host of other natural history animals and the like. The seashore also became popular, especially searching in rock pools etc. Buildings were erected to house collections of natural history items.

For those who could afford it, a train ride to the seaside was about the most exciting thing a young child could do. The child would be excited for several days before the event and at the end of the day; he was so tired he slept for hours when he got home. The train companies quickly realised that the visit to the sea side was getting very popular and therefore put on more trains to carry all the extra people who wanted to travel. As the train fares became cheaper, that put the fares within the range of the ‘not so rich’ and the cheaper the fares became the more people travelled on these trains. In the end there was an ‘explosion’ of people visiting the various seaside resorts around the country. All this was helped by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 which created a number of fixed holidays which all sectors of society could enjoy.

Large numbers started to visit quiet fishing villages such as Worthing, Brighton, Morecombe and Scarborough. This had the effect of turning them into major towns and cities as well as major tourist centres. People like Thomas Cook soon saw tourism was profit making and arranged for travel overseas too; this becoming the first and largest tour company in this country growing into a very viable business.


With the coming of the railways, it meant virtually the end of the canals whereby goods and, at times, people had been moved around the country. The railways meant that more goods could be moved at a time as well as moving them quicker. Heavier goods could also be transported more quickly. As well as being built to move goods, they could also carry passengers, albeit in the early days not very comfortably.

In 1804 Richard Trevithick owned an iron works at Pennydarren in Wales. He wanted something to help move the heavy iron around the factory. He designed a steam locomotive that he built essentially as a bet. It managed to pull ten tonnes of iron but it was highly unreliable.  What he did was to challenge other people to improve on his locomotive.

It was another seven years before John Blenkinsop invented a steam engine that had cogs on one of its wheels. These gripped an extra rail, laid down on a normal railway line and gave his engine more grip. Two years later ‘Puffing Billy’ was built by William Hedley.

But then came along a man named George Stephenson who lived in Wylam. At the age of 15 he was working on a pumping engine at a colliery with his father. Stephenson was fascinated by steam engines and in 1821 he was made the engineer at the colliery. Then the owners of the colliery decided to build a rail line running from Stockton to Darlington so that they could move their coal to a larger market and therefore make more money. Stephenson was given the job of designing and building this line.

In 1825 the Stockton to Darlington rail line was officially opened. Two locomotives were used called (Experiment and No. 1.) These locomotives could pull 21 coal wagons for 25 miles at 8mph. This was previously unheard of and soon after opening, the line was in profit. Having been used for coal carrying, Stephenson set about building ‘carriages’ in order to carry passengers but this didn’t come until a few years later in 1833. In many ways it is generally accepted that 1825 was seen as the actual start of the ‘age of the railways.’

Then Stephenson was given a much bigger task, this time to build a railway from Manchester to Liverpool. There was a fair amount of sceptics who didn’t believe steam locomotives were able to do the job successfully and reliably. A competion was held and Stephenson won it. The winning locomotive was Stephenson’s ‘Rocket.’ As a result he won £500. The ‘Rocket’ was able to travel at 46 kph – about 30mph.

In 1830 the Liverpool to Manchester railway line was opened. The success of the ‘Rocket’ caught everyone’s imagination and the so called ‘Railway Mania’ was under way. As a result of this success Parliament agreed to the building of another 54 new rail lines. These days we take the railways for granted, a long way since those early days.

The first person to be killed on the Railway.

While attending the official opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway on the 15th September 1830 a well known politician, William Huskisson, was on the same train as the Duke of Wellington, who he knew quite well. At Parkside railway station, around halfway on the journey, the locomotive stopped to take on some water. All the passengers were told to stay on the train while this took place. However, a few people did get off, Huskisson being one of them. He had fallen out with the Duke and went along to see him with a view of patching up his quarrel.

He was distracted by the conversation he was having and he didn’t notice an approaching locomotive on the adjacent line. When he suddenly realised he was in danger, he panicked and tried to clamber into the Duke’s coach, but the door of the carriage swung open leaving him hanging directly in the path of the oncoming Rocket. He fell onto the tracks in front of the train. There was a suggestion that Huskisson was ‘feeble in his legs’ and that his long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint, the effect of which had been, according to what he had told Calcraft, to paralyse one leg and thigh.

Huskisson’s left leg was horribly mangled. The injured man was taken by train (driven by George Stephenson himself) to Eccles. When he reached hospital he was given a massive dose of ‘Laudanum’ to dull the pain. He was informed that his death was imminent. He made his will and died just a few hours later.

The Duke of Wellington was tremendously upset, and although both men had their political arguments they were reasonably good friends. He thought that the rest of the day’s events should be cancelled out of respect for the dead man.

Meanwhile the crowds that had been waiting patiently had now become unruly, mainly through drink. And so they carried on to Manchester. When they arrived the crowds were causing close to a riot and pelted the visitors with anything they could lay their hands on. They spilled onto the tracks and after they eventually escaped, it was found that only three of the seven coaches were usable. Such was the damage caused.

Many years later the British Railway’s chairman was Peter Parker. During one of his many speeches he said ‘The world is just a branch line of the pioneering Liverpool to Manchester run.’

Researched and written by David Rowland.

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.


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