11 September 2020

Letting off Steam: Railways and Musical Life in Nineteenth Century Britain

Note: I wrote this while studying for a degree in music at Royal Holloway College, University of London, between 1976 and 1979. The resources available for research in those days were more limited than the are today, but I believe this original research still has some value and present it "as is".


The initial development of the world's civilizations has always depended on the ease of communication between one group of men and another. In Ancient Egypt, for instance, the Nile provided not only the irritation necessary for the successful cultivation of crops but also a reasonably satisfactory means of communication between the many towns and settlements built on the banks of the river. As time passed, however, the countries whose civilization depended on transport by water to be invaded by hordes of barbarians who possessed a faster means of communication: the horse.

For 2,500 years the man on horseback remained both the symbol of power and of civilization. But the horse also limited the progress of civilization since it was an animal, incapable of sustained speed over a long period of time, possessing in average speed of only twelve miles per hour. The Industrial Revolution in Britain saw the widespread use of the stationary steam engine to pump water out of mines and to haul wagons up inclined planes. The railway had been in existence in some form since the early seventeenth century. It was not long before the two were put together and in 1804 Richard Trevithick produced a steam engine which was powerful enough to push itself along on wheels: the "Iron Horse", had been invented.

Before the railways came

Before the coming of the railways, travel of any sort was expensive and slow. To the performing musician, for whom fast travel has always been a necessity, this presented problems which seemed insurmountable. Britain's roads were in an appalling, condition, so it was difficult for any wheeled vehicle to progress along them at any reasonable speed.

The virtuosi of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Paganini, favoured the post-chaise which was a light, fast carriage. Unless they were rich enough to possess their own (in which case they would still have had to hire horses every ten miles or so), post-chaises proved expensive - a journey from London to Manchester costing £10 - £15 and taking three or four days, depending on the season. (For comparison, a farm labourer earned on average £10 per annum).

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, singers in particular were finding that they had to spend a good deal of their time touring in the provinces. By the 1790's all-night travelling had become an occupational hazard: a Miss Leake sang a role in My Grandmother at Drury Lane, and on the following night had one in The Children in the Wood in Birmingham. Performing musicians, at least, were in need of a much faster, cheaper and reliable means of transport.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain

The Industrial Revolution was of far greater social than economic significance. It created new communities on a vastly larger scale than the towns and villages of pre-industrial society. In many of the larger towns and cities, such as Doncaster, Sheffield and Chester, musical societies had been formed towards the end of the eighteenth century.

With the growth, particularly in the north of England, of a large working class, it was only natural that they too should show great interest in practical music-making. The most popular manifestation of this was the choral society, often a development of non-conformist chapel choirs, which performed the oratorios of Handel, Haydn and others. People from many different walks of life combined together to furnish their communities with the best music that lay within their capacity.

Picked singers were often asked to sing in the larger regional festivals of such towns as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and those of the Three Choirs. Before the coming of the railways, transport to and from these festivals always proved a problem, as can be seen from this report by William Willington of the Newcastle Festival of 1824:

Mr James Cordwell ... and several other Lancashire chorus singers, were engaged to sing at the festival ...; Mrs Shepley and some other female singers were engaged to sing there. There were no railways then, only one stagecoach, and all the seats in this were occupied. They started about six o'clock on Sunday night. These veterans said there was nothing for it but walking, consequently they set off and walked all Sunday night and got well into Yorkshire by light on Monday morning. To make matters worse it rained most of the night. They called at a roadside inn, got breakfast, a good rest, and got straight to St. Nicholas Church, and found the principals, band and chorus, rehearsing Israel in Egypt. The chorus was rather unsteady the rehearsal went on afterwards to the conductor's entire satisfaction.

Fifteen years later they could have made the journey in around two hours and for the cost, per person, of the breakfast they ate.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The year 1830 saw the official opening of the first modern railway, which ran between Crown Street in Liverpool and Liverpool Street in Manchester. The principal reason for the railway was commercial, and at first, passenger traffic was the main user since it was popular with the merchants who conducted their business in Liverpool, yet preferred to live in Manchester.

Soon after the success of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, it was decided to link London with both cities by means of a line running via Birmingham. The result was the Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Newton-le-Willows (on the L & MR), and the London & Birmingham Railway between Euston and Curzon Street.

The impact of the completion of the main line cannot be overestimated, for not only did it connect the three towns but also Rugby, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Stafford and Warrington. It also saw the founding of the town of Crewe (until then a village of barely 300 inhabitants), connection with several other towns of importance by means of branches, and the beginnings of London's "commuter belt".

Whereas in the past it had taken at least three days to get from London to Manchester, it was now possible to do the return journey in the same day. The two railways opened officially in 1838, and in the Musical World for September of that year we find comment on the use of the lines by musicians:

EFFECT OF RAILWAY TRAVELLING. - Mr Mori, together with Madame Grisi, Madame Albertazzi, Lablache, lvanoff, &c, gave a concert on Monday in Birmingham; the following evening they performed in Manchester on Wednesday evening they gave a concert in Liverpool, and tonight (Saturday) they gave a second concert in Birmingham. They have thus visited the two greatest towns in the north of England, and the capital of the midland counties twice in the course of six days, and remained two nights in each town, during the space of time nearly one-half of which, under the old system of travelling, would have been alone consumed on the road. - Liverpool Chronicle

The Railway Mania

The 1840s saw a time of great industrial expansion due to the influence of the railways. They also saw what became known as "Railway Mania", in which many lines were projected and a lesser number actually constructed. The opening of a new line was always an important event whether it was a branch line to a market town or another section of a main line. The celebrations held at such an event were known as "gongoozling".

Many of the new lines were commemorated in broadside ballads, which were intended to be sung to popular tunes of the time. The following was written for the Port of Tyne Journal and therefore cannot be strictly said to be a broadside at all, it does, however, possess many of the general characteristics. It refers to the opening of the Newcastle and Shields Railway in 1839 and was intended to be sung to the popular tune La Pique:

Well many droll sights have I seen in my time,
In many a ship, in many a clime:
But old Shields metamorphosed, as shell been today,
Why, my old wig from brown, Jack, you see has turned grey.

Why, when I was a lad, Jack, and old mother you know
As women will do, Jack, a-gadding would go,
We talked only a month, and then WALK’D up to town,
And JEM JOHNSON’S WHERRY convoyed us all down.

Then coaches and steamboats and gigs came in play,
And the hacks and the wherries were all done away;
But the sand-banks by water, up high banks by land,
Brought our steamboats "up-standing" and gigs to a stand.

Howsomever, you see, Jack, some Captain they tell
Sticking fast on a sand-bank as often befell,
RAIL’D so hard at the river, as I have heard say
That they got up a RAILROAD – it was opened today.

And like the ship's ways, Jack, it stretches among
The hills and the valleys, old Tyneside along;
And the ships lay in line, with a thing at their bow
Like a fiend from the pit, Jack, that took then in tow.

For it snorted and roared, and struggled and screamed,
Like the horrible shapes that mayhap we have dreamed;
Then another wild scream, Jack, another deep groan,
And like underground-thunder, the phantoms were gone!

They say it's all science - say it’s all bam -
For it either is witchcraft or else it’s a sham,
To rush like a thundercloud up to the town;
I'm afeard it will end in their all rushing DOWN. 

Compositions influenced by the new railways

Not surprisingly, many musical compositions appeared during the nineteenth century which showed the influence of the railways. Many pieces were intended to be musical evocations of a ride in a railway train, for which the most suitable popular musical form was the galop. In the slow introduction the composer could illustrate the train starting off and accelerating, and then in the main body of the work he could depict it rushing through the countryside.

Probably the most famous of these galops was the Excursion Train Galop which was published in about 1844. Not only did it reflect the current craze for excursion trains but the cover also showed a train-load of excursionists travelling under the Shakespeare Cliff on the newly-opened London to Dover line (South Eastern Railway), thereby being doubly topical.

In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, as a result of which more people than ever before travelled by train, there appeared in the Musical Times an advertisement for a song composed by a pupil of Moscheles: "THE RAILWAY PLATFORM, a Song for Railway Passengers of every class. The Music by John Thomas Cooper. Price 6d. To be had at all the Railway Stations."

Not only was the subject of the song novel, but also its price was remarkably low and its method of distribution unusual. A little later, in 1855, there appeared advertisement for a whole choral work inspired by the railway. This was Sir George Macfarren’s Song of the Railroads, the title of which bears an uncanny resemblance to Berlioz’s work of 1847, Chant du Chemin de fer, which was written to commemorate the opening of the French railways designed to connect with the South Eastern at Dover.

The development of the seaside resort

Directly linked to the expansion of the railways was the quite phenomenal growth of the seaside tourist industry, with its important, though not immediately obvious nowadays, musical consequences. Until the railways came, as far as holidays were concerned, there were two classes of people: those who were on holiday all the time and those who almost never took a holiday in the sense that we understand of a period of a week or more away from work and home.

For one class, the aristocracy and gentry, life was one long holiday. In the summer, however, it was usual to visit an inland spa such as Bath or Cheltenham, or a continental one, such as Baden-Baden, or, increasingly, because of the patronage of the Prince Regent, a seaside resort such as Brighton or Scarborough. The intention of these visits was to allow one’s body to recover from the excessive eating and drinking of the previous year by means of mineral waters and sea-water.

Every spa town of any importance possessed one or more Pump- Rooms where patients took the waters. These usually contained a resident orchestra which provided a suitable musical background for conversation. This orchestra was made up of both local and London players and often performed from 7a.m. till late at night.

For the other class, from the industrialist down to the farm labourer, holidays away from home were practically unknown. For these people the word "holiday" retained its original meaning of a "holy day" when work ceased to allow attendance at church services. The Industrial Revolution began an attack on holidays and leisure.

The new factory owners wished to keep their establishments open as much as possible so they imposed stern rules about unpunctuality and attendance at work. Naturally this led in time to protests for shorter hours, a Saturday half-day, and eventually an annual holiday. Since a substantial part of the population lived in a smoky industrial environment it was to be expected that during their short holidays they should wish to get away to the country or, even more, to the seaside which they knew their "betters" favoured so greatly. Until the railways arrived, however, this was impossible, yet once the first real "holiday line" was opened between London and Brighton in 1840 it was immediately assailed by "those swarms ... daily and weekly disgorged upon the Steyne from the Cancer-like arms of the railroad." The day-trip to Brighton became especially popular and in 1846 an excursion train of 44 carriages drawn by four locomotives carried 4,000 passengers to that resort.

As the seaside resorts boomed, the spas declined and their orchestras and conductors found a new place at the seaside. Later in the century these bands came to contain music students from London, the best known of these being Gustav Holst, who played in Stanislas Wurm's "White Viennese Band" in Brighton. Examples of resorts which had important and good (because they contained so much London talent) orchestras are :Llandudno, Scarborough, Weston-super-Mare, few Brighton, St. Annes-on-Sea, Eastbourne ("The Devonshire Park Orchestra") and Bournemouth.

The programmes heard by the holidaymakers were designed, after the manner of many Victorian concerts, to entertain yet instruct. A typical programme would contain several vocal numbers, selections from famous operas, an overture and a symphony by Mozart, Haydn, or even Beethoven. The importance of these orchestras cannot be overestimated. With the spread of education, interest in the arts was growing which was not easy to satisfy, particularly in the case of music, so that a band of first-class professional musicians was something new for most holidaymakers.

The music festivals

The day-excursion became very important as far as music was concerned. It facilitated attendance at that very Victorian musical event, the Musical Festival. As we have seen, before the coming of the railways small festivals were in existence, but travelling to and from them caused problems. It was now possible, however, not for just a few singers of a choir to attend a festival, but for a much greater number to be present.

One of the first instances of the railways’ direct contribution to a festival occurred in 1846. It was usual for a London contingent to be sent to the Birmingham Festival each year. However, in that particular year the festival committee bad been fortunate enough to receive as their main commission, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.

Mendelssohn especially came over to Britain to conduct the piece and while in London, rehearsed the 38-strong London contingent as well as the soloists and the orchestra. On the Sunday afternoon prior to the opening of' the festival, they all met at Euston station at 2p.m. and were conveyed, together with the "gentlemen of the Press", in a special train to Birmingham, arriving around three hours later.

It is interesting to note that when Mendelssohn travelled to Birmingham in 1837 for the Festival which was to contain the first British performance of his oratorio St Paul, he travelled by coach, starting his return journey after the morning concert on the last day and arriving in London at midnight.

The Three Choirs Festival

The cities of the Three Choirs also deserve study since easy travel between them was vital to the success of the Festival. What. is more, the railway transformed and revived the festival which, in the middle of the century was in grave danger of having to cease. The Festival Chorus was made up of the choirs of the three Cathedrals, together with contingents of singers from Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester and the surrounding countryside. The chorus of the home town was naturally the largest.

The three contingents rehearsed the works separately and only a very little time before the actual festival (if at all) did they get together and rehearse as one. The orchestra at that time was also drawn from the locality. Easy communication between the three cities therefore became vitally important in the weeks leading up to the festival. By the 1860s the three cities were linked by rail to most parts of Britain.

It was not until the 1870s that the direct line from Worcester to Hereford was completed, however, since problems were encountered while tunnelling through the Malvern Hills. Before that date it was necessary to travel, very awkwardly, via the lines to Leominster or Newport if one wished to reach Hereford from Worcester or Gloucester, which must have caused a great deal of inconvenience.

The line from Shrewsbury had reached Hereford by 1858, and as early as 8 a.m. on the first day of the festival in that year, visitors began to arrive in a continuous stream and for two hours they poured forth from the station:

The pressure of the crowd thus collected was such that several ladies fainted. The audience was prodigious, every seat was filled, even the tombs being covered. Persons gladly paid to be allowed to sit on the steps of the gallery, and gentlemen and ladies were content with standing room for the want of better accommodation. - Morning Post

Because of the direct connection with South Wales along the Hereford, Abergavenny and Newport Railways, line a vast number of Welsh visitors also arrived, as The Times noted:

Even the aborigines of which hilly principality are relaxing their antipathy to the "Saxon" music and beginning to admit that there may possibly be even better vocal melody than the vocal Penillion and grander harmony than can be swept from the strings of an antique Bardic harp.

Later, as can be seen from the advertisement opposite, the Great Western Railway brought in yet more Welshmen from Cardiff and other town along their Newport-Gloucester line. In this way the railways brought a much larger number and greater variety of people into the festival audience and ensured the festival’s survival into the twentieth century.

Metropolitan developments

The annual or triennial festival was not the only opportunity the Victorians had to hear symphonic or choral music. In most towns, as mentioned above, there was by the middle of the century, a musical society of some description: often only a choral society, but quite frequently an orchestra as well.

For those lucky enough to live in the new suburbs around London or Manchester there was the opportunity, with the arrival of the railways, of "going up to town" for a concert or really professional standard. As early as 1846 we read in the Musical Times of the first British performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and we learn that:

Our London friends will hail the news of the performance with joy, and happy it is for our country friends that, they live in these railroad times, whereby the facility of being present is so much increased.

The Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace

The largest concert hall in mid-Victorian London was the Crystal Palace, which by then had been moved from Hyde Park to the southern suburb of Sydenham.

The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition for which it was built in 1851 were of great importance to both the musical and railway worlds. Some people, including the authors of the Official Catalogue, saw in the building itself a gigantic railway station. Like the railways, it was paid for by public subscription and the sale of tickets, but unlike them it made a profit of over 100%, which was devoted to the founding of the South Kensington museum and cultural complex (which eventually contained the Royal Albert Hall, Royal College of Music and Royal College of Organists).

The Great Exhibition contained 19,000 exhibits, ranging from an earthenware water-closet to a plaster statue of Shakespeare, from musical instruments to an express locomotive. The piano was the instrument which benefited most from the exhibition. Up to that date, because of its cost, it had remained exclusively an upper- and middle-class instrument. New methods of manufacture brought down the price so that many which were displayed at the Great Exhibition were suited to the pockets of the working-class. These instruments were known as "cottage or "piccolo" pianos due to their small size and had the consequent advantage of fitting into the smallest of front rooms or parlours.

Not only were ordinary pianos displayed, but also there were many kinds of mechanical pianos, transposing, pianos, and expanding pianos for use on board ship. The Crystal Palace also contained a number of organs by various builders from which enthusiastic councillors could choose the most suitable for their new town halls. A special musical jury was set up to award prizes to the best exhibitors and it included such eminent musicians as Hector Berlioz, Sir Henry Bishop, Sir George Smart, Sterndale Bennett, Cipriani Potter, Thalberg and Neukomm.

The railways played their part in the proceedings by enabling six million people (then, one-third of the population of England and Wales) to visit the Exhibition and ensuring its success. Indeed, the Great Exhibition could riot have been held much before 1851 for it was only in the late 1840s, as has been shown, that the main trunk lines between London and the provinces were completed.

By 1850 practically every town in England was linked by rail with London. The Royal Commission (which included such eminent railway Men as Brunel and Robert Stephenson) responsible for organising the Exhibition took early steps to get the agreement of the railway companies to run cheap excursions at single fare for the return trip, with further reductions for a journey over 100 miles. Subscription clubs were organised to enable the working-classes to visit the Exhibition, and in the event the third-class fare from Manchester or Leeds to London, normally over fifteen shillings single, was as low as five shillings return - the equivalent of a day’s wages for a craftsman.

It should be remembered that this was the first occasion on which the vast majority of these people had even contemplated visiting the capital. As direct result of the Great Exhibition the piano came to be found in most English homes. When the Great Exhibition was over the Crystal Palace was removed to Sydenham. There it was re-erected and enlarged, so that in cubic contents it was almost half as big again as it had been. Dispersed about the building were quantities of sculpture, paintings and every kind of object of art and industry; around it were terraces, parterres, and fountains. It was the old idea of Vauxhall and other Gardens carried out on a gigantic scale, and like those places it was to depend for its attraction partly on musical performances.

There was not much music at the opening ceremony, however. George Grove, who had been appointed secretary, had the brilliant idea of getting Tennyson to write an ode and Berlioz to set it to music, but without success. After a year the conductor of the permanent orchestral was dismissed by a board of directors, annoyed at his poor musical results. He was immediately replaced by a young German, August Manns.

The band, which until then had consisted of 61 brass instruments and three wind, was wisely converted by Manns into a proper orchestra. lie then began a series of orchestral performances, averaging ten a week, of which the Saturday concerts (when the strings were reinforced) were for the next four or five years to attract trainloads of music-loving Londoners. A branch line was constructed by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway directly to the Palace in order to enable people to reach it easily. A little later a special station (the so-called "High Level") was constructed by the London, Dover and Chatham Railway in the grounds.

The size of the Crystal Palace, combined with the easy access afforded to it by the railway, and the easy access the railways now afforded to London, made it the ideal place for the holding of festivals by gigantic choirs and orchestras. The "monster concert" was just another manifestation of the Victorian love of the spectacular which was obvious in the theatre, in architecture and in the construction of such feats of railway engineering as the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Severn Tunnel and the Tay Bridge.

The Handel Festivals

Officially, the first of these festivals was to be the Handel Festival of 1859, intended to commemorate the centenary of Handel’s death. It was decided, however, to hold a preliminary festival in 1857 to make sure that it would all be possible. The Central Transept was to be used, which would enable an audience of up to 12,000 to be seated comfortably, with a choir and orchestra of appropriate dimensions.

In the event, the railway carried to the Crystal Palace an orchestra of 300 strings; 9 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons; 12 each of horns and of mixed trumpets and cornets; 9 trombones, 3 ophicleides, 9 serpents and bass-horns; 3 drums and 6 side-drums. To all this was added a specially constructed 20-ton, 4,384-pipe, four-manual organ, 2,000 singers and the most eminent .soloists. The works performed on that occasion were Messiah, Judas Maccabeus and Israel in Egypt; it was an outstanding success. The entire production was conducted by Costa, who continued to conduct similar festivals triennially until 1880.

The festivals themselves continued until 1926. Over the years the chorus slowly increased in size and it became common for large numbers of chorus-members to travel in by train (special cheap tickets were available) from the provinces. In 1903 the provincial contingent consisted of: Birmingham, 90 voices; Bradford, 90; Bristol, 50; Leeds, 70; Sheffield, 220; other places, 56.

Mann’s Saturday Concerts

Meanwhile, in his capacity as conductor of the permanent orchestra, August Manns introduced many new works, particularly at the special Saturday concerts, for which extra trains were run. It was at the Crystal Palace that Schubert first came before the English public as a symphonist, and many of the younger English composers, such as Sullivan, Parry, Stanford, Cowen, MacCunn.

German and Smyth benefited from performances of their early works at one of these concerts. Edward Elgar also owed a great deal to the Crystal Palace concerts. In his twenties, the rail services had improved sufficiently to allow him to the Crystal Palace:

I lived 120 miles from London. I rose at six, walked a mile to the railway station, the train left at seven; arrived at Paddington about 11, underground to Victoria, on to the Palace arriving in time for the last three-quarters of an hour of the rehearsal; if fortune smiled, this piece of rehearsal included the work desired to be heard, but fortune rarely smiled and more often than not the principal item was over. Lunch. Concert at three. At five a rush to Victoria, then on to Paddington, on to Worcester arriving at 10.30. A strenuous day indeed; but the new work had been heard and another treasure added to life’s experience.

One of the early compositions, SevillaƱa, was given by Elgar to his violin teacher Politzer who in turn gave it to Manns, who performed it at the Crystal Palace on 12 May 1884, the first music by Elgar to be heard in London.

Band Competitions

The Crystal Palace, which housed so many different events, was also the scene of the famous brass-band competitions which continued to be held there until the Palace burned down in 1936. It is believed the earliest all-brass bands in this country date from the beginning of the nineteenth century. They proliferated in the industrial north of England where they were set up by philanthropic factory-owners who wished to give their workers something constructive and uplifting to do in their spare time.

Many of the larger railway companies who adopted an old-fashioned paternalistic attitude to their employees also encourages the formation of bands or even orchestras. A "Leeds Railway Band" won the large-scale competition, held in the Zoological Gardens, Hull, in 1856. The Musical Times in 1847 informs us that:

In the large workshops of the Great Western Railway, at Swindon, a number of these men have combined to make a most excellent orchestra, seconded by the liberality and encouragement which seems to pervade the Company's arrangement at this village, for the benefit, improvement and amusement of their workmen.

There were also bands at the other railway "villages" of Crewe and Wolverton (where the singing of the church’s congregation was also said to be "far above average").

Competition played a very important part among these bands. The railway had made the possibility of gathering together a large number of bands from all over the country, so that the competitions at both the Crystal Palace and Belle Vue, Manchester, became an annual event. The famous band conductor, Enderby Jackson, managed to persuade the railway companies to provide specially cheap tickets for both the bandsmen and their families to go to these competitions, so it was possible at one time to obtain a return ticket from Leeds to London for as little as four shillings and sixpence.

Choral competitions

Since band competitions were encouraged by the railway companies, it was only natural that before long, a large-scale choral competition should take place. Of course, these had long been the custom in Wales in the form of eisteddfodau, but in England this was not the case.

Small choral competitions had been held at the end of the eighteenth century, but due to the problem prior to the coming of the railways of transporting whole choirs to a particular place, the idea had not become very widespread or popular.

An example of this early type of competition took place at Belle Vue, Manchester, in 1855 .The event called "prize glee singing" and was attended by four choirs, one each from Idle and Bradford in Yorkshire, Burnley in Lancashire, and Etruria in Staffordshire, all of which places were connected reasonably well by rail with Manchester. In spite of this the choirs only consisted of five members each, so it was more reminiscent of the eighteenth-century style of competition than the later nineteenth.

The first true large-scale competition was held at the Crystal Palace in September 1860. It was organised by John Curwen who designed it to show off the achievements of his Tonic Solfa system of musical notation and education. Five choirs took part, this time showing the real influence of the railways since they came from such widely separated places as the Potteries, Finsbury, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Brighton and Edinburgh.

The choirs were given five pounds for expenses but there were no money prizes, the awards being represented by a crimson banner (won by the West Riding), a purple (Finsbury) and an orange one (Potteries). The next year a similar competition was again held in spite of the losses incurred by the previous one. They continued for several more years but eventually had to cease. Their influence was felt in the many competitions held throughout the country and attended by choirs from quite far away by means of the special facilities offered by the railway companies. These competitions did a good deal to raise the general standard of choral singing in Britain and also provided a number of composers with useful outlets for their works, in the form of set-pieces.

The Alexandra Palace

In 1873 a rival to the Crystal Palace opened on the "Northern Heights" of London at Muswell Hill (as opposed to the "Southern Heights"' at Sydenham). This was the Alexandra Palace, named after the Prince of Wales’ Danish wife.

It was designed to attract visitors from the north of England as well as London by means of the newly-opened station at Wood Green, from which a branch line ran directly to the main entrance of the palace, continuing to the Great Northern main line at Highgate. When they arrived at the palace, visitors were pleased to discover that they only had a few steps to climb to the central transept, as opposed to the long flight of steps at Crystal Palace (Low Level).

The north end of the transept was dominated by a brand-new Willis organ, which at the time was the largest in the world blown by two steam-engines. A choir and orchestra of one thousand performers could be accommodated around the organ, where busts of Beethoven, Handel, Rossini, Verdi, Mendelssohn and Auber could be seen.

Sixteen days after its opening the palace was burned down. Since supplies of water were inadequate to fight the fire, the volunteer brigades concentrated on saving the railway station, which had become a Promising source of income in its brief career, nearly one hundred thousand people having travelled to the palace in the sixteen days.

By 1875 the palace had been rebuilt, but of a new design, more solid in construction and, judging from its four water-towers, obviously not meant to suffer the fate of its predecessor. The main feature was the Great Hall, 386 feet long and 184 feet wide, with seating sufficient for 12,000 and a brand-new Willis organ.

The station remained in its original position, outside the main doors to the Great Hall. In spite of all the apparent advantages of the Alexandra Palace it has never been a financial success. Soon after the opening a Choral Society was formed but due to the extremely resonant acoustics of the Great Hall they eventually gave their performances elsewhere.

In the beginning there were many organ recitals on the magnificent new instrument, and fairly frequently choral and orchestral concerts took place, with opera performances in the theatre. Towards the end of the century the concerts dwindled and remained at a low ebb well into the present century.

A very unusual connection between railways and music was made during the first London performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom: during the concert the organ bellows burst and the Trustees decided that

the Great Northern Company be communicated with, as to the steam from their engines entering the boiler-house and damaging the organ, and for the same to be remedied.

Mapleson’s National Opera House

Another musical project in London which had connections (quite literally) with the railway, aim which was even less successful than the Alexandra Palace, was the National Opera House planned by the impresario Mapleson. This building was to have been constructed on the Victoria Embankment on the site now occupied by New Scotland Yard.

It was to have its own station on the new District Railway and would contain changing-rooms downstairs next to the station where opera-goers from the suburbs would be able to change into evening-dress after their journey. Mapleson does not appear to have considered the effect of the vibrations of the trains passing underneath on the building on the performances. The foundations were laid officially in 1876 arid were to have cost f2,500.

The Thames-soaked land caused so many problems, however, that they eventually cost £33,000. Similar problems continued to be encountered and the building had to be stopped due to lack of funds. The railway station became that now known as "Westminster" - and Mapleson’s ambitious scheme came to nothing.

The Carl Rosa Opera Company

Although many provincial towns contained theatres of some description and although operatic performances were sometimes mounted there, first class professional performances were not seen until the coming, of the railways,. Whereas formerly it would have been unthinkable for a whole company to tour complete with singers, orchestra and scenery, the railways made this a distinct possibility and several impresarios took up the challenge. The first of these was the opera company owned by Carl Rosa.

This was formed in 1875 and made its debut at the Princess Theatre in London. It was Rosa’s policy to give all operas in English, thereby removing the snobbery found at the Royal Italian Opera (Covent Garden) where almost all operas were performed in Italian. After the first London season the company toured Britain incessantly, occasionally returning to London for a summer season. The company, by means of the railway, brought opera in good performances to many thousands of people who had never even heard bad performances before.

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company

In the year of Carl Rosa’s first London season another impresario named Richard D’Oyly Carte persuaded the young Arthur Sullivan to compose curtain-raiser for Offenbach’s La Perichole; the result was Trial by Jury, an immediate success. Following, this Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a two-act comic opera entitled The Sorcerer, which was again produced by D’Oyly Carte’s Comedy Opera Company. The remarkable success of these two works made D’Oyly Carte decide to tour with them both.

In March 1878, they travelled to Liverpool for three nights, then on to Bradford, Glasgow, Aberdeen. Edinburgh, Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Dublin, Liverpool, Hull and ended up on Sheffield on 5th August. Another touring season began in September, during which they revisited several of these towns and added Southport and Brighton to the list.

With the phenomenal success of HMS Pinafore in May 1878, D’Oyly Carte decided that one touring company was insufficient to cope with the provincial demand for performances. He therefore introduced four companies. The "1st Pinafore Company" covered Scarborough, Manchester, Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, Newcastle Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leicester, Brighton and Bristol; the "2nd Pinafore Company" toured Southampton, Bath, Exeter, Plymouth, Jersey, Guernsey, Ryde, Worthing, Eastbourne, Chatham, Tunbridge Wells, Margate, Alexandra Palace, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Ipswich, King's Lynn, Peterborough, Huddersfield, Halifax, York, Darlington, South Shields, Sunderland, Carlisle, Preston, Bolton, Hanley. Wolverhampton, Leamington, Cheltenham, Cardiff and Torquay.

These two companies, together with the "1st and 2nd London" companies, (which in fact only gave three performances in the capital) managed to get HMS Pinafore to almost every town of any importance in Britain. If the order of visiting each town is compared with a map of the railway system it will be seen that, with few exceptions, this order was actually dictated by the railways.


Without the development of an adequate railway system during the early part of the nineteenth century, the social and economic progress of England would have been minimal. Generally, fast travel would have been non-existent and industrial growth would consequently have been hindered greatly. There would have been no towns greater than the size which the surrounding countryside could have provided food for.

The railways are now an established part of everyday life. Indeed, so rapidly were they accepted as part of the Victorians' world that it was soon difficult to imagine a life without them. For this reason the profound effects of the growth of the railway system on many aspects of society have been forgotten. One small yet interesting aspect is the development of musical life during the century. At first sight, the connection between this and the railways may appear tenuous, but as has been seen, they played a vital part in this development in many different ways.

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