A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 1

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The gradual improvement, throughout the centuries, of those facilities for internal communication which reached their climax in the creation of the present system of railways has constituted a dominating factor alike in our industrial and in our social advancement as a people.

Until transport had provided a ready means alike of collecting raw materials and of distributing food supplies and manufactured articles, industries of the type familiar to us to-day were practically impossible; and until convenient and economical means of travel were afforded, England had to be considered less as a nation than as a collection of more or less isolated communities, with all the disadvantages, social and moral as well as economic, necessarily resulting; while the social and moral progress facilitated by improved means of communication reacted, in turn, on the industries by creating new wants for manufacturers and workers to supply.

To the right understanding of the position occupied by our National Industries, it is thus necessary that the special significance of internal communication and its development should, at the outset, be clearly realised from the point of view, not alone of present-day circumstances, but, also, of conditions that either preceded the industries themselves—so far checking their growth that industrial development in Great Britain came at a much later date than in many [ 2 ]countries on the Continent of Europe—or else aided materially in the expansion of industries as the disadvantages and drawbacks began to disappear.

That industries existed when internal communication was still in a primitive stage in this country is true enough; but they were "domestic" rather than "national," and it was not until the advent of better means of transport that it became possible for them to begin to pass from the one stage to the other, and, at the same time, to exercise so important an influence on our advancement as a nation. It is no less true that British commerce, conducted by ships obtaining ready access to foreign ports by traversing ocean highways, had made much greater progress at an early period in our history than industries dependent on inland highways that were then either non-existent or scarcely passable; yet, though navigation might advance still further, and though navigators might discover still more new countries, commerce could not hope to attain to the expansion it subsequently underwent until the industries whose operations were to be facilitated by improvement in land communication supplied the merchants with the home commodities which they required for sale or exchange in the markets of the world. Whatever, again, the natural resources of a country—and such resources have certainly been great in our own—they may be of little material value until they can be readily moved from the place where they exist to the place where they can be used; and even then it is necessary that the cost of transport shall not be unduly high.

Transport and communication by land and water have thus become what Prof. J. Shield Nicholson rightly calls, in his "Principles of Political Economy," "the bases of industrial organisation"; and it is to industrial organisation that a country such as ours has been indebted in a pre-eminent degree both for its material prosperity and for the position it occupies to-day among the nations of the world. But just as British engineers long regarded the subject of road construction and road repairs as beneath their notice, and left such work to be done by any parish "surveyor," subsidised pauper or "Blind Jack of Knaresboro'," who thought fit to engage in it, so have most writers of history, while zealously recording the actions of kings, of diplomatists, of politicians, and of warriors who may have made a great stir in their day but who took only a very [ 3 ]small share in the real and permanent progress of the British people, bestowed only a passing reference—and sometimes not even that—on questions of trade and transport which have played a far more important part in our social and national advancement.

The history of railways has already been told by various writers. But the history of railways is only the last chapter in the history of inland transport and communication; and, though that last chapter is of paramount importance, and will here receive full recognition, it is essential that those who would form a clear idea of the position as a whole should begin the story at the beginning, and trace the course of events leading up to the conditions as they exist to-day.