Research rewrites history of mass travel

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New research has dispelled some interesting myths about the way that people travelled in the mid 19th century.

Dr Susan Major recently completed a PhD in railway studies through the University of York Institute of Railway Studies which is affiliated with the city’s National Railway Museum.

She used contemporary newspaper evidence to delve into the history of early excursions for the working classes. Her findings have uncovered the hidden story of working class travel, including conditions inside the rail carriages.

She said: “If you consult any book about railway history the section on excursions will talk either exclusively or mainly about Thomas Cook, and my research has shown he was irrelevant to the masses in the mid 19th century.

“There were many other excursion agents operating at the same time who were much more important but because they weren’t long-lasting they have been forgotten.

“Also, traditionally people imagine that railway travel at this time meant sitting tidily in a carriage consulting Bradshaw but the masses on their excursions were often clinging to the roof of a carriage or enduring hours of rain in an open cattle truck.”

Dr Major used the National Railway Museum archives to complete her research, making use of the rare collection of excursion handbills and posters.

Her thesis, The Million Go Forth: Early Railway Excursion Crowds, 1840-1860, is available to read in the Search Engine, the National Railway Museum’s archive and library facility on its website via

Keith Harcourt, academic liaison officer for the Historical Model Railway Society (HMRS), said yesterday: “Dr Major was in receipt of one of our Education Award Fund Grants that offered some financial support to her studies.

“We at the HMRS are delighted that Susan has attained her PhD.”