One of the things I love about Window Seater and researching its stories, is how the things you uncover about the history of travel really do show the soul of a nation.
Take Didcot Parkway. On the face of it’s a pretty nondescript place. But the railway here has this fascinating story which reveals so much about how class and power evolved in modern Britain.
Bills and class
Because Didcot is the start of the Great Western Railway’s linking branch to Oxford. And a link connecting the great university city to the line from London seems like a no-brainer, but it took Isambard Brunel three appeals to parliament before he was granted permission to build this connection.
The first bill to parliament was rejected after the efforts of Oxford university (who were major landholders).
A second bill followed. And this time Oxford university objected, fearing for the morals of their students. They worried that the railway would give undergraduates easy access to London and involve them in ‘improper marriages and other illegitimate connexions’. Read into that what you will…
Wellington puts the boot in
The Duke of Wellington also now weighed in, fearing the railway might encourage the lower orders to ‘move about’. Meanwhile others were worried it would bring Oxford an unwelcome tide of tourists and ‘loungers’.
Bill number 2? It was dead in the water.
Finally, a full five years later, bill number 3 was proposed.
Oxford University clings on
By now though, the university had changed its tune. But not because they’d grown more enlightened.
In fact, they’d now realised that students were already boarding the railway at a village station out near here at Didcot. And the university couldn’t stop their students travelling…
… or could they?
In exchange for dropping their opposition, Brunel got his station at Oxford.
But in return the university got guaranteed rights to patrol the new station to look for undergraduates. They could demand information from the railway company on any travelling students – or members of the public “suspected of being such”.
And the railway company was only allowed to sell tickets to students heading to approved destinations.
The bill is passed
The university had their control and the bill was passed. Brunel was triumphant and in 1844 the line to Oxford finally opened. And that brings us up to today, with students travelling freely.
As for Oxford now being packed with ‘tourists and loungers’? I’ll leave that opinion to you.
Photo: by Hugh Llewelyn, Creative Commons License