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By Peter Thorpe on

Parliamentary papers and Railway Mania

We recently acquired a set of parliamentary papers covering the years 1837 up 1906. How will we begin to catalogue them?
In the archives with the Parliamentary papers
In the archives with the Parliamentary papers

I’ve recently started working as the project cataloguer for the newly-acquired collection of parliamentary papers and I’ll be adding each individual paper and report onto our library catalogue over the next few months. There is some really fascinating material within the papers and as I work my way through each volume and year it is like viewing the formative years of British railway history in fast forward!

One of the key themes of the early volumes is the rapid expansion of new railway schemes and their promoters to criss-cross Britain with lines, and the enthusiasm of prospective investors in these schemes in their desire to profit from this new high-tech communications network. This mad desire to profit from the coming of the railway age became known as “Railway Mania”.

The first period of this mania took hold in the mid 1830s, as Parliament authorised 59 new railways with over 1500 route miles and around £35 million in capital during the years 1836-7.

Questions started to be asked about where the money for these schemes was going to come from, whether many of the people who had signed up for shares could actually come up with the money. Here is an example of a subscriber being questioned about his subscription for £1,500 in the proposed City Railway despite not apparently having the means to raise that amount of capital:

PP/1136 Select Committee on Railway Subscription Lists

It should be pointed out that subscribers only had to put up a 2% deposit, but reading through the minutes, in many cases no money was actually deposited at all, or they were subscribing on behalf of other investors who paid the deposit but wished to stay off the list of investors for some reason.

The fascinating aspect of these reports is that they not only uncover the murky aspects of railway financing, but there are long lists of subscribers along with addresses and occupations, making these reports a potential family history resource.

PP/1136 List of shareholders in the Gravesend, Dover and Kent Railways – Extract.

The first railway mania died out in the late 1830s as railway company share prices plummeted and fortunes were lost. By the mid 1840s prices had bounced back and the next phase of the mania developed reaching a peak in 1846 when well over 200 acts were passed by Parliament for new railway schemes. From that year we have a single volume (Shelfmark PP/1564) that lists over 27,000 shareholders that subscribed for shares in the different railway companies – so these reports could be a useful source of information if you suspect your ancestor might have invested in the railways during “Railway Mania”!

Our collection of Parliamentary Papers can be viewed in our library and archive centre, please contact Search Engine if you would like to come and consult any of them.

4 comments on “Parliamentary papers and Railway Mania

  1. I have documents in my collection, which shows how good the railway companies were at speculation of potential returns. Some of the prospectuses even went as far as saying ‘it is impossible that this railway will not offer investors a substantial return for a small outlay’ – Some of these document would make good entries for a booker prize!

  2. It is remarkable, but of course you only have to look at previous speculations such as the South Sea Bubble over 100 years before to see similar examples. During that period one company even promoted its business as “carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”! What is remarkable, is that despite the mania of the late 1830s and subsequent crash, the whole thing repeated itself on an even bigger scale a few years later!

    1. I am researching an ancestor, Henry Hicks a grocer from Oxford, who for reasons unknown to me sold up his long established grocery business in 1841
      He subsequently ended up in the workhouse.
      It has been suggested to me that he possibly made an unwise investment during the 1840s Railway Mania.
      Would it be possible to search the parliamentary papers for his name amongst shareholder lists ?
      Thank you
      Peter Taylor

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