How the age of steam changed lives forever

We're living in an age of massive technological change, yet more than 100 years ago the introduction of the steam railways caused an equally seismic change to life in Victorian Britain. Decades later, the enduring appeal of this golden age persists and is the subject of a new six-part BBC/OU co-production.

Full Steam Ahead explores how the Victorian railways created modern Britain. Historians Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn will experience a different aspect of life of the age of steam in each episode.  They discover more about:

  • Industry
  • Moving People
  • Agriculture
  • Communication
  • Trade
  • Leisure

New behaviours

Dr Denise McHugh, a tutor in history at the OU and co-consultant on the programme, explains why the steam age had such an impact: "Whole communities changed as train transportation enabled towns and villages everywhere to industrialize and specialise, and places became famous for their products such as blankets, beer or biscuits. As industry and working lives changed so did people's habits and routines and the nation learned to read timetables, be punctual, commute to work, enjoy a day at the seaside or head out to the hills and go rambling.

The Victorian public fell in love with train travel, and railways created many new behaviours and traditions that today we might regard as essentially British in character.

She said the steam age was a result of hard work and hard-fought innovation and the programmes explore this double-edged sword.

From the tough, short life of the track-building navvy to the limbs lost by railway workers, Full Steam Ahead shows the price we paid to become the world's first industrial nation as well as the gains made. Like the space programmes of the 20th century, the advanced technology of the railway spilled out into society.


'Hands-on history'

Fellow academic consultant Dr Chris Williams, Senior Lecturer in the Arts faculty, said the series brings the whole  history of the industrial revolution and the steam age to life.

"It will show millions of people how the UK became the first industrial nation: a country powered by steam, feeding its population through national markets, and creating the first global brands.  This series hits the spot: it’s informative, educational and entertaining."

The series uses a "hands-on history" approach, he added.

"It’s great way of exploring the experience of ordinary people, who often didn’t leave a great a deal in the way of written records. It’s fascinating social history. I’m confident that after watching this series, hundreds of thousands of people are going to understand a lot more about  the past – not just about steam railways, but about all sorts of aspects of the industrial revolution."

Find out more on the OU’s OpenLearn site, where you can order the full-colour Our Railways wall poster supporting the series.

Full Steam Ahead is on Thursdays on BBC2 at 8pm.