In the late 1830s, railways were beginning to revolutionise society. The first major line into the capital was the London and Birmingham Railway, running 112 miles (180km) from Euston to the Midlands, built by Robert Stephenson (1803–1859).
Documenting the construction process for the company from 1837 in drawings was the London artist and engraver John Cooke Bourne (1814–1896), under the sponsorship of the writer and arts patron John Britton (1771–1857).Bourne’s fieldwork took him to the construction sites at Boxmoor, Berkhampstead, Tring, Wolverton, and most impressively, Kilsby Tunnel. A Series of Lithographed Drawings of the London & Birmingham Railway was published by Ackerman in 1838, with energetic text by Britton full of facts, figures, and enthusiasm for the new age.
Bourne’s illustrations are remarkable for their draughtsmanship and detail. They show clearly the tools and techniques that were used by the ‘navvies’ (the construction workers, from ‘navigators’, originally a canal-building term).
They are also notable for the objective view they gave of the modern world taking shape. This was no idealised portrait of innocent peasants in a timeless England, but one of engineering and progress.
The collection was critically praised and reprinted several times, and Bourne was commissioned to do similar work for the new Great Western Railway in 1843. As Britton had hoped, Bourne’s images helped counter the anti-railway lobby and promote the new railways as an exciting and positive development.