Empire in the National Railway Museum

I’m always out of the Museum when railway topics hit the news. I was away for Corbyn’s foray into Ladies Only carriages, I was absent for much of the big Flying Scotsman publicity – my colleagues find it amusing that I seem to pick external meetings times that then so neatly correlate to railway news stories. So when, while I was having a lovely time at the Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference at Senate House last week and the rumours began to circulate that the Government was considering pulling back from rail electrification across the North, Wales, and much of the Midlands, I thought I could see how my public history time for the coming week was going to pan out.

Then this happened:

…and this:

…and this:

…and suddenly my week looked very different.

As many who know me beyond social media are aware, my job as Research Fellow at the National Railway Museum in York involves, among many roles, oversight over the Museum’s upcoming Heritage Lottery Fund bid entitled “Masterplan”. The aim of the project is to tell, as its currently worded, “the epic story of the railways and how they shape our modern world”. Suddenly my recent advocacy for including Imperial railways in the Museum took on a sharp new focus and purpose.

In the interests of full disclosure, before I lay out my argument, I need to make three things clear.

  1. I’m not a historian of Empire. My Doctoral background is in the domestic history of Britain 1850-1914 (quite literally – my PhD was on working-class notions of the home). Now I’m a railway historian by trade. I’m new to the literature around Empire and in the past have been somewhat sceptical about the influence I feel colonial studies exerts on Victorian history in the academy (see here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03058034.2017.1327146).
  2. I know Charlotte Riley personally and professionally. We were briefly colleagues at York, and got on pretty well. This blog is in no way an attempt to simply back her up, though, mainly because those who know Charlotte are well aware that she’s far too fierce and capable to need any sort of ego-massage. And far too capable a historian to need any sort of weak intellectual underpinning I might add here and now.
  3. I have no opinion of Niall Fergusson. I honestly don’t. That may seem unusual for someone working on modern British history, for which he has increasingly become a polarizing figure, but there it is. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a historian of Empire as I mentioned. Perhaps because a personal and critical interest in counter-factual history sees me gravitate towards Virtual History rather than any of his later works. This blog isn’t a hatchet job.

Really, this blog isn’t about that argument at all (although please, honestly, how many times do we have to caution big-name scholars against punching down in academia?!). Instead, it addresses something that bubbled up during that debate, neatly threaded here by the ever-great David Andress:


Namely, in a sentence, the continuing belief in some sectors that the railways were a force for good in the British Empire and thus can be threaded into a value-laden debate about good vs bad legacies. We’re still debating how to implement the history of Imperial railways in the NRM – how to couch it around the object collections we hold. How to avoid jarring contrasts or shifts of tone. How to address a difficult history. I’m adamant, and have been throughout, that we shouldn’t get into a good vs bad debate because, as many much more qualified historians pointed out during that twitter storm, where is the historical relevance in that? What is the purpose of a tit-for-tat reckoning?

As a public historian, though, looking at the museum visitor as the final end-point of this research, I’m aware that, whether we like it or not, that debate will shape some of our visitor’s preconceptions in arriving at an Imperial railways section of the NRM.

So how best to tackle it?

My thoughts are, at best, the equivalent of early lifeforms crawling from primordial sea to prehistoric beach. Unformed and wibbly around the edges. But these are the criteria I have arrayed so far:

We need to allow people to be interested in the history of Empire


Figure 1: Visit India: Benares – 1930s Indian State Railways advertising poster (c) NRM

This may seem an odd thing to say, but just look at the array of Empire-themed television programs, novels, popular histories, and more available today. Spanning such a wide range of cultures, regions, and environments, the Empire’s global reach is fascinating for the general public and they should, I believe, not feel guilty for expressing interest in the topic (and ‘interest in Empire’ here, I think, needs to stand in very stark separation from ‘approving of Empire’). Of course, this shouldn’t be a free-pass into that othering orientalism that governed, for example, Victorian interactions with the foreign. The marketing of the East as exotic (see the above poster) is an important conversation about colonial gaze that can be drawn out of encouraging people’s interest in “the exotic” (that most troubling of terms).

The public need to understand that Empire made technologies exploitative


Figure 2: A section of the first rail rolled in India by Tata Steel in 1912

Historians of Empire will know, far more than I, how central exploitation of people, of materials, of culture, of landscape, and much, much, more was to the Imperial project. Visitors to the NRM would need to understand that, regardless of the supposed neutrality of railways as a technology, the railways of the Raj, like so many across European Empires, were fundamentally about control and coercion. The danger is, though, that this raises the tit-for-tat spectre. Schools vs Famines. Networks vs Massacres. “The Rule of Law” vs Slavery. And so forth.

As a technology museum, the NRM’s single focus on railways is a boon here. It is a lot easier, I think, to tell an exploitation story through a technology that is seen as somewhere on a good-neutral scale by the public. Two resources stand out; coal and steel rails. The use of British coal was more accidental than purposeful for Indian railways; low grade Indian coal that could easily be extracted in 1850s-1860s was not good enough for the fussy early engines of the railway age and imports from Britain were a necessity, at least early on. Rails, though, during a period where the expansion of the Raj’s network was vast and unparalleled, are more complex. It took the young Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Tata decades to convince the British state to allow rails to be rolled in Indian foundries – because the subcontinent was such a lucrative closed market for British home industries. Only in 1912 did he finally get permission to cast rails in India itself, the company he founded, TATA, going on to purchase the commemorative piece above for nearly £10,000 at auction so important did they deem it to an independence story. The rail, here, shifts from neutral (some might say boring) object to centrepiece in a discussion about deep-seated economic exploitation, part of a wider debate about the economic and political purpose of Empire.

Museums need to show that agency is (super)complicated


Figure 3: Built in Britain, a model of a GIPR carriage with modifications for the heat of the subcontinent. (c) NRM/John Clarke

Alice Tredwell, who took over the building of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in the 1850s after her husband, the engineer, died of dysentery. The Maharajas of Baroda who, in the 1860s and 1870s, opened their own state railway and upgraded from bullocks to steam as the century wore on. Emile Moreau and T.K. Banerjee, the French and Indian pair who pinched the name of a London bookseller to open a series of railway bookstalls that continue to this day in India. The railhead at Dandi where some 50,000 gathered to mark the culmination of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March in protest at imposed taxation. The officials and their families who took the narrow-gauge lines into the foothill towns like Shimla to avoid the heat…and the Indian entrepreneurs who now run the lines for tourists.

All stories that avoid easy interpretation. All stories that suggest the complex realities that governed Empire at the time. The railways, touching on so many aspects of life, allow the Museum to tap into many different stories rather than be forced to select only one detailed narrative. Yes, there’s a danger in not covering stories in enough detail, but the mosaic of railway-related pictures of Empire that is created hopefully offers visitors something more nuanced than a heroes and villains narrative. A tableaux, instead, of people and issues in a particular time and space that contextualises bigger stories like resource extraction, the binding together of what we now see as India, and the struggle between colonial control and emergent nationalism.

Museums must continue uncovering new angles of inquiry


Figure 4: KF-7 The Chinese locomotive that sits, imposingly, in Great Hall. (c) NRM.

I think there’s a general sense, in academia, that museums don’t tell new stories. Not academically, anyway. Rather, they at best summarise recent developments in a particular field and use it to nuance the story they already tell. Maybe so. But museums straddle public engagement, academic research, and museum practise. “New”, in an innovative sense, exhibitions and displays speak to all three in different degrees.

One of the underexplored aspects of railways (or any technology really), in terms of scholarship, public knowledge, and museum work, is what might be termed “soft Empire”. In 2016 an Editorial in the Guardian asked what Britain could learn from Germany about ‘not denying the past’. Off the back of a Berlin exhibition on German colonialism, the Editorial pondered the ‘self-deception and self-glorification’ that allowed for Britain to wilfully ignore problematic history in ways that Germany or the USA did not. An official exhibition on British colonialism would be impossible, it observed, because of how politicised the detractors and supporters would make it. They would ‘make any kind of consensus approach difficult’. Soft Empire, I think, those tendrils of commercial, political, social, and cultural influence that emanated outwards from modern Britain, is more open terrain. Less polarised. Something which, audiences can be led into almost without them realising it is a discussion about imperialism until they are already on gallery.

KF-7, built at Vulcan Works for export to China, is a perfect example. Built in 1937 it arrived during the Second Sino-Japanese War and Kenneth Cantlie the designer, a man with a long history with China, begged to be allowed to leave for China to help run the railways during war. So respected was Cantlie that, during tensions about Hong Kong in the 1950s, he was used as an informal go-between because of the trust the Chinese placed in him. But both Cantlie and KF-7 tell a story about informal Empire’s tendrils. The engine itself was funded by the Boxer Indemnity Fund, put aside by Chinese authorities in the aftermath of the 1900 rebellion to compensate the colonial powers. Its construction was part of a scheme, conceived of by Sun Yat Sen, as a means of modernising his country to break free from colonial influence. Whilst in China in the 1940s Cantlie reported back to the Government in London on not just the Japanese, but also the Nationalist Government for which he was working, and on the growing power of the Communists. And Vulcan who made the engine? They sent out a trained mechanic with the engine to not just help reconstruct it after transport but also teach the Chinese staff deemed too ‘superstitious’ to run the engine without Western instruction.

All in all, KF-7 tells a complicated story about the Imperial, the national, and the international, about people and places, technologies and power, and visions of the modern future of China that sometimes overlapped and sometimes competed. It strikes me that, as I dig into the realities of our Imperial collections and connections at the Museum, that this is what should be at the heart of a conversation about Empire for the visiting public. Instead of an attempt to tally wrongs against rights, taking the railways as a focus allows for the complexities of Empire, an opportunity to think about the structures and systems, powers and inequalities, relationships and antipathies, that Empire embodied. A chance, in short, to open up debate rather than simply deepen pre-existing divisions that a right-wrong conversation can only ever do.


Inevitably, this has been a blog post that involves more musing on a theme than concrete conclusion. We’re still at the most conceptual stages of Masterplan, still trying to bottom out the large areas of debate. Comment, criticism, and discussion are warmly welcome. This could all be theoretical rubbish, and if so I’m sure the comments will bear that out, but I was always taught by my Doctoral supervisor that the chief duty, nay the only duty, of the public historian is to encourage informed debate.

…and please, for the love of God, let’s stop punching down in academia. Please. Just. Stop.


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