“While the engine runs, the people must work — men, women and children are yoked together with iron and steam. The animal-machine is chained fast to the iron machine, which knows no suffering or weariness.” James Phillips Kay (1804-77), British politician, quoted in 1832 report

Book cover

Deary sells this volume with promises of blood and gore, which he delivers along with plenty of arch humor, but he seems most interested in making sure that pioneers other than George Stephenson get credit for the key developments of British (and most other countries') railways while at the same time showing the true costs of the industrial revolution. Thus, the book's first chapter, “Steam and struggle” explains the accomplishments of James Watt, who invented the low-pressure and not very useful steam engine, and Richard Trevithick, a man with an unfortunate combination of brilliance and terrible luck who created many of the technological innovations for which Stephenson received and continues to receive credit. Stephen's famous Rocket, as Deary points out, was actually built by his son Robert (124) while the Quaker bankers Edward and Joseph Pease, who hired the elder Stephenson, actually conceived the idea of a rail network (“Engineers and explosions,” 34-35).

“Carnival and catastrophe,” chapter 3, begins with a generally valid point to which Deary will return throughout the following pages:

The railway revolution was driven by greed, and a desire to make money. But it was also driven by public demand and excitement at the new technology - like e-books today. If the public want the new technology then the money-men will supply it. At a double cost... the cost of the machine, and the cost to the purveyors of the old technology. By 2014 over 50 per cent of households will own an e-reader, so there's every chance you'll be reading this on a screen right now. But the cost wasn't just £100. It was the jobs of workers in bookshops. In 2012 over 400 bookshops closed. By 1830 the stagecoach industry was worried. With good right. Those drivers and grooms and innkeepers had a bleak future. Like booksellers today ... or writers. Eeeek! [58 & 58n]

(As the page numbers inside brackets that follow the quoted passage suggest, I have moved a footnote, which begins with “By 2014,” to the main text, since it could have easily appeared there. More on this later.)

This key third chapter introduces the Railroad Mania of the 1840s, disasters that for a time ruined Stephenson's reputation, the five competitors at the Rainhill trials, the death of William Huskisson (and his seven previous accidents 89), and Timothy Hackworth, who, Deary suggests, was cheated out of victory by Stephenson's “skulduggery” (74-77, 84-86). “Riots and rocks” and “Tunnels and terror” present an over-heated view of the navvies — Deary doesn't seem to know Dick Sullivan's book on the subject — and “Epidemics and errors” tells of the Cholera, railway lines built to carry the dead to cemeteries, and the deaths of some of the first generation of great railway engineers, including the oft-maligned Stephenson. The seventh chapter, “Cons and Crime,” centers on George Hudson, the great railway swindler. Deary mentions that Dickens hated him — “I am disposed to throw up my head and howl whenever I hear Mr. Hudson mentioned” (169) — but doesn't seem to know that Hudson was the source of Merdle in Dickens's Little Dorrit and Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope's brilliant The Way We Live Now, or for that matter that he prompted Thomas Carlyle to write Hudson's Statue. The book's last three chapters, “Failure and fire,” “Poverty and plague,” and “Derailing and drowning,” close Dangerous Days by providing snapshots of a panoply of train wrecks:

For some reason — Weidenfeld & Nicolson can't afford copy-editors? — descriptions of train crashes on dry land come with dates, but when trains fall off bridges into the water and passengers drown they don't, though one can figure out dates of a few from the context. Deary obviously doesn't have much hope we'll learn from these disasters, since he closes by quoting Hegel's “We learn from history that we do not learn from history” (265).

Throughout Dangerous Days Deary emphasizes the human costs of any technological or economic progress, often emphasizing society's hypocrisy. For example, in explaining Liverpool's part in the growing textile industry he tells us that “Liverpool had the dock capacity [to handle ships arriving with cotton] because its old prime trade export had dwindled to nothing. That trade had been slavery. And slavery was dead, had rung down the curtain and joined the blecdin choir invisible. This was an ex-trade, but it left stains and shadows on the city.” Then after quoting Heinrich Heine's “History is nothing but the soul's old wardrobe,” he continues “Liverpool needed a fresh new trade to go with its fresh new moral stance and fresh new conscience. Cotton” — to which he appends the following footnote:

Yes, all right, so cotton is still picked by slaves, and yes it will be for another 30+ years. But that is America's problem, not ours. This is Business. Our hands are clean ... because we wash our hands of this inconvenient truth. Yours sincerely, The British Cotton Merchants, importers and manufacturers ... on behalf of the British cotton wearers. PS: how much were the workers paid for making your smart trainers? Let he who is without sin ...'

As we see here, his apparently unconscious emulation of Victorian sages like Carlyle, the inventor of Victorianism whom he describes only as a “Scottish philosopher” (115), takes the form of sermonizing addresses to the reader mixed with pointedly snide remarks. Like the Victorian sages, Deary loves a grotesque event he can use as a symbolical grotesque, but unfortunately his arch tone and occasionally silly remarks often — though not always — fall flat. Thus, we read that “Robert Stephenson's old boss at Killingworth Colliery said... ‘The eyes of the whole scientific world were upon the great undertaking.’ — which Deary follows with

Maybe not ALL eyes? Because a cannon was hred as the official starting signal. There wasn't a cannonball in it of course, just wadding material. But that was dangerous enough. The wadding hit a spectator in the face and sent his eyeball rolling down his cheek. Did his wife ask him what he saw at the event? And did he reply, “I've no eye dear”

It was not an auspicious start. [88]

Deary certainly enjoys the grisly bits, especially when he presents them on behalf of a forgotten person like John Kent, who “died at Edge Hill on the L&MR line. . . ‘He was shoring up a heavy bank of clay, fourteen or fifteen feet high, when the mass fell upon him and literally crushed his bowels out of his body.’” (Liverpool Mercury). A footnote further explains that Kent was the “first navvy to die building a railway tunnel. William Huskisson is forever remembered as the first passenger to die when hit by a train. John Kent is also a famous first — so why is he forgotten?” (114). The answer to that's not hard to find: Huskisson is remembered because was the first passenger killed in a railway-related accident, and poor Kent was one of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of construction workers who have died over the ages.

Despite some attempts at humor or satire that fall flat, Dangerous Days does a very good, and often entertaining, job relating the early history of British railways. Part of its success derives from its format and design, which produces a kind of anti-book book, a volume for people who don't want read long, linear narratives — a product, in other words, of the electronic age. In addition to presenting a text composed of very brief sections and subsections, Dangerous Days employs footnotes, sidebars, timelines, (too few) illustrations, and grisly details of various kinds of deaths written by one Dr. Peter Fox. The following images of pages in Dangerous Days exemplify everything except the words of Dr. Fox.

Two two-page spreads from the book under review showing its array of fonts, sidebars, graphics devices, and images. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The book's footnotes, most of which could easily have been part of the main text, work if one assumes that consciously or unconsciously Deary wants to create the effect characteristic of computer-based hypertext, which sometimes works most efficiently when presenting linked fragments to the reader. Deary frequently uses his notes to switch tones, make would-be ironic remarks, and otherwise salt an earnest text with supposedly amusing bits and pieces. Occasionally, he stumbles over his attempts at scholarly wit. For example, he opens “The great ‘Gold Robbery’ of 1855” (which is a subsection of “Crime on the Tracks, ” which is in turn a section of the chapter “Cons and Crime) with the commonplace, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (175). An asterisk after this sentence takes us to the following note: “To be accurate this Biblical phrase in Latin is 'Radix malorum est cupiditas' meaning 'The root of evil is greed'. We have to get this right or there will be a pedants' revolt” (175n). Cute maybe, but Deary doesn't get his pedantry right. As my teacher the great medieval scholar D. W. Robertson, Jr., used to explain, cupiditas actually means the love of things of this world for themselves (instead of for the aspects of divine in them). Cupiditas therefore includes love of fame, the fine arts, or even another person.

On the whole Deary is very successful, and I wish that he had included some information about his sources. Another wish: Since he so emphasizes the need for innovators and creators to receive proper credit, one wonders why this book, which depends so heavily upon its design, credits no designer. Given the author's strident attempts to credit forgotten innovators, this lack comes across as hypocrisy. Of course, Terry Deary might have designed it all himself and sent page-ready copy to the printer. Be nice to know.


Deary, Terry. Dangerous Days on the Victorian Railways: A history of the terrors and the torments, the dirt, diseases and deaths suffered by our ancestors. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014.

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Last modified 27 June 2014