Four Nations History in the Museum

Four Nations History in the Museum

Dr Oli Betts (National Railway Museum) asks whether a four nations approach can be viable in a national museum.

Come Back to Erin! – Midland Railway Company 1911 (C) National Railway Museum, York.

Come Back to Erin! – Midland Railway Company 1911
(C) National Railway Museum, York.

‘Does a visit to a transport museum change the way people understand the past?’ asked Colin Divall and Andrew Scott in 2003 before concluding that there was simply not enough research to answer the question.[1]

Since June of 2015 I have been working in the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York. Nominally I have my own post-doctoral research to do on South London suburbia and railways but, really, my day-to-day tasks involve researching the collection and the wider history of railways for the museum. The NRM is contemplating a redesign over the next few years and my role amid the curatorial team is to look afresh at how the museum’s collections can be offered to the public.

It’s a daunting task, involving some two million technical drawings, one and a half million photographs, weeks worth of film and audio recordings, business documents, magazines, and reports, around three hundred rail vehicles and thousands upon thousands of items ranging from uniform buttons to entire Georgian bridges.

I’ve been struck by the importance of the Four Nations History since Naomi Lloyd-Jones told me about it after we shared a panel back in 2014. The concept has been buzzing around in my head throughout my time at the museum, buoyed along by the excellent contributions researchers of all stripes have made to this very blog. Yet now, confronted with research that needs to be pitched to other museum colleagues, external designers, Lottery funders and, ultimately, the general public, I continue to wonder whether a Four Nations approach can be viable in a national museum. This piece is, therefore, very much a musing on a subject rather than the final word, and I would be more than grateful for comments and suggestions.

Origins and Heroes

On the face of it a national museum should be the perfect place in which to practice the new British history that J.G.A Pocock discussed in his work. His advocacy for a ‘pluralist approach’, exemplifying the interchange between Britain and its “Celtic Fringe”, involved bringing Scottish, Welsh, and Irish narratives back into the mainstream of a “British” history that he felt had become simply too Anglo-centric.[2] A worthy goal, but one that clashes with the traditional trajectory of technological history that traces railways from origins to widespread adoption. When the Museum was established in York in 1975, shortly after the withdrawal of steam-power from the mainline, display policy was based partly on the belief that many visitors would have a working knowledge of steam and railway history.

The standard history of railways, as embodied by the Ladybird The Story of Railways (1961), ultimately rests on the successful work of George and Robert Stephenson in the North-East and how it spreads out across the country. A potted history of railways for children, the Ladybird text was (and still is) often referred to in the museum as the “base” knowledge the visitor might know (although increasingly they do not, more divorced from the memory of mainline steam). There are, of course, alternatives, predecessors, and variations to any historical narrative. Even the Ladybird book offers up the figure of Cornish Richard Trevithick as ‘the name we honour as the first inventor’.[3] The popular history of the birth of railways can often be parochial – in the South West the figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel towers over the memory of the nineteenth-century whereas in Birmingham a gilded statue of the native Matthew Boulton and his Scottish partners James Watt and William Murdoch stakes a claim to the narrative based on their development of stationary steam engines. The National Railway Museum itself, in the past, has traded on the memory of York-native George Hudson. Hudson, a more mercurial figure whose financial and political double-dealing shaped the early network in the 1840s, nevertheless is the “local” early railway story in York and his background was dramatically recreated in the stage-show In Fog and Falling Snow held in the museum in 2015.

In academic terms such a straightforward and linear narrative of technological development is deeply problematic and old-fashioned. But in a museum aiming to convey a broad sense of the history of its particular technology it can be hard to break away from such a “Founding Fathers” narrative. Whilst the frisson of ideas that created railways in the 1770s-1830s stretched across the Four Nations it was England, and more specifically the North East of England, that saw the technology mastered and from where it spread. The title page of the Ladybird book is telling – an image of the Royal Border Bridge ‘carrying the East Coast main line from England to Scotland’. A narrative of expansion with its feet firmly in England.

Conflicting Choices

What further complicates an attempt to discuss a Four Nations approach to railways in the Museum is the harsh reality of the finite space even such a large museum can offer. There can only be so many narratives on display and decisions about what to include and exclude can be tricky.

Take Irish railways for example. Although initially sceptical, by the late Victorian period the British Government was actively involved in the development of railways in Ireland. Unlike on the mainland funding for Irish railways was heavily subsidised by Westminster. The Light Railways (Ireland) Act of 1889 provided grants for over 300 miles of track, mainly in the under-developed rural west of the island. Railway companies in Britain were also heavy investors – by the 1910s the Irish Sea was criss-crossed by a veritable flotilla of railway company ferry lines, branded hotels dotted the major cities, and large mainland companies like LNWR had bought seats on the boards of many Irish railways. Even after independence the connections continued such as in 1954 when Irish companies placed an enormous order for 94 locomotives with Metropolitan-Vickers of Manchester.[4]

In many ways the Irish story reflects perfectly that tension that fascinated Pocock, with railways an integral, rather than peripheral, part of the development of both company practice and government policy in British history. It is also, with its political, economic, and cultural manifestations, partly an Imperial story. Certainly the grinning Colleens who waved invitingly from posters advertising railway holidays in an almost impossible bucolic landscape of villages and rolling hills speak volumes about mainland visions of a backwards and rural Ireland in the period. But the NRM is not short on Imperial stories. The expansion of the railway network across the world, both in British colonies but also in the informal economic Empire of zones of influence in China and South America, has left behind a vast and complicated series of narratives. Whereas an academic study of Irish railways examined through a Four Nations lens that explores the island’s place within the development of railway marketing or development may rely on an engaged audience that will read further around the theme, a national museum cannot automatically assume the fleeting contact of gallery dwell-time (measured in minutes not hours) will springboard a visitor into further study. In the limited space for public engagement that is the National Railway Museum, should Irish railways be preferenced over, say, railways in the Raj? Or the development of signalling technology? Or the moves to private-ownership of the network in the late 1980s and 1990s? Four Nations is just one of many lenses jostling for position on the Masterplan drawing-board.


As stated at the start, this small piece was never intended to offer a definitive answer, but instead to provoke more questions. Thus, in lieu of a solid conclusion I want to end on a mixture of observations and questions.

  • I think a National Museum, with an ostensibly British focus, benefits from a Four Nations approach to its research. It’s certainly helped look anew at our collections. But how best to introduce the non-academic visitor to this complicated interpretative lens?
  • Where do regional identities (Northumbrian, Cornish, Lowland Scot, etc) fit into the Four Nations schema?
  • Can a Four Nations approach disrupt and challenge traditional histories of technology as it can for political or social history?
  • Finally, what are the ways Four Nations historians can be encouraged to work with museums like the National Railway Museum? For, even if their focus is not on railways, as this piece has tried to show there is fertile material in archives and collections that further complicate British history.

[1] Colin Divall and Andrew Scott, ‘Transport Museums and the Public Appreciation of the Past’ in AKB Evans and John Gough (ed.), The Impact of the Railway on Society in Britain: Essays in Honour of Jack Simmons, London: Ashgate, 2003, 261.

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 33.

[3] Richard Bowood, The Story of Railways, Loughborough: Wills and Hepworth LTD, 1961, 8.

[4] Jack Simmons and Gordon Biddle, The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 231-232.

Dr. Oli Betts is the Research Fellow at the National Railway Museum in York. His PhD compared social investigation of poverty with the lives of the poor across late Victorian England. He is currently researching a project marrying the human and transport histories of South London 1850-1940. You can find out more about his work here or follow him on Twitter @DrOliBetts.


One thought on “Four Nations History in the Museum

  1. Dear Oli,

    This is a thought-provoking blog that raises a number of interesting questions about the challenges associated with applying a four nations’ approach to museum interpretation. The way of tackling this that strikes me as most productive is to think about structuring such an interpretation around how railways epitomise the tension between integration and diversity in the life of the UK. it’s been said somewhere that you can’t have nations without railways in the nineteenth century but in the case of the UK it might be asked: which nations? At a simple level railways connect places and people. The establishment of a rail network drew the different parts of the country (nations and regions) together in unprecedented ways, assisted by the growth of the newspaper press, the telegraph, etc. However, there were developments that cut in different ways at the same time. One obvious example would be the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Europe’s largest annual cultural festival in the nineteenth century. Railways allowed it to be established on a new footing from the 1860s onwards, becoming a mass cultural festival that visited a different place each year, inlcuding on several occasions Liverpool and Chester. Here was an example of how the railway enabled the promotion of diversity, and I’m sure there are many more examples of this kind. In other words, the railways created new connections within Wales and Scotland as well as connecting both countries to England. Ireland is a slightly different case, but even here the rail connections via Holyhead open up interesting interpretive possibilities.

    Some insights about the integration/diversity idea (and railways) can be found in Keith Robbins’s book on Nineteenth Century Britain.

    Best wishes
    Paul O’Leary

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