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The Commercial Cultures of Britain's Railways 1872-1977

Commercial forces have a large part to play in shaping attitudes and expectations about personal mobility. Indeed the historiography of consumption shows that Britain developed as a mass-consumer society in the last century partly because aspirational marketing increasingly sold goods and services on the basis of the social distinction they would confer on purchasers. Even ‘necessaries’ such as transport could be sold in this way; even the most apparently utilitarian of journeys presented choices that extended far beyond a ‘rational’ calculation based on price alone.

Commercial cultures

A key analytical concept here is that of ‘commercial cultures’, a recognition that ‘various aspects of cultural production… are inherently concerned with the commodification of various kinds of culture difference’ at the same time as ‘the apparently rational calculus of the market is inescapably embedded in a range of cultural processes’. (Jackson 2000: 1)

These cultural processes include more than just the aspirational marketing of specific goods and services: they embrace, for example, the development of corporate images and brands which may themselves be marketable, and the various media, including technological objects, through which these are constructed and communicated to the public.

The railways were among the inventors of these aspects of the modern corporation, developing from the 1880s an acute understanding of the business utility of corporate branding and market segmentation based on the differential appeal of railway travel across social class and gender. But the few academic monographs treating such topics in relation to transport only serve to emphasize the comparative neglect of the railways, focussing on C20th modes of motoring, flying and trans-oceanic shipping.

In contrast, by the 1900s all the major railway companies had adopted measures designed 'to induce people, who would otherwise not do so, to travel by rail, and to encourage such as would travel a little, to travel more'. (Knoop, 1913: 235). Road competition after 1918 intensified their efforts; the railways' commercial language increasingly echoed that familiar today, with 'customer' replacing 'passenger' in the 1920s. A major company like the GWR was arguably as advanced in its marketing as some of the large inter-war organizations, such as Shell, which have been studied in more depth. Today’s Train Operating Companies simply employ more sophisticated versions of the same techniques.

Although the main contours of this history are familiar to specialists, this project aims to develop a scholarly understanding of how the railways’ commercial cultures fitted into the wider history of British cultural, social and business history. It will also develop a detailed knowledge of how these cultures were built up and delivered to the public, building up case-studies of the Midland Railway in the 1880s, the Great Western Railway in the inter-war years, and British Rail in the 1960s and 1970s. This will allow the NRM to mount a temporary exhibition that goes beyond familiar narratives based on the aesthetics of poster advertising and the superficialities of industrial design and corporate image, such as liveries. The exhibition will spark popular debate about how important the railways were – and continue to be – in shaping a set of widely held attitudes that sees personal mobility as a key aspect of modern consumer society.


  • D. Knoop, Outlines of Railway Economics, London (1913).
  • P. Jackson, et. al., ‘Introduction: Transcending Dualisms’ in P. Jackson, M. Lowe, D. Miller and F. Mort (eds.), Commercial Cultures: Economies: Practices, Spaces (Oxford & New York, 2000), pp. 1-4.