Off the Rails

Written by Beryl Kingston
Review by Geoffrey Harfield

Set in York, England, from 1830, this book is mainly a true account of George Hudson, the most remarkable rogue of the Victorian railway financial mania. An enterprising crook, a selfish, bombastic tycoon and a chief figure in the development of the railways, he rose, by chicanery, to be three times Lord Mayor of York and an MP.

Off the Rails opens when George, a farmer’s son, seduces an innocent girl. He leaves her, and taking a job as a draper’s apprentice, he marries the owner’s daughter. With a legacy he leaves to form railway companies with other people’s money, and his rise to fame begins. The girl he selfishly deserts becomes the main female character in the story after she marries George’s railway surveyor.

A well researched history of the time, this has excellent characterisation, a little romance, much financial wheeling and dealing, but no description of railway building and nothing of the poor railway workers. Despite all the coach travelling, there is a noticeable lack of the hardships of the many days’ travel that the railways relieved. Strong on contemporary Yorkshire dialect, there is vivid description of the filthy York slums and Hudson’s callous reaction as a councillor.

While this book majors on the rich and disreputable life of the Railway King, it also shows a fine insight into Victorian family life in both big and small houses, touching on the rising middle-class, the nobility and the downtrodden poor. Hudson is forgotten for a time, to reappear later as we read of his daughter (unknown to him) marrying a lawyer with an unexpected title and fortune. This man exposes Hudson’s fraudulent sharedealing, and he’s imprisoned as a debtor.

A romping read to be enjoyed by students of Victorian life in the north of England and the history of railways.