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York to Tenby

Nina Morgan extols the advantages of 19th century train travel

Words by Nina Morgan
31 May 2021

Cardiff Docks. Painting by Lionel Walden (1861-1933), 1894. 1,27 x 1,93 m. Orsay Museum, Paris (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The introduction and growth of the railway network in the first half of the 19th century revolutionised travel and the transport of goods for many. One of the first to take advantage of the new possibilities was the geologist John Phillips [1800-1874].

John and Anne
Phillips, nephew of William Smith [1769-1839], the Father of English Geology, was orphaned at the age of eight, along with his younger sister Anne, and their younger brother, Jenkin. John was educated at Smith’s expense and learned about geology at his uncle’s knee. He was reunited with Anne in 1829. Neither married and they lived together until her death, with Anne serving as John’s housekeeper, moral support, confidant and geological companion.

He also became a great train enthusiast, relishing the relative speed and the convenience of train travel, as well as the insights into landscape and geology it offered

John, the first keeper of the Yorkshire Museum, and later first keeper of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, became a skilled palaeontologist, field geologist and prolific author. In 1835, after travelling by train for the first time, he also became a great train enthusiast, relishing the relative speed and the convenience of train travel, as well as the insights into landscape and geology it offered.

Marathon journey
In 1841, Phillips was on assignment mapping with the fledgling geological survey in southwest Wales. He expected the project to last several months, so rented a house in Tenby, and asked Anne, complete with Mary, her maid, and Cholo, their dog, to take the train to come and join him. It was a marathon journey, but having become very familiar with the train timetables, Phillips was able to write to Anne with very specific instructions about how to achieve it. It appears that neither John nor Anne liked to travel light.

“I shall say nothing about your things, except to advise you to have only two or three large packages, well and distinctly marked Miss P. for Bristol… For me… Bring all the papers (not omitting any] in the Cabinets of the anteroom… As to Instruments, bring the Max & Min Thermometer. A Hygrometer, my French Barometer, and Dipping ladle. I don’t recollect that I want any thing else very particularly. Oh! Yes. bring my uncle’s Life & his verses…”

Two days later John wrote to Anne to offer further advice:

“How you will bring poor Cholo I do not even conjecture. Perhaps they will let him be with you in the carriage. Pray have a good courage & then all will go right.”

Courage was certainly required, but Phillips’s advice was sound. Anne, complete with mountains of luggage, a maid, and their dog, arrived safely. How long it took them to recover from the journey is not recorded!

I thank the archivist, librarian and Director at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for providing access to Phillips’s letters.

By Nina Morgan
Nina is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.

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