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THE RAILWAY MANIA.
The extension of railways had, up to the year 1844, been effected principally by men of the commercial classes, interested in opening up improved communications between particular towns and districts. The first lines had been bold experiments — many thought them exceedingly rash and unwarranted; they had been reluctantly conceded by the legislature, and were carried out in the face of great opposition and difficulties. At length the locomotive vindicated its power; railways were recognised, by men of all classes, as works of great utility; and their vast social as well as commercial advantages forced themselves on the public recognition. What had been regarded as but doubtful speculations, and by many as certain failures, were now ascertained to be beneficial investments, the most successful of them paying from eight to ten per cent. on the share capital expended.
The first railways were, on the whole, well managed. The best men that could be got were appointed to work them. It is true, mistakes were made, and accidents happened; but men did not become perfect because railways had been invented. The men who constructed, and the men who worked the lines, were selected from the general community, consisting of its usual proportion of honest, practical, and tolerably stupid persons. Had it been possible to create a class of perfect men, a sort of railway guardianangels, directors would only have been too glad to appoint them at good salaries. For with all the mistakes that may have been committed by directors, the jobbing of railway appointments, or the misuse of patronage in selecting the persons to work their lines, has not been charged against them. We have never yet seen a Railway Living advertised for sale; nor have railway situations of an important character been obtainable through“ interest.” From the first, directors chose the best men they could find for their purpose; and, on the whole, the system, considering the extent of its operations, worked satisfactorily, though admitted to be capable of considerable improvement.
The first boards of directors were composed of men of the highest character and integrity that could be found; and they almost invariably held a large stake in their respective undertakings, sufficient to give them a lively personal interest in their successful management. They were also men who had not taken up the business of railway direction as a trade, but who entered upon railway enterprise for its own sake, looking to its eventual success for an adequate return on their large investments.
The first shareholders were principally confined to the manufacturing districts, – the capitalists of the metropolis as yet holding aloof, and prophesying disaster to all concerned in railway projects.* The stock exchange looked askance upon them, and it was with difficulty that respectable brokers could be found to do business in the shares. But when the lugubrious anticipations of the city men were found to be so completely falsified by the results, when, after the lapse of years, it was ascertained that railway traffic rapidly in
* The leading “city men” looked with great suspicion on the first railway projects, having no faith in their success. In 1835, the solicitorship of the Brighton Railway (then projected) was offered to a city firm of high standing, and refused, - one of the partners assigning as a reason, that “the coaches would drive the railway trains off the road in a month !”
creased and dividends steadily improved, a change came over the spirit of the London capitalists : they then invested largely in railways, and the shares became a leading branch of business on the stock exchange. Speculation fairly set in ; brokers prominently called the attention of investors to railway stock; and the prices of shares in the principal lines rose to nearly double their original value.
The national wealth soon poured into this new channel. A stimulus was given to the projection of further lines, the shares in the most favourite of which came out at a premium, and became the subject of immediate traffic on 'change. The premiums constituted their sole worth in the estimation of the speculators. As titles to a future profitable investment, the tens of thousands of shares created and issued in 1844 and 1845 were not in the slightest degree valued. What were they worth to hold for a time, and then to sell ? what profit could be made by the venture ? — that was the sole consideration.
A share-dealing spirit was thus evoked ; and a reckless gambling for premiums set in, which completely changed the character and objects of railway enterprise. The public outside the stock exchange shortly became infected with the same spirit, and many people, utterly ignorant of railways, knowing and caring nothing about their great national uses, but hungering and thirsting after premiums, rushed eagerly into the vortex of speculation. They applied for allotments, and subscribed for shares in lines, of the engineering character or probable traffic of which they knew nothing. “ Shares ! shares !” became the general cry. The ultimate issue of the projects themselves was a matter of no moment. The multitude were bitten by the universal rage for acquiring sudden fortunes without the labour of earning them. Provided they could but obtain allotments which they could sell at a premium, and put the profit - often the only capital
they possessed *— into their pockets, it was enough for them. The mania was not confined to the precincts of the stock exchange, but infected all ranks throughout the country. Share markets were established in the provincial towns, where people might play their stakes as on a roulette table. The game was open to all,— to the workman, who drew his accumulation of small earnings out of the savings' bank to try a venture in shares; to the widow and spinster of small means, who had up to that time blessed God that their lot had lain between poverty and riches, but were now seized by the infatuation of becoming suddenly rich ; to the professional man, who, watching the success of others, at length scorned the moderate gains of his calling, and rushed into speculation. The madness spread everywhere. It embraced merchants and manufacturers, gentry and shopkeepers, clerks in public offices, and loungers at the clubs. Noble lords were pointed at as “stags ; ” there were even clergymen who were characterised as “bulls ;” and amiable ladies who had the reputation of “bears,” in the share markets. The few quiet men who remained uninfluenced by the speculation of the time, were, in not a few cases, even reproached for doing injustice to their families, in declining to help themselves from the stores of wealth that were poured out all around.
Folly and knavery were, for a time, completely in the ascendant. The sharpers of society were let loose, and jobbers and schemers became more and more plentiful. They threw out railway schemes as mere lures to catch the unwary. They fed the mania with a constant succession of new projects. The railway papers became loaded with their adver
* The Marquis of Clanricarde brought under the notice of the House of Lords, in 1845, that one Charles Guernsey, the son of a charwoman, and a clerk in a broker's office at 12s. a week, had his name down as a subscriber for shares in the London and York line, for 52,0001. Doubtless, he had been made useful for the purpose by the brokers, his employers.