Cornhill Magazine,  6 (1862), 480–89.

Effect of Railways on Health

[George H Lewes]




Statistics, Railways, Public Health, Progress, Fear, Sanitation, Physiology, Reading

People mentioned:

Théophile Gallard , Forbes B Winslow , Waller A Lewis

    Aware that 'anything may be proved by statistics' and that an 'abundance of "cases" [...] can always be cited to prove the most contradictory propositions', Lewes attempts to sort through the different opinions on 'the influence of railway-travel' of 'alarmists' and 'optimists', by whom 'science is invoked to prove, on mechanical, chemical, and physiological principles, that this travel is terribly injurious,—and perfectly innocuous' (480). The railway's 'advantages are too obvious and too immense' for any 'conjectural' evils to really concern the travelling public, and even 'the terrors of railway accidents' will not have much effect, 'especially now that experience has shown that the accidents are insignificant compared with those which occurred in the "good old days of coaching"' (481). Reflecting that 'Hating town, as the writer of these lines hates it, and loving the quiet and the sky of the country as he loves them, he is among the last to undervalue the increase of pleasurable sensations derived from quitting the capital to spend a few hours by the sea-side, or in the stillness of a country villa', Lewes nevertheless casts doubt on the almost 'universal belief in the sanitary advantages of "sleeping out of town"', and instead suggests that for the railway 'season-ticket holder' the 'advantage derived from sleeping out of town' is not 'equivalent, or superior, to the disadvantages of the transit' (482). Unlike many of the medical contributors to the recently published report on The Influence of Railway Travelling on Public Health, Lewes does not consider railway travel to be particularly hazardous, but he still insists that the 'special evils of the rail are—the cold draughts, the dust and smoke, the dizzy rapidity of passing objects, the grinding, rattling, screaming, and whistling', and 'If you live at Brighton you cannot pass daily to and fro except at such a price' (488). According to William W Cooper, moreover, 'reading in railways is productive of injurious effects on the eyes. Not only are the cheap papers and books, which form the bulk of railway literature, badly printed, but even when paper and type are of the best, there is always an incessant strain on the muscles of the eye in the effort to follow the shaking page; and this effort produces head-ache or dizziness in many persons' (489).

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