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The Railway Clearing House : All but forgotten today, the RCH was one of the most important steps forward in British industrial history.
The Railway Clearing House

With acknowledgements to ‘Mapping the Railways’ by Julian Holland and David Spaven.

The humble Railway Clearing House (RCH) brought real co-operation to Victorian Britain’s many different private railway companies, and gave yet further impetus to the country’s accelerating industrial revolution. Its success should be a reminder to private companies that they and their passengers actually share very similar interests.

BY 1840, there were some 1,600 miles of railway in Britain, operated by over forty different companies. Each was a little world, even down to observing its own miniature time zone.

Each had its own signalling conventions, so ‘go’ on one route could be ‘stop’ elsewhere. Longer journeys required a different ticket for each company’s metals and, as there were no standard couplings, buffers or brakes for wagons, frequent changing of trains. Freight was charged by the mile, but railways were largely unmapped, which led to expensive disputes over distances.

In 1842 nine companies, led by the London and Birmingham, agreed to found the Railway Clearing House. For a percentage of its members’ profits, the RCH standardised rolling stock and tickets, mapped distances in miles and chains,* adopted Greenwich Mean Time in 1847, and handled the accounts and paperwork for trains criss-crossing the expanding system.

By smoothing the movement of freight and passengers, the RCH became one of the most important developments in industrial history.

* A mile is 1,760 yards; a chain is 22 yards, or the length of a cricket pitch. There are ten chains to a furlong, and a furlong is an eighth of a mile.

With acknowledgements to ‘Mapping the Railways’ by Julian Holland and David Spaven.

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Picture: Railway Clearing House (1914), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
One of the railway junction diagram maps produced by the RCH, in 1914. This one shows the lines around Newcastle-upon-Tyne, including Blaydon, Hexham, and Scotswood. Off to the right is the line to Sunderland, which from 1845 was represented in Parliament by George Hudson MP, one of the leading architects of the Railway Clearing House and a decidedly colourful figure.

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