THE links between slavery and one of York’s great manufacturing institutions - chocolate - have already come under scrutiny. Research by the Rowntree Society published earlier this year revealed that the Rowntree chocolate company may indirectly have profited from the slave trade.

Now the spotlight has turned to another of the city’s great industries – the railways. Researchers from the University of York, the National Railway Museum and other institutions have launched a year-long project to explore the links between the railways and the global slave trade.

Victorian Britain began building a comprehensive rail network in the early- to mid-1800s. The slave trade within the British Empire was abolished in 1807 - although owning a slave was still legal until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833/4.

But most of Britain’s railways were built after that time. So how could the railway industry have been complicit in the slave trade?There are several ways, says Dr Oliver Betts of the National Railway Museum.

Research by University College, London, has already revealed that many former slave-owners received substantial compensation for the loss of property (slaves) once slavery was abolished, Dr Betts points out. One of them was George Gibbs, who made substantial investments in the Great Western Railway.

There’s no evidence that York’s 'Railway King' George Hudson had links to slavery, Dr Betts says. But building the railways required a huge capital investment - and some of that investment was undoubtedly linked to the slave trade.

Britain’s early railways also transported sugar and cotton produced by slave labour in the Americas, he points out. “They knew where these products were coming from.”

There are also questions to be asked about the working conditions of labourers on the railways in former British colonies such as India, he added.

York Press:

Cotton being loaded at Akola station in India in the 1930s. Picture: Science Museum Group

The railways’ links to slavery have largely been ‘airbrushed from history’, Dr Betts said.

“But it is all part of the story. This (project) will shine a spotlight on the links between slavery and railways. We are examining Britain’s colonial past to look again at the stories we tell, the voices we represent, and the challenges we face in presenting complex, hitherto untold stories to the public."

The University of York's Professor Jonathan Finch added: “The relationship between steam power and global trade is complex.

"Steam engines replaced wind power on the plantations and waterpower in British cotton mills, steamboats transported raw materials and goods around the globe.

“Railways were critical to the expansion of colonial power across Asia and Africa, as well as the opening up of the North American interior. Wealth generated in the colonies was a stimulus to industrialisation, long after the abolition of slavery in the UK and US. This project will examine the economic, social and infrastructural legacy of steam and slavery in the late 19th and 20th centuries.”

  • The ‘Slavery and Steam: steam power railways and colonialism’ project has received a grant from the White Rose University Consortium.