In the Christmas 1866 edition of his weekly magazine All the Year Round, Charles Dickens published eight short stories centered on a theme – railroads. Specifically, the railroad theme was loosely entitled “Mugby Junction,” a fictitious rail junction in England where several routes crisscrossed.
If the 19th century, and specifically 19th century Britain, had a symbol, it would have been the railroad. From 1826 to 1836, some 378 miles of track were completed. That had risen to 2,210 miles by 1844. By 1870, more than 16,000 miles of track had been opened, carrying 423 million passengers annually.
In Dickens’ lifetime, the railroad had grown from non-existent to a huge technological force, tying the country together, boosting the Industrial Revolution, propelling the growth of cities, and changing the lives of virtually everyone in the country. “Mugby Junction” was a symbol of that impact.
Dickens himself wrote four of the eight stories. In “Barbox Brothes,” a man detrains at the station, not quite sure why he’s doing so, since he bought a thru ticket to London. In “Barbox Brothers and Co.,” the man meets a little girl, who seems to know him far better than he knows her. In “Main Line: The Boy at Mugby,” the boy of the title works in the refreshment room, fully aware that it is likely just the opposite of what it advertises itself as. “No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman” takes something of a dark technological turn, with the signalman seeing a specter or ghost shortly before various rail tragedies.
Even though these stories by Dickens are clearly set in the 19th century, they oddly have a contemporary feel about them. The railroads have brought change, and with the change has come dislocation.
The four remaining stories all concern various branch lines.
In “No. 2 Branch Line: The Engine Driver” by Andrew Halliday, the engine driver explains how he has killed seven men and boys over the course of his career, all as a result of accidents. “No. 3 Branch Line: The Compensation House” by Charles Collins moves the Mugby Junction narrative away from the railroads and to a house being converted for use by the railroads – and a strange house it is. “No. 4 Branch Line: The Traveling Post Office” by Hesba Stretton concerns the theft of a diplomatic box, a crime that seems to be unexplainable (and is only resolved in distant Egypt). And “No. 5 Branch Line: The Engineer” by Amelia Edwards tells the story of two lifelong friends who fall out over a woman toying with them both, and how one seemingly returns from the dead to warn his friend.
Mugby Junction is an interesting mix of stories and genres – literary fiction, mystery, ghost story, and a mixture of all three. The stories are all about the railroad and what it had wrought in both society at large and individual lives in particular. And Dickens and his fellow writers saw the technology as a mixed blessing. Like all technologies, it had brought both good and bad.