As travel increased in the 19th century, British railway companies began to branch into cross-channel services. The 60 or so railway operating companies owned a huge fleet of some 1,250 ships, ranging from tugs and dredgers to cross-channel ferries and pleasure steamers. Many of the larger companies invested massively in the venture, placing a huge value on providing comfortable and dependable short sea crossings.
British ports served as a gateway from continental Europe to Canada and the United States, thus, there was a great demand for the services that the railways offered. The railway companies met the demand by taking the shortest practicable sea route, and even constructing special harbours to connect the ship route to existing railways. Some railway companies even took ownership of strategic canals to facilitate this process.
Early in the game, the government had attempted to protect smaller existing enterprises by putting stringent restrictions in place to prevent railway companies from owning ships. Of course, the railways quickly found loopholes in the legislation by simply setting up lightly disguised subsidiary companies. The London and South Western Railway, for example, held a large interest in the South Western Steam Navigation Co, founded in 1842. The Brighton and Continental Steam Packet Co, founded in 1847, was held in large part by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway.
By 1863, however, the railways were collectively granted permission to run passenger steamers across the channel. From early on, the railways ran large operations of steamers from the ports of Goole, Grimsby and Hull in Humber. Most routes were focused primarily on cargo, meaning that there was typically room for no more than 12 passengers. The routes from Hull as well as the routes linking Grimsby with large European ports, on the other hand, ran steamers that could accommodate up to 450 passengers at a time.
The Great Central Railway (originally called the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway) became a very popular way for emigrants to journey from mainland Europe through the UK and on to their final destination in North America. The GCR ran ships to Grimsby on the East Coast from some of the most important ports in Northern Europe, including Hamburg and Antwerp, Riga and Libau. From the Grimsby port, GCR trains would take passengers to Manchester and then on to Liverpool, from which most ships sailed to the United States and Canada.
Since the Railway operated both the ships and the trains, they were able to offer combined tickets in a packet price. Emigrants from Hamburg, for example, could visit one ticket agent and buy their ticket for their short sea crossing and their train ride across the UK to Liverpool.
Quite a large number of emigrants chose this route on the GCR on their way to North America. In fact, the only comparable competition to this line was a similar package offered through the port in Hull, where emigrants – Scandinavians in particular – traveled via the Paragon Railway Station.
A huge number of Jewish immigrants came at this time from modern day Lithuania, and between 30,000 and 70,000 Russian and Polish emigrants also flowed through the Humber ports. The majority of these (as high as 63 percent) made their journey via the Grimsby steamers and trains of the Great Central Railway.
In all, Grimsby saw over 100,000 emigrants flow through its port and along its railway. When the exodus from Europe was at its pinnacle, as many as 5,000 emigrants a year flowed through the British borders, swelling the population of Grimsby from a mere 8,860 in 1851 to 40,000 by 1880.
Some of the immigrants did settle in Northern England – most of them concentrating along the travel route in Grimsby, Hull, Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool. However, the majority of the European emigrants held tickets through to Canada or the United States and carried on with their journeys to North America after a brief period of weeks or months in England.