NOTES AND EXTRACTS
ON THE HISTORY OF THE
of some of the events referred to in the preceding narrative.
The earliest record of
wagonway, built by Huntingdon Beaumont to
convey coal from his mines at Strelley (to the west Nottingham) to Wollaton,
a distance of some two miles.
“Among the rest of the ‘rare engines’ introduced by
master Beaumont into the coal trade, one was ‘Waggons with one horse
to carry down coales from the pits to the staiths to the river.’
Lord Keeper Guilford, in 1676, thus describes them: ‘The manner of
the carriage is by laying rails of timber from the colliery down to
the river, exactly straight and parallel; and bulky carts are made
with four rowlers, fitting these rails, whereby the carriage is so
easy, that one horse will draw down four or five chaldron of coals,
and is an immense benefit to the coal merchants.’”
[2nd July] Thomas Savery patents an
early steam engine (thermic siphon), “A new invention for raising
of water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the
impellent force of fire, which will be of great use and advantage
for drayning mines, serveing townes with water, and for the working
of all sorts of mills where they have not the benefitt of water nor
constant windes.” In 1702 Savery describes the machine in his
book The Miner's Friend; or, An Engine to Raise Water by Fire.
publishes The New Art of Pumping
Water by Using Steam.
Thomas Newcomen invents the atmospheric engine, the first practical
device to harness the power of steam to produce mechanical work.
Tramway wagons begin to
acquire iron wheels.
Charles Brandling’s wagonway opened,
linking his collieries at Middleton with Leeds. It is credited
with being the world’s oldest continuously working line.
Iron re-enforced track.
All iron rails.
Iron edge rails,
requiring the use of flanged wheels, first reported to be in use.
William Jessop uses
‘fish bellied’ edge rails on a public railway at Loughborough.
[9th June] Birth of George Stephenson.
The Surrey Iron Railway
(Wandsworth to Croydon) becomes the first railway company to be authorised
by Act of Parliament.
Trevithick’s Puffing Devil ―“The travelling engine took its departure from Camborne Church Town
for Tehidy on the 28th of December, 1801, where I was waiting to
receive it. The carriage, however, broke down, after travelling very
well, and up an ascent, in all about three or four hundred yards. The carriage was forced under some shelter, and the parties
adjourned to the hotel, and comforted their hearts with a roast
goose, and proper drinks, when, forgetful of the engine, its water
boiled away, the iron became red hot, and nothing that was
combustible remained, either of the engine or the house.”
Opening of Surrey Iron
[16th October] Birth of Robert Stephenson.
hauls wagons on Merthyr Tydfil Tramroad.
The Kilmarnock & Troon
Railway becomes the first railway to be opened in Scotland. It was
the first railway (in fact a plateway using L-shaped iron plates) in
Scotland to obtain an authorising Act of Parliament; to use a steam
locomotive; to carry passengers; and the River Irvine bridge, Laigh
Milton Viaduct, is the earliest railway viaduct in Scotland.
The Middleton Railway,
the site of the world’s first rack railway and of the first
commercially viable steam locomotive built by John Blenkinsop.
[March 13th] Mr.
William Hedley, viewer to Mr Blackett, of Wylam, took out a patent
for a locomotive engine, which succeeded so well as to draw eight
loaded wagons at the rate of four or five miles an hour, and
completely superseded the use of horses. It would thus appear that
to Mr Hedley belongs the honour of first making the locomotive
engine of practical use. This engine has been in constant use until
recently, when it was removed to the Patent Museum at Kensington.
[July 27th] This day
Stephenson’s engine was placed upon the Killingworth Colliery
Railway, and on an ascending gradient of 1 in 450 it drew eight
loaded wagons of thirty tons weight at the rate of four miles per
hour. By the application of the steam blast the power of the engine
[September 2nd] One
of Blenkinsopp’s engines was placed upon the Kenton and Coxlodge
Railway; it drew sixteen loaded chaldron wagons (a weight of about
seventy tons) about three miles per hour. The boiler of the engine
shortly blew away, and was not replaced.
Stephenson patents an
improved locomotive engine.
[12th February] The
first promoters’ meeting of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
[April 19th] Upon
this day occurred the interview between the late Edward Pease, the
Father of Railways, and George Stephenson, relative to the making of
the Stockton and Darlington Railway, for which an Act was this year
obtained, but the first rail was not laid until the 23rd of May,
[November 18th] On
this day the Hetton Colliery Railway was opened, and the first coals
from the colliery were shipped. Five of George Stephenson's patent
travelling engines were used on the railway, of which Robert
Stephenson his son was resident engineer.
Prospectus of Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company issued.
[September 27th] The
Stockton and Darlington Railway, of which George Stephenson was
engineer, was opened for twenty-five miles in length, from Stockton
to Witton Park. In the early days of this railway the passengers
were conveyed in ordinary coaches mounted upon railway wagon wheels.
Upon Sundays it was usual for the “Friends” residing at Shildon to
go to Darlington in a car drawn by a horse along the line.
(separate firebox, multi-tubular boiler, inclined cylinders, sprung
axles) wins the Rainhill Locomotive Trials.
Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Britain’s first
Stephenson’s first set of deposited plans
for the London and Birmingham Railway show its London terminus to be
situated to the north of Hyde park, west of the Edgeware Road and
adjacent to the confluence of the Grand Junction and Regent’s
[July] First attempt to obtain an Act of Parliament fails on the
resolution of the Earl of Brownlow.
[6th May] Acts
authorising the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway,
and the Grand Junction Railway, receive the Royal Assent.
[May] First construction contracts let, covering the Primrose Hill,
Harrow and Watford sections of the line.
[17th July] Tunnel
collapse at Watford kills ten men.
[31 August] The Great Western Railway Act receives the Royal Assent.
[3rd July] Act
authorising the extension of the London and Birmingham Railway from
Camden Town to Euston Grove receives the Royal Assent.
[9th December] W. and
L. Cubitt awarded the contract to build the Euston Extension.
[July] A tender from
the engineering firm of Maudslay, Sons and Field accepted to supply
the Camden winding engines.
George Carr Glyn
(later the 1st Baron Wolverton) becomes the second Chairman of the
London and Birmingham Railway. He later became Chairman of the
London & North-Western Railway Company, a position he held until
1852. The Railway’s first Chairman was Isaac Solly, was
declared bankrupt during the 1837 banking crisis.
[10th June] Cooke and
Wheatstone patent a telegraph system which uses a number of needles
on a board that could be moved to point to letters of the alphabet.
The patent recommended a five-needle system, but any number of
needles could be used depending on the number of characters it was
required to code.
[4th July] The Grand
Junction Railway commences services between Birmingham and
Warrington, from where Liverpool and Manchester could be reached via
the Warrington and Newton Railway. The services operated originally
from a temporary terminus at Vauxhall, but when the Lawley Street
viaduct was completed in 1839, services were extended to the London
and Birmingham terminus at Curzon Street.
[20th July] The London
and Birmingham Railway commences services between Euston Grove and
Boxmoor (Hemel Hempstead).
[25th July] A
four-needle Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph system installed between
Euston and Camden Town is demonstrated successfully in the presence
of Robert Stephenson. Although Stephenson is in favour, the system
is not taken up by the London and Birmingham Railway Company.
[16th October] The
London and Birmingham Railway extends services to Tring. Also in
October, Thomas Townshend, contractor for the Tring Cutting,
abandons the contract.
Travelling Post Office is introduced on the Grand Junction Railway
using a converted horse-box. The last Travelling Post Office
services were ended on 9th January 2004.
[9th April] The London
and Birmingham Railway extends services to Denbigh Hall (nr.
Wolverton) and commences services between Birmingham (Curzon Street)
and Rugby. The intervening 38-mile gap is bridged by a
stagecoach/omnibus services. Also in April, work is completed
on the Wolverton Viaduct.
[June] Work completed
on the Kilsby Tunnel.
[10th August] The
Special Constables Act is passed
requiring railway and other companies to bear the cost of constables
keeping the peace near construction works.
[14th August] The
Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act 1838 (1 & 2 Vict. c. 98) ― an Act
requiring the transport of the Royal Mail by railways at a
standardised fee ― receives the Royal Assent.
[20th September] The
London and Birmingham Railway is opened throughout.
Electric telegraph on the Cook & Wheatstone system laid down along a
13-mile section of the Great Western Railway, between Paddington and
First railway hotels opened at Euston. The
Victoria Hotel offered basic sleeping accommodation and coffee house
services, meant for working-class men. The Euston Hotel offered a
full service, catering to middle class families and first-class
Birmingham and Derby
Junction Railway open a station at Hampton (aka Derby Junction) to
provide connections with London and with Birmingham services.
[10th June] The
Aylesbury to Cheddington Railway, the UK’s first branch line,
[December] Cooke and
Wheatstone’s telegraph first applied to block signalling on the
Great Western Railway between Paddington, West Drayton, and Hanwell.
A hotel is opened on
the northern side of the Curzon Street terminus at Birmingham. The
hotel closed when Queen’s Hotel was opened next to New Street
Midland Counties Railway to Rugby opened.
[10th August] Regulation of Railways Act comes into force:
1. No railway to be
opened without notice;
2. Returns to be made by railway companies;
3. Appointment of Board of Trade inspectors;
4. Railway byelaws to be approved by the Board;
5. Prohibition of drunkenness by railway employees;
6. Prohibition of trespass on railways.
[30th June] Great
Western Railway main line opened between London and Bristol.
Semaphore signals first
used on British railways on the London and Croydon Railway at New
[2nd January] The
Railway Clearing House (RCH) commences operations in premises at 111
Drummond Street, opposite Euston Station. Owing to expansion, the
RCH moved to larger purpose-built premises in Seymour Street
(renamed Eversholt Street in 1938) in 1849, which remained its
headquarters for the rest of its existence. The RCH was dissolved as
a corporate body on the 8th April 1955, its residual functions then
being taken over by the British Transport Commission.
[13th June] Queen
Victoria makes her first railway journey from Slough to Paddington
on the Great Western Railway. The locomotive to do the honours was
Phlegethon, a GWR Firefly-class locomotive built at the Round
Foundry, Leeds, the same factory that had 30 years previously built
the first commercially successful locomotives for the Middleton
[August] Troops are
carried by train from Euston to suppress industrial unrest in the
Midlands and the North of England, the first recorded use of the
railway in Great Britain by the military.
Sections of the
retaining wall on the Camden Incline being forced forward by
waterlogged London clay.
[9th August] The
Railway Regulation Act (“Gladstone’s Act” ) required that:
1. One train with
provision for carrying third-class passengers, should run on every
line, every day, in each direction, stopping at every station.
(These are what were originally known as “Parliamentary” or
2. The fare should be 1d. (½p) per mile.
3. Its average speed should not be less than 12 miles per hour (19
4. Third-class passengers should be protected from the weather and
be provided with seats.
The Coventry to Leamington railway opened,
initially linking the City with Milverton, but in 1851 the line was
extended into Leamington Spa.
Victoria makes her first train journey on the London and Birmingham
Railway, travelling from Euston to Weedon in Northamptonshire
Peterborough via Northampton line opened.
[16th July] The London
& Birmingham Railway, the Grand Junction Railway and the Manchester
& Birmingham Railway amalgamate to form the London & North Western
Railway (L&NWR). The amalgamation was prompted in part by the Great
Western Railway’s plans for a railway north from Oxford to
Birmingham. The L&NWR initially had a network of approximately 350
miles, connecting London with Birmingham, Crewe, Chester, Liverpool
[18th August] The
Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act establishes the national standard of
4ft 8½ inches (1,435 mm) for
Great Britain, and 5 feet 3 inches (1,600 mm) for Ireland. The final
elimination of the broad gauge came in May 1892, when the entire
line between London and Penzance was converted to standard gauge
during a single weekend.
[22nd September] The
Railway Clearing House decrees that “GMT be adopted at all
stations as soon as the General Post Office permitted it”.
turned out at Wolverton Works. Some
160 locomotives are believed to have been built at the Works, the
last in 1863 when production was centred on Crewe.
[12th August] Death of George Stephenson.
The L&NWR first use
the two-mile telegraph signalling system on the former London and
A third line, used
mainly for goods traffic, is added between Willesden and Bletchley.
[12 October] Death of Robert Stephenson.
Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd. is formed as the successor
to Messrs. Joseph Wright and Sons of London.
A fourth track is laid between Willesden and Bletchley.
Following the Armagh
rail disaster on 12th June 1889, the Regulation of Railways Act (52
& 53 Vict. c. 57) makes the use of the absolute block signalling
system mandatory on passenger carrying railways.
The Railways Act ―
generally known as “the Grouping” ― enacted in an attempt to stem
the losses being made by many of the country's 120 railway
companies. Four large railway companies are formed; The Great
Western Railway; The London, Midland and Scottish; The London and
North Eastern; and The Southern Railway.
The Railways Act
takes effect on the 1st January. The former London and
Birmingham Railway becoming a constituent of the London, Midland and
“British Railways” comes into existence as the business name of the
Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission (BTC), and
takes over the assets of the Big Four. The railways are now
Completion of the
scheme to electrify (25kV, 50Hz) of the former London and Birmingham
construction of phase 1 of a new railway linking London and
Birmingham is approved. Construction is set to begin in 2017,
with an indicated opening date of 2026. Stephenson and his
team did the job rather quicker.
A note about the artist
JOHN COOKE BOURNE
Having reproduced a number of Bourne’s drawings, something needs to
be said about the artist.
The London and Birmingham Railway was built on the eve of
photography; had the line been constructed five years later ― or the
first two photographic processes (Daguerreotype and Calotype) invented five years earlier ― we might now be able to
view and admire photographic images of the line’s
stations and civil engineering structures as they appeared to
Roscoe, Freeling, Osborne and other authors of the early railway travel
guides. Photographs are not available until
some years after the line’s opening, by which time much had changed,
particularly its stations. Thus accurate depictions of the London
and Birmingham Railway during and immediately following its
construction are only available in drawings, and particularly those of the artist and
engraver John Cooke Bourne (1814-95).
Bourne is something of an enigma, for there are periods of his
life, particularly his later years, in which he appears to have
produced nothing, and during which nothing is known of him.  What
is known, is that he was a gifted
draughtsman and that he began a series of sketches and watercolour
drawings of the Railway during its construction, which attracted
critical acclaim from John Britton, author and patron of the arts,
who subsequently became Bourne’s sponsor:
Historical and Descriptive Accounts op the Origin, Progress, General
Execution, and Characteristics op the LONDON
and BIRMINGHAM RAILWAY.
“Some beautiful drawings of this Railway were made, con amore,
in the year 1838, by Mr. John C. Bourne, as studies from nature. They were submitted to Mr. Britton, who suggested the expediency of
their being published. The great cuttings, embankments, and tunnels,
on the London and Birmingham Railway, were, at the time referred to,
matters of great novelty and absorbing interest to the inhabitants
of the metropolis; and it appeared therefore certain that the beauty
of Mr. Bourne’s drawings, and the popularity of the subject, would
ensure success in their publication.
On considering the best mode of multiplying the drawings, that of
tinted lithography was adopted, as best calculated to preserve the
spirit and character of the originals, without reducing them in
size. Although Mr. Bourne had not previously made any drawings on
stone, he was eminently successful even in his first efforts; and
the whole of the series (thirty-seven in number) were thus executed
by himself. The prints were published in four periodical parts, at
one guinea each (super-royal folio). On the completion of the work,
a general Historical and Descriptive Account of the Railway,
occupying twenty-six closely-printed pages, was written by Mr.
Britton. It comprises remarks on, — ‘Past and present modes of
travelling. Public roads. Stage Coaches, Turnpikes, Mails, Canals,
Steam Boats, Locomotive Engines, History of the Railway System, and
of the origin and formation of the London and Birmingham Railway. Brief Descriptive account of that line, with its Stations, Viaducts,
Tunnels, and Embankments, and notices of the Towns, Villages, Seats,
&c., upon the line and its immediate vicinity.’ In the drawings, the
great Embankments, Cuttings, Tunnels, and other Railway works are
represented; some in their completed state, but most of them as they
appeared in various stages of their formation; and the artist has
delineated some extraordinary scenes and objects, in which
innumerable workmen, and gigantic machinery, appear to be in active
Mr. Bourne has since produced a series of drawings of the Great
Western Railway (published by C. F. Cheffins), in which all the
objects are represented in their finished state. Mr. Britton wrote a
Prospectus, &c., for that work, but was not otherwise connected with
The Auto-biography of John
Britton, Part II. (1849).
In 1847, Bourne travelled to Russia with the civil engineer Charles
Blacker Vignoles. Vignoles had been commissioned to design and
build the Nicholas Chain Bridge over the River Dnieper in Kiev,
Bourne having previously produced an artist’s impression of the
intended bridge in watercolour. While in Russia, Bourne also created
images using the early daguerreotype photographic process. Despite
living for another forty years, very little is known of his life of
work, and he probably died with little, if any, appreciation of how
important his early railway drawings ― particularly those of the
London and Birmingham Railway under construction ― would
NAVVIES AS THEY USED TO BE
19th January 1856.
IN the year one
thousand eight hundred and thirty-four, having completed my
education at an academy near Harrow, wherein I had spent six years
of the sixteen to which I had attained, I returned to my native
village, and declared my wish to be an engineer. We lived in a
remote corner of the county of Hertford. Everywhere railways were
almost untried innovations, therefore, my worthy guardian, when I
told him that I meant to be an engineer, said that he pitied me from
his heart, and begged that I would banish the thought instantly.
I did not heed his counsel. In the autumn previous to my leaving the
school, situated, as I said, near Harrow, the works of the London
and Birmingham Railway had been commenced close to its academic
groves. Opportunity had thus directed my attention towards
engineering works. Even a little knowledge was thus gained which had
become the stimulus to further acquisitions; so that I bought for
myself Grier’s Mechanics’ Calculator, and Jones on Levelling,
studied them in leisure hours, made fresh observations as to the
progress of the works whenever I could manage to climb over the
playground wall; and when I returned home, had got so far that I
could keep a field-book, reduce levels, compute gradients, and
calculate earthworks with tolerable accuracy. I left school resolved
to be an engineer.
My guardian was equally resolved that I should not have my own way
in the matter; so I rose early one morning in the month of March,
eighteen hundred and thirty-five, packed up a change of linen and an
extra pair of trousers, with my Grier in a handkerchief, and with
but a few shillings in my pocket, set off for the nearest railway
works. There I hoped to obtain employment, and, by beginning at the
beginning, to follow upon, their own road the Smeatons, Stevensons,
and Brunels. I tramped, therefore, to Boxmoor; and reaching the
unfinished embankment at that place, after a walk of some thirty
miles, footsore and weary, I went boldly upon the ground and asked
for work. I don’t know what the men — the gaffers, as they were
called, thought of me. One told me that, “I looked too much like a hap’porth of soap after a hard day’s wash to be fit for much;”
another asked me whether I had made up my mind not to scratch an old
head; but at last my perseverance in application was rewarded with a
driver’s job, at twelve shillings a-week wages. I was to drive a
horse and truck full of earth along the temporary rails of the
embankment to the end of it, where the truck was tipped, and its
contents shot out to serve towards the further extension of the
I was a driver for more than a fortnight, during which time my
clothes were torn to ribbons. In the course of my third week I did
that which I had seen other unfortunates do, — I drove horse and
truck together with the earth, over the tip-head.
Forfeiting my wages and my situation, I trudged to Watford tunnel,
which I reached on the same evening; and, next morning at day-break
I was descending one of the great shafts, a candidate for
subterranean labour. I rose in the world afterwards; but my rise
dates from this descent.
The man to whom I had engaged myself was a sub contractor of the
fourth degree — Frazer, by name, a thorough Yorkshireman — who never
spoke without an oath, was never heard even to call man, woman, or
child by Christian name; whose only varieties of expression were
that when he was in a bad humour he swore at others, when in a good
humour he cursed himself. My job under this man, was
bucket-steering. Placed upon the projecting ledge of a scaffold some
eighty feet above the level of the rails in the tunnel, and one or
two hundred feet below the surface of the earth, while bricklayers,
masons, and labourers were busy upon the brickwork of the shaft
above, below and round me, while torches and huge fires in cressets
were blazing everywhere. I was, in the midst of the din and smoke,
to steer clear of the scaffold the descending earth-buckets one of
which dropped under my notice every three minutes at the least. This
duty demanding vigilant attention, I had to perform for an unbroken
shift (as it was termed) of six hours at a stretch.
“Look thou,” said Frazer with an oath, when giving me instructions,
“you just do like this.” I was to clasp a pole with my left arm,
hang over the abyss, and steady the buckets with a stick held out in
my right hand. “Do like this,” he repeated, swearing, “but mind, if
you fall, go clean down without doing any mischief. Last night I’d
to pay for a new trowel that the little fool who was killed
yesterday knocked out of a fellow’s hand.” The little fool was the
poor lad whom I replaced, and as I afterwards learned, was a runaway
watchmaker’s apprentice out of Coventry, who had been worked for
three successive shifts without relief, and who had fallen down the
shaft from sheer exhaustion. And, before I knocked off my first
shift, I was not surprised at his fate. I was so thoroughly
exhausted that Frazer put me into the bucket, and gave orders to a
man to bear a hand with me to Sanders’s fuddling crib, and let me
have a pitch in for an hour, and a pint.
Sanders’s fuddling crib was a double hovel, situated nearly at the
foot of the shaft. The “pitch in” with which I was to be indulged
was a lie-down on a mattress, of which there were several; nearly
all of them occupied by men and boys more or less exhausted. I slept
for six hours, and awoke refreshed; but, no sooner was it discovered
that I was awake, than I was told to “scuttle out,” which I did
quickly, and my bed was instantly filled by another over-wearied
worker. “Now get your pint,” said the old wooden-legged man who had
charge of this sleeping accommodation. I was ushered into the other
section of the hovel in which there were some thirty men drinking,
smoking and swearing in true navigator style, before a bar
established for the sale of beer. I did not get my pint, for I
eschewed beer; but bargained it away with a man for a drink of
coffee from his bottle. It was strong and warm, for the bottle had
been standing on the hot stone hearth; the very smell of the coffee
was inspiriting, and I was on the point of putting the bottle to my
lips when it was dashed from my hands by a huge fellow, who rushed
past us to the fire, exclaiming,
“Hist! hist! Red Whipper’s a gwain to fight the devil!”
I looked round. Seated on one of the benches about half-way down the
hut was a man who had fallen asleep over his beer. He wore a loose
red serge frock and red night-cap, the peak of which appeared
through a newspaper which had been thrust over his head, and hung
down to his knees. A momentary hush prevailed; when the man who had
knocked down my coffee, returning with a light, set fire to the
paper. Red Whipper was instantly enveloped in flame, and started
from his sleep in fierce alarm, throwing his arms about him like a
madman. This joke was called fighting the devil. It led to a general
scuffle, in the midst of which I made my escape into the wider,
though more reasonable, turmoil of the tunnel. There was no day
there and no peace: the shrill roar of escaping steam; the groans of
mighty engines heaving ponderous loads of earth to the surface; the
click-clack of lesser engines pumping dry the numerous springs by
which the drift was intersected; the reverberating thunder of the
small blasts of powder fired upon the mining works; the rumble of
trains of trucks; the clatter of horses’ feet; the clank of chains;
the strain of cordage; and a myriad of other sounds, accordant and
discordant. There were to be seen miners from Cornwall, drift-borers
from Wales, pitmen from Staffordshire and Northumberland, engineers
from Yorkshire and Lancashire, navvies — Englishmen, Scotchmen, and
Irishmen — from everywhere, muck-shifters, pickmen, barrowmen,
brakes-men, banksmen, drivers, gaffers, gangers, carpenters,
bricklayers, labourers, and boys of all sorts, ages and sizes; some
engaged upon the inverts beneath the rails, some upon the drains
below these, some upon the extension of the drifts, some clearing
away the falling earth, some loading it upon the trucks, some
working like bees in cells building up the tunnel sides, some upon
the centre turning the great arches, some stretched upon their backs
putting the key-bricks to the crown — all speaking in a hundred
dialects, with dangers known and unknown impending on every side;
with commands and countermands echoing about through air murky with
the smoke and flame of burning tar-barrels, cressets, and torches.
Such was the interior of Watford tunnel. There were shops in it,
too: not only beer or fuddling-shops, but tommy-shops. The navvy
knows that he is a helpless being if he cannot get his tommy; and
this word, which comprehends all animal supplies (drink is wet tommy),
signifies beef, bacon, cheese, coffee, bread, butter, and tobacco.
My job as bucket-steerer did not last long; for the drift north of
the tunnel being soon cut through, no more earth was taken up the
shaft; it was all carried out through Hazlewood cutting, to be used
in the formation of the long embankment between Hunton Bridge and
Frazer, who told me that I was a handy lad, did not discharge me
altogether, but shifted me to a gang of regular navvies in the
tunnel. With my first fortnight’s wages I had got me a suit of new
moleskin and a pair of highlows; now, therefore, I had only to buy
pick and shovel, and my equipment was complete. My hands had become
coarse, my face was sunburnt, and my hair shaggy. What matter? I
felt a hearty pride in myself, and my prospects.
The gang I joined consisted of some forty men, each of whom bore a
nickname. There were Happy Jack, Long Bob, Dusty Tom, Billy-goat,
Frying-pan, Red-head, and the rest with names more or less
ludicrous. For myself, my new clothes and tools entitled me to the
style of Dandy Dick. I was fined two gallons footing, which I paid;
and was put to work with a lad, whom they called Kick Daddy, in
clearing out a trench.
With this gang I worked steadily and punctually, making no enemies
and one friend. This friend was Canting George; a tall, thin,
hard-lined, stern-featured, middle-aged man, commonly sneered at by
his fellows because he was said to be religious; though I never knew
him attempt to make a proselyte, or interfere at any time by word or
deed with drinking, swearing, quarrelling, or fighting. His only
cause of offence, as far as my observation extended, was, that he
was never at any time drunk or riotous himself. Canting George was a
native of an obscure spot in Warwickshire. He was an extreme
Calvinist, and miserably ignorant, for he could not even read; yet
he possessed very good reasoning powers.
My education having more than once betrayed itself, this man, who
had a thirst for knowledge, fastened himself upon me. But his
friendship was not altogether selfish; for I soon owed much to his
protection. Bullhead, as our ganger was called, was a surly brute,
and Canting George frequently saved me from his violence. But for
him, too, instead of continuing to live at my lodgings in a clean
cottage at Hunton Bridge, I should have been compelled to live in
the shanty with the rest of the gang; and rather than have done
that, I should have given up the effort to make myself an engineer
The shanty was a building of stone, brick, mud, and timber, and
roofed partly with tile and partly with tarpaulin. It consisted of a
single oblong room, and stood upon a piece of spare ground near the
tunnel mouth; another nearby shanty tenanted by another of Frazer’s
gangs, stood upon the high ground just above; and between both,
under a single roof, were Frazer’s office and his tommy-shop.
Almost every gang of navvies — and there were sixty, at least,
employed upon the tunnel — was thus lodged; so that there were
several of these dens of wild men round about the works. The
bricklayers, masons, mechanics, and their labourers were distributed
among the adjacent population, carrying disorder and uproar wherever
they went. I will not attempt to say what might have been the social
aspect of affairs in the neighbourhood of the line if the hordes of
reckless navigators had been lodged in the same way. Their own
arrangement was made, not on moral grounds, entirely by the men and
their gaffers (the sub-contractors) to suit their own convenience;
for the navvie does not like to reside far from his work.
The domestic arrangements of the navigators’ shanties were presided
over by a set of blear-eyed old crones, of whom there was one to
each gang. They were expected to cook, make the beds, wash and mend
the clothes of their masters; who beat them fearfully whenever the
fancy of any one or more of their rough lords and masters inclined
to that refreshment. In all the obscenity and blasphemy they bore
their part; in the fighting they also lent a hand. With features
frightfully disfigured, with heads cut and bandaged, they made
themselves at home in the midst of everything from which pride and
virtue shrink aghast.
Once only I visited our shanty. I was, in spare hours, teaching
George Hatley to read; and it happened one Sunday morning early in
May that the rain, hindering church attendance, I strolled up to the
shanty to find George; but he was gone out. Old Peg, the presiding
crone, who was then exhibiting two black eyes and a bandaged chin,
told me that he would be back by eleven — it was then past ten; and,
having cursed me in a way intended to be very friendly, she invited
me to wait till he returned. So I sat down on a three-legged stool,
and took a survey of the place.
The door was about midway in one of the sides, having a window on
each side of it, and near one of the windows were a few rude benches
and seats. Of such of my comrades as were up, four or five were
sprawling on these seats, two lying flat upon the earthen floor
playing at cards, and one sat on a stool mending his boots. These
men all greeted me with a gruff welcome, and pressed me to drink. Near the other window were three barrels of beer, all in tap, the
keys of which were chained to a stout leathern girdle, which
encircled old Peg’s waist. Her seat — an old-fashioned arm-chair —
was handy to these barrels, of which she was tapster. The opposite
side and one end of the building were fitted up from floor to roof —
which was low — in a manner similar to the between-decks of an
emigrant ship. In each of the berths there lay one or two of my
mates — for this was their knock-off Sunday — all drunk or asleep. Each man lay with his head upon his kit (his bundle of clothes);
and, nestling with many of the men were dogs and litters of puppies
of the bull or lurcher breed; for a navvie’s dog was, of course,
either for fighting or poaching.
The other end of the room served as the kitchen. There was a rude
dresser in one corner, upon which and a ricketty table was arranged
a very miscellaneous set of plates and dishes, in tin, wood, and
earthenware, each holding an equally ill-matched cup, basin, or
bowl. Against the wall were fixed a double row of cupboards or
lockers, one to each man; these were the tommy-boxes, and below
them, suspended from stout nails and hooks, were several large pots
and pans. Over the fireplace, which was nearly central, there were
also hung about a dozen guns. In the other corner was a large
copper, beneath which a blazing fire was roaring: a volume of
savoury steam was escaping from beneath the lid, and old Peg,
muttering and spluttering ever and anon, threw on more coals and
kept the copper boiling. Now, as I looked at this copper, I noticed
a riddle not particularly hard to solve. Depending over its side,
were several strings, communicating with the interior; and, to each
of these, was attached a piece of wood. Peg, muttering and
spluttering, was continually handling one or more of these
mysteries. I asked her the meaning of them.
“Them!” said Peg, speaking in a broad Lancashire dialect, and taking
a stick in her hand; “why, sith’ee lad — this bit o’ stick has four
nicks in’t — well it’s Billygoat’s dinner: he’s abed yond. Now
this,” taking up another with six nicks, “is that divil Redhead’s,
and this,” seizing a third with ten nicks, “is Happy Jack’s. Well,
thee know’st, he’s got a bit o’ beef; Redhead’s nowt but taters —
he’s a gradely brute is Redhead; an’ Billygoat’s got a pun or so o’
bacon an’ a cabbage. Now thee sees I’ve a matter o’ twenty dinners
or so to bile every day, which I biles in nets; an if I didna’ fix ’em
in this road (manner) I should’na never tell where to find ’em, and
then there’d be sich a row as never yet was heerd on.” Shortly
afterwards Red Whipper came in, bringing with him a leveret. This
was a signal for Peg. His orders to her were, “Get it ready, and put
it in along o’ the rest, and look sharp, or thee’s head may be
broken.” He then took off his jacket and boots and tumbled up into a
In the course of the month of June, Frazer took more work, and set
on two or three extra gangs of navvies. One of these built a shanty
nearly opposite to the one occupied by my gang. These new-comers
were chiefly Irish, and they had not been there many days before a
row took place, which, while it lasted, brought picks, spades,
shovels, mawls, beetle-cudgels, and every available weapon into
active service. The fight took place on a Saturday evening, about
two hours after pay-time. It was our fortnightly payday; and the men
being well sprung with drink, the affray was desperate. It lasted
for more than an hour; no interruption being offered to the
combatants. Indeed nothing short of military interference could have
quelled such a disturbance. My gang was victorious. But their
triumph was dearly purchased: five of our comrades were shockingly
hacked and disabled. More than a dozen of the Irishmen were mangled,
and one was taken up for dead. The finale of this war was the
burning of the Paddies’ shanty. After this ejectment order was
Later in the summer occurred that terrible disaster by which upwards
of thirty men, were buried alive by the in-falling of a mass of
earth. Fourteen were not rescued until life was extinct, and the
last body not recovered until after a lapse of three weeks. Of those
who were rescued alive, all, with the exception of one man,
sustained more or less of corporeal injury — fractures, contusions,
and bruises. This man, who owed his rescue to having been at work
beneath some shelving planks when the earth fell in, was taken out
crazed, and died shortly after a raving madman. The causes assigned
for the accident were conflicting; and, as is usual in such cases,
each party did their best to fix the blame upon the other — the
engineers upon the contractors, these upon their sub-contractors,
and these again upon those beneath them. I believe that the disaster
was really attributable to a foreman of bricklayers, who madly, and
against orders, drew away the centering of some newly-turned arches;
the earth followed; and the doomed men beneath — presuming the cause
I have given to be the right one—became the victims of a drunken
The scene was terrible. Above yawned an abyss, down which huge trees
had been carried, for it was woodland here above the tunnel; the
trunks of many had been snapped like sticks, and the roots of some
were branching up into the air. Below, on either side of the mass,
were gangs of brave, daring men — the navvie is a bold fellow when
danger is to be faced — endeavouring to work their way through it. Day and night, for one-and-twenty days, these labours unremittingly
continued, until at length the body of the last victim was found.
George Hatley, having got on with his studies, informed Frazer, who
was little better than no scholar at all, of his new capabilities. With the jealousy peculiar to ignorance, Frazer had never been able
to tolerate the idea of having a well-dressed or well-educated clerk
in his employment, and his sphere of operations had for that reason
been limited to works under his own supervision. Now, however, he
felt that if he could get another contract on some other portion of
the line, George could be safely put in charge of it. Frazer
accordingly put in for, and obtained a contract to carry a portion
of the drift through Northchurch tunnel; over this job he appointed
George his gaffer, and George then got me to be appointed his
assistant and time-keeper. So to Northchurch tunnel we went, early
in October; and, under the directions of the engineers, opened the
drift at the north end of the tunnel; sinking a shaft about midway
on our length, which was, I think, about one hundred and fifty
yards. By the middle of November we had six gang of navvies at work
— each from thirty to forty strong; and Frazer, who came down twice
a week to give directions and watch progress, never before, as I
believe, had felt himself so great a man. He purchased a new suit of
clothes, displayed a watch-guard; and, but for his vulgar mind and
manners, would have passed for a gentleman.
The men at Northchurch were, if possible, a more desperate and
licentious set than those whom I had known at Watford tunnel. They
had just come off a job on the Birmingham canal, and at first called
themselves muck-shifters and navigators, holding the abbreviation "navvie"
in contempt. They were not lodged in shanties, but in surrounding
villages and in the neighbouring town of Great Berkhampstead.
The soil through which we were carrying the drift of Northchurch
tunnel was of a most treacherous character, and caused many
disasters. Despite every precaution, the earth would at times fall
in, and that, too, when and where we least expected. Thus, in the
fifth week of our contract, notwithstanding that our shoring was of
extra strength and well strutted, an immense mass of earth suddenly
came down upon us. This came from the tapping of a quicksand. One
stroke of a pick did it. The vein was shelving and the sand, finding
a vent, ran like so much water into the open drift; which was of
course speedily choked up. George Hatley was at once on the spot;
and, under his directions efforts were promptly made to clear away
the sand, so that the shoring should be re-strengthened if possible
before the earth above (deprived of the support afforded by the
sand) should collapse. The most strenuous efforts were made in vain.
There came a low rumbling, like the distant booming of artillery,
then followed crashes louder than the thunder, startling us from our
labour; and, while we were hurrying away, down came the whole mass
of earth, masonry, timber, and sand, crushing five men under it.
Of these men three were dug out alive, and removed — terribly
mangled — to the West Herts Infirmary; the other two were found
dead. They belonged to a gang, of which one Hicks or Bungerbo, was
ganger. I have described Frazer as a man terribly profane, but Hicks
was in this matter his master. These were the first lives lost in Northchurch tunnel, and Hicks was overjoyed to think that they
belonged to his own gang. He looked forward to the funeral; and,
having organised a subscription of a shilling per head throughout
all the gangs in the tunnel — which subscription realised twenty
pounds — five pounds were set apart to pay for burial of the dead,
and the rest was reserved to be spent in rioting and drunkenness.
The funerals took place on the afternoon of the Sunday following the
disaster, in the churchyard of Northchurch parish. The procession
was headed by Hicks, who walked before the coffins; behind followed
about fifty navvies, all more or less drunk, and the rear was
brought up by a host of stragglers, and country girls, the
companions of the navvies. There were no real mourners; the
unfortunate men being strangers in the district, and the residences
of their friends unknown. It was about half-past two o’clock when
the train reached the gates of the churchyard. At the church-door
the officiating minister, observing the condition of the men, wisely
ordered the church to be closed, and proceeded to lead the way to
the grave. Hicks took umbrage at this, and threatened to break the
door open; but as this was not seconded among his men, he told them
to put the coffins on the ground, and let the parson do all the
business himself. But the men hesitated, the sexton protested, and
at length the grave was reached. Here Hicks found fresh cause for
offence. It was a single grave, and he said (which was untrue) that
separate graves had been paid for. When this was disproved, he
objected that the one grave was not deep enough, and ordered two of
his men to jump in and dig it to Hell. The men jumped in as ordered,
one had the sexton’s pickaxe, the other the spade, and in little
more than ten minutes the grave was ten feet deeper. Still the men
dug on, and continued their labour, till they could no longer throw
the earth to the surface.
Then rose the question, how were they to get out? The sexton’s short
ladder was useless, for the grave was at least twenty-feet deep. Hicks settled the matter by calling for
“the ropes!” “What ropes?” “The coffin ropes.” These were brought and lowered to the men. With
a loud hurrah they were drawn up, and the clergyman was told to “go
The good man, pale and terrified, incoherently hurried through the
service, closed the book, and was gathering up his surplice for a
precipitate departure, when Hicks grasped him by the collar and,
with fearful imprecations, demanded a gallon or two of beer, “for,”
he said, “you do not get two of ’em in the hole every day.” Then
followed an atrocious scene. A crowd had collected in the
churchyard, and several of the villagers came forth to the rescue of
their curate, who narrowly escaped uninjured. A desperate fight,
during which one or two men were thrown into the open grave,
terminated the affair.
This revolting outrage was not allowed to go unpunished. Hicks and a
batch of his men were arrested on the following Tuesday while
helplessly intoxicated — in which state they had been ever since the
funerals — and were committed to the county jail.
Shortly after Christmas, when another man was killed, his ganger
proposed to raffle the body. The idea took immensely, and was
actually carried out. Nearly three hundred men joined in the scheme. The raffle money, sixpence a member, was to go towards a drinking
bout at the funeral, the whole expense of which was to be borne
jointly by those throwing the highest and lowest numbers. The raffle
took place, and so did the revel; but the funeral, after a
fortnight’s delay, was performed by the parish.
In the month of February, eighteen hundred and thirty-six, Frazer
took a contract to dig ballast at Tring; and, youth as I was —
although I was tall and masculine for my years — sent me down there
to have charge of the job; on which there were about fifty men
The job was bravely started, and things went on smoothly enough for
the first ten days, when, lo! it was reported that there was a bogie
in the ballast pit. These men who could defy alike death and danger
became panic stricken. The idea that the pit was haunted filled them
with a mortal terror, of which the infection heightened as it
spread. At first the current rumour was that picks, shovels, and
barrows were moved from their places nightly by the bogie; then it
came to be credited that earth was dug, barrow-runs broken up, tools
spoiled, trucks shunted, and even tipped by him in his nightly
visits. Finally, in the second week of his pranks he was said to
have appeared, and then the men struck work in a body. Reasoning
with them was useless; the old ganger, as spokesman for the rest,
declared as the result of his former experience that “there was no
tackling the old un,” and to a man they refused to re-enter the pit.
I had previously communicated with Frazer on the subject; but, in
this emergency, I despatched a messenger specially for him. He came
down the same night, bringing with him a band of chosen roughs from
Watford tunnel. These men had a ganger with an unmentionable
nickname, a fellow who declared that his chaps were prepared to work
with the devil, and for the devil, so long as they got their pay,
and to set the very devil himself to work should he appear amongst
them. Frazer expected much from this gang; and, next morning, they
commenced work in earnest. But on the second day they, too, became
possessed with the same superstitious terror as their predecessors;
and they also struck. Persuasives, promises, and threats were alike
unavailing; the men would not “go agin the bogie,” and the pit was
once again deserted.
Frazer, raved like a madman. He was under a penalty to dig so much
ballast per week, and the very urgency of his case made him
desperate. I suggested to set on a gang of farm labourers; of whom
there were plenty out of employ in the neighbourhood, and to whom
the high rate of wages would be an inducement. He assented; and, in
a day or two, we were at work again swimmingly; and continued so for
a week, when the old contagion showed itself, and another suspension
appeared inevitable. It came at last, but was for some time averted
by the allowance of rations of tommy, in addition to wages, and by
seeing that every man was half drunk before he went to work. When,
at last, these men also struck, I really think their striking was
attributable more to the intimidation practised by the old hands —
many of whom were lurking about — towards these knobsticks, than
from the influence of any other terror.
But the moral effect of this last strike upon Frazer was wondrous. Never since then have I seen a bold daring man so thoroughly beaten. He became melancholy, and told me piteously that he hadn’t got the
heart to swear. My advice was to throw up the contract; but of this
he would not hear; he would sooner cut his throat, he said. Before
doing this, however, I suggested that he ought to send for Hatley
and consult with him. He sneered at this, but eventually instructed
me to send for him. George came, heard the history of the case; and,
like a thorough general — as he has ever since proved himself —
proposed to work the pit with three shifts of men working eight
hours each during the whole twenty-four. “That,” said he, “will
settle the bogie, for he’ll never have a minute to himself for HIS
The soundness of this idea, it was impossible to gainsay. George
returned to Northchurch, and brought back to the pit sixty of his
own men. These he divided into gangs of twenty each, and kept the
pit in constant work by day and night. Every Monday the gangs
changed shifts, so that night work fell to the lot of each once in
three weeks. In this manner our bogie was laid without the
assistance of twelve clergymen, whom, Frazer had been advised by an
old lady, to engage for the purpose.
Frazer, now no longer contemplating suicide, concluded terms of
partnership with Hatley, and the new firm, resolving to launch forth
into a wider field, dispatched me to London to make tracings of the
drawings, and copy the specifications of certain brickwork to be
executed in the Hunton Bridge district. This work they obtained; the
management of the Tring ballast pit was placed jointly with the Northchurch tunnel contract under the direction of Hatley, and I was
placed upon this new work. I was a fair draughtsman,
understood the “jometry” of the thing, as the navvies called the setting out of
work; and in the truly practical character of my present labours,
found an ample recompense for the past twelve months of toil and
A publican in the neighbourhood of the bridges comprised in our
contract had given offence to the bricklayers, and they had ceased
to deal with him; but, no sooner was this bridge commenced, than he
was again favoured with their custom; although his was by no means
the nearest hostelry. Boniface, of course, was only too happy to
receive their patronage; but his self-gratulations received a check
from always finding himself short of pots and cans. He was ready to
avow that they had been sent to the men at their work; he was
equally certain they had not been returned; and it was no less true
that they were nowhere to be found. He waited a few days, and his
stock continued to decrease. The men ordered their beer in large
quantities; but, though he loved good custom and plenty of it, the
loss of pots and cans would have compelled him to decline their
further favours, if he had not been afraid of throwing the field
open to a rival. For some time he renewed his stock and bore his
loss; until at last he resolved to have the men watched as they left
their work, and, if possible, to discover who the thieves were. He
watched in vain; for, as the piers of the bridge were carried up
from the foundations, so from time to time were the publican’s cans
built in with them; and to this day they form part of the structure.
We had several north-country bricklayers at work for us, and between
two of them — natives of Wigan, I believe — while building the
parapet walls of a bridge, there arose a dispute which resulted in a
fierce battle. The question upon which issue was joined, was the
much-vexed one in the trade, of English or Flemish bond, — which was
which. To decide this, a fair rough-and-tumble fight, with some nice
purring, was proposed among their comrades, and instantly agreed to.
“Send for the purring-boots!” was the cry; and the men jumped down
from the scaffold, and repaired to the adjacent field. The
purring-boots duly came. They were stout high-lows, each shod with
an iron-plate, standing an inch or so in advance of the toe. Each
man was to wear one boot, with which he was to kick the other to the
utmost. A toss took place for right or left, and the winner of the
right having a small foot the boot was stuffed with hay to make it
fit. I refrain from particulars: I have said enough to show the
brutal nature of the affray. It lasted more than an hour. The victor
was a pitiable object for months, and his foe was crippled for life. Here I must add, that the old fashion of deciding questions by the
trial of combat prevailed widely among the first race of navvies.
More than one question of right or user so decided has remained
undisturbed to this hour. I myself saw a pitched battle, fought
between two plate-layers to decide whether “beetle” or “mawl,” was
the right name for a certain tool — a ponderous wooden hammer —
respecting which there was a difference among this body of men
throughout the district. The contest was fierce and desperate,
but eventually “mawl” vanquished; and, as a consequence, “beetle” was
expunged from the platelayers’ vocabulary.
Of course, these fights bear no proportion to, nor are they to be
confounded with those in which the combatants did violence to each
other out of personal animosity, or under the influence of drink. These disgraceful brawls were of daily occurrence, monstrous both
for their atrocity, and, in the case of navvies, for the numbers
engaged in them, and made the very name of these men a bye-word and
a terror. For navvies, it must be borne in mind, do not usually
fight single-handed, or man to man; their system of fighting is in
whole gangs or “all of a ruck,” as they term it. So,
newspaper-readers may remember that, “desperate affray with
navigators,” or “fearful battle between navigators and the police,”
or whoever it may be, generally used to head the accounts given of
disturbances in which those men were engaged; but an account of a
fight between two of them was very rarely seen.
At length, in the summer of the year eighteen hundred and
thirty-six, the fearful depravity of the men working upon railways,
and the demoralising influence upon the surrounding population,
became matter of public notoriety (I speak of the district within my
own observation); and missions were organised by various religious
sections of the community for their reclamation. The object was most
praiseworthy; for by no class was reformation more radically
required than by railway makers of every grade, from the gaffers to
the tip-boy. In my humble opinion, however, the efforts made were
rather calculated to bring the object attempted into disrepute, than
to accomplish it; and that these efforts failed is not to be gainsayed. Thus, many well-dressed, and doubtless well-meaning
persons, obtained permission to visit the men on the works, during
meal times, with the view of imparting religious instruction to
them, and did so. The distribution of religious tracts, and the
usual machinery of proselytism, were shortly in active operation,
and the men’s dinner-hour, instead of being a period of rest and
relaxation, was converted into a time for admonition and harangue.
An elderly man who was very officious in the distribution of tracts
— which would not be received — all at once found them acceptable
and even in demand. He was overjoyed, talked among his fellows of a
revival, and came loaded daily with his wares. The success of his
labours was now spoken of as a decided and encouraging fact, and
doubtless would have been considered so till now, had he not one day
been taken to a shanty, the walls of which had been doubly papered
with his tracts, over which a thick coat of whitewash was then being
plastered. On one occasion I remember walking down to the tunnel,
and was joined at Hazlewood Bridge by a missionary. He detailed to
me how he had nearly been a martyr to the cause; how he had been
twice nearly drawn half-way up the shaft in a bucket and suddenly
let down; how he had been run out on trucks to the tip-head; how he
had been shunted on a lorry and left upon the spoil-bank for hours;
and how all sorts of practical jokes had been played upon him, and
yet he felt the interest of the men so deeply at heart that, despite
all, he must persevere. I could respect and admire this enthusiast;
although I did not think he used the right means to attain his
The right steps towards the conversion of navvies were soon
afterwards taken by Mr. now Sir T. M. Peto, Mr.Thomas Jackson, Mr.
Brassey, and other gentlemen; who, having entered into contracts on
a vast scale, made the social condition of their men a matter of
primary consideration. In several districts suitable dwellings were
erected for them; in towns, cottages were run up. For these a small
rent was deducted from wages; but, in some cases, suitable lodgings
were provided and paid for by the contractor. The gaffers and
gangers were not allowed to keep tommy and beershops; wages were
paid in money, and there was no truck. The hours of labour also were
duly regulated; and regulations as to the proper conduct of work in
hand and those executing it were duly enforced. Beer in barrels,
casks, and even in pails, had formerly been brought upon the works. All this was strictly forbidden; men were no longer brought fuddled
to their work, nor kept fuddled at it, in order that, under the
influence of drink, they might get through more in a given time. A
certain quantity of beer was permitted to be brought to each man
during the hours of labour; this being regulated according to
circumstances and the nature of the work. Under such rule as this,
railway-makers of every trade — and the navvie more especially —
became at length somewhat disciplined. Self-respect was inculcated;
respect for the laws of sobriety, and decorum followed in due
course; and thus was effected the great moral revolution in the
condition of the railway-labourer, to which all who have been
conversant with railway operations during the last twenty years, can
most emphatically testify.
RAILWAY REFRESHMENT ROOMS
“IT NEVER YET
REFRESHED A MORTAL BEING.”
Scene—Railway Refreshment Room.
in the Shade. Waiter (to traveller taking tea).
“Beg pardon, sir, I shouldn't
recommend that milk, sir;
leastways not for drinking purposes.”
Thus spoke Charles Dickens, referring to one such refreshment room ―
believed to have been that at Rugby ― in his series of tales based
on the mythical (or was it?) Mugby Junction.
It must be said that
railway catering down the years has not met with universal
approbation. One of its earliest critics was none less than
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who, in 1845, with regard to the
coffee served at Swindon’s refreshment room, had this to say to its franchisee:
“I assure you that Mr. Player was wrong in supposing that I
thought you purchased inferior coffee. I thought I said to him that
I was surprised you should buy such poor roasted corn. I did not
believe you had such a thing as coffee in the place; I am certain I
never tasted any. I have long ceased to make complaints at Swindon. I avoid taking anything there if I can help it.”
Charles Dickens felt so strongly about poor quality railway catering he used
experiences as the basis for his tale The Boy at Mugby, later referring to it in
his periodical (All The Year Round) in these terms . . . .
“. . . . a tyranny under which the British railway-traveller has
groaned ever since railways were. It was to the extirpation of the
evils arising from this tyranny that ‘Mugby Junction’ was especially
dedicated; and it seems appropriate that the readers of this journal
should be introduced to the doughty champions who have grappled with
and conquered the peculiar abuses we have so long inveighed against
in vain. The pork and veal pies, with their bumps of delusive
promise, and their little cubes of gristle and bad fat, the scalding
infusion satirically called tea, the stale bad buns, with their
veneering of furniture polish, the sawdusty sandwiches, so
frequently and so energetically condemned, and, more than all, the
icy stare from the counter, the insolent ignoring of every
customer’s existence, which drives the hungry frantic . . . . ”
From All The Year Round, Charles Dickens, 28th
On the subject of
“sawdusty” railway sandwiches, the novelist Anthony
Trollope felt “the real disgrace of England is the
railway sandwich ― that withered sepulchre, fair enough outside, but
so meagre, poor and spiritless within.” As for travellers on the
London and Birmingham Railway:
Charles Dickens in the
at Mugby Junction (Rugby).
“At the Wolverton station, fifty miles distant from the
metropolis, a stay of ten minutes is allowed for refreshment . . . .
the respective carriages suddenly disgorge a motley and
miscellaneous group of bipeds, who rush to the salon à manger, and
commence the work of demolition on all things substantial and
condimental there displayed. Appetites appear to be at high steam
pressure, and to work with most annihilating power. Extensive as is
the refectory, it is usually crammed, to the impossibility of one
half the number of persons getting within reach of the abundant fare
provided . . . . But time is up, and the crowd resume their seats,
the engine again concentrates its vaporous power, and away fly the
million on their destined way.”
From Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 20, 1846
“A word also for the Birmingham folks. At the station there is
accommodation provided for the Grand Junction passengers ― apart
from the Birmingham ones. The room will seat about one half of the
requisite number, and consequently at dinner as many are standing as
silting to take their meal, and a slovenly business it was on the
occasion when I was present ― worse than the accommodations at the
average of inns on any of the great lines of road either in England,
Scotland or Wales. In fact, all smells of monopoly. Try the
Wolverton station, half way to Birmingham, after a ride of three
hours, and you will find hot elder wine, Banbury cakes, and bad ale
― if you can get it, for the crowd! What a paltry and childish
accommodation for travellers under, what is admitted to be an
improved system of transit. Who established the refectory at
Wolverton, and into whose pockets do the profits find their way?“
Letter to the Editor of the Railway Times,
18th May 1839
“We have sometimes
seen in a pastrycook’s window, an announcement
of ‘Soups hot till eleven at night,’ and we have thought how very
hot the said soups must be at ten in the morning; but we defy any
soup to be so red hot, so scorchingly and intensely scarifying to
the roof of the mouth as the soup you are allowed just three minutes
to swallow it the Wolverton Station of the London and Birmingham
Railway. Punch, in the course of his peregrinations, a day or two
ago, had occasion to travel on this line and was invited to descend
from his carriage to refresh at the Wolverton Station. A smiling
gentleman, with an enormous ladle, insinuatingly suggested, ‘Soup
Sir!’ when Punch, with his usual courteous affability, replied,
‘Thank you;’ and the gigantic ladle was plunged into a cauldron
which hissed with hot fury at the intrusion of the ladle.
We were put in possession of a plate, full of a coloured liquid that
actually took the skin off our face by its mere steam. Having paid
for the soup, we were just about to put a spoonful to our lips, when
a bell was rung, and the gentleman who had suggested the soup,
ladled out the soup, and got the money for the soup, blandly
remarked, ‘The train is just off, Sir.’ We made a desperate thrust
of a spoonful into our mouth, but the skin peeled off our lips,
tongue, and palate, like the coat a hot potato. We were compelled to
resign our soup, probably to be served out to the passengers by the
This is no idle tale, but a sad reality; and the great moral of the
tale is, that the soup-vender smiled pleasantly, and evidently
enjoyed the fun, which, as a pantomime joke, is not a bad one.“
From Punch, Volume 9, 1845
Eliezer Edwards, on his way to Birmingham on business, was impressed
by the facility provided at the earliest of Wolverton’s stations,
although perhaps not by the crowd:
“On Sunday, the 14th of July, in the year 1839, I left Euston
Square by the night mail train. I had taken a ticket for Coventry,
where I intended to commence a business journey of a month’s
duration. It was a hot and sultry night, and I was very glad when we
arrived at Wolverton, where we had to wait ten minutes while the
engine was changed. An enterprising person who owned a small plot of
land adjoining the station, had erected thereon a small wooden hut,
where, in winter time, he dispensed to shivering passengers hot
elderberry wine and slips of toast, and in summer, tea, coffee, and
genuine old-fashioned fermented ginger-beer. It was the only
‘refreshment room’ upon the line, and people used to crowd his
little shanty, clamouring loudly for supplies. He soon became the
most popular man between London and Birmingham.”
Recollections of Birmingham,
Eliezer Edwards (1877)
A couple of years later, an American traveller called at the second
of Wolverton’s refreshment rooms:
“. . . . the train, that had stopped at two or three stations
before, came to a halt with a great scream; and policemen, banging
open the doors, told us this was Wolverton station, and that we
might have ten minutes for tea and refreshment. It was about
half-past eleven at night; and remembering that it was a good time
for supper . . . . I descended and entered the refreshment room, a
long strip of building, with a long table in the midst covered with
all the delicacies of the season, to be had at moderate prices. The
table is served by at least forty of your enchanting sex; and,
accordingly, from one of them, who giggled very much when I asked
for a gin-sling, and told me they kept no such thing, I was fain to
accept a glass of sherry, a couple of Banbury cakes . . . . and a
large lump of pork pie. So provided, I jumped lightly into my seat
again . . . . and in a few moments we were in motion again; and I
sunk back to think of America, ― and to sleep.”
From Fraser's Magazine, Volume 24, September
And so to Wolverton’s refreshment rooms as seen through the eyes of
Sir Francis Bond Head, onetime soldier, adventurer, unsuccessful
Lieutenant Governor of Canada, none too successful Chairman of the Grand Junction
Canal Company, and a writer on many subjects. Having described
Wolverton works, Head then moves on to address the Station’s
“The magnitude of the establishment
[the Works] will best speak for itself;
but as our readers, like ourselves, are no doubt tired almost to
death of the clanking of anvils ― of the whizzing of machinery ― of
the disagreeable noises created by the cutting, shaving, turning,
and planing of iron ― of the suffocating fumes in the brass-foundry,
in the smelting-houses, in the gas-works ― and lastly of the
stunning blows of the great steam hammer ― we beg leave to offer
them a cup of black tea at the Company’s public refreshment-room, in
order that, while they are blowing, sipping, and enjoying the
beverage, we may briefly explain to them the nature of this
beautiful little oasis in the desert.
In dealing with the British nation, it is an axiom among those who
have most deeply studied our noble character, that to keep John Bull
in beaming good-humour it is absolutely necessary to keep him always
quite full. The operation is very delicately called ‘refreshing
him;’ and the London and North Western Railway Company having,
as in duty bound, made due arrangements for affording him, once in
about every two hours, this support, their arrangements not only
constitute a curious feature in the history of railway management,
but the dramatis personæ we are about to introduce form, we
think, rather a strange contrast to the bare arms, muscular frames,
heated brows, and begrimed faces of the sturdy workmen we have just
The refreshment establishment at Wolverton is composed of ―
1. A matron or generallissima.
2. Seven very young ladies to wait upon the passengers.
3. Four men and three boys ditto.
4. One man-cook, his kitchen maid, and his two
5. Two housemaids.
6. One still-room-maid, employed solely in the liquid
duty of making tea and coffee.
7. Two laundry-maids.
8. One baker and one baker's-boy.
9. One garden-boy.
And lastly what is most significantly described in the
books of the establishment ―
10. An ‘odd man’ ― ‘Homo sum, humani nihil à me alienum
There are also eighty-five pigs and piglings, of whom hereafter.
The manner in which the above list of persons, in the routine of
their duty, diurnally revolve in the ‘scrap drum’ of their worthy
matron, is as follows: ―Very early in the morning ― in cold winter
long before sunrise the ‘odd man’ wakens the two house-maids, to one
of whom is intrusted the confidential duty of awakening the seven
young ladies exactly at seven o’clock, in order that their ‘première
toilette’ may be concluded in time for them to receive the
passengers of the first train, which reaches Wolverton at 7h. 30m.
a.m. From that time until the departure of the passengers by the
York Mail train, which arrives opposite to the refreshment room at
about eleven o’clock at night, these young persons remain on duty,
continually vibrating at the ringing of a bell, across the rails ―
(they have a covered passage high above them, but they never use it)
― from the North refreshment-room for down passengers to the South
refreshment-room constructed for hungry up-ones. By about midnight,
after having philosophically divested themselves of the various
little bustles of the day, they all are enabled once again to lay
their heads on their pillows, with the exception of one, who in her
turn, assisted by one man and one boy of the establishment, remains
on duty receiving the money, &c. till four in the morning for the
up-mail. The young person, however, who in her weekly turn performs
this extra task, instead of rising with the others at seven, is
allowed to sleep on till noon, when she is expected to take her
place behind the long table with the rest.
Sir Francis Bond Head
The scene in the refreshment-room at Wolverton, on the arrival of
every train, has so often been witnessed by our readers, that it
need hardly be described. As these youthful handmaidens stand in a
row behind bright silver urns, silver coffee-pots, silver tea-pots,
cups, saucers, cakes, sugar, milk, with other delicacies over which
they preside, the confused crowd of passengers simultaneously
liberated from the train hurry towards them with a velocity exactly
proportionate to their appetites. The hungriest face first enters
the door, ‘magnâ comitante catervâ,’ followed by a crowd very much
resembling in eagerness and joyous independence the rush at the
prorogation of Parliament of a certain body following their leader
from one house to the bar of what they mysteriously call ‘another
place’. Considering that the row of young persons have among them
all only seven right hands, with but very little fingers at the end
of each, it is really astonishing how, with such slender assistance,
they can in the short space of a few minutes manage to extend and
withdraw them so often ― sometimes to give a cup of tea ― sometimes
to receive half-a-crown, of which they have to return two shillings
― then to give an old gentleman a plate of warm soup ― then to drop
another lump of sugar into his nephew's coffee-cup ― then to receive
a penny for a bun, and then again three-pence for four ‘lady’s
fingers’. It is their rule as well as their desire never, if they
can possibly prevent it, to speak to any one; and although
sometimes, when thunder has turned the milk, or the kitchen-maid
over-peppered the soup, it may occasionally be necessary to soothe
the fastidious complaints of some beardless ensign by an
infinitesimal appeal to the generous feelings of his nature ― we
mean, by the hundred thousandth part of a smile ― yet they endeavour
on no account ever to exceed that harmless dose. But while they are
thus occupied at the centre of the refreshment table, at its two
ends, each close to a warm stove, a very plain matter-of-fact
business is going on, which consists of the rapid uncorking of, and
then emptying into large tumblers, innumerable black bottles of what
is not unappropriatly called ‘Stout,’ inasmuch as all the
persons who are drinking the dark foaming mixture wear heavy
great-coats, with large wrappers round their necks ― in fact are
very stout. We regret to have to add, that among these thirsty
customers are to be seen, quite in the corner, several silently
tossing off glasses of brandy, rum, and gin; and although the
refreshment-room of the Wolverton Station is not adapted for a
lecture, we cannot help submitting to the managers of the Company,
that considering not only the serious accidents that may occur to
individual passengers from intoxication, but the violence and
insolence which drunken men may inflict upon travellers of both
sexes, whose misfortune it may be to be shut up with them;
considering moreover the ruin which a glass or two of brandy may
bring upon a young non-commissioned officer in the army, as also the
heavy punishment it may entail upon an old soldier, it would be well
for them peremptorily to forbid, at all their refreshment-rooms, the
sale by any of their servants, to the public, of ardent spirits.
But the bell is violently calling the passengers to ‘Come! come
away!’ and as they have all paid their fares and as the engine is
loudly hissing ― attracted by their pockets as well as by their
engagements, they soon, like the swallows of summer, congregate
together and then fly away.
It appears from the books that the annual consumption at the
refreshment rooms averages ―
182,500 Banbury cakes.
|5,110 lbs. of moist sugar.
56,940 Queen cakes.
|16,425 quarts of milk.
|1,095 do. cream.
36,500 lbs. of flour.
|8,088 bottles of lemonade.
13,140 do. butter.
|10,416 do. soda-water.
2,920 do. coffee.
|45,012 do. stout.
43,800 do. meat.
|25,692 do. ale.
5,110 do. currants.
|5,208 do. ginger-beer.
1,277 do. tea.
|547 do. port.
5,840 do. loaf sugar.
|2,095 do. sherry.
And we regret to add, 666 bottles of gin, 464 rum, 2,392 brandy. To
the eatables are to be added, or driven, the 85 pigs, who after
having been from their birth most kindly treated and most
luxuriously fed, are impartially promoted, by seniority, one after
another, into an infinite number of pork pies.
Having, in the refreshment sketch which we have just concluded,
partially detailed, at some length, the duties of the seven young
persons at Wolverton, we feel it due to them, as well as to those of
our readers who, we perceive, have not yet quite finished their tea,
by a very few words to complete their history. It is never
considered quite fair to pry into the private conduct of any one who
performs his duty to the public with zeal and assiduity. The warrior
and the statesman are not always immaculate; and although at the
Opera ladies certainly sing very high, and in the ballet kick very
high, it is possible that their voices and feet may sometimes reach
rather higher than their characters. Considering, then, the
difficult duties which our seven young attendants have to perform ―
considering the temptations to which they are constantly exposed, in
offering to the public attentions which are ever to simmer and yet
never to boil ― it might be expected that our inquiries should
considerately go no further than the arrival at 11 p.m. of the ‘up
York mail.’ The excellent matron, however, who has charge of these
young people ― who always dine and live at her table ― with honest
pride declares, that the breath of slander has never ventured to
sully the reputation of any of those who have been committed to her
charge: and as this testimony is corroborated by persons residing in
the neighbourhood and very capable of observation, we cannot take
leave of the establishment without expressing our approbation of the
good sense and attention with which it is conducted; and while we
give credit to the young for the character they have maintained, we
hope they will be gratefully sensible of the protection they have
Postscript ― We quite forgot to mention that, notwithstanding the
everlasting hurry at this establishment, four of the young
attendants have managed to make excellent marriages, and are now
very well off in the world.”
From Stokers and Pokers, Sir Francis Bond Head