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of some of the events referred to in the preceding narrative.




The earliest record of a 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.


Dionysius Papin publishes The New Art of Pumping Water by Using Steam.

c. 1712

Thomas Newcomen invents the atmospheric engine, the first practical device to harness the power of steam to produce mechanical work.

c. 1730

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.

c. 1770

Iron re-enforced track.

c. 1790

All iron rails.

c. 1785

Iron edge rails, requiring the use of flanged wheels, first reported to be in use.

c. 1789

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.


[28th December] 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 Railway.


[16th October] Birth of Robert Stephenson.


Trevithick’s locomotive 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, Leeds, becomes 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 was doubled.


[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, 1822.


[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.


[September 25th] 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.


Stephenson’s Rocket (separate firebox, multi-tubular boiler, inclined cylinders, sprung axles) wins the Rainhill Locomotive Trials.


[15th September] Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Britain’s first inter-city railway.


[November] 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 canals.


[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.


[January] The 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 West Drayton.


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 travellers.


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, opened.


[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 station.


The 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.

c. 1842

Semaphore signals first used on British railways on the London and Croydon Railway at New Cross.


[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 Railway.


[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 “Government” trains.)
2. The fare should be 1d. (½p) per mile.
3. Its average speed should not be less than 12 miles per hour (19 km/h).
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.


[November] Queen Victoria makes her first train journey on the London and Birmingham Railway, travelling from Euston to Weedon in Northamptonshire


Blisworth to 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 and Manchester.


[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”.

c. 1847

First locomotive 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.

c. 1855

The L&NWR first use the two-mile telegraph signalling system on the former London and Birmingham Railway.


A third line, used mainly for goods traffic, is added between Willesden and Bletchley.


[12 October] Death of Robert Stephenson.


The Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd. is formed as the successor to Messrs. Joseph Wright and Sons of London.


Northampton Loop opened.


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 Scottish.


[1st January] “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 state owned.


Completion of the scheme to electrify (25kV, 50Hz) of the former London and Birmingham Railway.


[January] The 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


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. [11]  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. Folio. 1838-9.

“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 operation.

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 it.”

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 eventually become.



Household Words
 Vol. XIII., 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 bank.

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 King’s Langley.

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 altogether.

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 berth.

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 restored.

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 man’s temerity.

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 on.”

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 employed.

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 work.”

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 privation.

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 purpose.

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.





Scene—Railway Refreshment Room. Thermometer 90°
in the Shade. Waiter (to traveller taking tea).
“Beg pardon, sir, I shouldn't
 recommend that milk, sir;
leastways not for drinking purposes.”

Punch Magazine.

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 his 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 December 1867

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 refreshment room 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 next arrival.

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 1841

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 catering facilities:

“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 left.

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 scullery-maids.
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 puto.’

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 (1873)

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.

29,200 pates.

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 received.

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 (1849).