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Monday, 24 December 2012

Counting customers - railway traffic before Christmas in the 1800s

There is no doubt that the four or five days before Christmas are some of the busiest for Britain’s railways as people travel home to see their friends and relatives, or return bleary eyed from Christmas parties and gatherings. No doubt the flooding in Britain has reduced the number of trains running in the period this year. However, nationally, 22,247 trains were scheduled on the 21 December; 20,436 on the 22nd; 11,588 were supposed to run yesterday and 18,968 are due to run today.[1] Most Train Operating Companies have not supplement their regular scheduled services,[3] Chiltern being the only one.[2] Thus, with largely regular Saturday and Sunday timetables in operation on the 22nd and 23rd December, and with trains stopping early today, many passengers will feel like they have travelled in tin cans by the end of the festive season.

However, it is no comfort to say so, but crowded trains are what the Christmas passenger has experienced for over a century. In the nineteenth century particularly, the various railway companies provided the press with a plethora of data on their Christmas traffic. In the days after the 25 December how many passengers to and from stations were commonly mentioned in newspapers, especially as the numbers usually grew each year. 

The number of passengers who travelled in the festive period from London via the Great Western Railway (GWR) perfectly shows this growth. In 1895 the number booked at the company’s City and West End Offices and London Stations between Friday 20 December and Thursday 26 December at noon was 40,750. This was an increase on 1889’s total of 37,000. Indeed, in 1895 5,953 passengers travelled from Paddington on Saturday 21 December; with 8,992 being conveyed on Christmas Eve.[4] Therefore, with Christmas passenger numbers increasing so rapidly year on year, it is quite possible that individual travellers found themselves progressively squeezed as the railways struggled to keep pace with the changing demand.   

However, as we are currently told passenger numbers in this country continue to grow, it would be interesting to see this year whether the 374 and 307 trains scheduled leave Paddington on the 21 and 24 December respectively are on average they are more packed than those on the same day in 2011. [5]

But passenger data was not the only information the newspapers featured; and the amount of parcels handled by stations also appeared alongside it. Those passing through the London and North Western Railway’s Euston Station were of particular interest and, as I related in a blog post last year, special arrangements were established there in the 1840s to handle this vast and growing traffic. Statistics have been found which show that number of parcels arriving at Euston in the three days before and the morning of the 25 December grew most years. They were as follows:

1848 - 12,000 [6]
1849 - 15,000 [7]
1850 - 10,000 [8]
1851 - Inward and Outward: 40,000 (figures for the week before Christmas) [9]
1852 - 12,000
1853 - 12,500 [10]
1864 - 17,000 [11]

Therefore, by digging into nineteenth century newspapers we can gauge how the railways became an integral part of Christmas for Victorians; performing the same function as do for passengers today, through taking them from home to merriment and delivering them all they needed for Christmas cheer.

Much thanks must go to Tom Cairns for the data he provided on current train operations.


[1] Data kindly provided by Tom Cairns and Twitter: @swlines
[4] Morning Post - Friday 27 December 1895
[5] Data kindly provided by Tom Cairns and Twitter: @swlines
[6] The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 26, 1848
[7] Daily News, Wednesday, December 26, 1849, Issue 1119
[8] The Era, Sunday, December 29, 1850
[9] The Standard, Saturday, December 27, 1851, p.1
[10] The Essex Standard, and General Advertiser for the Eastern Counties, Wednesday, December 28, 1853
[11] Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, January 9, 1864

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

'Pretty Festoons of Holly Leaves Are Displayed' - The Decoration of Railway Stations Before 1900

In the late nineteenth century most railway employees would find themselves at work over the Christmas period, even on Christmas Day itself. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many felt the need to adorn their places of work so that the spirit of Christmas would remain with them while on duty. The decoration of stations was seemingly a collective effort by station staff, and it was reported by the Reading Mercury in January 1887 that at Sunningdale station on the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) ‘all the men have worked at the decorations during their “off time” under the supervision of the station master.[1]

This decking out of stations at Christmas allowed travellers to pass a wealth of colour while on their journeys. In 1884 the London and South Western Railway’s (LSWR) staff magazine, the South Western Gazette, reported that the standard of decorations at suburban stations was ‘quite up to the standard of past years’.[2] The Whitstable Times and Hearne Bay Herald stated in 1881 that the London, Chatham and Dover Railway’s (LCDR) station at Canterbury ‘looked exceedingly pretty’ and that ‘there had been no stint in the quality of decorative material, and it had been put up in a manner that evinced care and taste on the part of the decorators.’[3] Furthermore, in 1887 the adornments at the LSWR’s Totton, Redbridge and Lyndhurst Road Stations were described by the Hampshire Advertiser as being ‘very effective, reflecting credit on those who carried out the work.’[4]

Decorations were usually a mix of local plants, particularly evergreens, with other items added. In 1888 the booking office and waiting room at Purley on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) was decorated ‘effectively and prettily’ with holly and ivy.[5] Furthermore, the copious adornments at the LSWR’s Sunningdale Station in 1886 were described in full, as follows:

‘The evergreens, relieved by numerous flags, and mottoes have a very pretty effect. The pillars are entwined with Turkey red, above which is a diamond shaped wreath, with Chrysanthemums, yellow, white and pink bronze at each point. The booking office is adorned with great taste, and a number of pretty festoons of holly leaves are displayed.’[6]

Additionally, the Gazette recorded that the parcels office staff at Richmond station in 1887 had…:

“…vied with their parcel brethren at other stations in the way in which they have recognised this season of the year by wreathing and other decorations on the walls and around the windows of their office; the result has been very successful…a considerable quantity of evergreen has been expended in all decorations of this Richmond parcels office. We hear it is as well as any in the vicinity.’[7]

Staff at Norbiton in 1884 and Camberley in 1885[8] did things a little differently; lighting their booking offices and waiting rooms with Chinese lanterns. The Gazette recorded how at Norbiton ‘The effect at night is exceedingly pretty, and reflects great credit upon the designers.’[9]

It is unknown when stations were decorated by their staff. However, only one article I have found reports a station's adornments before 25 December, suggesting that most stations were decked out shortly before Christmas Day.[10] As for when they were taken down, this is again a bit of a mystery. Yet, clearly some stations were a bit lazy in doing so. At Saxmundham Station on the Great Eastern Railway in 1875, decorations were noted to be still up in the waiting room at a staff supper on the 12 January.[11]

I have always felt that the Victorian railway community’s decoration of stations is akin to what many of us do at our own places of work; we decorate to help us remain festive while grafting. Consequently, our festooning of desks and walls follow in a long tradition of work-place festivities.


My other Christmas posts are as follows:

[1] Reading Mercury, Saturday 01 January 1887
[2] The South Western Gazette, January 1888, p.8
[3] Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Saturday 01 January 1881
[4] Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday 31 December 1887
[5] Surrey Mirror, Saturday 22 December 1888
[6] Reading Mercury, Saturday 01 January 1887
[7] The South Western Gazette, January 1888, p.11
[8] Reading Mercury, Saturday 02 January 1886
[9] The South Western Gazette, January 1884, p.2
[10] Surrey Mirror, Saturday 22 December 1888
[11] The Ipswich Journal, Saturday 16 January 1875
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