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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


  1. Your parallel between the festive decoration of modern offices and the adornment of railway stations in the late nineteenth century is particularly apt since both would appear to be the result of the initiative of employees rather than company policy. By contrast, modern day station decorations are, I suspect, not only corporately funded but corporately directed. There may even be someone who writes the policy note setting out what will be put up where and between which dates.

    For the past few years my local station, Waterloo (the one near Liverpool not the major London terminus), has had some lovely white lights under the entrance canopy. Unfortunately, this year (perhaps owing to the aforementioned decoration policy document) the white lights have been replaced by multi-coloured tube lighting that looks like it has been inherited from a defunct mobile disco. All a matter of personal taste I suppose.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you too, David, and to all Turnip Rail travellers.

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