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Friday, 24 December 2010

A Victorian 'Railway' Christmas - Parcels, Pastimes, Profit and Poetry

Christmas on the late Victorian railway has not, to my knowledge, been covered at all in the literature. As the railways were the main way to move goods and supplies around in the period, naturally, the festive season was one of the busiest times of year for the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR). 

Clearly, a lot of traffic carried by the company in the weeks before Christmas Day was of a ‘Christmassy’ nature. In January 1888 it was noted that between the 17th and 24th December 1887 the Nine Elms Goods depot handled 6,595 tons of ‘foreign poultry traffic,’ which exceeded over 500 tons in weight.[1] Not unsurprisingly, figures provided by the Gazette show that overall there was a massive growth in goods and passenger traffic on the network in the week before Christmas. In the week ending 16th December 1883 traffic earned the L&SWR £41,356. Yet, in the week ending 23rd December 1883 the company earned £55,979, a 35.6% increase. Lastly, Sam Fay, a clerk at Kingston Station between 1876 and 1882,[2] noted in his diary that in the week before Christmas Day 1880 the traffic was ‘very heavy.’[3]

Within this massive growth of traffic parcels formed a very large part of stations’ work. In the week before Christmas day in 1888, Richmond Station staff received and delivered a staggering 2010 parcels and an extra delivery man had to be employed. [4] Nine years earlier, on Christmas Day 1879, Sam Fay wrote in his diary, ‘Have had to work duced hard this week with the parcels work.’[5] Such was the volume of parcels work, that a clerk at Richmond, W. Morris, wrote a poem in honour of the service which was ‘cleverly reproduced on cut card board, and enframed with variegated holly.’ The poem was as follows:-

May every parcel sent from here
Contain a hearty Chris’mas cheer;
And my those parcels we deliver
Enclose a gift from a cheerful giver;
And lastly, those that we transfer
Contain a wish for a bright new year.[6]
Because of the increased traffic in the Christmas season, many extra trains were timetabled and advertisements in newspapers show that these ‘specials’ were run throughout the Christmas period.[7] Additionally, by the 1880s and 90s ‘going to the races’ was a key Bank Holiday activity for many. The L&SWR served many race courses such as Sandown Park, Hurst Park, Kempton Park and Ascot. Thus, the South Western Gazette, the company’s staff magazine, reported in January 1895 that on the Christmas Bank holiday 1894 (presumably Boxing Day) the company put on twelve special trains for the Kempton races.[8]

This growth of traffic meant that while most of the year L&SWR employees would have worked between eight and ten hour days, during the Christmas period many stayed later into the evening to cope with the rush of business. Many were also obliged to work on Christmas Day as many services still operated. A passenger timetable from 1868 states that on ‘Christmas Day the trains on all lines will run as on Sundays, with additional trains as shown on bills which will hereafter be issued.’[9] Furthermore, extra ‘special’ trains on Christmas Day were advertised in the 1880s.[10] Lastly, instructions sent to staff in December 1914 detailing ‘Special arrangements’ for the delivery of parcels traffic on Christmas Day, suggest that throughout the late Victorian period stations were still well staffed on the day.[11] 

What proportion of the staff actually had the whole day off is unclear. However, I suspect most had part off at least. Sam Fay recorded his Christmas Day activities between 1878 and 1881. On Christmas Day 1878 he wrote, ‘On Duty in the Morning, Skating in Bushy Park with Walter in the afternoon, had a convivial in the evening.’[12] A year later he ‘Dined at Mr Farebrother’s.’[13] Lastly, in 1880 Fay had all of Christmas Day off and spent it at his future wife's (Trottie) home.[14]

Presumably, because most L&SWR employees spent so much of the festive season in the workplace, much was done to celebrate there. Stations decorations ranged from what we would consider traditional fare, to the more unusual. The January 1884 edition of the SWG recorded that:-

‘The Christmas decorations of suburban stations are quite up to the standard of past years; Norbiton, as usual, being foremost with an almost endless supply of wreaths, &c., a novelty in the shape of many Chinese lanthorns being added this year. The effect at night is exceedingly pretty, and reflects great credit upon the designers. The Teddington staff have also expended much labour upon their station with capital result.’[15]

Further, the Gazette stated in January 1888 that at Richmond Station the parcels office staff 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.’[16]

Another way that the staff expressed the Christmas cheer was through competitions. In 1888 at Wimborne station ‘Messrs A.J. Webb, W. Perkins, A Webb and G.Brake’ ran a prize draw, presumably for local residents. The Gazette noted that ordinarily they were able to give out 100 prizes, but such was the success of the Christmas 1887 draw that they were able to give out 120 in 1888. The bounty they awarded would seem familiar to us, including ‘Turkeys and Geese, tobacco and cigars with various edibles and viands plentifully besprinkled.’[17]
It seems that poetry was another way railway employees expressed their feelings over the Christmas period. Charles Marshall, an author of poems that appeared frequently in the Gazette, wrote one which showed, firstly, the patriarchal nature of Victorian society, but also expressed some of the unhappiness that railway workers and their families felt about the fact that the railways were still operating on Christmas Day. It was called ‘The Railway Guard On Christmas Eve’:

She sat beside the cottage fire
Their only offspring in her knee:
He prattled as an infant should,
And seem’d quite full of childish glee.
Yet years stole down the mother’s cheeks –
Tears a wife devoted only feels:
Tears welling from the heart of hearts,
And deep affection firmly seals.

She praye’d for him who she had wed
On Christmas day two years before.
But now was on his engine track
A hundred miles away—or more
A night so fierce is seldom known;
The pelting storm grew still more wild;
While he, with true heroic breast,
Thought of his duty, wife and child.

O’er moss and brake, by glen and glade,
The train with swiftest speed was borne;
The engine driver long’d to be
At home before it was Christmas morn.
His breast with love and hope was fill’d
He heeded little of the storm;
But as he sped on his way
His thoughts were growing still more warm.

His wife at home still vigil kept,
The babe asleep upon her knee;
She listen’d as each foot-fall pass’d
And wish’d that each one might be he
Arriv’d at last, the journey done:
The storm subsided, stars shone bright,
And soon from ev’ry hallowed fane
There burst a merry peal that night.

Then homeward soon he made his way,
And gently tapp’d the window pane;
The bolt’d door was open’d wide,
His wife was in his arms again.
Their wedding day had once more dawn’d,
They kissed their little darling boy;
Then pray’d through coming years that they
Might health and happiness enjoy.[18]

Yet, it should be noted that in the poem the wife’s unhappiness primarily stems from the fact that it was her wedding anniversary the day after, and not that her husband may be working on Christmas Day. Thus, taking this fact into account, and looking back on what has been learnt about Christmas on the L&SWR, it is evident that Christmas Day was not as special for the late Victorians as it is for us. This said, the Victorian period is when much of Christmas as we know it evolved, and there is evidence here of how many of the yuletide traditions that we have today can be traced to that time. Furthermore, I have perhaps also shed some light on how the railways facilitated these traditions’ development, by taking them to all parts of the nation.

Lastly, all there is to say is a very Merry Christmas to all my readers!

[1] TNA, ZPER 11/7, The South Western Gazette, Jan 1888, p.8
[2] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, p.711
[3] Bill Fay Collection, Sam Fay Diary, 25th December 1880
[4] TNA, ZPER 11/7, The South Western Gazette, Jan 1888, p.11
[5] Bill Fay Collection, Sam Fay Diary, 25th December 1879
[6] TNA, ZPER 11/7, The South Western Gazette, Jan 1888, p.11
[7] ‘The Country Gent: A Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal.’ December 19th 1885, p.1616
[8] The National Archives [TNA], ZPER 11/11, The South Western Gazette, Jan 1895, p.8
[9] South Western Circle Collection [SWC], Passenger Timetable, December 1868, p2
[10] ‘The Country Gent: A Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal.’ December 19th 1885, p.1616
[11] SWC, Christmas Parcels Traffic: Special Notice
[12] Bill Fay Collection [BFC], Sam Fay Diary, 25th December 1878
[13] BFC, Sam Fay Diary, 25th December 1879
[14] BFC, Sam Fay Diary, 25th December 1880
[15] TNA, ZPER 11/3, The South Western Gazette, Jan 1884, p.2
[16] TNA, ZPER 11/7, The South Western Gazette, Jan 1888, p.11
[17] TNA, ZPER 11/7, The South Western Gazette, Feb 1888, p.2
[18] Marshall, Charles, South Western Gazette, January 1888, p.6

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