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Thursday, 28 July 2011

"Demand for Burton Ale was Never so Great" - The Coming of the Railway to Burton

Before the railways arrived the majority of breweries produced beer for their local markets. Indeed, with the growth of the national population in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly in urban centres, the trade of these local breweries increased considerably. However, the railways changed things beyond many individuals’ wildest expectations, and while they did not revolutionise the beer industry, they certainly brought its products to a far wider market

The breweries of Burton benefitted the most from these new transport links. They had expanded their businesses in London, Liverpool and Birmingham in the 1820s and 1830s. Yet, beer prices in these places remained high to cover the costly transportation. The railway altered this situation and in 1871 the Nottinghamshire Guardian stated that ‘Mr Bass,’ the biggest Burton brewer, was ‘assisted greatly by the development of the railway system between 1835 and 1850.’[1] Burton was afforded a railway link to London in 1839 by the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway who connected to the London and Birmingham Railway. In Wilson’s opinion this did three things for the Burton brewers.

Firstly, the cost of transporting beer reduced. Prior to the advent of the railways the cost of transporting a ton of beer (about five barrels) to London was around the £3 mark. However, the reduced the cost to around 15s per ton. Indeed, this spurred the Burton brewery partnerships to push the railway companies to drop the price of conveying other supplies they used, such as hops, malt and casks.

The second major effect was that the speed at which beer could be moved also reduced. Thus, where beer moving from Burton to London took three weeks to make the journey in the 1820s, by the 1840s it was taking 12 hours. This increased Burton beers’ availability to the country and consequently the demand for them skyrocketed. Thus, Bass’ home trade quadrupled in the four years after 1839. Furthermore, in 1855 the output of Bass was 145,177 barrels. Yet, as the nation’s rail network had expanded considerably, by 1858 production had doubled. Indeed, this shifted the company’s focus from foreign trade, which had been a major source of revenue before 1839, to internal markets. On the erection of a new Bass brewery in April 1863, The Derby Mercury commented that ‘the demand for Burton Ale was never so great as at the present time, as we are informed that applications have been received for many thousands of barrels of ale which the brewers are unable to supply.’[2]

Lastly, the rail links allowed the beer company to move materials and beers quickly and cheaply from the brewery and maltings to within Burton itself. Thus, overall, Wilson argued that ‘no other town and industry in Victorian Britain demonstrated better the benefit of the railways.’ Indeed, as the Leicester Chronicle stated on the opening of a new Brewery by Allsopp’s and Sons in July 1853, ‘The splendid establishment which this enterprising firm has founded in this place is every way worthy of the magnitude and celebrity of their brewery, while its immediate connection with the system of railways, worked by the London and North Western Railway company, not only affords them an immense advantage in economy of material and transit, but enables them to bring their ales into the London market in the most perfect condition possible.[3]

Commentators were always impressed by the affect that the railways had on Burton, but also the affect that the increase in trade had on the railways. The Licensed Victullers’ Gazette in 1874 stated that ‘something like 120,000 railway trucks [were employed], enough if all placed on a line of railways in a straight line now to reach from London to Liverpool and back again.’ Furthermore, Bass became the world’s largest railway customer. When Bass reached its peak in the late 1890s the company was despatching 600 wagons per day and within a few hours they could be unloaded inside the company’s depots at St Pancras and at the London Docks. Indeed, Burton became a web of ‘intercommunicating lines belonging to the four companies operating in the town.’

Therefore, without the railways Burton ales possibly would never have become as famous as they did.


[1] Nottinghamshire Guardian, Friday, May 26th 1871, Issue 1316
[2] The Derby Mercury, Wednesday, April 29th 1863, Issue 6839
[3] The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Saturday, July 9th 1853, Issue 2224

All information, except where stated, came from Goruvish, T.R. and Wilson, R.G., The British Brewing Industry: 1830-1980, (London, 1994), p.149-151

Sunday, 24 July 2011

For our Four-legged friends - When Dogs Travelled on the Railway

After a survey of my many railway books I have determined that seemingly no one has ever written about the conveyance of our four legged friends by train in the Victorian era. This is a shame and hopefully this post will try and shed some illumination on this apparently forgotten subject.

The dog ticket was an early invention of the emergent railway industry and the National Archives holds a document that lists dog tickets issued between 1849 and 1854 on the Great Western Railway (GWR).[1] Furthermore, in 1848 the Daily News recorded events from two years earlier in which how dog-tickets were issued was detailed. On the 11th September 1846 a Mr Wallop was returning from a day’s shooting to Gosport. Allegedly, Wallop fired his gun out of the first class carriage window, damaging it and the door. On arrival a railway employee demanded Wallop’s name, which he refused to give. But, the official persisted and demanded to see the dog ticket on which the name of the passenger was usually written. [2]

Thus, given that the dates of the GWR document and the events of Gosport, it could be suggested that companies had started issuing special dog tickets in the late 1840s. Yet, given the lack of research on the early railway, this cannot be confirmed. Secondly, the Daily News report also indicates that the early procedure of writing the names of the owner on the dog ticket. The one thing that was missing from these pieces of evidence is whether dogs travelled in a prescribed manner.

However, special procedures for the conveyance of dogs was definitely in place by the 1850s, and a court case from 1858 detailed that procedures for canine carriage had become rather unpleasant for the animals involved. The case involved a man who was pursuing a claim against the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway for his dog that had escaped in the course of a journey. Ordinarily, it was recalled, dogs were conveyed in ‘dog-boxes’ which throughout the journey were stashed under the seats of second class passenger carriages.[3] Indeed, correspondence from the period indicates that these dog boxes were common.

However, the rules laid down that dogs be carried in this manner were sometimes breeched in this period as the accompanying picture from 1882 in the Illustrated London News evidences. Indeed, a book from 1868 called Romey’s Rambles on Railways, stated that many women, who owned small dogs, hid them ‘under shawls and in hand baskets.’ However, other methods of concealment ‘more erudite are occasionally practiced,’ such as one man who concealed his dog in a carpet bag.[4]

Yet, some railway companies attempted to stamp out the and breeches of the rules. A London and South Western Railway Appendices to the working timetable from 1911 stated that ‘complaints have been made of Passengers being permitted to take dogs with them into carriages to the annoyance and inconvenience of passengers. This is contrary to the Regulations and Guards of Trains and the staff of stations should insist firmly but courteously on the animals being placed in the Guards’ vans. However, interestingly this did not apply to ‘ladies’ lap dogs.’[5]

But this raises an interesting question as to whether the aforementioned ‘dog-boxes’ were still used by this time, as the order does not mention a dog-box was required. This said, a London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Appendices from 1922, suggests that railways may have still used them. It stated that no dog ‘unpacked’ was to be received for transport without a muzzle. Additionally, it also orders that the boxes for dogs, that were to travel in the guards van, were not to be accepted if they were ‘not sufficiently large.’ Furthermore, ‘the labels of dogs must be inspected at all points, and any instructions re watering at any particular point &c, written thereon must be carried out as far as is practicable and consistent with the safe custody of the animal.[6] Thus, while the boxes were still used, it seems that, firstly, the practice of putting the dogs under seats had long since passed by the early twentieth century. But, secondly, the rule implies that the safe, comfortable and humane transit of dogs was a prime concern when they were transported.

This change was due to a shift in the attitudes to animal welfare in the late Victorian period. Amongst other letters that have been found regarding the treatment of dogs on trains, The Times recorded in 1900 that the Kennel Club had sent out a circular to ‘the principal railway companies’ suggesting improvements in the method of conveying dogs. They asked that dogs be placed in boxes, side by side, in guards vans and these new boxes would be available at stations, much in the manner of horse boxes, for an extra fee. After this, the boxes would be disinfected. In the Kennel Club’s opinion many dogs have had to be destroyed due to infections caught while using the old boxes that were too small and dirty.[7] Thus, given the rules cited above, it seems that this suggestion was taken up by some railway companies.

Overall, like most things I blog about, there needs to be research on this area of railway history. However, two things can be noted. Firstly, the dog ticket was established early on in British railway history, and a 1950s example I have testifies to its persistence. But, secondly, the accommodation given to dogs improved, possibly because of welfare concerns and public pressure.


[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 631/60, Dog Tickets, 1849-1855

[2] Daily News, Saturday, March 4, 1848; Issue 552

[3] The Law Times, Harrison vs. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, June 14th 1862, p.468

[4] Roney, Sir Cusack Patrick, Rambles on Railways, (London, 1868), p.172

[5] Author’s collection, London and South Western Railway, Appendix to the Book of Rules and Regulations, 1st January 1911, p.150

[6] Author’s Collection, London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, Appendix to the Working Timetable and to the Book of Rules and Regulations, May 1922, p.142

[7] The Times, Thursday, May 31st 1900, p.6

Thursday, 21 July 2011

One Month in 1886 - The Traffic and Trade of Britain's Railway Industry

From December 1885 to March 1886 the London and South Western Railway’s staff magazine, The South Western Gazette, published each month a breakdown of the gross receipts of Britain’s major 14 companies for the previous four weeks. Why they did this is uncertain, however, the statistics do make for interesting reading and tell us some things about the nature of the British Railway industry at a single point in history. In this post I will look at the statistics for the four weeks ending 20th March, 1886, (for some railways the statistics were up to the 21st) and discuss what they reveal about the relationship between company revenue, mileage and traffic.

Firstly, the statistics showed the route mileages of the 14 companies. The two largest were the Great Western Railways (GWR), which had 2,366 route miles, and the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) at 1,801 miles. The smallest companies listed (however, smaller ones did exist in Britain) was the North London Railway (NLR), with only 12 route miles, and the Metropolitan District Railway (MDR) at only 13 route miles.

However, interestingly, the NLR generated the most gross revenue per route mile on the list, and for each one the company made £665. This was followed by the Metropolitan Railway, whose every rout mile earned it £566, and then the MDR, which earned £548. However the two largest railways in the country, the GWR and the L&NWR only earned £52 and £92 per route mile respectively. Indeed, the GWR was the worst performing company in this respect, an honour it shared with the London and South Western Railway, who also earned £52 per route mile.

The reason for the NLR, MDR and Metropolitan’s tracks earned the most revenue was that these companies served the London district. The Metropolitan and MDR in March 1885 seemingly did not carry any freight traffic, yet, served the densely populated areas of central, South West and North West London. Thus, over their small networks they hauled vast numbers of passengers commuting to and from work daily. The same can be said of the NLR, however, they were also graced with considerable through freight traffic going from the north of the country to the south. It should also be noted that these three railways also ran some services over other companies’ lines. Thus, their revenue per route mile may have been inflated, and if the revenue they earned per route mile they operated was calculated, the figures may have been lower.

This said, these figures would have been still high in comparison with the worst earners per route mile. The North Eastern Railway earned £50 per route mile,* whereas the L&SWR and GWR only earned £52 per route mile. Indeed, all three companies had lines that covered sparsely populated areas. Indeed the same could be said of the Great Eastern Railway (GER), which earned £62 per mile, and the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR), which made £61* per mile.

There could, therefore, be an argument that main line railways which principally carried passenger traffic generally earned less per route mile. Four Railways fell into this category. 73.72% of the London, Chatham and Dover’s (LC&DR) revenue came from passenger traffic, as did 66.78% of the LB&SCR’s , 64.16% of the South Eastern’s (SER) and 61.77% of the L&SWR’s. Yet there is considerable variance between how much they earned per route mile, which were £103, (which was calculated erroneously by the individual compiling the statistics - many thanks Jeremy for pointing this out) £61, £73* and £52 respectively. Therefore, the two railways that served South East London and Kent, the SER and LC&DR, benefited from serving commuter areas and densely populated countryside. Indeed, the LC&DR earned the second highest gross revenue per route mile of the companies listed.

Similarly, there is variance in the gross revenue earned per route mile amongst the railways that made most of their money from goods traffic. The MS&LR earned 78.045% of its revenue from goods traffic, the MR’s proportion was 76.51%, the North Eastern Railway (NER) earned 70.73%, the L&NWR generated 67.71% and the Great Northern Railway’s (GNR) proportion was 67.31%. Nevertheless, of the five the NER generated the lowest amount per route mile, earning only £50*, whereas the MR earned £106. Thus, having large proportions of freight traffic did not necessarily equate to companies naturally earning more revenue per route mile. However, the total revenue per route mile of these ‘freight-dominated’ companies was £82, whereas for the four ‘passenger’ companies it was only £64.

This is an obvious thing to state really, but this evidence shows that the revenue earning capacity of each company per route mile was dependent on how densely populated or industrialised the area they served was. Indeed, clearly, what they hauled was less of a factor. Consequently, it would be interesting to see whether different management techniques, styles and structures within railway companies developed dependent the different population and industry densities they served.

Additional Note 24/07/2011: As has been pointed out by Jeremy (and many thanks), the gross revenue earning potential is not necessarily the same as profitability. Thus, for this to be determined, more information on the companies' costs and traffic levels has to be found. Victorians, as I have repeatedly discovered, sometimes showed to the public very basic ways of measuring of the revenue earning power of their companies. Thus, this is simply one example where the full information is not present. As I have the Board of trade returns for 1886, this may be a project in the future.

Furthermore, the figures were calculated incorrectly in a number of cases, and where a figure is marked with a * it is the correct figure, rather than what was printed in the text at the time.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Repeating 'facts' Frequently does not make them 'History' - Potential Errors in Railway Historical Writing

Anyone who has ever read my post footnotes will not have failed to notice that in the course of writing them that there are some books that I use regularly, for example the Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Railway History. This is principally as I don’t have the time to research every subject that I write about. Yet, when writing posts I will always attempt to find in 19th century newspapers and journals, which are increasingly available on-line, to add some contemporaneous commentary on the different subjects. I also, if possible try and find some academic research or use some of my own work if relevant. This is because I have a very real concern about the books I use to write my blog.

Railway literature can be split into three different categories. Firstly, there are the ‘books with pictures,’ which have very little detail and simply exist for the pure pleasure of looking at the photographs of trains. Secondly, there are narrative histories, which may focus on a particular line, company or locomotive designer. Indeed, R.A. Williams’ three part history of the London and South Western Railway simply recounts what happened, when it happened. There isn’t any reference to the railway’s political, social, cultural or technical environment, nor is there detailed analysis. Personally, for me, these narrative histories are exceedingly dull.

Lastly, and leaving aside academic work that is done, there are the analytical railway histories for the general reader. Recently, we have seen Christian Wolmar write a number of books of this ilk, notably Fire and Steam. However, Christian follows in a fine tradition of individuals who have written about railways in a way whereby anyone who was interested in history, rather than railways, can enjoy the topic. Indeed, the most notable author was the late, great, Jack Simmons. However, I do sometimes have to ask questions of the facts found in this class of authors’ texts.

One of the accepted facts of the early British railway history was that military men dominated the management of the railway companies. This is a 'truth' that has been reprinted again and again, and those analytical histories of the railways have, presumably because the authors used earlier books, repeated it very frequently. Yet, this accepted fact is simply not true. In four blog posts in April (Found here, here, here and here) I showed by using three directories of railway officials from 1841, 1847 and 1848 that less than 4% of early railway managers had military titles. Thus, the supposed truth, so frequently repeated, was destroyed.

But naturally, this got me thinking. In my blog posts I frequently use facts that I see repeated in more than one railway history book. But what if those facts’ have only become accepted because they have been repeatedly regurgitated in the railway historiography?

For example, recently I found the origin of one highly repeated fact (the details which escape me now) in a Victorian history of the railway industry. Yet, the Victorian book itself was far from academic, was more anecdotal than those that had used its information and on other areas of detail I found it simply to be wrong. Furthermore, the opinions, books and letters of authors, for example Dickens and Trollope, have been used many times to describe aspects of railway travel. Indeed, I myself have used these author’s opinions before. But surely these authors had higher standards than the average traveller and this was reflected in their opinions. (Note: If I have to use Mugby Junction one more time I may scream).

Indeed, it has become clear to me that Dickens harboured resentment for station refreshment rooms after having had a bad experience in the 1850s. Now, that isn’t to say there were not bad refreshment rooms, but the narrative on the subject has been shaped by his, and others,’ negative opinions of them. However, no one asks about the good refreshment rooms. Neither do the query the fact that most criticisms of them comes from before 1870, with little being found after this date. Why doesn’t that fact ever get a mention?

Overall, my point is that in the railway literature there are facts which, despite being false, have been regurgitated so often that they have become established as ‘truth’ because no one has questioned them. For this reason, individuals writing railway history articles or books must be careful when repeating things found in other books. Indeed, until more serious and in-depth research has been done on the 19th century railway, the validity of many established 'facts' will simply not be known.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

‘No Imagination can Conceive of the Ruin' - Dickens and the Staplehurst Accident

On the 9th of June 1865 at Staplehurst an accident occurred that went down in history. This wasn’t because it was one of the most horrific accidents in British railway history, although 10 people died; nor was it because it was the first major accident. It was famous because one of its passengers was Charles Dickens. Dickens had been travelling with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother in the first class compartment of the South Eastern Railway’s (SER) 2.38 am boat train from Folkestone.[1]

The accident occurred on the viaduct over the ‘muddy stream’ of the River Beult. Over an eight to ten week period the engineering team, consisting of 4 carpenters, one labourer, 3 platelayers and one foreman, were replacing the viaduct’s baulks (basically wooden timbers) which were placed between the iron girders to hold the track up. These were to be replaced during the passing of passenger trains, and up until the end of the project everything ran smoothly with train services passing without incident. 

SER company regulations stated that fog detonators placed on the tracks at 250 yard intervals up to 1000 yards from where the engineering works were to protect them. At 1000 yards a flagman was to also be placed. However, on 9th of June the foreman of the Beult viaduct works, John Benge, had not ordered the detonators placed and the flagman was stationed only 544 yards from the works. This disregarding of the rules was compounded by the fact that Benge had failed to read his timetable accurately. Because the boat train was left Folkestone dependent on the arrival time of the steam packet, which was determined by the tide, this meant that each day it arrived at different points along the line at different times. On the 9th June, Benge expected to arrive at the time stated for the 10th, which was two hours earlier and subsequently his team had started to remove two tracks. The result was that when the train arrived at the viaduct the driver saw the flag too late and was unable to stop the 13-carriage train in time.

What happened next would shape the rest of Dickens’ life. Firstly, the locomotive, tender and leading break van managed to cross the viaduct on the beams. However, the tender broke the viaduct wall. The second class carriage directly behind stayed on the viaduct, while the first class carriage, in which Dickens and his party was in, came to be lodged precariously halfway off the viaduct. The rest of the carriages went over the side into the stream. Dickens, went to the aid of the victims and described in a letter to Thomas Mitton four days later what he had saw: ‘no imagination can conceive of the ruin of carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among the iron and wood, and mud and water.’ He received praise for his actions, however, because of his travelling companions he shied away from the limelight.[2]

Most commentators point to the fact that this accident had a profound effect on Dickens’s health, and no one can deny that it did. Dickens had, as Ian Carter states, the ‘ominous signs’ of post-traumatic stress disorder thereafter. He refused to travel by express train, and always opted for the slow trains. Indeed, it is said that he never recovered from the shock of the accident and he died five years to the day after it on the 9th June 1870.[3]

However, what is not so commonly known is that after 1865 Dickens pushed more vehemently the issue of railway safety, particularly improved signalling. In a letter a month after the accident to the author Bulwer Lytton, he stated that the railways of Britain had developed an ‘enormous no-system,’ which had ‘grown up without guidance…Its abuses are so represented in Parliament by Directors, Contractors, Scrip Jobbers, and so forth, that no Ministers dare to touch it.’ Indeed, because of this lack of responsibility amongst railway officials and their presence in parliament, those to blame for such accidents were protected. [4]

Dickens’ primary concern was the idea that knowledge was so crucial to the safe working of the railway and he believed that this aspect of the railways needed improving. Thus, Dickens’ magazine All Year Round featured an article on the highly advance signalling system at Victoria Station and particularly a signal box that was referred to as the ‘hole in the wall.’[5] Furthermore, his collection of short stories from 1866, Mugby Junction, featured a story called the Signalman, where a ‘disturbed and isolated’ signalman was killed by a train after seeing a ghoul who had warned him previously about two other deaths (see my last blog post HERE).[6] Thus, the story addressed the idea information systems failing and causing accidents.
The effects of Dickens’ activities (amongst others) on safety are hard to pin down. However, it wasn’t long after the Staplehurst accident that Acts were passed by government on block signalling (1871), interlocking points and signals (1873) and Automatic Vacuum Brakes. (1878)[7] Thus, while it wasn’t Dickens voice alone that forced through these changes, he can be said to have been important in raising the profile and disseminating knowledge about issues of railway safety amongst the public. Indeed, he eventually became a voice that reflected the public’s concerns that were rife at the time. He did this so the fate of those listed below, the victims of the Staplehurst accident, occurred less frequently in the future to others.

Name Occupation
Emma Beaumont Spinster
Anne Bodinham Wife of Frederick Bodinham, Solicitor
Charlotte Chaunhay-Faithful Wife of Faithful, Judge at Bombay
Hannah Cundliff Wife of Martin Cundliff, Hotel Keeper
James Dunn Warehouseman
Adam Hampton Surgeon
Hippolite Mercia Cook
Amelia Rayner Wife of Lloyd Rayner, Merchant
Lydia Whitby Wife of George Whitby, Merchant
Caroline White Spinster
[1] Carter, Ian, Railways and Culture in Britain, (Manchester, 2001) p.91
[2] Pope, Norris, ‘Dickens’s “the Signalman” and Information Problems in the Railway Age,’ Technology and Culture, Vol. 41, No.3, (July, 2001) p.444-445
[3] Carter, Railways and Culture in Britain, p.91
[4] Pope, ‘Dickens’s “the Signalman”,’ p.448
[5] Pope, ‘Dickens’s “the Signalman”,’ p.450
[7] Gourvish, T.R., Railways and the British Economy: 1830-1914, (London, 1980), p.52

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Loneliest Man on the Railway - The Victorian Signalman

‘Trains thundering by; nine bells dinning in the signal-box, one against another; a score of telegraph indicators before his eyes; three telephones behind him; and under his sure an powerful hands a row of levers, keys of life and death. I am to write the praise of the railway signalman.’[1]
The signalmen, the individuals who were the overseers of railway safety, were the loneliest employees in the Victorian railway industry. While those stationed in major signal boxes at large stations or yards would be in contact with many human beings, the majority of signalmen sat alone atop mountains, in cuttings and at junctions. Indeed, the signalmen were unique in the Victorian railways as being some of the only solo workers in an industry where human contact and interactions were common place.
This had always been the case from the earliest days of the railways. Stationed next to the primitive signals, the early signalmen inhabited boxes that were modelled on army sentry huts. Indeed, many were pivoted at the base so they could be turned against the elements. However, the standard signal box, that we would readily identify today, developed quickly complete with windows, stoves and occasionally cats.[2]
Most Victorian signalmen would start their careers by entering the company’s service at the age of 14 as either a porter (then being promoted to porter-signalmen) or as a signal learner. They would have to undergo a strict eye test and then would shadow the work of a permanent signalman until they were proficient. Subsequently, once qualified they would be placed in an unimportant or branch-line signal box. Career advancement would occur through the movement to signal boxes of greater importance, with the rare possibility that they would eventually end up in charge of a major box on the main line.
The pay of signalmen was quite low and dependent on the company may have been anywhere between 12s and 30s per week. However, the general rate was around 16s or 17s.[3] While a children’s publication, The Big Budget, would write in 1899 that ‘an ordinary signalman does not have a very great deal of actual hard work to do,’ it was the duration of the work and the lack of pay that was the real issue for these men.[4] A letter to the editor of the Railway Service Gazette in 1872 detailed the long hours of service of signalmen:
‘I myself am a signalman and have been in the employ of the London, Chatham and Dover Company for eleven years next June, during which time I have averaged eighty-four hours per week. As there are only two of us, we relieve each other on a Sunday morning at 8.30 am to change over from night to day. We remain on duty till 7.30 the following Monday so as to enable us to have twenty-three hours off duty once a fortnight…and to make things worse, if we are fortunate to get a week’s leave of absence (say once in two years) they do not fail to stop our pay.’[5]
Indeed, while testifying to the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1890, James Thomas, a Cambrian Railway signalmen, stated that the hours of work that he had been expected to work were unlimited, there was no Sunday pay, and on occasion he had worked eighteen consecutive hours. Furthermore, he only time and a quarter for those hours worked after the twelfth.[6]
While the hours and pay of the signalmen were improved over the late-Victorian period, usually by union activity, the one problem they were unable to solve was that of their isolation. The signalmen themselves tried to mitigate this problem by keeping their boxes in pristine condition, through cleaning the instruments, making sure the paint work was fresh and the flower boxes, for which there were competitions, were well-tended. Indeed, the signal box was the man inside’s territory, and no one entered without his say-so. Furthermore, signalmen would keep in contact through a series of bells with their colleagues on the line. Yet, these relationships were ones in which they never saw each other. Yet, the tedium of isolation still remained, and the adage developed that ‘if you are unmarried when you take over a box, chances are you will never marry.’[7]
It was this isolation that Charles Dickens used to great effect in his 1866 short ghost story The Signalman. The narrator visits a signalman at an isolated signal box in a cutting, only to find him haunted by a spectre that was appearing in association with two tragedies. Pertinently, on the narrator’s second visit to the box, the signalman sees the spectre again and believes may be warning of a third accident. However, the narrator cannot see it and, thus, one of the suggestions for this is that the signalman had suffered mentally from his isolation. When the narrator visits for a third time, he has found that signalman was been killed by a train while looking at something at the tunnel mouth. Whether the spectre had been warning the signalman of his impending doom during the last conversation is left for the reader to decide.
Thus, the isolation was the key to making The Signalman work as a story. In 1882 a lighter side to the isolation of the signalman was published in Fun. Thus, the publication’s whimsical poem, The Neglected Signalman, can be found below.[8]
[1] Snowden, Keighley, ‘The Man Who Works the Points,’ The Pall Mall Magazine, Vol. 39 No. 166 (Feb 1907) p.169
[2] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, (London, 1980) p.67
[3] McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.67
[4] The Big Budget, ‘The Road to Take: Or What a Boy Can Become,’ Saturday, July 15th 1899, Issue 109, p.79
[5] Letter to the Editor, Railway Service Gazette, 3rd February 1872, p.7, quoted in, McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.67-68
[6] McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.70
[7] McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.75
[8] ‘The Neglected Signalman,’ Fun, Vol.35 No.872 (Jan 25th 1882) p.41

Sunday, 3 July 2011

‘Crabbed, morose and irritable’ - One Liverpool Man's Complaints Against the L&NWR in 1867

Complaining about the Britain’s railways is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, I have seen many complaints about many railways in my studies of the Victorian railway industry. However, never have I seen a catalogue of complaints as long as those presented by ‘A CONTRACTOR’ in the Liverpool Mercury in late 1867. Starting on the Monday October 21st and ending on Tuesday December 10th, this man levelled in six parts a sustained attack on the London and North Western Railway’s (L&NWR) services in and around Liverpool.

He had, some years previous to his letters, become a commuter travelling the ‘eight or nine miles’ between Huyton Quarry and Liverpool daily. He believed this would be a quicker and more comfortable way to travel than the omnibus. But it soon became the bane of his existence, stating, ‘I dread it with increasing and absorbing dread.’ He felt he was increasingly becoming ‘crabbed, morose and irritable’ and that he was ‘now thrown into a tremor by the slightest incident.’ He concluded that he attributed the change in his disposition to the ‘vexatious, annoying and nerve destroying influences to which I am daily subject in my travels to and from Liverpool.’ Indeed, he argued that the L&NWR ran the line as it had been done when it was opened by the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830.[1]

Naturally, I cannot go into all of the individuals’ complaints. However, I will touch on the main ones. The first, which brought on his nerves, was his fear of being killed. He stated that in his commute over the years ‘four persons have been mangled and mutilated to death by trains in which I have travelled.’ But furthermore, he stated that while directors allowed ‘hundreds of thousands of pounds to be found for shortening the distance to London by two or a dozen miles,’ narrow stations were left dark at night where ‘people [may] tumble off and be killed,’ and level crossings ‘on the line must be abolished’ as many an accident or ‘near-miss had occurred. Thus ‘neither decent accommodation is given to those who use the railway, nor proper protection to those who are obliged to cross it.’[2]

It was in the second letter, of October 29th, that our letter-writer began to attack the quality of the L&NWR’s stations. He started, with his home station of Huyton Quarry which he argued ‘might be a station in Chancery, so out-of-elbows does it look, or belong to some bankrupt company, who could not afford a few pounds to put in a tolerably descent condition.’ He complained that the station house could do with a spot of paint, but quickly moved onto its accommodation. He stated that at one end of it was ‘a dirty, dismal, low-pitched den which serves the double purpose of booking office and waiting room,’ and measured only 12ft by 8ft. One half was ‘appropriated by the officials, and the remainder is generously accorded to the public.’ The room was unpainted, there was a ‘fusty’ odour and there was a small ‘settle’ (fireplace) where in the winter months the room’s ‘occupants are ingeniously roasted by the fire on one side and exposed on the other to cold blasts.’

Outside station house was what he called ‘a semblance of a platform,’ that he asserted was never completed, becoming at one end ‘small by degrees and beautifully less’ until the level of the line is reached.’ Thus, when alighting the train at one of the platform he had the task of jumping down from the carriage. Lastly, the L&NWR had put up a ‘convenience in a position where it is overlooked without any pretence at concealment at all, by any person passing along one of the public roads,’ for which the drainage was no more than a ‘few wisps of straw.’[3] While complaining about Huyton Quarry Station at length, he also stated that he had heard of other deficient facilities elsewhere and frequently ‘compared notes with fellow travellers.’[4]While it won’t be related here, he related at length the dire facilities at Roby, Broadgreen, Edgehill [5] and Liverpool Lime Street Stations.

Indeed, at the Lime Street Station the ‘CONTRACTOR’ complained about how trains were brought out of the station because of the incline through the tunnel outside it. Firstly, a train was drawn by locomotive to the tunnel’s mouth. The locomotive would ‘go onto one line’ and proceed to the other end of the tunnel, while the carriages would remain on the original line. A rope was then attached to the front of the carriages and a steam engine at the Edgehill end of the tunnel would haul them up the incline to be reunited with the locomotive. Following on from this, he also detailed how trains were let down the incline. A break van was attached to the front of the train with the rope attached behind. The train was then allowed to freewheel down the incline with a breakman steadying its speed by judiciously applying the break. Overall, he argued that ‘is it not disgraceful that in these days of mechanical contrivances human life should be at the mercy of such primitive devices.’ Furthermore, with these procedures taking between ‘5 and 25 minutes,’ our author complained that no light penetrated the carriages and, thus, he was in a pitch-dark carriage with ‘persons whom you do not know and cannot see,’ a position which he felt perilous for all the obvious reasons.[6]

While I have not highlighted all of the author’s complaints, it is clear who he blamed for these deficient aspects of the L&NWR’s service: ‘the directors who rule the roost at Euston-square.’ Interestingly, the author framed his complaints in terms of the North-South divide, asserting on many occasions that services and facilities in the south were superior, and that directors could find money for improvements or railway empire-building when they required. Indeed, he stated, over the issue of level crossings that ‘I believe that the Liverpool members of the board have endeavoured to bring about some improvements, but that they are out-voted by the London interest,’ [7] and this comment is indicative of a feeling that runs through the correspondence. I cannot be certain whether his assertions as to the state of the line, with the exception of the practices at Lime Street, were strictly true. But it is certain that he felt the north-south divide and the distance of the L&NWR directors from Liverpool, affected how they implemented policy there.
[1] Liverpool Mercury, Monday, October 21, 1867; Issue 6156
[2] Liverpool Mercury, Monday, October 21, 1867; Issue 6156
[3] Liverpool Mercury, Tuesday, November 12, 1867; Issue 6175
[4] Liverpool Mercury, Thursday, November 21, 1867; Issue 6183
[5] Liverpool Mercury, Thursday, November 28, 1867; Issue 6189
[6] Liverpool Mercury, Thursday, November 28, 1867; Issue 6189
[7] Liverpool Mercury, Monday, October 21, 1867; Issue 6156
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