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Friday, 28 October 2011

For Temperance, the Beach and Sport - The Victorian Excursion Train

The excursion train was an important part of British leisure pursuits in the Victorian period. Social, political, leisure and work groups made agreements with railway companies, or through intermediaries that soon became known as travel agents, to convey them to and from a place in a day for cheaper fares. This reduced the cost of travel for the passengers, while providing the companies guaranteed with income.

It is unsurprising that the first excursions were on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), Britain’s first intercity line, in 1831. In first year the company had offered some of the first special trains in the country. Two weeks after the line was inaugurated, in October 1830, individuals could travel from Liverpool to the Sankey Viaduct and back in the Duke of Wellington’s coach for five shillings. This was followed by a special train for visitors to the Liverpool Charity Festival a few days later.

However, the first real excursion was run in May 1831 when the company agreed through an independent promoter to take 150 members of the Bennett Street Sunday School from Liverpool to Manchester and back again for one third of the regular fare. This set the pattern for all excursion trains from then on.[1]

Excursions soon grew in number and popularity with groups being conveyed to race meetings, church bazars, or just to visit cities for a day out. The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent reported in April 1841 that during that year’s Whitsuntide Holidays the North Midland Railway would operate ‘an excursion train from Sheffield to Derby, when no doubt that thousands of our townsmen will take the opportunity of visiting that pleasant town and its arboretum.’[2] Probably the most interesting excursion train of the period was arranged by Bodmin and Wadebridge for a public execution in 1836.[3]

Furthermore, it was in this period that Thomas Cook began as an agent arranging excursions. The first he organised was on the Midland Counties Railway in 1841, and took 570 temperance campaigners to a rally at Loughborough. His business grew rapidly and by 1850 it spread as far as Scotland and North Wales. However, he was one of many travel agents that appeared in the period.[3]

However, with locomotive technology limited, and with carriages small in capacity, excursion trains were huge in size and have been described as ‘monstrous.’ An excursion train from Sheffield to Leeds in September 1840 was pulled by five locomotives and possessed seventy carriages.[4] Another in September 1844 from Leeds to Hull carried 6,600 passengers in 240 carriages pulled by nine locomotives.[5] Indeed, such was their size that in the period excursion trains usually arrived late at their destinations. This meant that the passengers only had a short time at their destination, given they had to rejoin the train to return soon after.

The Great Exhibition between 1 May and 15 October 1851 was the high point for the early excursion trains. By this time many small lines had been absorbed into larger networks that had terminals in London. Consequently, travel agents and groups were able to arrange excursions to the Exhibition from as far afield as Yorkshire. Indeed, some groups even set up ‘exhibition clubs’ to arrange the trips. Thus, all companies serving London experienced considerable traffic increases when the Exhibition was open. The Great Western Railway’s passenger traffic increased by 38.3%, the London and South Western’s by 29.9%, the London and Blackwall’s by 28.5% and the South Eastern;s by 23.8%. Furthermore, Thomas Cook claimed that, acting as agent, he had brought 165,000 individuals to Euston. Thus, most concluded that the railways and excursion trains contributed to the exhibition’s success.[6]

Excursions by this point were an accepted railway activity, even though many railway companies, for example the London and North Western Railway, were not entirely certain they were profitable. Indeed, after the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 the number of excursions exploded and they took vast swathes of people to large religious gatherings, coastal resorts, race meetings, cities, sports events, the boat race and to fairs that many organisations ran. Furthermore, the National Sunday League, which was a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1855 to pressure for museum and park openings on Sundays, began arranging their own excursions from the 1870s. After a small start, by 1914 the League organised 540 such excursions in that year. Furthermore, large companies, such as Bass in Burton and the railways themselves arranged day trips for their workers, principally to the seaside. The GWR’s annual ‘Swindon Trip’ drained the town of half its population, giving a day out to around 26,000 people.[7]

Ultimately, the growth in excursion train numbers after the late 1860s was spurred on by people possessing greater free time and the increased range of available leisure activities. However, the exact number of people using them across the period is unclear. A Royal Commission on Railways between 1865 and 1867 found that the L&YR, L&NWR and Midland Railway carried 1,140,000 excursion passengers in 1865. This constituted 3% of their passenger revenue.[8] This proportion possibly grew and in the period between 1901 and 1909 excursion trains contributed 10% of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s income from passengers. However, the latter company served principally passenger districts, whereas the three former companies did not, and the samples were from different periods in the history of the excursion train. Thus, the comparison is not really fair.[9]

Nevertheless, the excursion train added to the cultural life of the country in the Victorian period, and allowed many to experience much that they wouldn’t have had the chance to otherwise. Thus, for the people of Britain, the excursion train was a great success.


[1] Simmons, Jack, The Victorian Railway, (London, 1991). p.272
[2] The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, April 10, 1841, p. 8, Issue 1107
[3] Simmons, Jack, ‘Excursion Trains,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.150
[4] The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent Saturday, January 02, 1841, p. 2, Issue 1093
[5] Simmons, The Victorian Railway, p.273
[6] Simmons, The Victorian Railway, p.275
[7] Simmons, ‘Excursion Trains,’ p.150
[8] Simmons, The Victorian Railway, p.278
[9] Simmons, ‘Excursion Trains,’ p.151


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