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Sunday, 26 February 2012

"Stone Cold Ginger Beer" - The Station Refreshment Room after 1870 - Part 1

In September last year I did a post for the excellent Victorianist Blog on the subject of nineteenth century railway station refreshment rooms. Indeed, high-profile criticisms of their food and service were frequent in the period. In 1867 in Mugby Junction, Dickens described the ‘The pork and veal pies, with their bumps of delusive promise and their little cubes of gristle and bad fat; the scalding infusion, satirically called tea, the stale bath buns with their veneer of furniture polish; the sawdusty sandwiches, so frequently and energetically condemned.’[1] Anthony Trollope commented that, ‘the real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich – that withered sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor and spiritless within.’[2] Additionally, in 1856 Dickens commented on the services at Peterborough: ‘The lady in the refreshment room…gave me a cup of tea, as if I were a hyena and she my cruel keeper with a strong dislike to me.’[3] Indeed, this was the basis for the satire in Mugby Junction.[4]

However, to my mind these opinions of station refreshment rooms are problematic as they all came from before 1870. Indeed, in the Victorianist post I highlighted this fact and postulated that because I was unaware of criticism of refreshment rooms after 1870 it implied that ‘an improvement in their quality in the later railway industry and…an increasing professionalism in the services that the companies’ provided.’[5] I based this assumption on the fact that many railways began to employ professional refreshment room contractors after 1870. Indeed, Messrs Spiers and Pond were contracted to run refreshment rooms for numerous railway companies including the Metropolitan, South Eastern, London, Chatham and Dover and London and South Western Railways. Thus, by 1925 they controlled over 200 rooms.[6]

Yet, I was still making a massive assumption that refreshment rooms actually improved. Consequently, I began searching after 1870 for any comment on their quality. My findings showed that contrary to my initial theory, refreshment rooms continued to be complained about.

Unsurprisingly, food and drink at refreshment rooms was criticised frequently. When in 1900 Mr E. Thompson Smith of the Colchester Brewing Company applied for an alcohol licence for a proposed hotel opposite the Great Eastern Railway’s Station at Thorpe, he suggested the refreshment room provided ‘a ginger biscuit and an antiquated sausage roll.’[7] In another case, a retired detective in 1887 recalled ‘getting a bad egg and some wasby coffee.’[8] In 1894 the London and North Western Railway was fined 20 shillings and costs for selling milk at a refreshment room that was constituted of twenty per cent cream.[9] In 1900 the magazine Outlook commented on the ‘stone cold ginger beer’ and stewed tea.[10] Lastly, ‘A DAILY TRAVELLER’ in 1884 stated that the only thing of quality that could be found in refreshment rooms were ‘beer and spirits.’ To his mind;

‘the coffee is made of essence, which is poured into the cup by guess and then a plash of water added carelessly, sometimes making the cup run over, and without its having ascertained if the water is boiling. The tea is kept in a sort of concentrated decoction, and served in the same careless way.’ [11]

Jokes were also found in this period, such as this from 1892:

Traveller: “My friend, there’s no meat in this sandwich”
Waitress: “No?”
Traveller: “Don’t you think you’d better give that pack another shuffle and let me draw again?”[12]

In addition to the food, the quality of the environments within refreshment rooms were frequently referred to. At the Highland Railway’s half-yearly meeting of shareholders in 1894, a Mr Dingwall drew attention to the lack of cleanliness in the company’s rooms.[13] In 1899 a meal at a Masonic Bazaar was referred to as possibly becoming ‘a miserable fiasco…a sort of railway refreshment room, if it had been lacking the grace, sweetness and charm which Madames Mace, Rowell and Hunston lent to it.’[14] Lastly, in 1898 in West Kerrier, a Superintendent Beare (who presumably was a policeman) was informed at the local sessions that ‘the refreshment at Helston Railway Station had not been properly conducted.’[15]

Finally, one frequent complaint was refreshment room prices. In 1886, a ‘John Fletcher Little’ wrote to the Leeds Mercury about the ‘exorbitant prices at present charged in the third class refreshment rooms for such beverages as milk, tea, coffee &c.’ For example, ‘Milk costs twopence a glass, whilst it is sold in the shops and coffee taverns at a penny’ and tea and coffee was ‘charged for at a rate of threepence,’ whereas elsewhere it was also a penny.[16]  In 1900, Outlook commented on the ginger beer at refreshment rooms which ‘at some stations, for instance, fourpence a bottle is charged for precisely the same article that a cyclist in the country procures for a penny.’[17] Lastly, when referring to the low profit margins of coffee taverns, one reporter enquired as to whether ‘refreshment room prices’ could be charged.[18]

Therefore, it can be considered that refreshment rooms continued to be criticised into the late nineteenth century and had a reputation for providing poor quality and expensive food, and having uninviting environments.

Nevertheless, occasional references to good quality services can found. In 1888 Messrs Browning and Wesley, refreshment room contractors at Paddington and Chester stations, brought a libel case against Ernest Solly, who, whilst in the Chester Station room, claimed the meat in his sausage roll was bad. After complaining to the staff, Solly left for his train to Liverpool. On arrival in Liverpool he telegrammed the following:- ‘Exchange Liverpool Office, To inspector of Nuisances, Chester. Please inspect sausage rolls, refreshment rooms, station, bad meat; will write tonight. Dr Solly.’ He then proceeded to write to the Town Clerk’s office in Birkenhead about the affair. On inspection by Chester Town Council, Messrs Browning and Wesley were exonerated and their materials were described as being of the ‘very best quality.’ Sonny was ordered to pay a farthing in damages.

Interestingly, when Dr Solly complained to the refreshment room staff of the meat in his roll, he asked whether the place ‘belonged to Speirs and Pond.’ [19] Indeed, in the period rooms managed by Spiers and Pond were generally thought of as ‘diamonds in the rough.’ Therefore, in the next post I will discuss this market leading company.


[1] All Year Round, December 1867, p.60
[2] Trollope, Anthony, He Knew He Was Right, (London, 1869), p.351
[3] Simmons, Jack, The Victorian Railway, (London, 1991) p.354
[4] Richards, Jeffrey and MacKenzie, John M., The Railway Station: A Social History, (Oxford, 1988), p.291
[6] Biddle, George, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.417
[7] The Essex County Standard West Suffolk Gazette, and Eastern Counties Advertiser, Friday, September 29, 1900
[8] The Ipswich Journal, Friday, October 21, 1887; Issue 8872
[9] The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser, Saturday, June 02, 1894
[10] Outlook, Vol.6, No.133 (1900, 18 August), p.72
[11] Birmingham Daily Post, Tuesday, February 12, 1884
[12] Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury, Saturday, February 13, 1892
[13] Glasgow Herald, Thursday, April 26, 1894
[14] Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, April 22, 1899
[15] The Royal Cornwall Gazette Falmouth Packet, Cornish Weekly News, & General Advertiser, Thursday, September 08, 1898, pg. 3;
[16] The Leeds Mercury, Friday, December 31, 1886
[17] Outlook, Vol.6, No.133 (1900, 18 August), p.72
[18] Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc, Wednesday, August 29, 1877;
[19] Liverpool Mercury etc. Saturday, July 28, 1888


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