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Monday, 24 December 2012

Counting customers - railway traffic before Christmas in the 1800s

There is no doubt that the four or five days before Christmas are some of the busiest for Britain’s railways as people travel home to see their friends and relatives, or return bleary eyed from Christmas parties and gatherings. No doubt the flooding in Britain has reduced the number of trains running in the period this year. However, nationally, 22,247 trains were scheduled on the 21 December; 20,436 on the 22nd; 11,588 were supposed to run yesterday and 18,968 are due to run today.[1] Most Train Operating Companies have not supplement their regular scheduled services,[3] Chiltern being the only one.[2] Thus, with largely regular Saturday and Sunday timetables in operation on the 22nd and 23rd December, and with trains stopping early today, many passengers will feel like they have travelled in tin cans by the end of the festive season.

However, it is no comfort to say so, but crowded trains are what the Christmas passenger has experienced for over a century. In the nineteenth century particularly, the various railway companies provided the press with a plethora of data on their Christmas traffic. In the days after the 25 December how many passengers to and from stations were commonly mentioned in newspapers, especially as the numbers usually grew each year. 

The number of passengers who travelled in the festive period from London via the Great Western Railway (GWR) perfectly shows this growth. In 1895 the number booked at the company’s City and West End Offices and London Stations between Friday 20 December and Thursday 26 December at noon was 40,750. This was an increase on 1889’s total of 37,000. Indeed, in 1895 5,953 passengers travelled from Paddington on Saturday 21 December; with 8,992 being conveyed on Christmas Eve.[4] Therefore, with Christmas passenger numbers increasing so rapidly year on year, it is quite possible that individual travellers found themselves progressively squeezed as the railways struggled to keep pace with the changing demand.   

However, as we are currently told passenger numbers in this country continue to grow, it would be interesting to see this year whether the 374 and 307 trains scheduled leave Paddington on the 21 and 24 December respectively are on average they are more packed than those on the same day in 2011. [5]

But passenger data was not the only information the newspapers featured; and the amount of parcels handled by stations also appeared alongside it. Those passing through the London and North Western Railway’s Euston Station were of particular interest and, as I related in a blog post last year, special arrangements were established there in the 1840s to handle this vast and growing traffic. Statistics have been found which show that number of parcels arriving at Euston in the three days before and the morning of the 25 December grew most years. They were as follows:

1848 - 12,000 [6]
1849 - 15,000 [7]
1850 - 10,000 [8]
1851 - Inward and Outward: 40,000 (figures for the week before Christmas) [9]
1852 - 12,000
1853 - 12,500 [10]
1864 - 17,000 [11]

Therefore, by digging into nineteenth century newspapers we can gauge how the railways became an integral part of Christmas for Victorians; performing the same function as do for passengers today, through taking them from home to merriment and delivering them all they needed for Christmas cheer.

Much thanks must go to Tom Cairns for the data he provided on current train operations.


[1] Data kindly provided by Tom Cairns and Twitter: @swlines
[4] Morning Post - Friday 27 December 1895
[5] Data kindly provided by Tom Cairns and Twitter: @swlines
[6] The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 26, 1848
[7] Daily News, Wednesday, December 26, 1849, Issue 1119
[8] The Era, Sunday, December 29, 1850
[9] The Standard, Saturday, December 27, 1851, p.1
[10] The Essex Standard, and General Advertiser for the Eastern Counties, Wednesday, December 28, 1853
[11] Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, January 9, 1864


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