VICTORIAN TRAIN TRAVEL

A few weeks ago, I visited the amazing National Railway Museum in York for the first time. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth the trip – you don’t have to be mad about trains! There are some fascinating exhibits relating to the Victorian era, the expansion of the railways in Britain and how the passenger experience changed.

Victorian railways reinforced the Victorian social structure with a choice of first and second class carriages; third class was not offered until late 1838. At the National Railway Museum, it was wonderful to see some early surviving carriages from this era for the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway. There is a composite first and second-class carriage that would originally have been exclusively first-class. The first-class passengers had upholstered seats while in second-class, they had to make do with wooden seating. You can sit in the second-class section of the composite carriage which gives an amazing feel for the past and how little legroom there would have been, even without the added problem of voluminous petticoats and crinolines!

Composite first and second class railway carriage, National Railway Museum , York (Credit: Hugh Llewelyn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

This is what an ordinary second-class carriage would have looked like with a window in the door only:

Second-class carriage at National Railway Museum, York (Credit: Hugh Llewelyn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Coupled next to the composite carriage is the third-class accommodation, more reminiscent of a cattle truck than a carriage.

Third-class carriage at the National Railway Museum, York (Credit: Hugh Llewelyn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Dating from 1896, this image captioned ‘the oldest rolling stock in England from the Bodmin & Wadebridge Branch, London & South Western Railway, in use for fifty years ‘ may show the same or similar carriages to those in the National Railway Museum:

From Locomotive engineering – a practical journal of railway motive power and rolling stock (1896) (Wikimedia Commons/Internet Archive Book Images)

Passengers travelling by train in the 1830s and 1840s had to be a hardy lot. Compartments were unheated, even in first class, although there was a foot warmer for these better-off passengers. In The Early Victorians at Home, Elizabeth Burton describes how noxious these carriages were at night, as they were illuminated ‘by an evil-smelling and dripping oil lamp fixed in the roof’. The cushions in first-class carriages were also inclined to catch the dust from the steam engine.

Second-class carriages had a roof but were open at the sides. Wrapping up warm with a rug, cap and cloak was essential, as was an umbrella. ‘A Constant Traveller’ wrote to the Leicester Chronicle in 1843 about the ‘miserably cold and wretchedly devised carriages’. He commented: ‘The day was windy and wet, the rain poured in so heavily that a pool of water above an inch deep deluged the floor, and…most of the passengers…were wet through, not being provided with any protective clothing.’

‘Second Class: The Parting’ by Abraham Solomon, 1854. (Credit: Abraham Solomon [Public domain] )

The early third-class carriages were little more than cattle trucks with no roof and hard wooden seats. This mirrored the experience of third-class passengers on the top of a stagecoach, but railway travellers also had to contend with the hazards of smoke, soot and cinders.

A passenger travelling from London to Liverpool via Birmingham on the Grand Junction line wrote to the Leeds Mercury in 1841, complaining of the third-class accommodation: ‘I witnessed several instances in and near the carriage in which I was placed, of clothing, umbrellas &c being burnt and utterly spoiled by the ashes from the engine, some pieces the size of a walnut being precipitated, red-hot, into the midst of us. In fact, on arriving at Birmingham, if the seat and floor of that part of the carriage in which I rode had been swept, not less than half a pint of cinders might have been gathered.’

Despite the sub-standard accommodation, railway travel was hugely popular. According to the Railway Times, in the first six months of 1839, the London to Birmingham railway carried 267,527 people. In eight months, the line between Sheffield and Rotherham attracted 330,000 passengers. The Morning Chronicle (1844) reported: ‘Last week, some of the Yorkshire railways offered the public of the West Riding a trip down to Liverpool and back for a few shillings a place, and though the accommodation in the carriages was no better than that given to cattle on the Liverpool and Manchester line, yet no less than five thousand persons availed themselves of this opportunity of visiting Liverpool and the sea!’

After 1844, railway companies were forced to provide roofs on all third-class carriages under new legislation. At least one train every weekday had to run for third-class passengers, stopping at every station along the line. From this time, lighting was also provided in third-class carriages although there was only a single oil lamp per carriage, compared with several in each first-class carriage.

‘First Class: The Meeting’ by Abraham Solomon, 1855, also known as ‘The Return’. (Credit: Yale Center for British Art [Public domain] )

Before 1868, it was not possible for passengers to communicate with the guard if they had a problem, and it was not until the 1890s that they could walk from one compartment to another along a corridor. The corridor walkway became more common after the early 1900s when lavatories started to be introduced on trains. In 1875, the Midland Railway abolished second-class travel altogether and upgraded third-class passengers to second-class standards; it also reduced the fares in first class. Other railways followed suit to keep up with the competition. Around the same time, dining cars were introduced for wealthy passengers. Later in the nineteenth century, long distance trains started to offer refreshment baskets for the less well-off.

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THE VICTORIAN HORSE-DRAWN OMNIBUS

For the Victorian middle classes living in towns and cities, the preferred method of transport to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short).  Inside, there was usually room for five people on each side, and there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. But this quickly got wet and dirty, and it also harboured fleas. Although the seats were covered in blue velvet, they were definitely not luxurious. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened. 

Inside the omnibus, passengers were tightly wedged in and there was a painful jolt every time the vehicle stopped. Sitting so close together made omnibuses a magnet for pickpockets and there was also a very serious risk of catching an infectious disease.

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‘Any Gentleman Oblige a Lady?’ from Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

For these reasons, men preferred to sit on the knifeboard of the omnibus, located on the roof. There were small ledges on which to step to reach the ‘knifeboard’, a raised partition along the middle with seats on each side. It was rare for women to venture up there as it was so difficult to get on and off wearing a cumbersome skirt or crinoline.

If you’re interested in Victorian social history, the memoirs of Molly Hughes (M V Hughes) are well worth seeking out (see Books and Resources). In A London Child of the 1870s (1934), she describes a secret adventure with her brothers in which she went on the mysterious roof of an omnibus for the first time:

‘If I had been asked to a royal ball I couldn’t have been more excited… Dym went up first, then hung down and pointed out the tiny ledges on which I had to put my feet, stretching out his hands to pull me up, while Barnholt fetched up the rear in case I slipped. On the top was what they called the knifeboard…How people stuck on to them I couldn’t imagine. But the boys had other designs: they scrambled down on to the seat in front, by the driver, and got me there too… I was safely tucked in between him and Dym, with Barnholt on his other side.

How powerful the horse looked from this point of view, how jolly to hear the chucklings and whoas, and to see the whip flourished about, but only gently touching the horse. “I never whips old Rosy,” the driver told me. “She’s been with me six years and knows what I want. I use the whip like chatting to her.” …Barnholt, as look-out man, kept calling my attention to things in the shops, and to people doing mysterious jobs in first-floor windows. One room was a nursery, where a boy was riding on a rocking-horse, and in one garden we passed there was a swing with a boy going very high.

We feared to go the whole length of our twopenny ride in case we should be late for tea, so we asked the driver to pull up for us. In my haste to show him how well I could get off by jumping down to Dym in front, I fell right into the muddy street. But no harm was done, and the boys picked me up, and we ran home as fast as we could and slipped in at the back door.’

‘Omnibus Driver’ from Living London (1901)

The knifeboard design was replaced by the ‘garden seat’ omnibus in the 1880s, which had a curved staircase at the rear leading to the top deck. This made it easier for both sexes to access the roof as there was a central gangway, with benches facing the way the passengers were going. There were also ‘decency’ or ‘modesty’ boards on the top deck to give some protection from the weather and to prevent people passing from seeing the ladies’ ankles!

‘London Bridge Station Yard’ from Living London (1901)

 

 

 

TANTRUMS, TEARS AND TOIL: DOMESTIC SERVICE IN A VICTORIAN COACHING INN

The second episode of the BBC’s 24 Hours in the Past was set in a coaching inn in the 1840s, with the National Trust’s New Inn at Stowe providing a very authentic backdrop. Coaching inns (or stages) were the hub of stagecoach activity, providing extensive stables, fresh horses and refreshments for passengers en route. They were also the principal hotels for the towns in which they are located. On a major route, there could be as many as 15 or 20 coaches passing through every day, from early in the morning to late at night.

North Country Mails at the Peacock Islington, 1838, courtesy of Print & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-03502

The six celebrities were given various domestic service roles from maid of all work and potman through to kitchen maid and ostler. Experience with horses and quite technical harnessing expertise would have been required to be an ostler; without these skills, Alistair McGowan and Colin Jackson both found it difficult.

The work of the other servants was made up of more general duties. As the maid of all work, Miquita Oliver’s predicament in not knowing how to start a fire in the dining room was fairly common for young girls new to domestic service. She was also required to clean and iron laundry, wait at the tables and service the guests’ bedrooms, including emptying the chamberpots.

Tyger Drew-Honey drew the short straw in his role as potman. This job involved being a general dogsbody and jack of all trades from serving drinks in the taproom and washing the plates and cutlery through to butchering a pig! 24 Hours in the Past stressed the importance of the stagecoaches keeping to a strict timetable with all the servants working as a team to effect a quick turnaround.

The County Hotel, Lancaster, circa 1900.

There wasn’t much mention of tips in the programme but the staff at coaching inns, rustic inns and hotels relied heavily on tips from guests to augment their meagre pay. On his first visit to England in 1847, the American John Henry Sherburne stayed at the Black Bear in Manchester, but he was unaware that service was not included. He paid his moderate bill and while getting into his cab, he was ‘surrounded by all the servants of the establishment, asking to be remembered from the head cook to the boots’. He was later advised by a friend that, when asking for his bill at a hotel, he should insist that the servants also be charged in it. In this way, he would find himself ‘a few pounds the richer’ and save himself ‘much trouble and mortification’.

Most of the celebrities managed to work well as servants but there was one scene which simply didn’t ring true. I’m referring, of course, to the refusal by Ann Widdecombe and Zoe Lucker to skin rabbits or pluck pheasants as part of their work as kitchen maids. In the real world of the 1840s, refusing to do what was asked by a master or mistress would result in instant dismissal without a character (the written reference provided by an employer so that a servant could find another place in service). 

The Cat and Fiddle Inn, Hinton, Dorset, circa 1900

Knowing one’s place, being deferential and only speaking when spoken to were the golden rules if you wanted to keep your job as a servant, gain valuable experience and move on to a position with higher pay and better prospects. This was a time when people worked simply to earn money for food and lodgings; there was no choice but to do as one was told.

THE LOST STORY OF THE VICTORIAN TITANIC

Today, I’m very happy to be hosting a guest post from Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic. Her fascinating book tells the tragic story of the passengers and crew who lost their lives when RMS Tayleur struck rocks off Ireland and sank. Here, she explains the controversy behind the tragedy:

Most people haven’t heard about the first major White Star Line disaster, which occurred nearly 60 years before an iceberg ended the maiden voyage of arguably the most famous ship of the modern age.  I hadn’t until a curator at Warrington Museum in the north-west of England told me the source of the porthole lying, minus its ship and unnaturally dry, in a display case.  He advised me to read the survivors’ stories and, after a lot of crying (me not him), these became the subject of my book “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014).    

It seems clear, after reading contemporary accounts and comments and researching the lives of the people involved as much as the internet allowed, that there’s good reason for this disaster – which was reported with horror and ghoulish attention to detail (headless bodies, hacked off finger etc.) around the world at the time – to have been forgotten just a few generations later.  A cover-up.

‘Death – The Poor Man’s Friend’ (John Leech, Punch, 1845)

Built with unwise haste to transport people and goods to the Australian Gold Rush, the Tayleur left Liverpool 160 years ago with much hype only to sink two days later after crashing into the base of a cliff in the middle of the day.  More than half of those on board died despite being close enough to land for some of the travellers to jump to safety.  The statistics of the survivors are shocking: 3% of women and 4% of children were saved compared to 59% of the men.  But that wasn’t what appalled the Victorian public.

To them, it was the death of a dream of safety on the waves, of Victorian Britain’s might and power over the ocean and the forces of nature herself.  The RMS Tayleur was the largest ship of her type in the world at the time, both monstrous and luxurious, with airy berths and two flush toilets provided for the approximately 700 travellers on board.  She was heralded as the ship to board – safe, clean, and the very pinnacle of modernity.  In a time of several shipwrecks a day in British and Irish waters alone, high mortality rates and miserable living conditions for many on land meant the hope of health and a fortune drew thousands to the goldfields overseas, and a ship like the White Star Line’s Tayleurseemed the safest bet to get them there – making a fortune for the shipping companies and their associates at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Tayleur’s revolutionary iron hull meant her compasses didn’t work.  The ropes were too new, unseasoned and stretchy and too thick to fit through the pulleys and control the sails.  The masts were improperly positioned, the crew unfamiliar with each other and the ship.  And when the captain ordered the anchors dropped in a final desperate effort to swing the ship away from the island rising ‘like a mountain from the sea’ both chains snapped ‘like a carrot’ leaving the Tayleur to wreck and sink at the foot of an island off the coast of Dublin.
The RMS Tayleur
There was much skulduggery in the aftermath, including a mysterious ‘Mr Jones’ who made the captain and crew leave the inquest before it even began. The whole story is unlikely to be unravelled after so many years and the admitted burning of papers by at least one of the rich men involved. But this brave (or foolhardy) journalist’s words indicate the Tayleur was a disaster waiting to happen, and that the media was complicit in her fate:  
     ‘A skinflint shipowner will withdraw every advertisement he can influence, and cut off your American news, if you presume to challenge the seaworthiness of the Tayleur; what business is it of yours if two or three hundred emigrants go to the bottom? You are not one of them!’ (Elgin Courier, 28 April 1854)

Although the shipwreck was rarely spoken of in the years after the tragedy, resources such as the British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) and Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.co.uk/) have meant the travellers involved can be acknowledged 160 years later.  Sadly, those responsible for the disaster and the cover-up escaped justice long ago.  But the heroes of the wreck can be remembered with pride once again.
Thanks, Gill! The story of the RMS Tayleur is endlessly fascinating, yet heartbreaking too. 
‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur’ by Gill Hoffs is available from bookshops or online at 

If you have any information on the RMS Tayleur, you can contact Gill at  gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or @GillHoffs on Twitter


VICTORIAN PUBLIC TRANSPORT – THE OMNIBUS

Typical photographs of Victorian street scenes feature a multitude of horse-drawn vehicles all mixed in together, but the preferred public transport of the middle classes to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short). This was cheaper than travelling by cab. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger observed that “among the middle classes of London, the omnibus stands immediately after air, tea and flannel in the list of necessaries of life”.

‘An Omnibus Driver’ from Living London (1901)

So what were these omnibuses like? Inside, there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. By the end of the day, this was both wet and dirty; this straw also harboured fleas when it was dry, and the ague when it was wet. The seats were covered in blue velvet; this might sound luxurious but it was definitely not. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened. 

‘Any Gentleman Oblige a Lady?’ from Cassell’s Household Guide (1885)

If you were to take a journey on a Victorian omnibus, you would quickly find yourself tightly wedged in beside the other passengers and there would be a painful jolt every time it stopped. When people got on or off, you would run the risk of your toes being crushed or having sticks or parasols poked into your chest or neck. The proximity of other passengers made omnibuses a magnet for pickpockets and there was also the serious hazard of catching a deadly infectious disease.  

‘An Omnibus Conductor’ from Living London (1901)

For these reasons, men preferred to sit on the knifeboard of the omnibus, located on the roof. There were tiny ledges on which to step to reach the ‘knifeboard’, a raised partition along the middle with seats on each side. It was rare for women to venture up there as it was so difficult to get on and off wearing a cumbersome skirt or crinoline.

‘London Bridge Station Yard’ from Living London (1901)

The knifeboard design was replaced by the ‘garden seat’ omnibus in the 1880s, which had a curved staircase at the rear leading to the top deck. This was more practical for both sexes as it had a central gangway, benches facing the way the passengers were going, and ‘decency’ or ‘modesty’ boards on the top deck. These gave some protection to the passengers, and prevented people passing from seeing the ladies’ ankles! 

 


VICTORIAN PUBLIC TRANSPORT – THE HANSOM CAB

If I was able to visit Victorian England, I know that one of the aspects which would fascinate me the most is the public transport. Aside from steam trains and the later electric trams, it was all horse-drawn which, of course, is so different from today’s motor-driven vehicles. Horses pulled the omnibuses, carts, and brewers’ drays through to the broughams, clarences and Hansom cabs. The sounds of hooves clattering on cobbles was everywhere, as was the smell of steaming horse manure…

To get about town quickly, catching a cabriolet (or cab for short) was the best bet. Cabbies plied their trade from cab-stands, not while moving. The fare was based on the distance, so it was important to know how far away the destination was to avoid being overcharged. The driver sat on a raised seat behind and above the passengers’ compartment with the horse’s reins going over the top of it. Passengers communicated with the driver and paid him through a trap-door in the roof. The cab-man controlled the door by means of a lever, which made it difficult to dodge paying the fare.

‘A Hansom Cab’ from Living London (1901)

 Ladies often found that the overhanging reins could knock off their hats, and dresses could easily be soiled on the rim of the wheel. It was also extremely difficult to get in and out of a Hansom with any dignity while wearing a crinoline.

A journalist from Living London visited a cab yard and observed cab-drivers at work in 1901:

“The day cab-men, their hansoms and four-wheelers clean and bright from the washers’ hands, begin to appear in numbers about nine a.m., some hurrying Citywards with fares, and others proceeding slowly to various stands, where they find a few unfortunate and somewhat despondent night cab-men waiting in the hope of obtaining at least one good job before taking their cabs back to the yard.”

The best cab-stands for the drivers were outside the railway stations and the West End theatres, but life was tough for them.  They worked twelve hour shifts and had to pay for the hire of their vehicles and horses out of the fares they earned. 
‘In a Cab Yard’ from Living London (1901)
 When John Hollingshead interviewed a cabman for Odd Journeys in and Out of London(1859), he was told that a Hansom cab driver had to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, in addition to ‘yard money’ which was the charges for the stables. This was before earning any money for himself. A four-wheeler could be let for slightly less at twelve shillings a day but the driver had to pay all expenses. At the time, cabmen driving licensed carriages had to pay five pound for the license plate and a shilling a day extra for the duty. 
Beatrix Potter commented in her journal in 1885, that if “cabmen were really paid at the rate of sixpence a mile, they must go forty-two miles before they begin to make any profit. They pay sixteen shillings per day to a cab-owner for a cab and two horses, and have incidental expenses as well.”
‘In a Cabmen’s Shelter’ from Living London (1901)
Cab-men could enjoy a cheap midday meal at one of the cab-men’s shelters. Between two and five in the afternoon, hundreds of cabbies drove to the big yards where they changed horses and had their cabs ‘spotted’ to remove splashes of mud. It was usually around 9.30pm before the first hansom to finish its twelve hour day arrived back at the yard.
Although they were speedy, London cabs were rather uncomfortable. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger wrote that the “many crevices…let in wind and dust; the seats feel as if they were stuffed with broken stones; the check-string is always broken; the door won’t shut; or if shut, it won’t open; …to discover the faults of a London cab is easy.”
It sounds as though a ride in a Hansom cab was bearable for a tourist, but not necessarily for everyday use!