Wednesday, 21 June 2017

"swifter than a bird flies," travelling by train in 1830


I am back at Castlefield and getting a sense of what it might have been like to travel in the first ever passenger railway from Manchester to Liverpool.

Now there are plenty of accounts of the thrill and novelty of taking to the rails and that by Fanny Kemble well conveys the magic,

“..swifter than a bird flies … you cannot conceive what the sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible …when I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful and strange beyond description…”

So instead I want to start at the beginning of a journey which is the bit often missed out.  It was a world of hand written railway tickets, of luggage that to was stored on the roof of the railway carriage and where the wealthy had their own trains.

And it began with buying the ticket.  The company opened an office in the heart of the city on the corner of New Cannon Street and Market Street where passengers could be booked and where first class passengers would then be taken by coach for free to the station on Liverpool Road, second class passengers having to make their own way.

It was just one of the many distinctions that reflected the great social divide and it extended to the fact that there were separate trains for the two classes which departed at different times.

On arrival at the station first class passengers entered a much larger booking hall and sat in an equally grand waiting room.  By comparison the booking hall and waiting room given over for second class passengers was smaller and appears to have had just one fireplace compared to the two which warmed their wealthier travellers.

But the divisions extended beyond just a first and second class service, because within each there were further distinctions.

“The first class carriages contained three compartments, the middle one resembling the body of a stage coach, something like a capital U, whilst before and behind were smaller ones, resembling a post chaise.  The carriages containing outside passengers were oblong boxes, painted blue, without seats and without roof.  In a little while seats were provided, and after that a roof was supplied supported by iron rods.”*

All of which was reflected in the cost. For 7s you got to sit in a first class carriage holding four passengers and for a shilling less you shared with five others.  Second class cost 5s for “glass coaches and in open carriages, 3s.6d.”  

Now it is perhaps worth noting that an agricultural worker might earn between 11s and 20s for a weeks’ work while a builder’s labourer was paid about 18s and a police constable 20s, so travelling on our brand new railway was not cheap.

And in many ways it was not so different from the old stage coach which given that the company copied much of that older form of transport shouldn’t be surprise us.  So at the station there were no platforms and passengers climbed into the train just as you would a stage coach, and departure was signalled by the guard blowing a horn.

But the train was not a stage coach and it was fraught with many more dangers.  The death of the MP William Huskinson on the opening day was a timely reminder that far more care needed to be taken.  He had been run down by an oncoming train and this very much underlined the need for a timetable and an accurate and universally agreed time which would be the same in Manchester as it was in Liverpool.  No one wanted to see two trains on the same track colliding with each other because one had got the time wrong.

So by 1840 we had “railway time” which was the quaint name given to the practice of standardising time along a railway route.

It was first adopted by the Great Western Railway in 1840, just a decade after the first trains left Liverpool for Manchester.  Within three years all the railway companies had adopted it and across stations everywhere local time gave way to the same time based on “London Time” which in turn was set at Greenwich by the Royal Observatory.

It was as Ruskin reflected “your railway, when you come to understand it is only a device for making the world smaller.”
And this attention to detail extended to refusing to wait for passengers who having booked a seat were late to arrive at the station.  As the Company noted “in order to insure punctuality in the time of starting, which has frequently been prevented by persons claiming to be booked after the appointed time, no passenger, unless previously booked will be admitted within the outer door of the station after the clock has struck the hour of departure.”

But we were still in a world of transition and so “passengers too late to take their seats or otherwise prevented going may receive back half the fare paid, if claimed not later than the day after that which the places were booked.”

And tickets were still had written, with the clerk “holding books made of yellow paper containing foil and counterfoil, on each of which your name was written, with one part was torn out and given to you”

Now I know I would never have been one of those passengers but just maybe I might have been a guard or fireman and perhaps here there are more stories after all.  In the meantime a little of what it might have been like can be gleamed from the permanent exhibitions at the station which is now the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology, where they have reconstructed the first class booking hall, all a little different from John Lloyd’s picture of the same place during the 1950s when it belonged to British Railways.

Pictures; Replica of Planet under full steam, the station front on Liverpool Road, and Planet and a blue box from the collection of Andrew Simpson and the interior of the First class booking hall from the Lloyd collection

* Slugg, T.J., Reminiscences of Manchester, 1881

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