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Friday, 23 September 2011

“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.” Or: Railway Refreshment Rooms – a Guest post by David Turner.

I know virtually nothing about trains. I know that in the middle of the nineteenth century train lines began to spring up all over Britain, feeding industry and all but making redundant our waterways as highways for business, trade and shipping. I know some things about the early days of the London Underground, but my strongest points on railway history is probably London’s Victorian termini – but that has more to do with the buildings than the railway industry.

Vast subjects such as the railways always seem to evade my grasp. The facts of the matters are like bars of wet soap; I have them one moment, and just when I think the fact is remembered and committed to memory, its gone.

This alone is enough to make me bow in admiration to today’s guest blogger, David Turner, of who commands a grasp of all aspects of the world of the Victorian Railway which leaves me slightly awestruck.
David is certainly my kind of fellow, he is passionate about his subject, and as I have alluded, very knowledgeable, and so, with my blog lacking any information on the Victorian Railway’s, and with said railways being often synonymous with the greatness of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, as she pushed ever forward, there was only one place I wished to turn.

As a whole subject, the Victorian Railways would fill an entire website – if you wish to read about every aspect of them, I urge you to visit David’s blog – so something very specific was in order. Something that you don’t often think about when you cast your mind to railway history, over to David…

‘…our railway managers, having observed that nature thus abhors a vacuum, and that the doctrine of the plenum is, in England, generally accepted, have taken care to promote the good temper of their travellers by the establishment of those most characteristic railway institutions "refreshment rooms."’[1]

By the late-1840s the refreshment room was a regular feature of railway travel in Britain. However, the date of the first railway refreshment room is unknown. The candidates are either the Grand Junction Railway’s temporary terminus at Vauxhall in Birmingham in 1837, or the London and Birmingham Railway’s stations at the Rugby and Birmingham Curzon Street Stations in 1838.[2] After this, refreshment rooms appeared at most of the medium and large railway stations in the country, serving the thirsty and hungry passengers. Yet, these were highly complained about facilities.

Before the introduction of the buffet car refreshment rooms served a number of purposes. As the plethora of food stands at stations do today, early refreshment rooms provided passengers starting journeys or changing trains with food and drink. However, they also served the needs long-distance passengers, and many trains stopped at stations for this purpose. Thus, London and Birmingham Railway trains stopped for ten minutes at Wolverton.[3]  On the East Coast route the trains stopped at York.[4]

Given the short time available, many complaints were about the rush that ensued when a full train of passengers disembarked. Sir Frances Head described the scene at Wolverton; ‘the confused crowd of passengers simultaneously liberated from the train hurry towards [the servers]...with a velocity exactly proportionate to their appetite. Considering that the row of young persons have among them all only seven hands, it is really astonishing how, in the space of a few minutes manage to extend and withdraw them so often.’[5] Yet, this rush was seemingly nothing compared to one encountered at Ipswich station in 1867. On the 27th September and excursion train stopped at the station on its way to the Yarmouth races. Six-hundred individuals, described of as being of ‘the lowest class and betting men,’ immediately poured into the refreshment room. The counter, which was described of as being relatively bare, was quickly cleared of a cheese weighing 6lbs and some buns and biscuits. It was reported that ‘no coin was paid by these hungry pleasure seekers and an attempt was made by some to get over the counter.’ On the return journey, the train did not stop at Ipswich.[6] Lastly, at Normanton on the Midland Railway, passengers could, for the price of 2s 6d, enjoy a six course meal, provided they consumed it in 20 minutes.[7]

But as with all aspects of railway food, the quality was a prime issue. Dickens wrote in Mugby Junction in 1867 that ‘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.’[8] Anthony Trollope in 1869 also condemned the railway sandwich: ‘we are often told in our newspapers that England is disgraced by this and by that…but the real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich – that withered sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor and spiritless within.’[9] In cases where companies’ refreshment rooms were contracted out, abuse of the agreements was a serious issue. On the Great Western Railway at Swindon, S.Y Griffiths was the first holder of the refreshment room lease from 1844. Brunel commented in response to a letter complaining about the station’s coffee that, ‘I do not think you anything such as coffee in the place; I am certain I have never taste any.’[10]

Service quality was also an issue, and Dickens wrote of the service he had received at Peterborough in 1856: ‘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.’[11] This attitude was later satirised in Mugby Junction, where Dickens wrote of the service there which featured ‘the icy stare from the counter, the insolent ignoring of every customer's existence, which drives the hungry frantic all these are doomed.’[12] Of course, not all comments on the quality of service were as bad. Sir Francis Head painted an idyllic view of the Swindon refreshment room where the ‘youthful handmaidens’ worked efficiently and with a smile on their faces.[13]

However, overall, this example was a rare case of a refreshment room being commended, and, as has been shown, the majority comments in the press and literature were negative. Yet, it has to be remembered that people invariably do not remember their positive experiences as vividly, and this may have tainted the published view of the refreshment room. Furthermore, it should be noted that all the criticisms levelled at refreshment rooms quoted here occurred in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Thus, this would suggest an improvement in their quality in the later railway industry and suggests an increasing professionalism in the services that the companies’ provided. If confirmed, it would mean that the literature and comment of one period of history conspired to give all railway refreshment rooms of the Victorian period a bad name. This, would only be reversed by more detailed study.


[1] Williams, Frederick Smeeton, Our iron roads: their history, construction and administration, (London, 1888), p.264
[2] Biddle, George, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.417
[3] Biddle, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ p.417
[4] Richards, Jeffrey and MacKenzie, John M., The Railway Station: A Social History, (Oxford, 1988), p.291
[5] Head, Sir Francis, Stokers and Pokers, (1849 reprint, Newton Abbot, 1968) p86-87
[6] The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Herald, Tuesday, September 03, 1867; pg. 6; Issue 4445
[7] Biddle, ‘Refreshment Rooms,’ p.417
[8] All Year Round, December 1867, p.60
[9] Trollope, Anthony, He Knew He Was Right, (London, 1869), p.351
[10] Richards and MacKenzie, The Railway Station, p.292
[11] Simmons, Jack, The Victorian Railway, (London, 1991) p.354
[12] Dickens, Charles, Mugby Junction, (London, 1867) p.60
[13] Head, Stokers and Pokers, p86-87

Many thanks to David for this, and to Doug and Jayne too for contributing work to help me celebrate the first birthday of this blog, their kindness and willingness to donate their time and effort is much appreciated.

On the subject of guest blogging, having been kindly invited to contribute an article to the super and successful blog, The Virtual Victorian I am proud to say that my guest post, "Found Drowned: On Suicides of Prostitutes in the Thames" can now be seen there. 

A full and hearty thanks once again to Doug, Jayne and David who contributed excellent articles to 'The Victorianist' and to the Virtual Victorian.


  1. David

    thank you for the George Biddle ‘Refreshment Rooms' reference - I will chase it up during the holidays.

    Now of course I recognise that people recall their bad experiences and forget to write down their good experiences. But the criticisms levelled at refreshment rooms were not just from 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. There was something about large crowds, little available time, mass production of food and food standing around for hours that made railway food problematic, always.

    That being said, most people were delighted that railway food was available _at all_. The idea of packing sandwiches, pies, cakes and a thermos flask for the entire family, every time they travelled long distances, would have been horrible.

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