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By Susan Major on

Early Victorian Railway Excursions: ‘The Million Go Forth’

Terrible conditions weren't enough to put off adventurous working class travellers on the early railways. What were those journeys like?

Conditions such as riding in an open wagon on a wet night for three or four hours are unimaginable today, but these failed to deter the working classes from seizing the new opportunity to travel cheaply for leisure on the new railway excursions over long distances for the first time and return home.

I was at the York Railway Station, on Tuesday afternoon, when an excursion train was about to start for Newcastle. The train consisted of four first-class, two second-class, and three third-class open carriages or tubs, which are only a fit conveyance for pigs and sheep. Several of the passengers had tickets for covered carriages, but were forced into the open tubs by the officials, and were thus obliged to travel eighty-five miles on a wet night, exposed to all the inclemency of the weather. (York Herald, 27 September 1856)

Tickets from our archives - examples of excursion tickets
From our archives – examples of excursion hand bills

My new book on railway excursions was published in November 2015 by Pen and Sword Books Ltd. Based on my doctoral research with the Institute of Railway Studies at the University of York/National Railway Museum, it explores the way that ordinary people in Britain started to take advantage of the new railway excursions in the middle of the 19th century.

Using contemporary newspaper evidence from the British Library and excursion handbills from the National Railway Museum, the book looks at how these excursions were shaped and the experiences of working class travellers during this period, demolishing a number of clichés and myths endlessly reproduced in traditional railway histories. It highlights for example the very minor role played by Thomas Cook in mass mobility at the time, when compared to other agents (such as Henry Marcus), companies and organising groups. Two men, Charles Melly from Liverpool and a clergyman, Joseph Brown from London, also played an intriguing part.

A depiction of an excursion train (SSPL images)
A depiction of an excursion train – ‘The River Wall at Wylam Scars, Newcastle & Carlisle Railway, 1836’ by H Griffiths (SSPL image 10301481)

In the early days the sight of a ‘monster excursion’ train arriving was viewed as a huge spectacle. A press report on a Sheffield excursion to Leeds, in October 1840, described five engines and sixty-one carriages full of Sheffield mechanics, ‘the most extraordinary cargo that ever left the smoky region of Hallamshire’. It attracted a large audience with ‘exclamations of wonder and delight’ as it passed the assembled thousands’. The scene was remarkable, ‘on each side the line as far as Brightside, the fields were lined with spectators, who in spite of rain and mud, patiently awaited the magnificent sight’. This particular trip suffered a common failing, when the large number of passengers and carriages caused traction problems and the weary passengers didn’t return until one o’clock the following morning.

Surprisingly roof travel featured on some excursions, leading to awful accidents when heads collided with railway bridges. To add to the problems, excursionists complained bitterly that they were often treated like animals and there was a tendency for them to bleat or bellow when carried in open trucks, to demonstrate their feelings about these.

The book draws upon many intriguing reports in the press. At Whitsun in 1849, a young man on an excursion from Preston to Liverpool was reported to have equipped himself ‘from ‘top to toe’ with a splendid suit of clothes, which were stolen from him during the trip and as a result he travelled home (20-30 miles) ‘almost, if not entirely in a state of nudity’, arriving there around 3am.

An advertising campaign in 1855 caused a few unexpected problems. The Midland Railway complained to Sheffield Magistrates about tailor and clothier Moses and Son, which had branches in the North of England. Moses had distributed advertising material in the form of realistic looking Midland Railway excursion tickets, which some members of the public had successfully used for trips between Sheffield and Rotherham.

A promotional shot of me in the museum's Bodmin and Wadebridge open carriage
A promotional shot of me in the museum’s Bodmin and Wadebridge open carriage

With a foreword by Professor Colin Divall, the book is fully referenced and has an index and colour plates with maps and illustrations. I’ll be talking about it at an event at Clements Hall in York on Friday 5th February at 7.30pm – it would be great to see some blog readers there!

7 comments on “Early Victorian Railway Excursions: ‘The Million Go Forth’

  1. The book and research sound very interesting. Does it cover the role of the railway in carrying excursionists across the Channel to France?

    1. Hello Steve. Apologies but I only just spotted your comments. Yes the book does feature a few excursions across the Channel. As you know I’m primarily interested in travel by ordinary folk rather than the middle classes, and cross-channel trips were more expensive of course. Hope to see you on the 5th to talk further. Best wishes Susan.

  2. Thank you for the post on ‘Early Victorian Railway Excursions’ which I found most interesting to read.

    There are links to my own research on the role of the railway companies (primarily English, but also French) in the carriage of cross-Channel mail. As a postal historian, I illustrate this visually with examples of mail (from the 1840’s), plus postcards, publicity material and ephemera. My visits to the library and archive at the N.R.M. in York have been most helpful in filling gaps in my knowledge.

    I hope to be able to come to York for the meeting on 5th February.

  3. Dear Susan, Surely the image of the river wall at Wylam Scars is the one by John Wilson Carmichael. See my Institute of Railway Studies long essay which is in the NRM, and Tomlinson’s North Eastern Railway page 367. I’ve got your book to review for the GE Magazine, and have enjoyed reading it. Best wishes, Peter

    1. Hello again Peter. Yes you are quite right in that although the engraving was by HL Griffiths, it was taken from the Carmichael original. Glad you enjoyed the book! Best wishes Susan.

  4. Dear Susan,
    I came across your blog whilst looking to source a copy of your book. I wondered if you could tell me at all whether you discuss the practice of reading (books / newspapers) on trains or at railway stations?
    Many thanks,

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