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By Jack Garside on

Let them eat cake! Crumb-trails of baking through railway history

Promotional cupcakes prompt an exploration of how railway companies have catered to changing tastes.

To celebrate the start of the TransPennine Express franchise on 1 April, passengers were given cupcakes sporting the new livery. This led us to think of some of the different ways railways have used cake to promote their services and provide a mouth-watering catering experience for their passengers.

Transpennine Express franchise cupcake
Transpennine Express franchise cupcake

Use of cake to advertise railways is not a new one. Part of our collection includes many of the British Rail posters used throughout its existence. One of these shows how the savings from an Awayday return could be used to buy afternoon tea in Tunbridge Wells:

Poster from April 1976 | NRM ref: 2003-7595

British Railways also produced a special poster commemorating 100 years of railway catering with a special tiered cake, the different layers representing different stages of railway history.

British Railways Poster to mark 100 Years of Refreshment - It's our Train Catering Centenary This Year! 1979
British Railways Poster to mark 100 Years of Refreshment – It’s our Train Catering Centenary This Year! 1979 NRM ref: 1979-7863

This wasn’t the only way that cakes were used to commemorate railway history. From the 1 millionth ton of liquid gas carried by rail, which necessitated a celebratory cake stand, to the 40th anniversary of the National Railway Museum which saw the creation of a cake rendition of a Virgin Trains HST.

Cake stand by British Oxygen Company Limited Gases Division July 1976 NRM ref: 2001-8633

With all this advertising it was easy to lose track of the fact that cake was a staple of many rail buffets and restaurant cars. This isn’t confined to the British Rail days of Afternoon and High Tea but also included the modern expresses on the East Coast Mainline:

British Railway menus NRM ref: 1998-11200
NRM ref 2010-7174

Not only was cake carried in the buffet cars but it was also transported as freight. This table of charges from the 1930s shows that not only was this a regular occurrence but that it was quite possible to take 224 lbs 300 miles by train for only 9/4.

Railway Clearing House poster March 1934 NRM ref: 1994-8292

The earliest and possibly most unusual railway connection to cake can be found in George Stephenson’s family household book held in our archive collections. More renowned for cooking up designs for early locomotives and civil engineering projects, Stephenson was presumably also an avid gourmet and enjoyed his cakes. Three different types feature, sponge, gingerbread and Cumberland cakes.

Stephenson’s cookbook NRM ref: E2012-160/1

This is just a small selection of the food and drink related item we have in our collection.  You can explore a culinary railway world of diverse items from the early days of catering to the present day exhibition Moveable Feastlocated on the Great Hall balcony.

This post was written jointly by Jack and Tania and our archive volunteers.


One comment on “Let them eat cake! Crumb-trails of baking through railway history

  1. Just watched on talking pictures TV a film made in 1979 to commerate York to London catering 100 years. I travelled regularly on that route in 1963 and 1964, and had the best ” full breakfast”, ever. One evening travelling back to London, with all diners being men in black city suits, I chose the rice pudding, and most of these gentleman chose it too after seeing my plate

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