Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A London Railway Station

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A LONDON RAILWAY STATION.

    IF some respectable mandarin of Pekin, Whang Whampoo Fong, who has spent forty years in learning to read his Confucius, and who takes forty hours, and a trifle over, to travel (when he does travel, which is not very often - not more than once in a year at the most,) a distance of a hundred miles - if he could be suddenly caught up out of that opium-smelling snuggery of his, lighted by a single paper lantern, and dropped down in a London railway station at ten at night, say, during the arrival of one of the long trains - I wonder where he would think he was got to. How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights - at the glittering roof with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden apparition of the monster engine, with its goggle eves of fire, would bewilder the brains of the Chinaman! How he would shrink from the approach of the sinuous leviathan with thirty or forty stomachs, all disgorging at once their quota of men, women and children, amidst the bawling of countless voices, the lumbering of luggage, the din of whips and wheels, and the hissing of that big tea-kettle with a fire in its belly, and its straight spout aloft in the air! Poor Whampoo Fong might think the whole affair a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium, and would certainly wish him self back again, away from the incomprehensible uproar, to the calm of the sober city of the celestial empire.
    Yes, disciple of Confucius, it was a dream once, and that not very long ago ; but it is now the realisation of a dream and, like a thousand other things of less importance, which [-94-] were all of them, at one period or other, dreams too, is as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea, a button, or a mandarin's tail.
    A London railway station presents an aspect which constantly varies. At one hour you shall find it a cool promenade, where the footfall of the porter or the policeman reverberates from the lofty walls and the glazed roof in a silence broken now and then by the thundering echoes of a heavy hammer-stroke, or the crash of a ponderously-loaded truck shunted suddenly into its place. The pleasant sunlight shimmers softly through the arching roof, and at the open end towards the country, you see the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective. As you stand gazing, a bell rings sonorously at your elbow, and, if your eyes are as sharp as those of the ringer, you will discern in the distance a dim speck, or a fitful wreath of silvery steam, which glows rapidly bigger and bigger as you look upon it, and soon, bursting upon the ear with its sharp iterations of the piston stroke, gives audible indication of its near approach. Another minute, and the huge iron fabric, with its brazen pyramid pauses majestically at your side - a hundred doors fly open, and a motley crowd of travellers, the majority of whom appear to be gentlemen in easy circumstances, unencumbered with luggage, alight on the broad flooring and in a very few minutes are scattering themselves towards the City by various routes. It is the morning train, which runs for the special convenience of commerce, and brings from their country residences to the mart of London, perhaps a hundred or more of her merchants, whose ducle domum may lie at the distance of twenty, forty, sixty, or more miles from their places of business on 'Change. It is but a ride of an hour or so in a first-class carriage, soft with elastic cushions, purchased with the price of an annual ticket, which costs less than the difference in housekeeping between a domestic [-95-] establishment in London and one in the country, or by the sea-side. So it happens, that with all her abnormal increase - and London increases at the rate of more than a thousand souls a month - a good portion of her inhabitants live out of town, and places are now rising into note, as the country residences of London merchants and tradesmen, which, before the invention of railways, were no less than a day's journey from the metropolis.
    In two minutes from the entry of the train not a single one of the passengers is to be seen. But now, on the other side of the platform another is preparing to go out - there is a series of indescribable snorting, grinding, and clanking sounds, mingled with loud bangs and explosive concussions, - carriages and trucks are punching one another in the ribs and while these are boisterously getting into line, the crowd are squeezing and jamming for precedence at the little trap-doors where the tickets are procured, and then they file off to the platform to secure places. "First-class to B---!" "Here you are, sir!" " Second-class to T---!" "That's your carriage - Where do you want to go, sir?" "To A----." "Into that carriage, and then you won't have to change, sir.'' Such questions and directions are sounding and resounding on all sides and now comes the news-boy, and mingles his shrill treble with the "manly voice" of the officiating police "Who's for the Times? - this morning's Times! - Want the Advertiser, sir? - Who s for the Illustrated News? supplement and all for sixpence! - Times here! Times! Times! Times! Pa-a-par! ainy of the morning papers!" The boy doesn't stop shouting while he serves a customer but bawls, and sells, and gives change, and bites the sixpences to taste if they are of the real mint flavour, "all under one" as he would say. But the train doesn't start yet, and the travellers know that well enough, and are in no hurry to take their seats after they have secured them by depositing their wrappers in a corner. [-96-] There stand a group of them at the book-stall, if it is allowable to call a shop with five thousand volumes, all new, a book-stall ; - they are picking out something to amuse them by the way. A hundred miles or two will keep them five or six hours in the carriage, and they must have something to pass away the time. When travellers were few it would have paid nobody to keep a book-shop to supply them with literature but since travellers have multiplied by thousands, owing to the conveniences which railways have afforded them, multitudes have taken to reading who never read before. The result of this is visible and prominent in every department of literature, but chiefly, we fear, in that of fiction and what is termed light reading. Looking at it in a commercial point of view, there can be but little doubt that the railroad has been the means of at least doubling the number of books printed and published ; not that by any means half the books sold are sold at railway stations, though there are few railway stations without their book-stall ; but the habit of reading in railways has created new classes of readers, and spread the taste for reading, and awakened so general a desire for the accumulation of books, that myriads of volumes are now sold elsewhere. which, but for railway reading, would not have been sold at all. Looking at this new fact in a moral light, its aspect is not so pleasant as it might he, inasmuch as no small amount of literary rubbish travels by the rail, and a considerable quantity besides which might be designated as something much worse. But we are mending in this respect of late ; works of the very best class are now to be found on the railway  stalls ; and there are hopes that the grand means of intercommunication one say become the channel also of an uncorrupted literature.
    But now jangles the bell for starting, and already the long train makes a few fitful and sluggish movements ; the laggards leap through the open doors, each of which the porter [-97-] shuts with a bang as they defile past him. Before the whole of the train has left the shelter of the roof, it has quickened almost to a running pace - the guard jumps into his seat - and whiz! it is off - diminishes gradually to a speck, and is seen no more.
    But yonder comes another in sight, and clang goes the bell again ; and now we see, as the train wheels round a swelling curve in the line, that it is one of unusual length, consisting of something like fifty carriages and drawn by two engines. It is the excursion train from a town nearly a hundred miles off, and it brings above a thousand holiday makers on a visit to London, and will take them all back again the day after to-morrow, or this day week, at the cost of five shillings a head for both journeys. They come on but slowly, for, owing to the momentum  of their mass, which is not much less than a quarter of a mile in length, the engineers are compelled to be cautious, and to shut off their steam at a long distance from the stopping-place. What a prodigious clamour they make, to be sure! Every carriage is choke-full of heads, and bundles or carpet-bags, which is all the luggage allowed. Now the doors are open, and the merry Babel breaks loose. Tom is bellowing for Jack, who is at the other end of the train and Betty is staring about for Mary, who ought to have come in the same carriage with her, but somehow strayed into another. Yonder is a red-faced mother, with four young lasses, palpable peas of the same pod, clutching on to her gown, while she looks about wildly for the fifth. There is a knot of hobbledehoys broke away from home for the first time, with money in their pockets, and all their own masters. Here comes Tim Goble the carrier, stooping as he walks, as though afraid of striking his head against the awning of his cart. "What, Tim," says a superannuated crone, "be you comed too?" "Ees a be,'' says Tim, "had'n a thort to zee yow tho', Missis Grimes.'' "O, t'missis gied I a ticket - her zed I zhoud [-98-] zee Lunnun avore I died, an' zo I be comed - but a han't zeed much on't benow!" Tim escorts the old dame off, letting the more active crowd bustle past him. On they go by hundreds, and in five minutes the population of the distant borough is swallowed up by omnivorous London, like the dripping contents of a summer cloud by the ocean.
    They are scarcely gone, when a luggage train is sighted, and soon heard thundering in the distance. If you look out a-head you will see a sort of pantomime performing by a couple of men with green and red flags, while another pulls away at an iron bar rising at an angle from the ground. The goods train as it advances turns its long trail off into a siding, and disappears beneath a huge barrack-like shed.
    Now the express train is getting ready to start a few carriages only of the first and second-class, and a proportionately smaller number of passengers, are in the habit of flying across the country at the rate of fifty miles an hour. There is a savour of the gentleman in the negligent garb as well as in the demeanour of the engineer, who pulls out a duplex watch to note the exact time, as he gives the necessary directions to the stoker. A party of ladies and gentlemen are shut into the first-class carriages - a few commercial travellers climb into the second - the inspector gives a shrill whistle, the doors are shut, and off glides the express, coughing slowly at first, but soon accelerating to the swiftness of an arrow - and vanishes out of sight.
    We need not stay to see more trains go out or come in ; it would only be a repetition of what we have already seen. Nor need we linger in the handsome refreshment room, where parties waiting may solace themselves with delicate viands - nor in the lost-property room, where those who have left their chattel behind them in the carriage may chance to recover it again on payment of a trifling fee - nor among the crowd of cabs and omnibuses in the yard, where some of the excursionists are scrambling for places almost [-99-] before they have made up their minds where to go. But before quitting the subject, we may as well contrast the railway station in London with a certain railway station on the skirts of an inland village where we have been in the habit of occasionally rusticating in the summer months.
    This country station is a small red brick house of four rooms with a little patch of garden-ground inclosed from the bank of the iron-way ; and its platform is formed of a few planks only, in front of the ticket-room, which serves for luggage and waiting-room as well. A single rail only runs past it, and the line is worked on what is called "the red-stick system" - that is, no engineer is allowed, under penalty of instant dismissal, to pass on to the single line unless he has possession of a certain baton painted a bright red and as there is but one of these batons in existence, collisions are thus rendered impossible. The whole staff at the station consists of one man, who prints the tickets takes and accounts for the money, distributes parcels and goods arriving, and, in short, does everything. " Sir," said he to us, one day, "it ain't a easy place altogether. You see, as the line crosses the turnpike-road on a level, I've got to get up in the night to let everybody through as comes a horse-back, or with gigs and carts and that. Last Saturday night I come down nine times in my night-dress to let the farmers through coming from ------ market ; they stays after the market is over, and drinks, and comes home late. Now, when you got to do that in the winter, you see, it's apt to give a feller the roomatiz, an' I gets it very bad sometimes."
    "Did you ever have any accident?" we asked.
    "Never, nothing fatal, sir. Once I lost my gate - that was a curious thing - that was."
    "I don't understand you."
    "You see, sir, I used to bar the railway, according to my instructions, after the last train went past - about half-past [-100-] one in the morning - leaving the road open for the farmers, who generally gets up betimes. Well, one morning when I come down at seven o'clock, I found the gate wasn't there - neither open nor shut, but clean gone - nothing but the post left. I couldn't make out what was gone wi'it - 'twas too big to steal, and too heavy. I couldn't make it out no-how. However, when the train came in from B----, I heered all about it - they'd got the gate there, miles off. It seems a train was sent express about something they never thought of letting me know anything of it - besides we had no telegraph there. On comes the express at fifty miles an hour - rips the gate off the hinges without the engineer knowing anything about it, and carries it away, hanging on to the buffers, to B----, where they first found out what was done. 'Twas lucky the engine wasn't throwed off the rails."
    "What wages do you get for your attendance, night and day?"
    Twelve shillings a week. Not much, you may think, sir, for a man with a wife and children to maintain; but then I live in a good house, rent-free, and there's a bit o' garden. I should like a little more, but there's a pretty many as would be glad to take what I got, if I were foolish enough to throw it up."
    So much by way of contrast.
    It is at a London station, perhaps, that we are likeliest to form an adequate idea of the marvellous amount of travelling which takes place in our day. The increased facilities of locomotion have already effected an immense change in all orders of society. No doubt the change is mainly for the better; but the same total of good originating from the use of the iron roach is not unaccompanied by corresponding evils. The wondrous despatch of which railway travelling is the great example, is recklessly imitated in all our concerns. The go-ahead principle has, in too many cases, [-101-] knocked down and pushed aside principles of more value. We are forgetting the old axiom, "Fair and softly goes far,'' in our anxiety to go fast ; and we pay the penalty by smashes and collisions, commercial and financial, which would have alarmed as much the moral sense of our forefathers, as the deplorable slaughters which have occasionally disgraced the management of railways, would have outraged their good old-fashioned estimation of the value of life and limb.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857