Britain’s First Restaurant Car

The age of the restaurant car has now passed on Britain’s railways. While full meals can still be eaten on the east and west coast routes, presumably with the help of a microwave or re-heating, no cooking is done from scratch anymore. The last train to provide such a service was the 19.33 from King’s Cross on 20 May this year. Passengers were served a meal of ‘Smoked Haddock Arnold, Bennett crepe’, rib-eye steak, leg of lamb or fillets of trout, followed by blue cheese, apple and walnut strudel or ginger and rhubarb pavlova. Consequently, this train ended a 130 year tradition in British rail travel. Yet, it is interesting to note that the first and last restaurant services in Britain started at the same place, London’s King’s Cross Station.

The restaurant car first appeared in Britain on the 1 November 1879 on Great Northern Railway’s (GNR) route between King’s Cross and Leeds. Railways in the United States had had restaurant cars since 1869 and because of this the GNR’s were built by the Pullman Company, based in Detroit. The Ludgate in 1897 described this advancement as one of the ‘greatest comforts for travellers that had been thought of since the Rocket made its trial trip from Manchester to Liverpool.

The first journey of the new restaurant car was actually a trial run on Monday 27 October 1879. The York Herald and The Graphic both described the layout of the carriages. Firstly the two carriages that made up the service had platforms at each end which were linked together, rather precariously, by a wooden bridge. The cook’s galley was at one end of the carriage where a dedicated chef prepared ‘all sorts of good things for the delectation of hungry travellers. Passing through a short corridor, a door opened into the pantry in which cupboards were neatly arranged to hold ‘stores, plates, glasses, decanters etc. There was also a sliding hatch, so that meals could be passed from the kitchen to the pantry for arrangement on plates.
The other carriage contained the restaurant area which had six ‘snug little tables, each adapted to accommodate two guests.’ The seats were stuffed and covered in velvet and were mounted on a conical pivot for steadiness. Indeed, the whole train was praised for its smoothness, The Graphic stating that ‘the oscillation of the carriage was scarcely noticeable. Beyond the restaurant area through a corridor was a ladies’ dressing room, a smoking room with nine seats and a male lavatory. A swing door prevented any smoke from the smoking room entering the dining area. There was also hot water heating and electric bells next to each table to alert the steward when a passenger required something.

The menu on that first train consisted of six courses and nineteen passengers could be accommodated by the carriage at any one time. The staff and waiters were provided by the company’s ‘Great Northern Railway Hotel’ at Leeds, and consisted of a cook, a steward who doubled as a waiter, and a boy to serve in the smoking room. Given the opulence of the service it is unsurprising that its guests were first class passengers. However, unlike in later decades, when passengers moved to the restaurant car from their seats through inter-connecting corridors between the carriages, in 1879 they stayed in the carriage for their entire journey.

In the press the restaurant cars’ arrival received much coverage and they were fitted into prevailing narratives surrounding the quality of British railway food. Invoked in good measure was the refreshment room described in Dickens’ 1866 story Mugby Junction, where the food was poor and the service rude.
The Standard stated that while not every station refreshment room was as bad as this fictional example, ‘we are still far behind all civilised countries’ in the matter of railway catering. Indeed, Punch published a poem that included the lines ‘no more Mugby Junction Bar; no more tough ham and chicken; Nor passenger pickin’; For the minxes behind the bar. The Graphic echoed these thoughts, stating that ‘most travellers have had sad experience of the station refreshment bar…to obtain possession of a basin of scolding-hot soup or cup of coffee.’ Yet ‘this condition of things is no longer to prevail on the Great Northern Railway.
Ultimately, the introduction of restaurant cars did nothing to change the standard of British railway food. While the GNR was pioneered their use, and the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway purchased some in 1881, it was not until the late 1890s when companies’ were competing ruthlessly for traffic that they became more widespread. By 1897 the GNR, London and North Western, Midland and Great Western Railways had them.
The reasons for their slow introduction were two-fold. The York Herald in 1879 stated that they cost £3000 to buy (and presumably they were expensive to build later), and for many companies at the time the expense was seen as unnecessary. Furthermore, they were also incredibly heavy and this made them uneconomical to run in the 1870s. Thus, it wasn’t until the 1890s, when companies introduced them as a unique selling point and more powerful locomotives were available, that they became a common feature of long-distance rail services in Britain.