– Stories From The Victorian Station Waiting Room
The waiting room was an early feature of British railway stations. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830 and was the world’s first inter-city railway, built waiting rooms at its two termini. Nevertheless, at the stopping places in between they were not present and other early railways also placed little importance on providing waiting room accommodation. Francis Wishaw, who surveyed all the railways in Britain being planned or under construction in 1842, rarely mentioned them.
However, as the time passed they were gradually introduced. Indeed, larger stations started being equipped with separate waiting rooms for men and women and the different classes of passenger. Liverpool Lime Street Station in 1836 had five waiting rooms for first and second class men and women, and one simply designated a ‘ladies’ waiting room.’ Five was also the number at Edinburgh Princes Street in 1896, where the fifth room was simply a ‘general waiting room.’ Most small stations could not be said to have such commodious facilities, most only possessing ‘first class ladies’ and ‘general’ waiting rooms. Inside them there was usually a fire and seating, which if you were lucky was upholstered. Indeed, waiting rooms were variable in quality and a common cause of complaint.
In 1867 a passenger travelling from the London and North Western Railway’s (L&NWR) Huyton Quarry Station stated that the waiting room was unpainted, a ‘fusty’ odour hung in the air and in the winter months the room’s ‘occupants are ingeniously roasted by the fire on one side and exposed on the other to cold blasts.’ Nevertheless, the facilities for passengers in country stations were usually better in quality, tended to as they were by dedicated staff.
While the history of waiting rooms’ themselves in the Victorian period is essentially uninteresting, they were places where people met and from which stories emerged. Therefore, a bit of a dig in nineteenth century newspapers has revealed some interesting stories.
Clearly, exploding waiting rooms were a problem given the gas lighting. On the morning of Monday 14 October 1869 at Newton Abbot Station a gas leak occurred in the waiting room. On discovering the leak a Mr Hemmett, the station’s inspector, went looking for it and did this by ill-advisedly lighting a lamp. Unsurprisingly, the gas that had collected in the ceiling exploded, causing Hemmett some injury.
A similar event occurred at 5 O’clock on Sunday 2 November 1873 at Kew Gardens Station. On the up side of the station the porter had lit the lamps in the station’s two waiting rooms. Evidently this was done poorly and gas started to accumulate in both. Thus, when another porter began lighting the external lamps this caused an explosion which blew out the rooms’ windows and doors and destroyed the ceilings. A booking clerk and several passengers narrowly escaped injury or death, with the damage coming to around £200.
While possible death by explosion was clearly a risk, the waiting room could also be the site of crimes. On the 23 January 1871 at Shanklin Station on the Isle of Wight, Charles Colenutt was found sleeping in a chair. The station master, James V. Sully, led him out with the assistance of a porter. Yet, Colenutt returned ‘two or three times,’ and on the last struck Sully’s hat with his fist ‘rendering it unfit for further wear.’ At the Hampshire Petty Sessions on the 5 February, Colenutt was fined thirty shillings for the assault, fifteen shillings costs and ten shillings damages. Clearly, for Colenutt the waiting room was a warm place to sleep the day away.
However, sleeping in a waiting room was not a cause of crime in the case of Alexander Thompson who ‘dropped off’ in the Chesterfield station waiting room on 1 August 1896. On that day, while Thompson was asleep there, Linther and Walter Hall entered the waiting room and stole his pocket watch which was worth £15. On rising from his slumber, the victim became aware that his watch chain was hanging down with nothing on its end. A search was conducted and the watch was found nearby. The blame was quickly placed on the Halls, who were arrested shortly after. At the trial, Walter blamed Linther, saying that the former had told him of the crime while in the “House of Correction.” Yet, Linther argued that Walter was trying to save himself, then launched into ‘a torrent of invectives’ against his brother and lastly claimed that Walter had asked for a pardon from the prison Chaplin. Both were found guilty and they imprisoned for four months with hard labour.
With so many people coming and going from waiting rooms, it is unsurprising that incivility also occurred. One passenger in September 1865 complained bitterly about the ‘female official in charge’ of the Ladies Waiting Room at Newcastle Central Station. She described how a lady ‘who held a first class ticket’ for a journey north arrived at the station early and proceeded to the waiting room where she placed her basket on the long side table. The attendant quickly pronounced that “the company don’t like such things placed there.” Having used the table for its purpose, the passenger ignored the comment. Yet, she quickly received another shortly after; “You must take it off the table the company don’t like things there.” The passenger, somewhat confused, asked what the purpose of the table was if it was not for putting things on. The attendant carried on with her work while mumbling and the traveller put the basket on her knees to end the ‘annoying conduct’. The same attendant also accosted two women who entered the waiting room when their train was late. Once they had passed through the doors, she placed herself in front of them stating that “This room is for no one but those going by train.” On the women informing her that their train was late, the attendant’s response was that “People should enquire whether trains were late before coming – the company did not like persons sitting there.” The attendant then proceeded to pace about, muttering. Lastly, another passenger went into the waiting room’s inner room for a little water. The attendant followed her and rudely stated that those who wished to have a drink usually went to the refreshment room.
However, waiting rooms were not just used for waiting for trains. In the Gateshead Station Waiting Room on the 2 October 1887 the local Railway Servants Temperance Union held a meeting at which Mrs J.J. Gurney gave an address. In 1878 at the Kew Gardens Station waiting room, which I presume had been repaired by then, the life of a sick animal was ended. On the 7 October a ‘large black retriever dog in a state madness took possession of the ladies waiting room.’ The station master contacted the Metropolitan Police and very soon police constable No.302, John Smith, arrived with a gun. Nothing more could be done than to shoot the poor animal. Furthermore, like today, passengers also left things in waiting rooms. In May 1869 a resident of Richmond (Surrey) offered a reward of five shillings for a ‘large bundle of Pamphlets, Plays, etc with paper which was ‘stamped with a coronet’, which had been left in the station waiting room.
I have only mentioned a few events, amongst millions, that occurred in Victorian station waiting rooms. Indeed, what are missing are descriptions of the more mundane meetings between Victorians as they went about their daily lives…..