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A Fine Time Was Had by All

Some railway celebrations over the years

A “Fat Ox” sacrificed for the opening of a railway! Even the “deserving poor” (if they lived near enough) benefited from the opening. Image from Mike Peart’s collection.

Openings of new railways were usually accompanied by celebrations. Bands, bunting, flags, flowers, foliage and fireworks were often involved. So too were celebratory meals – usually with the directors and shareholders in one place, and the workers in another.

The Abingdon branch was first proposed in 1837 to reach what was then Berkshire’s county town. A broad gauge railway run by the Abingdon Railway Company, but operated by the Great Western Railway (GWR), opened in part as far as Radley in 1844. However, due to the objections of the local MP, Mr Duffield, the railway didn’t reach Abingdon for passenger use until 2nd June 1856. The line had been tested in May 1856 with a special train for directors and shareholders, after which a champagne dinner for 90 gentlemen was held with food provided by “The New Inn”. On the same day, the workers and navvies were given a meal at the "Rising Sun" pub. The opening to passengers coincided with the end of the Crimean War, and Abingdon marked both occasions with an open-air feast in the Market Place.

The single track 13-mile “Kington Branch” between Leominster and Kington opened in July 1857 to carry people, lime, iron, timber and wool. The first sod was ceremonially turned by Lady Bateman in November 1854 using a silver spade costing £12 (£1,000 now) and an ornamental wheelbarrow. On the opening day, 300 people used the first two trains to attend a lavish lunch at 2 o’clock at Kington. The menu included beef, veal, lamb, chicken, ham, tongue, turkey and lobster, followed by cakes and fruit. This feasting took place before guests returned to Leominster for another dinner and reception three hours later at 5 o’clock, hosted by the company’s chairman, Lord Bateman.

The branch line between Maiden Newton and Bridport opened on 12th November 1857 as the Bridport Railway. It was broad gauge track laid with bridge rail on longitudinal iron sleepers. The first train arrived at 9 a.m. on the opening day with the locomotive bearing a flag “at each corner”. On the following Tuesday there was a celebration luncheon for 140 guests at the Bull Hotel. The navvies who had built the nine-mile line were given “beef and strong beer” elsewhere.

Down in Devon, an opening was celebrated with pudding on a massive scale. When the South Devon Railway reached Paignton on 2nd August 1859, the event was celebrated with the baking of a pudding. Traditionally, earlier important events in Paignton had also been celebrated with large puddings. The pudding for the opening of the railway was made in eight parts and when put together weighed a ton and a half. Here’s the recipe! The ingredients were 573 pounds of flour, 382 pounds of raisins, 191 pounds of currants, 191 pounds of bread, 382 pounds of suet, 360 quarts of milk, 320 lemons, 95 pounds of sugar, 144 nutmegs and a large quantity of eggs. No guidance was given on cooking time or temperatures! In all, these ingredients were said to cost almost £50. Eight horses were used to haul the pudding to the town green where a celebration dinner was held.

The first sod for the Oxford to Fairford branch line was cut at Eynsham in May 1860. The line was opened for the first eight miles by the Witney Railway Company as far as Witney for passengers on 13th November 1861. At first, trains were run by the West Midland Railway (a company later amalgamated with the GWR in 1863). Witney had a public holiday that day, bells were rung and a military band played. Local children were taken to the station to be given buns and oranges to eat. Witney’s adults were treated to a sheep roast in the Market Place. Meanwhile, elsewhere the new railway’s directors dined with the local gentry.

The replica broad gauge locomotive “Fire Fly” running on broad gauge track at Didcot Railway Centre. Photo: Frank Dumbleton.

The town of Chard was for years without a railway and was served only by an offshoot of the Bridgwater & Taunton canal completed in 1842. A public meeting in 1856 pressed for a railway connection to Taunton. Fifteen miles of line was authorised in 1860, and work started by the Chard & Taunton Railway before the company ran into financial problems. Construction was taken over by the Bristol & Exeter Railway and completed in 1863 to Chard Joint station which later became Chard Central. Opening took place on 8th May 1863 with the Mayor and Town Council travelling on the 11.30 a.m. train hauled by the locomotive “Fire Fly”. The navvies who had done the work were given “hot beef and potatoes” at the Red Lion Inn. Meanwhile, the Mayor, Town Council and local dignitaries were served luncheon in a marquee erected for the occasion.

Then in October 1863 the first sod was cut for the proposed Bristol & North Somerset Railway (BNSR) line for the northern section between Bristol and Radstock. Radstock at the time was an important and growing part of the Somerset coalfield. The cutting of the first sod was marked by speeches, band music, the singing of a psalm and prayers. After the formal event, 3,000 local miners were each treated to “a pound of bread, a pound of beef and a quart of beer”. This was served in large tents and, presumably, directors and others dined elsewhere.

The line from Highworth Junction, Swindon to Highworth finally opened on 9th May 1883. At Highworth, schoolchildren with flags and banners lined the track and most of the shops in the town closed for the day. A fair and amusements including coconut shies were provided in the town. Later in the day, a 15-coach special train was run from Highworth to Swindon and back for the local schoolchildren. A tea was provided for 85 “aged poor”. The celebrations continued into the evening with a dinner and fireworks. The main feature of the fireworks was a set-piece display spelling out the words “PROSPERITY TO THE HIGHWORTH AND SWINDON RAILWAY”.

Into the 20th century and once the railways were built, catering on the trains themselves got better as time went on. In summer 1921, the GWR’s four-shilling (20p) luncheon menu on the Company’s restaurant cars consisted of Leek & Potato Soup; Salmon Mayonnaise; a choice of Roast Beef, Ragout of Lamb or Cold Ox Tongue with a vegetable and potatoes; Compote of Fruit or Milk Pudding, or Cheese and Salad with Huntley & Palmers biscuits. In its 1930s heyday, the “Flying Scotsman” was offering a varied menu and over 30 types of cocktails. And for Christmas 1938, the GWR proudly announced that its restaurant cars had been “gaily decorated” and that Christmas fare would be on all the menus. The restaurant cars would carry 45,000 bottles of wines, 4,200 lbs. of turkeys and 4,500 Christmas puddings and mince pies.

Mike Peart

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