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Queen Victoria's early rail journeys to Balmoral

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and children board the Royal Train at Maiden Lane in 1851.

Prince Albert had bought the Balmoral estate unseen in 1848. That year, Queen Victoria and Albert travelled by a circuitous rail route via Birmingham, Crewe, Carlisle and Carstairs to see their new property. The Royal party were due to return to London by boat but there was bad weather in the North Sea and they could not sail. Instead, the Royal party drove from Balmoral to Montrose (which was as far north as the railway had got at the time) and travelled in a first-class coach belonging to the Aberdeen Railway Company all the way to London. There were two overnight stays during the journey, at Perth and Crewe.

Horses and carts and more modern vehicles come and go from Aberdeen's Joint Station in the late 1800s. Aberdeen Railway Station. Photo: The Press and Journal.

The new railway line that we now know as the East Coast Main Line was almost completely opened by 1851 when Queen Victoria and family were due to spend the night in Doncaster when en route for Balmoral. The Queen’s 1851 visit was made with the Royal train composed of a new engine and eight coaches starting from Maiden Lane, London, the predecessor to King’s Cross station. “We had a most beautiful and comfortable saloon” wrote the Queen in her diary “and the whole line is a particularly easy one!” Her carriage was built of oak and mahogany, lined inside with Indian silk with walnut furniture upholstered in silk. The outside of the carriage was lined with a gold border with a gilt crown and coat of arms over each doorway and painted onto all the doors. There were green silk curtains at the windows. The day before, the train was taken for a trial run to Peterborough and back driven by Archibald Sturrock, Superintendent of the Great Northern Railway Locomotive Department. The return trial journey speed was made at an average of 45¾ mph, very good for the time and in excess of what the Royal passengers wanted.

On the day itself, the Royal party travelled from the Isle of Wight, took lunch at Buckingham Palace before boarding the new train at Maiden Lane. It then ran with brief stops at St Neots, Peterborough, Boston, Spalding and Lincoln where loyal addresses from the corporations were read by local dignitaries at each station. The city of Lincoln had been decorated as if for a royal visit, but Queen Victoria did not alight from her train and the people of the city were extremely disappointed. At the Queen’s first trip by railway in 1842, the eccentric Tory MP for Lincoln, Colonel Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp, asked a question in Parliament about the “grave exposure to risk of the Royal person” when she travelled by train. As far back as 1832, Sibthorp had described railways as “a fanciful invention which may be here today and gone tomorrow”. It was strongly suspected that the Queen had recalled Sibthorp’s opposition to her travelling by train, along with his opposition to Prince Albert’s pet project of the 1851 Great Exhibition which had opened in May, and his vote in Parliament to reduce Prince Albert’s annuity – reasons enough!

Victorian Railways. Photo: The National Archives.

Doncaster was reached at 6.30 p.m. and the Royal train was met by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Harewood along with local officials. Over 4,000 spectators were grouped in the station yard where they could see the Royal procession pass through two triumphal arches into the town. The Royal party drove through cheering crowds to the Angel Inn which had been fenced off and was ringed for the evening and night by over 100 infantry soldiers. The Queen found the hotel “quiet and clean” and, accompanied by the 25th Regiment band playing outside, had her dinner at 8 p.m. before retiring to bed. Meanwhile, the dignitaries and menfolk had a celebration dinner at the Mansion House before a grand display of fireworks which turned out to be something of a washout because of the weather.

The following day, the Queen wrote in her diary, “We rose at 7.30 after a fair night’s rest on a hard bed!” She was back at Doncaster station before 9 a.m. and the Royal train set off for Edinburgh. The offer of lunch at the York Mansion House had been declined as the Queen wanted to reach Holyrood and take a carriage drive around Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat with her children before the evening. Queen Victoria noted in her diary that she had “passed not far from Leeds” and that she had “a fine view of Durham and its cathedral”. She thought that the views of the blue sea from the train between Newcastle and Berwick were beautiful (they still are). After the night at Holyrood, the following day the Royal train was taken to Aberdeen which at the time was the nearest railhead to Balmoral. By 1853, trains from Aberdeen were running the 17 miles as far as Banchory, nearer to Balmoral. However, the further 26 miles of the line to Ballater – the nearest point to Balmoral - wasn’t opened until 1866, and was much used by Royal trains thereafter until closure in 1966.

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman and co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994, and was a founder member of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.

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