[From H Stowell Brown, Notes of my Life, 1888]



IN the summer of 1840, when I went to Wolverton, the traffic on the London and Birmingham differed greatly from that which we witness now after a lapse of thirty-nine years. It should be borne in mind that this line had all the traffic between London and the north. There was no Great Northern Company for the trade between London and Scotland; the Great Western had not gone to Birmingham; the Midland poured all its London traffic into the London and Birmingham at Rugby. The only connection between the metropolis and Northampton, Aylesbury, Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Shrewsbury, Stafford, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Holyhead, Leeds, Preston, Huddersfield, Bolton, Bury, Halifax, Bradford, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, was by that one line from London to Birmingham. In fact, if you exclude the eastern counties, you may say that the whole of Great Britain north of London, together with the larger part of Ireland, depended for its traffic with the metropolis upon the one line of railway of which Wolverton was the centre. The Grand Junction at Birmingham, and the Midland at Rugby, brought goods and passengers from the north; coaches from many places ran to the various stations on the line, which was a gigantic monopoly, its only competitor in goods being the Grand Junction Canal; in passenger traffic it had no competitor at all. And yet to what did its traffic, its passenger traffic, amount? The Company ran per diem nine through trains each way, and two others, one between London and Wolverton, the other between London and Aylesbury, the branch from Cheddington to that town being the first and in 1840 the only branch in existence. And the trains were very light. There were, as far as I can recollect, few trains of more than ten carriages, each containing three compartments. They were little more than half the size of the carriages now in use. Those small trains and small carriages sufficed for all the passenger traffic of the vast district above defined. And now! Well, now, the Midland has withdrawn its share and runs to St. Pancras, taking to a great extent the midland county passengers, competing with the London and North-Western Railway for the traffic with Manchester and Liverpool, and all Scotland, and connecting with Northampton, and much more of the old London and Birmingham ground. The Great Northern, another formidable rival, has a large share of the northern traffic. The Great Northern bids against the old line for the trade with Birmingham, Leamington, Wednesbury, Wolverhampton, Shrewsbury, Chester. Thus the district once entirely monopolized by the London and Birmingham for London is now shared by three other companies. And yet how stands the case? In stead of nine through trains per day, there are thirteen, together with many more which run to and from Rugby, taking in Trent Valley for the north, and many more of a local character; and taking into account the number and size of the carriages, the passenger traffic at this day on the old London and Birmingham must be more than fourfold what it was when it had not a single rival to compete with.

It is interesting to notice the difference in speed. The fastest train, and there was only one such per day, was five hours on the road between London and Birmingham, and now in five hours we go nearly twice the distance—i. a. from London to Liverpool. The greatest distance run without a stoppage was from London to Tring, 31 miles, and now we run from Willesden to Rugby, about 76 miles, without stopping. The fastest train stopped four times between London and Birmingham; it now stops only once at Rugby. There were sixteen stations between the termini; there are now twenty-four. The fares were high: first-class, London to Birmingham, 32s. ; second, 25s.; but there was a second-class which was open to the weather, and the charge by that was 20s. And now to Liverpool, the first-class is 29s. 6d., and the second, as good as the first was then, 21s. 9d. In fact, the present fares are little more than half what they were in 1840. There was no third-class, and working people could not afford second-class fares; so they went on foot. Our workmen at Wolverton came and went on tramp from Lancashire and from London, and when discharged walked back again, or elsewhere, in search of work. Almost every day when we turned out at the dinnertime we found some half-dozen tramps, smiths, fitters, turners, boiler-makers, sitting under the wall of the shop in very shabby clothes, with blistered and bleeding feet, and to show them hospitality by taking them to dinner, was one of the prime duties that devolved upon us. The railway was not of the slightest advantage to workmen who had to travel. It probably was rather a disadvantage. In former days a lift on the coach or on the carrier’s waggon was common, but coaches and waggons were now all driven off the road.

Edward Bury, of the Liverpool firm of Bury, Curtis and Kenedy, was the company’s locomotive engineer. We very seldom saw him, and he did not very often look round the shops. He took care that Bury, Curtis and Kenedy should make a good thing out of the company. The locomotive plant consisted of fifty-five engines, nearly all made by Bury, Curtis and Kenedy at the Clarence Foundry in Liverpool. There was an iron foundry in the Wolverton works, but it was never used, for Bury, Curtis and Kenedy furnished all the castings. Wolverton was simply a repairing shop, and every cylinder, every eccentric, everything in cast iron, was supplied by Bury, Curtis and Kenedy. No railway company at that time built its own engines. The locomotives on the London and Birmingham were small and light compared with those now in use. A few used in the goods department were coupled. The passenger-trains were run by an engine on four wheels, the driving-wheel being about five feet six in diameter. They were swift, but hardly strong enough for the work, and many of the trains required two engines to draw them, and a pilot engine was always on the station at Wolverton ready to go in search of belated trains, and assist them. The Gifford feeder being unknown, the only way of supplying the boiler was the pump; and many was the time the pilot engine, as the steam blew off and the water got less, was trotted up and down a mile or two that its pumps might supply it. Some time afterwards came the device of two blind wheels stationed under the line, their unflanged ones forming a few inches of the line itself.

Thus the engine was slowly drawn until its driving wheels rested on the blind wheels, and then it could pump away without moving; but I believe that to get it off or on the blind wheels it had to be pushed with a crossbar. It was not the infancy, but still the childhood, of locomotion, and Bury, Curtis and Kened having their drawings, templates, and patterns, were in no hurry to introduce improvements.

We were in all about five hundred hands, a mixed group of Londoners, Lancashiremen, Yorkshiremen Scotchmen, Welshmen, Irishmen; and among us was a man of great stature and magnificent proportions, Polish gentleman, who kept himself very much to himself, and was very taciturn. Our foreman was a Scotchman, named Patch, who afterwards went to be superintendent on the Edinburgh and Glasgow line. I knew most of~ the men, but of the five hundred I don’t think I knew~ more than a dozen who went to church or chapel. Those who in these times so speak of the working men as to produce the impression that they have fallen away from religious ordinances are very much mistaken. Of these in Wolverton, with abundance of church accommodation not far off~ with no counter attraction but the fields, with no reason to complain of being shut up all the week in the close and unhealthy atmosphere of’ smoke, not more than two per cent. ever went to worship. Are things worse now? I very much doubt it, There was, however, very little to induce us to go to either church or chapel. Most of the neighbouring clergy were gentlemen who followed the hounds. The parson at Stony Stratford had spent some years in prison as an insolvent debtor; the remembrance of which must have been strong upon him, for as he droned through the service, he grew animated and earnest in praying that those evils which the craft and subtlety of the devil or man worketh against us be brought to nought. All that I can remember of the old chap is his extreme stupidity and dulness, and that loud emphasis upon the word ‘man.’ Many of the clergy were very hopelessly in debt, and were held in very little esteem. There was not one for ten miles round who could preach so as to interest any mortal creature. One of them, a great fox~hunter, was a magistrate, who occasionally fined a station-man for trespass or for poaching, and, of course, was hated and cursed by all the station-men. The attendance at the churches was wretched; the station-men were not the only men who did not go to church. Not one farmer or farm-servant out of ten was often to be seen within the consecrated walls. The congregation at Old Wolverton Church was seldom a score, and considering what a dismal fool the parson was, I wonder there were so many. He seldom preached; there was some attempt at reading a sermon once in two or three weeks, and it was once too often; and he mumbled the incomparable Liturgy in a most atrocious manner, the object evidently being to get through the thing as soon as he could. There was only one service on the Sunday, and in this good old style, as in the Isle of Man, the parson and the clerk had it all to themselves.

The state of Nonconformity in the district was not much better. At Newport Pagnell there was an Independent Minister, Mr. Bull; but Newport is four miles from Wolverton. At Stony Stratford there were two small ‘interests,’ an Independent and a Baptist. The Independent Minister sang mournfully through his nose, and was very dull and prosy; the Baptist Minister, Mr. Forster, was a man of considerable abilities and a good preacher. There was a Methodist Chapel also in the town; but it was only a poor little thatched cottage. There was nothing attractive about any of these places.

It was in the fine summer weather of August 1840 that I went to Wolverton, having a second-class pass from Liverpool. I arrived on Friday evening, and went into the erecting-shed on Saturday morning; and at the dinner-hour had to pay my footing. This was done at the vile public-house close to the station—a house which went by the name of ‘ Hell’s Kitchen,’ a name it well deserved. An old proverb says, that if an Englishman settled on an uninhabited island the first building he would put up would be a public-house. A public-house was the first thing built at Wolverton by the directors of the London and Birmingham There was no church, no school, no reading-room ; but there was ‘ Hell’s Kitchen.’ And in that ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ that first afternoon, I had to pay about ten shillings for drink. ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ was a horrid place; always full of mechanics, navvies, labourers, tramps of all kinds; at least one hundred station-men spent there half the dinner-hour and perhaps half their wages. Working men drank just as hard in those days as they do now. That afternoon, as I came up from ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ I was very much disgusted. I had taken no drink myself. I saw a workman leaning against a paling, who said to me in most unmistakable Cockney, "Well, mate, what are you going to do with yourself to-morrow?" I answered that I did not know, and did not care. "Well," he said, "I am going over to the Independent Chapel at Stratford; will you go along with me?" I said I would, and we went. That good man was John Page, an engine-fitter, a godly character, a man who said very little about religion; but that quiet invitation to go with him~ unaccompanied by any cant had a quiet power. It had much to do with settling me into good habits ; it made me the companion of a good man, and saved me from other and very different company. I used to lodge with Page at the house of an old man named Stoney in Old Wolverton. Old Stoney had a son named Edmund, who worked in some capacity at the station. I lodged in his father’s cottage for but two or three months, and then lost sight of him. But this year (1879) I had a letter from him. I had, of course, all but forgotten him, having heard nothing of him for thirty-nine years. He informed me that he was a grocer in Sheffield, whence his letter was dated ; reminded me of our old acquaintance, spoke of his business as good and prospering, and would be delighted to see me and have me as his guest when next I might be in Sheffield. I replied, thanking him. In less than a month he wrote again, asking me to lend him fifty pounds to save him from having the bailiffs put into his house. Now I saw why he had written to renew the acquaintance!

My wages at Wolverton were for the first year 4s. a week, 5s. for the second, 6s. for the third; for the remainder of my needs I had to draw upon my father’s scanty means. At that time he had nine children to support upon less than £200 a year; my brother Robert in Liverpool being still the only one in part able to keep himself. The tools employed in the works were of a very simple character in comparison with those now in use. There was no steam-hammer; all the forging was done by hand, and it was a fine sight to see seven or eight stalwart strikers, at the forging of a crank-axle, plant their huge hammers in rapid succession upon the spot indicated by the smith with a piece of rivet rod-iron. We had no travelling-drill; all key-ways had to be first drilled in round holes, and then cut with a crosscut chisel, and finished with the file. With the exception of a small machine for cutting nuts, we had no shaping machine of any account. Every surface that could not be formed by the planing-machine had to be chipped and filed. All the light turning was done by hand, without a slide-rest. Altogether, the work of an engine-shop was much more laborious than it is now, and required much more skill. Machinery has to a large extent superseded both muscle and brain, and a boy set to a machine can do more and better work than would be done by a skilful mechanic. Yet there were men who could do wonderfully true work. I have seen a fitter take two rough pieces of wrought iron of more than one pound weight each. I have seen him chip them to a surface almost perfectly smooth, and then with files so perfect the surface that when placed one upon the other the lower piece would hang to the upper by the force of molecular attraction, as if glued to it. Of course I do not mean that they were so fast joined as glued surfaces, but it required a sensible effort to separate them. I never could do anything like that; in fact, I was but an indifferent workman. My best performances were at the hand lathe ; there I did pretty well. Our best mechanics were, I think, the London men; one of whom, named Airey, a relation of the Astronomer-Royal, could turn out an extraordinary amount of good work. The Lancashire men came next, and I think the Scotchmen were the worst. The fitters’ wages varied from 28s. to 33s. per week; smiths about 30s.; labourers, 16s. to 18s.


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