Anyone who has commuted to London or Brighton from Mid Sussex will want to compare their experiences with this account from the very earliest days of travel on the Brighton line. What surprises me is how little has changed. Fellow passengers can either be a delight, or a real problem. Today, 178 years on from the time it was written, all the characters described below in this article in the Illustrated Daily News can still be seen today:
There are few of us who do not look back with pleasure to the time when we lost ourselves in the wonders of the 'Arabian Nights' Entertainments'. Even now, we think we could enter as intensely as formerly into their gorgeous imageries - their glowing scenes of lights, genii, and music …
… One story we especially remember - we forget the name, but it was towards the end, and treated of the efforts made by certain princes to restore some dear one, who was on the point of death. One had an apple which bore life in its very odour; another possessed a telescope that carried the sight to any spot that might be desirable; and the other owned a carpet which transported through the air any persons seated on it wherever they chose; and these wondrous things were all put in action on the emergency in question.
Perhaps this is the only part of the 'Entertainments' at which we should not marvel so much now-a-days. Science is a sad destroyer of romance; and modern inventions have made the magic treasures just spoken of less wonderful. Mesmerism, if we are to believe what we read, leaves the powers of the apple far behind; and telescopes, already advertised by cunning opticians 'to see about eight miles', we doubt not, will be so improved ere long as to see anywhere, especially when they can combine the polarization of light with electro-magnetism.
And then the transporting carpet - we always looked upon that as the most surprising possession - and it occupied our mind the deepest. There was a slip of stair carpet used as a nursery rug, which we always were convinced was the pattern, as firmly as a child's associations only allow; and we used to sit upon it and wish it would take us off - somewhere - anywhere - so long as we went. Alack! balloons and aerial ships have sadly reduced its importance, and railways, above all, leave us little cause to regret, that after all, there never might have been such a thing, except flying through the brain of the astonishing Scheherazade.
compared to travelling by coach
And wonderful is the railway transport of the present day! We are not of those who regret 'the good old coaching times', and 'the roadside inns' the 'four sparkling tits' and the other conventional things to be lamented. Nor had that much coveted position, 'the box seat', any extraordinary charms for us. Beyond what was connected with the horses they were driving, and the public-houses they passed, we generally found the coachmen mighty dull and heavy men. A few miles, outside, in sunny summer weather, were all very well; but the cheerless umbrella-covered drag of a whole day, and night too, had in it nothing to regret.
Now the chances are, we are comfortably housed at Brighton, before, under the ancient regime, our vehicle would have clattered up to the Greyhound at Croydon. The Brighton Railway is our especial favourite. The transit is rapid, and the contrast striking: you are not obliged to wander to out-of-the-way parts of London to get to the terminus and, above all, the scenery upon the line is unusually diversified and champaigny - if we may use the term.
Who for one instant would compare the trouble and extortion of the old coachyard to the comfort of the station? We are snugly under cover, and have leisure to look about us, and make out our own histories of the people around.
Carriages are revolving on the turnabouts, to be added to the train ; luggage-barrows are rumbling down the platform, and porters are burying themselves in the lockers, head first, like bees in bell-flowers; some passengers are arriving; others are waiting for those who have not yet done so.
Right before us is a widow lady - she must be the grandmother - guarding a fine chubby little baby, seated on a hamper, and crowing at the train; kicking, too, as far as the marvellous swaddling of shawls in which he is enveloped will admit of. Be cannot be going to Brighton for health - his cheeks are bursting with it.
London is not such an unwholesome place after all, then; in spite of all the squalid pictures of the virtuous-indignation gentlemen, it is wonderful to see the plump little fellows who roll out of doors and into the gutters, even in the Rookery. In this case, the father and mother, we wager, are already at Brighton; but they cannot get on well without baby, and grand mamma - she lives in the house - is entrusted with the charge.
pretty girl courting
The pretty girl in the Polka mantle is conversing earnestly with the young gentleman whilst her valetudinarian [unduly anxious about their health] papa is twaddling with one of the hangers-on. Be sure she has reminded him, for the hundredth time, to write tomorrow; and she is not without faint hopes of taking his arm on the Chain-Pier on Sunday.
The bell rings, the door slams, the last newspaper is sold, and the train is off. The gentleman walks by the side of the carriage containing the Polka mantle, smiling and nodding alternately, to the end of the platform; the cars move out of sight, and ere long, another set of passengers are waiting as before.
Although comfortable enough, there is little sociability in a first-class carriage on a railway; everybody seems to have an idea that he is the only one who is really entitled, by payment and position, to a seat therein, and so is afraid of compromising his dignity by speaking. There is, consequently, no conversation: the heads of the four corner occupants are usually looking out of the windows, and the centre ones looking at each other. By the same rule, however, that you rarely see a pretty woman in an omnibus, so you scarcely meet with ordinary ones in a first-class carriage. Look at the group opposite to us.
The old gentleman in the centre is deeply absorbed, looking neither to the right nor left; the young soldier finds, most unaccountably, that the view from the window on the other side, is far more attractive than on his own, and consequently keeps his gaze fixed in that direction; and the young lady must he putting mesmeric influence into action, and reading with her fingers, for her eyes are anywhere but on the pane, and she has not turned over a leaf for five minutes: what can she be thinking about?
Your regular second-class travellers are deep fellows. They come early to get a back seat - or at all events, to sit with their backs to the engine. They watch the weathercocks, too, and make their selection of place according to the wind; and if it be warm weather, are chatty and communicative, especially as many of them are in the habit of meeting every day in the train.
The chances are that they will joke about the engine, calling it a horse, alluding to ‘a feed of coke', saying 'poor creature' when it whistles, and indulging in other facete observations: except on Monday afternoon, when the talk is purely agricultural, and about the state of the fields on the side of the line, being carried on by the farmers returning from Mark-lane.
But in cold weather the second-class travellers talk but little. They wrap up the minute they get into the train, preparing for the worst; and after a few exchanged courtesies - lending an umbrella to the outsider, or spreading a cloak over two or three pairs of knees - you hear their voices no more.
The rattling pig-pens upon wheels, misnamed third-class carriages (before the late alterations), were despicable affairs, with the wonderful property of always meeting the rain in whatever quarter the wind might be blowing.
They were a species of horizontal shower-bath, from whose searching power there was no escape. A wet, steaming, dripping coach was a melancholy object enough, swaying through a village with its compact hood of umbrellas, looking for all the world like a large green tortoise lying over the top; but it was nothing in forlorn appearance to an open car. There was no escaping the rain.
If you turned your back to it, it filled the nape of your neck; if you faced it, you bad overflowing pockets, with an additional cataract from the front rim of your hat, which before long was as limp as wet brown paper. Some rash people covered their heads with their handkerchiefs, but it came all the same, it was only prolonging the misery, as you did not know next where to put the handkerchief when you removed it. Everything was ruined from your health downwards, and these were called 'cheap excursions'.
Ten to one, put in the second class carriages you will find 'the old lady'. We particularise her thus, for she is nearly always there. You first find her In great distress about her box - which is a box unlike any ever seen before - at the omnibus. Then it is a source of the deepest trouble when she arrives at the terminus, because it will not go into any locker or under any seat; and is finally put in a remote van, where the old lady would like to go loo, If she were not nervous.
Her ideas of steam-power are limited; she looks upon the engine as something between clockwork and gunpowder, which keeps her in perpetual dread; and gives herself up for lost from the instant she starts until her arrival, more especially when a train passes.
The agony of the old lady, when she meets another train, is something terrible to see; and sometime elapses before she can be persuaded that a dreadful accident has not happened and everybody is crushed.
But she becomes somewhat tranquilised by the time she reaches the next station; and at every stoppage inquires of the local policeman and attendant time-keeper if her box is safe - they knowing nothing in the world about it - or looks sharply after every passenger who out, for fear he or she should walk off with it.
Besides her box old lady has usually a supplementary parcel of miscellaneous purchases, half crammed into an odd basket half tied up in a pocket handkerchief.
Not the least source of wonder to us. on the railroad, are the various signals along the line. The mast-like bear-poles, with the letter O's and broad arrows at die top: the huge fans, and coloured bulls-eyes, like broken up chemist's windows, wandering along the line; the flags, and switches, and telegraphs are intensely mysterious.
We have never been able to form the most remote or wildest notion as to their use or meaning, for nothing ever seems altered from the usual mode of progression in whatever state they are, and when we see the policeman, with upheld flag and extended arm pointing in the direction we are going, we rather incline to the belief that it is a sign of politeness on his part to welcome us into the tunnel, rather than any masonic understanding between the engineer, stoker, guards, and himself …
… The article continues to give a brief overview of the new railway line.
Source: The Illustrated London News, 7 December 1844
Brilliantly complemented by the cartoons by Kenny Meadows.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.