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The impact of railways on Victorian society was immense.  Many people, especially the less well off in society, rarely if ever travelled far beyond the locality in which they lived and worked.  Even if leisure time was available to them, there were not the cheap and expeditious means to enable travel.

From the 1840s our burgeoning railway network began to offer to many the possibility of broadening their horizons through travel.  Railway companies at first tried to avoid catering for the masses, preferring instead to run trains that only offered first and second class carriages, thereby placing rail fares beyond what most working people could afford.  Following the Railway Regulation Act of 1844, railway companies were required to provide inexpensive and basic rail transport for less affluent passengers.  By then, however, they had begun to realise they could increase their profits if more people travelled by train, and this could best be achieved by reducing ticket prices across the board.  Thus, it gradually became feasible, through lower rail fares, for working people to search for employment further from their homes ― “commuting” became the term that described that part of a regular journey that lay between the boundary of one’s community and one’s place of work.

An artists impression of an excursion train, c.1840s.

Railways also became a means for people to broaden their horizons through leisure travel, and here we encounter the “excursion train.”  An excursion is a special train run either by a railway company or chartered by a promoter to convey a group of people to a special event (such as a football match) or location (such as the seaside).  It’s an example of economy of scale, for being assured that they would get a large number of passengers for an excursion, a railway company could then afford to sell them tickets at a discounted price and still profit from the venture.

Thomas Cook (1808-92)

Although the concept of the excursion train would inevitably have emerged before long, the original idea is widely credited (incorrectly [1]) to Thomas Cook, who went on to found the travel agency that bears his name.  Cook, a teetotaller, is said to have had the idea while walking to Leicester to attend a temperance meeting.  At the meeting he suggested to the gathering that a special train might take him and his fellow temperance supporters to the next quarterly meeting in Loughborough.  He then approached the Secretary of the Midland Counties Railway with the proposal that if the company halved the price for the return journey, Cook would guarantee a minimum number of passengers.  On the 5th July 1841, Thomas Cook escorted around 500 people, each paying a shilling for the return train journey, on his first railway excursion; and that was the beginning of the company widely considered to be the world’s oldest travel firm.

Although the 1840s were a period when railway excursions were becoming popular, the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851 was a watershed in working-class leisure travel.  The Exhibition was to introduce many ordinary people to railway excursions and hundreds of thousands took advantage of these cheap trips to the capital.  Railway companies such as the Great Northern, the Great Western, the Midland, and the London & North Western ran excursions from their areas of the country, the result being that they all experienced considerable increases in traffic.



The Great Exhibition was an international exhibition of culture and industry that took place in Hyde Park between May and October 1851.  Housed in the “Crystal Palace” ― a great cast iron and plate glass structure designed by Joseph Paxton ― the Exhibition was opened on the 1st May 1851 by Queen Victoria accompanied by Prince Albert, while a crowd of some 25,000 gathered to witness the event.  Over the next six months throngs of visitors poured into London on excursion trains including groups of factory workers and agricultural labourers, the latter taking pride in wearing their workaday smock-frocks.

Top: the Crystal Palace
Below: entrance to the Great Exhibition


Among the popular exhibits were the 27 feet high fountain at the centre of the building made from four tons of pink glass; the Indian section, which introduced visitors for the first time to the richness and quality of Indian textiles; the world’s largest known diamond, the Koh-i-Noor (“Mountain of Light”); and the first modern pay toilets were installed, with 827,280 visitors paying the 1 penny fee to use them ― “spending a penny” became a euphemism for using a toilet.

Interior views of the Great Exhibition.

The Exhibition was closed by Prince Albert in a ceremony on the 15th October 1851, some 4,500,000 visitors having by then paid a shilling to enter the Exhibition. The question of what to do with these huge temporary buildings had then to be addressed.  Eventually the Crystal Palace was bought by a consortium of businessmen who had it re-erected near Sydenham Hill, south of London, where it housed concerts, festivals, exhibitions, and permanent displays of botany and art history until it was completely destroyed by fire in 1936.



Some trains that conveyed parties of “excursionists” to places and events were extremely long.  For instance, an excursion train from Sheffield to Leeds in September 1840 was pulled by five locomotives and formed from seventy carriages.  Although split into a number of segments, an excursion from Leeds to Hull in September 1844 carried a total of 6,600 passengers accommodated in 240 carriages and hauled by nine locomotives:

“CHEAP TRIP TO HULL AND BRIDLINGTON.―This, the cheapest and the largest of the cheap trips, took place on Thursday last.  The train at Leeds, was divided into four divisions, drawn by nine engines, containing in the whole 240 carriages, and conveying 6,600 passengers.  It was joined, we understand, also, by a cheap train from York, bound to the some place, which added another engine to the number and 1,700 more passengers.

The first division of the from Leeds left the station at six o'clock in the morning, arriving at Hull at nine a.m., and returned from Hull at seven, and arrived in Leeds again at ten p.m.  The other divisions of the were much later, the last one not leaving the station at Leeds till about eight o'clock in the morning, and not returning to Leeds till after two the next morning.

We understand that on account of numerous applications for a second trip, the directors will arrange for one in the week following Doncaster races, which we hope will be on the Monday, as it will be a convenient day for a great number of persons.  We believe also that a trip to London is in contemplation. On the same day as the trip to Hull from this town, there was a special train from Derby to York, with 42 carriages, conveying 1,400 passengers.  We are glad to hear that, large as the trains were, no accident occurred.

Leeds Times, 14th September 1844

The Board of Trade became concerned and issued a warning about the dangers inherent in working what they described as “monster” trains:

“EXCURSION TRAINS ON RAILWAYS.―The Boyd of Trade has just issued a circular to the several railway companies, calling their attention to the danger of the plan adopted by some railways of running excursion trains drawn by several engines.  They state that the opinion of several of the most experienced practical men has been taken, and that they all state the present mode of working the excursion trains to be extremely dangerous; and the Board of Trade recommend that these excursion trains should be divided into sections, so that no more than two engines should be used with any one train of carriages.

A Francis Trevithick L&NWR passenger locomotive of the period

They also point out the extreme danger likely to arise from the want of punctuality in the arrival of these excursion trains arising from their great weight;
[2] and they strongly urge upon the companies to adopt a different mode of working the excursion trains in order to avoid the danger of the present method.  It ought to he observed that very few companies have adopted these ‘monster trains,’ and it is to be observed that those which have adopted them will alter their arrangements to such as are more compatible with safety.”

Ipswich Journal, 26th October 1844




On Monday the 21st July, 1851, an excursion train left Aylesbury for Euston, stopping to pick up additional excursionists at Tring.  How was that accomplished?

When the London & Birmingham Railway was in course of construction, a group of Aylesbury business people formed the Aylesbury Railway Company to build a branch line from the town to Cheddington where it formed a junction with the main line.  The Cheddington branch, which opened on the 10th June 1839, was absorbed into the newly formed London & North Western Railway in 1846.  After more direct railway routes were opened, the Cheddington branch ceased to be a useful route from Aylesbury to London, and during the 20th century the line began to lose business.  Eventually it closed to passengers in 1953 and to freight ten years later, after which the line was taken up.

Returning to the excursion, when the train from Aylesbury reached Cheddington it needed to head south, but as the junction with the main line was in the down direction, to accomplish this about-face either the locomotives needed to be moved to the opposite end of the excursion train or the excursionists had to cross the main line to board a southbound train.  The following article fails to mention how this manoeuvre was achieved.


. . . . from the Bucks Herald, 26th July, 1851.

“On Monday the excursion train took up a goodly number of passengers from this town and adjoining villages. The train when it started from the Aylesbury station consisted of 32 carriages, drawn by two engines, and contained 951 passengers.

On arriving at Tring it was found impossible to accommodate the numerous holiday folk who had assembled there to proceed by the train to London, and it was found necessary to forward by far the greater portion of them by an additional train, no less a number than 676 persons taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Company of visiting the Great Exhibition.

The train arrived at the Euston station about half-past eight in the morning, thus affording those who wish to return the same night nearly twelve hours for their visit to the metropolis; but a large number availed themselves of the option so liberally granted by the Company and remained till the Wednesday night.

Connected with this truly liberal and cheap trip and we hope to see others announced, many treats were afforded by masters to their servants, and amongst the foremost we have much pleasure in recording an act of kindness on the part of Mr. Fowler of the White Hart Inn, Aylesbury, and which is worthy of being followed by others in the neighbourhood. We allude to the fact of the whole of the agricultural labourers in that gentleman's father's employ, an also the servants connected with the inn to a number of 24, being conveyed to London at their master's expense, as likewise their admittance to the Crystal Palace. Previous to starting, however, they all assembled at Mr. Fowler's house, and having partaken of a good substantial breakfast, proceeded at once to the train, dressed in their white smock-frocks, and headed by Mr. Fowler, jun.

Farm labourer dressed in a smock-frock

On the arrival of the train at the Euston-station, a conveyance having been specially engaged on the previous Saturday, the whole party were taken by Mr. Fowler to Westminster Bridge, who pointed out to them the various sights as they passed along, and after viewing the river and the wonders of the steam boats, they attended Westminster Hall, and afterwards the Abbey, where we had the gratification of unexpectedly meeting them, and attended the usual morning service in that noble and sacred edifice. Whatever might have been their conception of the choral performances of the splendid choir of the Abbey, it was curious ever and anon to witness their eyes directed to the magnificent stained windows therein contained. After divine service had concluded, the party proceeded to Hyde Park, and having here refreshed the "inward man," under the trees, entered the Crystal Palace, the objects of interest being here also pointed out to them by Mr. Fowler.

About five o'clock they left the building, and after partaking of a cold collation under the trees near the Serpentine, they proceeded homewards to Euston-square, highly gratified by their visit, and on their return to Aylesbury, found a supper provided for them by Mr. Fowler, sen., and having done justice thereto, started off to their respective homes. We are glad to find that this example was not confined to Mr. Fowler alone. We had much pleasure in observing the labourers of Mr. Farmbrough, of Broughton, who were kindly escorted by that worthy individual and his friends, and no exertion seemed to be wanting on their part to render every substance and impart to their men all the information they required. They were taken direct from Euston-square to the Exhibition, and having met at two o'clock at the centre fountain, walked to Westminster Abbey and the New Houses of Parliament; then, getting on a steam-boat they were taken to London Bridge, and having embarked, they saw, in addition to the shipping on the Thames, the Monument, Bank, Royal Exchange, St. Paul's, and numerous other noble structures; thus seeing as much of London and the Exhibition as was possible in one day. We need scarcely say that they returned home highly delighted, having seen so much without spending any of their hard-earned wages.

We must not omit mentioning also at similar treat being afforded by Mr. E. Butchers, farmer, of Hadenham, to the labourers in his employ.

These are, undoubtedly, examples well worthy of imitation, as it would be next to useless to treat these men to London and the Exhibition and then leave them -- for they would return home almost as ignorant as when they started; but having a conductor it enables them to see a vast deal, and impresses itself on the mind in a manner not easily to be forgotten.

We cannot close this account without noticing the very excellent arrangements that were made by the station master, Mr. Judd, who, by his early attendance in the morning, greatly facilitated the good order and regularity which prevailed upon the starting of the train. The guards and servants likewise connected with the company seemed to co-operate in rendering every accommodation in their power to to afford comfort to the excursionists. ‘We are happy to inform our readers that not the slightest accident occurred to mar the pleasures of an event so truly interesting.”




1.    The world’s first ever railway excursion was organised as a fund-raiser for Grosmont church and ran between Grosmont to Whitby in 1839.  This is now classified as the world’s first ever excursion.
2.    This was an age before vacuum operated train brakes, the only brakes then being available were the hand-operated brakes fitted to the locomotive and the guard’s compartment.  Likewise signalling systems were primitive.  Separating trains using time interval working (a set time period before the next train can pass the signal box) was the best that could at first be achieved, but under this system a signalman had no way of knowing whether a train that had passed his box had in fact cleared the section of railway - the “block” - under his control.  If for any reason a passing train subsequently slowed appreciably, or stopped, the crew of a following train had no way of knowing unless the preceding train was clearly visible to them and at a sufficient distance in which to bring their own train to a halt.  With the deployment of the electrical telegraph it became possible for signalmen to exchange messages between the ends of a block to confirm that the block was clear and to prevent more traffic from entering if it was not.  This system is known as “block working.”

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