The Refreshment Rooms

In the 1840s Wolverton was famous throughout the land for its railway refreshment rooms. Wolverton was originally designated a half way stope between London and Birmingham and passengers were allowed ten minutes while the engines were changed. What I did not realise, until I chanced upon a newspaper report in the Northampton Mercury for January 2nd 1847 was that the refreshment rooms were not planned and came about by accident.

The newspaper report tells us that the service was originated by a railway employee who took his entrepreneurial chance. The new station, on the north side of the canal, had no such facilities, and this man (who is unnamed) set up a stall with the permission of the company to sell drinks and buns to the thirsty and hungry travellers. It was a great success and apparently he cleared a profit of £50 a week. That’s an amazing amount of money, in fact, a year’s income for a skilled railway worker.

1840 was no different to our present day. One the money-making opportunities were evident, the big boys, with their financial muscle moved in. So when the railway company built the new station south of the canal, they provided for refreshment rooms and leased out the franchise, as it were. At the time that Sir Francis Bond Head visited in 1849, the refreshment rooms were in the charge of Mrs Leonora Hibbert, who was employing no fewer than 29 staff. But, as I learned from the Northampton Mercury report, she was paying £5000 a year for the privilege. Se still made money of course and when the refreshment rooms went into decline due to faster through trains, she opened up a hotel at Holyhead.

The enterprising chap who started the first refreshment room is unnamed and perhaps his name is lost to history. This is a pity, as he was probably the originator of all refreshment services on the railway.