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.

The Second Station

Wolverton’s function as a repair depot and its subsequent development into an important factory approaching 5000 employees somewhat overshadowed the true function of the railway which was the carriage of passengers and goods. In this respect Wolverton was initially a very important station as the service centre for rolling stock and passengers. As the century progressed and the L & NWR developed as a major national company the importance of Wolverton diminished. Wolverton was designated a first class station by the original L & BR Board while Bletchley, for example was given fourth class status, but after the construction of the important cross country line linking Oxford to Bedford, Bletchley grew in size, busyness and importance. The station at Wolverton went into relative decline and whereas express trains of the later nineteenth century would pause at Watford and Bletchley, they would speed through the one-time compulsory stopping point of Wolverton.
The initial wonder of Wolverton to the passing traveller was the Refreshment Rooms. The journey from London was a long one in the 1830s, over three hours, and not comfortable, so while the engines were being changed the passengers’ needs could also be met. But as trains became faster there was less need, and eventually no need, to pause at Wolverton. Passengers might go to Wolverton, but only on railway business. Passengers might depart from Wolverton but only at weekends or for holidays. The other factor in the decline of Wolverton Station was the sheer dominance of the railway works. There was no room for any other industry that might have used the railway on a commercial basis, so all development came from a single employer. It was good while it lasted but there was no diversity from which to develop Wolverton into a different kind of town.
The second station, which lasted for 40 years, was probably the finest of the Wolverton Stations. It opened in 1840 and probably enjoyed its heyday for a decade or so. Over time, as well as the reasons given above, it became crowded out by workshops and in 1881 the third station building, built at the level of the Stratford Road above the railway track opened for business. This one comprised a booking office on one side and a parcels office on the other. There were platform waiting rooms, but no refreshment services.
 The contemporary engraving of the second station, shown below, reveals a colonnaded, covered platform on either side with the up and down lines in the centre. The plan for the station and refreshment rooms however do show a roof over the railway track, presumably to protect passengers from the elements as they embarked or alighted. So this is an unexplained discrepancy. Either these covers were not built, or they were originally built and then taken down because of the smoke, or the artist simply left them out of the picture for artistic reasons.
This station took only five months to build but was fully featured with booking office, dining room, waiting rooms, ladies rooms and urinals at each end of the platform. There were kitchens and cellars on both sides and an ice house was constructed on the south side. To top it all there was a piggery and a small garden for vegetables.


The Second Wolverton Station 1840-1881

Sir Francis Bond Head, whose account may be found in full here , visited Wolverton in 1848 and left a very detailed and enthusiastic account of the Refreshment Rooms.
The refreshment establishment at Wolverton is composed of:
1.   A matron or generallissima
2.     Seven very young ladies to wait upon the passengers.
3   Four men and three boys do. do.
4.     One man-cook, his kitchen maid, and his two scullery maids
5.   Two housemaids
6.     One still-room maid, employed solely in the liquid duty of making tea and coffee.
7.   Two laundry maids
8.   One baker and one baker’s boy
9.   One garden boy
            And lastly, what is most significantly described in the books of the establishment –
10.            An “odd-man”.[1]
The 1851 census details Mrs. Hibbert as already noted – then aged 40 and probably very much a “generalissima”, together with seven female assistants ranging from 26 to 16, three waiters in their early twenties and two pages, a cellarman and a cellar boy, a baker’s boy, two house maids, a kitchen maid and a scullery maid, two laundry maids, the still room maid, Eliza Garrett and of course the “Odd Man”, 22 year old Thomas Bettles and his 18 year-old brother Jeffrey, the garden boy.
The Refreshment Rooms were let to the Railway Hotel Company at a rent equal to 10% of the cost of building with a review of these terms every three years. The first manager was Henry Taylor, assisted by Leonora Hibbert, the housekeeper. The various cakes and buns were the work of Giovani Solati, the confectioner. The live-in staff totaled 21 in 1841. By 1851 Leonora Hibbert is fully in charge of the operation. Her husband James, absent from the 1841 census, was a railway clerk. The live-in staff amounted to 27 in 1851. I say live-in staff for although it was customary for servants to live on the premises where they worked being expected to work and be on call all hours, There must have been employment for local residents. Refreshment Room facilities were provided on both sides of the track, on the up line and the down line. Urinals were provided at either end of the platforms for men and waiting rooms for ladies. Sir Francis Head mentions an overhead walkway over the lines but my guess is that it was not there in the early years and is certainly not apparent in the early engraving reproduced here. Each side of the track was made up of four sections, a covered siding for the trains, a platform, public rooms, and the kitchen and scullery at the back. An ice house was built into the ground on the east side and from Sir Francis Head we learn that they maintained a garden for garden produce and reared some pigs:
To the eatables are to be added, or driven, the 45 pigs, who after having been from their birth most kindly treated and most luxuriously fed, are impartially’ promoted, by seniority, one after another, into an infinite number of pork pies.
Mrs. Hibbert again features in Rambles on Railways by Cusack Roney, writing in 1867. He speaks of the late Mrs. Hibbert and her redoutable reputation, tending to reinforce the “generalissima” characterization. I have to say that I regard Roney as a somewhat lazy observer. He quotes heavily from Head’s account and tends to rely a lot upon second-hand information – at any rate, in regard to Wolverton. However, we can take Head’s characterization of her as a “Generalissima” as a very good clue as to the strong character who ran the Refreshment Rooms in their heyday At the time of Head visit, around 1847, the Refreshment Rooms still enjoyed fame throughout the land. They represented a new phenomenon and attracted attention in much the same way as the Fortes motorway restaurant did when it opened in 1960 at Newport Pagnell. The bloom faded of course, and the census records a gradual decline in numbers employed. When the time came to open the third station in 1881, no refreshment facilities were provided.
The plans partially reproduced below offer some detail as to the extent of the amenities. The large refreshment room is central and there are urinals for men at either end of the platform. The ladies have their own waiting room and toilet facilities. Behind all this is a large kitchen and scullery for the quite sizable staff already detailed. The plan below is for additional refreshment rooms for the down line. The up line refreshment rooms, the first to be built, were a two storey affair with a dining room at ground level and a drawing room upstairs. As these plans have been drawn for an additional hallway and staircase, they do not show the kitchen, nor indeed any living quarters for staff, so we must guess that they were there.


Plan drawings for the Refreshment Rooms
As we have seen, between 20 and 30 staff are recorded in censuses as resident at the Refreshment Rooms, and indeed it was common practice for servants of all types to live on the premises where they worked. The workers that we would nowadays call shop assistants or catering staff were universally regarded as servants in the 1840s and treated as such – that is, they were given accommodation and board, paid low wages, and were expected to work long hours. The down line building appears to be single storey with a basement of wine cellars and cold storage. These drawings may have been made for buildings on the up line. However, the drawing shows buildings on both sides at equal height and perhaps these conflicts in the available evidence cannot be resolved.


 A waiting room at Wolverton Station

On the occasion of the visit of Queen Victoria to Wolverton in 1845 the waiting room was redecorated. I am sure there was a lot of scurrying around to get everything perfect and the visit, being recorded by the Illustrated London News, gives us an opportunity to view the interior. From the plan this room looks as if it was the upper drawing room shown in plan form above, and it looks very comfortable and pleasant – a far cry from the dingy waiting rooms the railway traveller might encounter a century later.


Here is one photograph, taken circa 1860, which although its subject is a steam engine, shows the kitchens of the station in the background.



Francesca Marton

I would be astonished if anyone reading this has heard of Francesca Marton; if so you must be a rare sort of literary devotee. This was the pen name of a writer called Margaret Bellasis (1884-1961) and she was apparently a cousin of the much more famous Robert Graves.

So what’s her connection with Wolverton? Apparently she took Sir Francis Bond Head’s description of the Wolverton Refreshment Rooms and the seven very young ladies who waited upon the passengers. Stokers and Pokers

Marton gave one of the girls the name Hannah Mary Christmas and used this character as the basis of a novel called Attic and Area or The Maidservant’s Year. It was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1944 when there was still a market for this kind of thing.

I can’t comment on the novel itself as I haven’t read it – nor am I likely to. For the historical record, the names of the “seven young ladies” working at the Refreshment Rooms in 1851 (not necessarily the same ones who were there in 1849) were:

Louisa Bryant           23

Janet Knight             26

Adelaide Halse        13

Eliza Gawcutt          16

Fanny Swan            17

Eliza Robertson       18

Annie Knight          17