17 June 2014

The Beginings of a New Age: Curzon Street Station

With the new plans for a 21st century Curzon Street Station unveiled (here) I thought I'd take a look at its first incarnation, about 180 years ago.

The era that I cover on this blog comes to an end with the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837. The beginning of this new age coincides neatly with the beginnings of the railway age, at least in Birmingham, as it was the next year, 1838, that the London and Birmingham railway opened in the town. The new trains arrived and departed from the parade of 'iron sheds' off Curzon Street where the new station had been erected. Of course, it was then called just 'Birmingham Station' as it was the town's only one. The grand building adorned with ionic columns (above & still standing) contained the board room of the directors, offices for the secretary, financial and correspondence departments, as well as a ‘refreshment saloon’. Tickets would be bought to the left of this building before catching your train.

In Osbourne's guide to the railway published in 1838 there is a lovely envisioning of what it was like to travel from the station:

'Porters with ladders are mounting and placing luggage on the tops, passengers are taking their seats, and arranging themselves for the journey; young ladies [...] who are going on a visit, accompanied by their mammas on one side, and lovers on the other, the servant man or maid following with band-box, are saluted and tended until they are safely packed in their places, and all the paraphernalia of veil, boa, cloak, muff, and reticule containing biscuits and oranges, scent bottle and purse, with change ready for use- are properly ordered. Old travellers, who have been most of their lives on stage coaches, take their places, and being accustomed to prepare at a moment’s notice, seat themselves, and quietly look on.

 Anon come some young gentlemen, whose lips are employed to smoke cigars, and let a few syllables drop by accident! Dressed as if for the saloon of a theatre, and bestowing a few glances of admiration on the affair, [...] they exclaim with a peculiar mark of sagacity, “Very fine, by Jove!” “Just the thing egad,” or “Know how to do the thing, damme”. Meanwhile the passengers increase, and you hear the conductor responding to the various questions – “Stafford, Ma’am?—in this carriage. – Wolverhampton, Sir? – in that [...]” The bustle increases, and you hear the parting salutations of friends. “Well, good bye—you’ll be sure to write directly”. “Oh, aye”. [...] If you wish to see and hear all about the matter, take your place outside. You will want an extra great coat, and a pair of gauze spectacles to keep the dust and smoke out of your eyes; but, in all other respects, you will enjoy ten times more than your fellow travellers.

 I shall suppose that you mounted on the box seat. You look round, and see several engines with red-hot fires in their bodies, and volumes of steam issuing from their tall chimnies. One of them move slowly towards you. The huge creature bellows, at first, like an elephant. Deep, slow, and terrific are the hoarse heavings that it makes. It passes by your train of carriages [...] there it is, roaring, groaning, and grunting, like a sea-horse, and spouting up steam like a whale. You feel a deep, strong, tremulous motion throughout the train, and a loud jingling rattle is heard, analogous to what is experienced in a cotton mill. The conductor has done his part and is seated; the guard is in his box at the back of the first carriage; a bell is rung as a signal for starting—and you are off.'

Snippet from an 1840s map showing trains coming into the station over the canal as they still do.

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