Recently I watched the steam locomotive Britannia, roaring through Witham with an excursion train. I tried to imagine what impact the very first trains would have had when our main line opened in February 1843. Previously the fastest and largest means of transport was a horse. Most people had never seen anything mechanical, something that seemed to work by itself.
So it is very impressive that our predecessors took to the rails so readily and so quickly. They don’t seem to have been frightened. The frequent travellers had a great sense of satisfaction that their journeys were now so easy. And for others, the whole thing was just very exciting.
Thus Doctor Henry Dixon (then of Witham) wrote the following in his diary, less than three weeks after the line had opened. There was still a festive atmosphere.:
“Fine day and warm. I joined Braithwaite today at our Station to go with him on business to Colchester. I there found with him a party from London, consisting of near thirty, half of them ladies, who ventured to come down the line in some luggage trucks fitted up for the occasion.
We returned from Colchester about 3 o’clock and dined as we travelled back. Some of the Party were Catholics, who had a fish dinner with lots of good things. We Protestants had a round of beef.
The whole affair was exceedingly agreeable as well as curious, plenty of Servants to wait, and a capital dinner. Toasts and speeches and plenty of wine. I left them at our Station and they whistled off to London in high glee and spirits.”
So even the restaurant service was off to an excellent start ! But Dr Dixon also foresaw some problems. He commented wisely that “it is however questionable if we shall as a whole be benefited by this new mode of transit from place to place. It engenders a restlessness of locomotion infriendly to local trade.”
We can see this effect in the life of Robert Bretnall of Spring Lodge. He regularly travelled to London by train and made purchases there which he might otherwise have made locally. For instance, in June 1846 he wrote that “I with my wife went to London by Train 1st Class day ticket. I bought a Gown piece for Wife and a Pound of Tea at Ridgeways. Came home by half past 5 o’clock train both drunk as Blazes and so went to Bed”
In another trip to London in November 1846, Robert spent nearly fifty pounds on silver plate (with money from the sale of railway shares). He bought two pounds of tea, three pounds of coffee, “a new pair of Silver Spectacles, a yard of fleecy hosiery, three pair of lamb wool stockings, a pair of gloves and two pen knives.”
He did also travel to Chelmsford, and he was not alone. On Christmas Eve 1847 his journey was mostly to conduct dealings in corn. The train coming back to Witham was more than an hour late, “owing to its great weight, with two powerful engines and, as reported, more than 800 passengers.”
To finish with, here are two photos of the “Oliver Cromwell” steam locomotive stopping at Witham station in 2010, pulling an excursion train; the photos were taken by Robert Hall, who kindly let me use them.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in July 2011