Heritage: 19th century train travel in Romford

Harold Wood station opened in 1868, the same year as Isabel's train journey. Photo: Roger Lighternes

Harold Wood station opened in 1868, the same year as Isabel's train journey. Photo: Roger Lighterness via iwitness - Credit: Archant

Catching a train in Victorian Romford – Prof Ged Martin discovers a novel serialised in an Australian newspaper 150 years ago

Strange though it seems, a challenge facing an Australian newspaper editor 150 years ago gives us a glimpse of Victorian Romford.

The New South Wales country town of Goulburn (pronounced “Goal-bun”) is 120 miles from Sydney. In 1869 it was home to just 2,000 people.

Frankly, there wasn’t much reason to buy the weekly Goulburn Herald.

So its editor serialised a novel, one chapter every week. Once hooked by the story, readers would buy the paper, however dull the local news.

He chose A Fight for Life, published in 1868 by London journalist Moy Thomas, an associate of Charles Dickens.

Chapter 29 appeared on 29 May 1869.

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Wearing a black veil, heroine Isabel has escaped from her father’s London house, and must reach the north Essex village of Borley. I’m afraid I haven’t read the whole tale, so I can’t tell you why.

But Isabel’s adventure gives us a glimpse of our area 150 years ago.

Milestones on the high road tell her she is near Romford. She asks a passer-by for directions to Borley. Understandably, he finds this puzzling, but suggests catching a train to Chelmsford.

“Go on into the town, and take a lane to the right beyond the brewery,” he advises, giving directions to Romford station. Romford Brewery was in the High Street.

Modern South Street was called Hornchurch Lane. There were some buildings at the Market end, but South Street still looked like a country lane.

At Romford station, a ticket clerk tells Isabel a train to Chelmsford was due. Victorian ladies travelled in the comfort of first class, but Isabel could only afford third-class, crammed among grubby poor people on hard seats.

“The snorting sound of the approaching train was audible as she hastened up the flight of steps. There were but few passengers going from Romford further down the line at that hour; but the carriages were nearly all filled.”

It was risky for a lady to travel alone. “Isabel walked along the platform, looking into each, until she found a compartment, all the occupants of which, save one, were women.”

The “rapid motion” of the train soon left Romford behind.

“The women who occupied the carriage were clean country folks, some of them returning from market, and most of them carrying baskets or bundles.” They seemed embarrassed by the intrusion of a lady.

Hiding her face behind her veil, Isabel “listened for the announcement of every station”, wondering how far it was to Chelmsford. There were no train intercoms in 1868. Porters must have called out the station names.

There was no Gidea Park either, while Harold Wood Station only opened that year.

So few passengers had used Shenfield that its station was closed between 1850 and 1887. Isabel’s train probably called only at Brentwood and Ingatestone.

The only male in the compartment was “a tall, bony man,” wearing a blue butcher’s smock.

“A butcher in a third class carriage in a train from Romford is not so rare a sight as to attract much attention” – but we can be sure he’s a villain, and Isabel must give him the slip at Chelmsford.

We have acres of maps and yards of statistics from Victorian England. We know that railways were vital to economic and social life. But it’s rare to catch a glimpse of what it was like to run for a real-life train.

Passengers still hurry up the steps at Romford Station, although – unlike Isabel – few wear long heavy skirts.

The arriving train is a purring electric unit, not the clanking, smoky locomotive of 150 years ago. Today’s Romford passengers are more likely to clutch smart phones than baskets.

Moy Thomas campaigned for copyright laws to protect authors like himself. I don’t think the Goulburn Herald paid him.