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The "Great Railway Fete"

The very first train

Herefordshire received permission to build its first passenger railway by Act of Parliament in 1846. The line was to be the Shrewsbury to Hereford line; it was finally completed in 1853. To celebrate the coming of the railways there was a day of festivities. Banquets and balls were held across the city and over 60,000 people crowded into Hereford to participate. When the first train arrived in Hereford, on the 28th October 1853, the passengers disembarked at what was to be the site of the station for as yet there were no buildings except for an unfinished engine house and a water house. (Cavalcade of a Century, 1832-1932, 100 years of the Hereford Times: Hereford Record Office - BH74)

A banquet had been arranged at the Shire Hall, catered for by the manager of the City Arms in Broad Street (now Barclays Bank), but the reception given to the trains was distinctly lukewarm, with few people turning out to see their arrival into the city. The organisers put the lacklustre reception down to the fact that it was a busy market day and few traders or customers were willing to put business on hold to greet the train.

An article in the Hereford Times described the reception given to the first train thus:

"We thought the good citizens of Hereford evinced considerable apathy on the occasion for though a considerable number assembled to meet the maiden train from Shrewsbury, there was scarcely a hurrah given, not a bell was rung, not a cannon fired." (Cavalcade of a Century...,Hereford Record Office - BH74)

It was decided to choose the day when the Newport and Abergavenny line was linked to the Shrewsbury and Hereford line as the official opening day of the railways in Hereford, so Tuesday 6th December became known as the "Great Railway Fete".

The official opening ceremony

The weather for the opening day stayed fine and the dawn was rung in by church bells across the city. All business in the city was suspended and the streets were decorated with flags bearing messages of goodwill for the railways.

The 1851 Census of Hereford shows that the population of the city at this time was around 12,000, but the Hereford Times estimated that upwards of 60,000 filled the city streets to witness the special event. At the Barton and Above-Eign bridges 30,000 people gathered to line the track.

The arrival

On the day Hereford was welcoming two trains, one on the Shrewsbury to Hereford line and the other on the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford line.

The Newport train, one of the longest ever seen, had left for Hereford at 10 o'clock, was made up of three engines and 31 carriages, and brought with it the mayors of Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Brecon, the Chairman, directors and engineers of the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford Railway and the Band of the 1st Royals who were to play at a ball in the evening at Shire Hall. All in all, the train rolled in with 670 passengers on board.

It had been planned that the train would arrive at Barrs Court Station at 1 o'clock, but unsurprisingly it arrived late. Once all the passengers had disembarked there was a procession to the Shire Hall. This procession was led by the Herefordshire Militia Band and Staff, the Hereford and Gloucester Navvies' Brass Band and the Band of the 1st Royals, followed by the trade guilds with banners depicting the various trades. Bringing up the rear were the dignitaries in horse-drawn carriages.

For the day the streets had been decorated with floral arches and mottoes of goodwill to the railways and in every window along the route of the procession excited faces could be seen peeking out, trying to catch a glimpse of the important men who had made the railway possible.

In Eign Street a tradesman had cut out a tin model of the City Arms surmounted by an engine whose chimney had been made to smoke by a pipe connecting it to the fire inside. At night the decorations of the city were illuminated by gas jets in the form of stars and other shapes.

The grand banquet at the Shire Hall

The Music Room of the Shire Hall had been decorated especially for the event and it appeared that no expense had been spared. Tables had been laid out with food displayed on stands of bronze gilt and silver. The Mayor of Hereford sat on a throne, which had been placed above the orchestra and was surrounded by columns of plum-coloured moreen (a corded woollen fabric). Over the throne was a circular fringed canopy.

To the right of the throne was the Corporate Sword, and behind it four maces crossed. Above this was the Royal Arms, surrounded by banners and flags, and the whole was topped by the Herefordshire flag from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace.

In front of the throne was a crown, made by Mr. Dillon of Bye Street, decorated with ermine and sat upon a dark crimson cushion. Near to this was an enormous baron of beef (a large joint of beef), on which a flag declared "The Roast Beef of Old England".

To the right was a display of evergreens and halberds (16th century axes) and just beyond that was a statue of Cupid. This statue had been sculpted by Mr Jennings, who was one of 16 British sculptors to whom medals were awarded at the"Great Competition of the World" in connection with the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Cavalcade of a Century, 1832-1932, 100 years of the Hereford Times: Hereford Record Office - BH74). There was also a painting of George III on horseback, decorated with flags and Union Jacks, and over it had been placed a crown.

The food had been elaborately decorated and carved and a display of encaustic tiles from Godwin's factory in Lugwardine had been arranged.

The food provided for the guests included:

2 peacocks 8 potted meats
20 hams 12 dishes of potted lamprey
4 fillets of veal 24 dishes of lobster
8 dishes of roast beef 4 dishes of crab
8 dishes of roulades of veal 12 dishes of prawns
18 pigeon pies 12 dishes of lobster salad
12 roast turkeys 10 brace of roast pheasant
50 couples of fowl 10 brace of roast partridge
8 geese 6 madeleine gateaux
8 couple of ducks 12 moulds of punch jelly
2 boars head gelatine 12 moulds of blancmange

There was also fruit, champagne, sherry, port and claret.

The banquet ended at 5.30pm to allow the Newport passengers time to catch their train back at 6.30pm. Unfortunately some passengers had been misinformed of the departure time and believed it was 7pm - upwards of 100 passengers were apparently left stranded at the station.

The evening was presided over by the Mayor of Hereford, Charles Anthony, and he also gave the opening address and toast. (Charles Anthony had founded the Hereford Times in 1832 and had been Mayor of Hereford six times.)

Later toasts to Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort and the Royal Family were given and the National Anthem was sung.

The full dress ball

The Full Dress Ball was held in two rooms at the Shire Hall. It was attended by all the important people in the county.

The ball was opened at 9.30pm by Lady Emily Foley of Stoke Edith Park. She and the Mayor took the first dance, which was a country dance called "The Triumph". A variety of other dances were performed, including waltzes, polkas and quadrilles. A Mr. Quinton acted as Master of Ceremonies, and in a separate room the Band of the 1st Royals played. Once again the catering was supplied by the Green Dragon in Broad Street.

Tickets for the ball cost 7s 6d for gentlemen and 5s for ladies; around 500 people attended the event.

The general ball at the old Town Hall

At the Town Hall in High Town there was a ball that was aimed at the middle to lower classes. The dancing and revelry was more lively than that seen in the Shire Hall and the music was provided by a local band. The ticket price was one guinea for gents and half a guinea for ladies, with tickets being bought from the Green Dragon.

The navvies' dinner

Whilst the middle and upper classes were enjoying their banquets and balls, 500 of the navvies who had helped build the railway line were given a feast at the old iron foundry works in Friars Street, provided by Charles and Ann Watkins (parents of the famous local photographer and antiquarian Alfred Watkins) of the Imperial Inn in Widemarsh Street.

The food included roast beef, pork and mutton, vegetables, ale and bread, a very different menu to the lobster and veal enjoyed at the Shire Hall. Thirty of the county's respectable farmers acted as carvers and the dinner lasted one hour.

The union workhouse

Even the very poor were included in the day's festivities. The Board of Guardians of the Union Workhouse in Hereford made provisions to supply the inmates with roast beef, plum pudding and ale, which were followed by toasts to the Queen and the Royal family, the Benevolent Founders of the Great Feast, "Prosperity to the Herefordshire Railways, the Board of Guardians and the Master and Matron".

In the evening the younger boys from the workhouse were allowed out to witness the evening's events and see the free firework display on the Castle Green.

Eight hundred tons of coal was distributed to the poor in the city, and local schoolchildren were supplied with 1,188 plum buns.

At the theatre

Even the theatre got involved in the celebrations. All seats for the day were free and a comedy called "Sweethearts and Wives" was put on, followed by the farces "The Railway Station" and "An Alarming Sacrifice".

Nearly every different class of person celebrated the coming of the railways in some way that day, and the occasion was marked as the special event for the county that it was.

With the coming of the railways in Herefordshire the county lost 11 minutes as Greenwich Mean Time took the place of local time so that all the trains could run on one schedule. (Cavalcade of a Century, 1832-1932, 100 years of the Hereford Times: Hereford Record Office - BH74)

Open - closed

At the height of her railway mania Herefordshire had more than ten railway lines criss-crossing the countryside, carrying people on their daily business within the county. There were three further lines with stations on the edges of the county heading outwards. People in small villages such as Pembridge and Steens Bridge could take the train to Hereford for the market and shopping. By 1862, tourist tickets were being advertised to the Lake District, Wales and the Isle of Man on the Kington to Leominster line. Herefordshire now had a communication network that could bring visitors into the city and take residents out, opening up the rest of the country and the sights and sounds it had to offer.

In 1855, a service was being advertised that took cattle from Hereford to market in London by trains leaving Hereford at 12.30pm, 4.30pm and 5.45pm direct to Paddington to arrive early the next morning (Hereford Record Office B43/23). The agricultural industry that Hereford was so famous for could now be exploited throughout the country.

By 1896, passengers on the railway could even take out travel insurance. In the South Wales Company's Timetable and ABC Railway Guide of 1896 there is a £100 life insurance coupon guaranteed by Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corporation Ltd. This guaranteed that £100 would be paid to the legal representative of any ordinary ticket bearing person killed in a train accident - providing the booklet with the coupon was on that person and signed by that person. (Hereford Record Office - F10/155)

By the 1930s there were 45 railway stations and halts across the county of Herefordshire, linking north and south, east and west. However, when Dr. Beeching took over as Chairman of the British Transport Commission he examined which of the country's railways were the most viable. Sadly for Herefordshire the railways were suffering from cheap competition from the buses and six of the eight railway lines were closed in the 1960s, just over 100 years after they were first opened. Only three lines were left operational: the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway, the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford Railway and the Hereford & Worcester Railway. Today these are still the only lines that run through Barrs Court Station, the only railway station in the city still in use.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]