Points of View: Complaints from Halifax
A battered little volume with a red leather label on the cover is the original complaints book from Halifax Station in West Yorkshire, which was opened by the Manchester and Leeds Railway in 1844. The first complaint is dated August 1845, and the book was maintained until 1918. There are substantial lacunae, where either everything was running smoothly, the stationmaster was less zealous or the book had been mislaid, but I couldn’t pass over the chance to sample 75 years of irate passengers, stretching between the second burst of Railwaymania and the end of the Great War. It’s so easy nowadays to dash off a stroppy tweet or post a stinking review online (anonymously, if so desired). To call for the book and a pen, passengers must have been pretty stoked up. And as Halifax isn’t a huge terminus, there’s a good chance regular passengers and staff would have been on nodding terms at least. So, were Victorians riled by the same issues which bring misery to the modern commuter, or did early rail travel have special torments all of its own?
March 19 1849: ‘I don’t want to make a formal complaint, but I think you should know…’ I am paraphrasing Mr John Waterhouse, who actually wrote:
Mr Waterhouse thinks it right to take this means of bringing the matter before the Directors, but hopes they will not accuse him of any wish to make an ill tempered or unreasonable complaint against any party.
Mr Waterhouse also speaks of himself in the third person (signature and handwriting tally). He had been booked in a first class carriage in the express train to Preston but missed his connection at Bolton (‘a constant occurrence’) and worse was to come: at Bury five women and children were put in his carriage, making nine in total, ‘who certainly were not likely to have paid first class fare’. By the time the train drew into Halifax Mr Waterhouse was decidedly ill tempered, and demanded the complaints book.
Months later in July 1849 Mr Chambers complained ‘of the insolence of your clerk at the H[alifa]x station’. He objected to the amount of change he was given with his ticket, ‘and the correction I received was that I was either drunk or foolish’. ‘Sent in’, noted a member of staff beneath.
International relations took a knock in 1851:
Arrived this afternoon from Manchester, being about to go further to London I requested in the most polite way the inspector of this station to allow my luggage to be left and received in the most impolite way a refusal. Is this right? A foreigner.
However, there were two sides to this:
I was present when the above entry was made and beg to testify that, in as much English as I could comprehend, his object was to raise an advance upon his luggage, to which I as an Englishman objected. An Englishman.
A month or so later Mr Booth felt obliged to complain of the misconduct of one of the porters, taking more than a page to do so in a neat copperplate hand. A lady was involved, who wished to proceed to Bradford on the 6.50 pm train. On arrival only one first class compartment had any light in it – other two were dark. This was an age where passengers were locked into their compartments by railway staff (the murder of Thomas Briggs in 1864 led to sweeping changes to carriage design, including corridors and communication cords). When the lady requested to be allowed into the lit carriage the porter ‘feigned an attempt at doing so, and with the appearance and language of intoxication told me his key would not open the lock. This being a falsehood I remonstrated with him’. On threatening to report him Mr Booth was ‘assailed’ with intolerable language which he declines to repeat but which he assures us warrants punishment (the usual difficulty faced by collectors of slang: the person with the pen often refuses to write it down). And the upshot? The lit compartment had just one passenger but the porter refused to open the door; the lady was obliged to travel in a dark compartment, overcrowded with ‘more than its regular complement of passengers’, which was ‘as she has since informed me much to her discomfort and annoyance’.
There are complaints about ‘repeated inattention’, ‘incivility’ and ‘insolence’. Porters were cautioned for lost or damaged items: a broken umbrella; a billiard cue dropped from a cart; lost boots; upset churns of milk. But at times one is left with a strong sense that we are hearing half the story; it would be interesting to hear how much provocation had been offered, or how realistic passengers were being. For example, this from May 1852:
I have to complain of the conduct of the Guard and also for allowing water to be thrown on my parcels after telling him not to do so.
Presumably this meant that the parcels had not been properly stowed or covered, rather than a random act of malice, but was the guard negligent or had the passenger put his belongings somewhere daft? One complaint in the 1870s clearly annoyed staff so much that it was obliterated with caricatures, and the book was then ‘lost’ for a time, with no further complaints until 1897.
Complaints from businesses about delays affecting perishable or time-sensitive goods such as meat or yeast are perfectly understandable, as are complaints from passengers who arrived one minute too late and were forced to stand on the platform or behind a barrier while the train slowly pulled away (I’m guessing we’ve all reached the platform as the doors close 30 seconds before departure). Sometimes it all gets a bit odd. At 12 minutes past 2 on June 16th 1874 William Roberts, cattle dealer, asked for a ticket to the village of Hipperholme, which was refused. He then climbed into a second class carriage but before the train left three staff pushed him out of it ‘by main force’, breaking his hat (which he valued at 10 shillings and sixpence), and he demanded that the railway company ‘settle’ with him. Was he one over the eight? It was early afternoon, and he was sober enough to write, but it’s hard to see what else might have been going on.
People with the urge to write complaints are a self selecting sample at the best of times, and although literacy was more widespread in the 19th century than we often assume, having the confidence to put pen to paper could also have been a factor in determining whose voices were recorded in a book like this one. At first glance locked carriages, broken hats and the furious German yeast importers and dealers of Halifax belong to another world, but the underlying frustration (one can almost hear the tutting, sometimes) is very human. Modern railway companies invest time and energy in finding new and different ways of saying sorry on Twitter, but perhaps the trains have never run on time…