Coldest in fifteen yearsNo-one had run a passenger railway seven days a week, 52 weeks per year until 1830 and the winter of 1830-1831 was particularly hard. Metereological data shows that there was an almost continuous frost from 23 December to 6 January with an average temperature of 1.1 centigrade. The Thames froze and lowest recorded temperature recorded was in Greenwich on Christmas Day was -12 centigrade! It was a true 'white Christmas' and is believed to have inspired that of Charles Dickens in his 'Pickwick Papers'. The Morning Herald reported
During the late frost the thermometer in a gentleman’s garden in Cambridge sunk to 6, or 26 below the freezing point.
Last Monday, at Heathfield, a young man, fool-like applied the polished face of a hammer to his tongue, and there kept the same until the frost had so fixed it as to cause blood to follow in its removal.(The Morning Herald – 26 January 1830)
The cold weather brought chaos to existing transport networks via river, canal and turnpike:
This is the severest winter we have had for some years, and since our last we have experienced it in its wildest characteristics. On Wednesday as the Wellington coach was on its way to Sheffield, the coachman and passengers perceived on the road near Mam Tor, two men lying by the wayside, completely overcome by the severity of the weather. One of them was so much weakened that he must have shortly perished, had the coach not opportunely arrived. The other man was only just able to stand. (The Morning Chronicle – 25 January 1830).
The Trains will get through
It was despite the 'great freeze' (as one 'paper reported) that the Liverpool & Manchester continued to run trains between both important northern cities, but the engines were not up to the task. The five-foot single driving wheels of the Planet-class - skittish at best on damp rails - could not 'find their feet'. One newspaper reported:
Considerable difficulty was experienced... it was found that the wheels of the engine, instead of moving forward, slipped on the rails, and move round without making any progress, causing considerable damage to the machinery...
The Christmas rush
Yet, within a decade of the struggle of trying to run the first trains through the Christmas Period, the Morning Post (30 December 1843) was reporting that Christmas travel, and the concomitant rush and delays, had become a de-facto part of life:
There is generally at Christmas more than the ordinary amount of traffic
on the Liverpool & Manchester Railroad; but on Saturday the number
of passengers was so great that the Up-trains did not arrive at
Manchester until and hour or more beyond
their usual time; in the evening, the Up-trains were later still. Many
trains departing leaving would-be passengers stranded upon the
Plus cas change!
But what of Christmas Day itself? Christmas as a public holiday was only really popularised by the likes of Dickens or Harriet Martineau, and travelling on Christmas Day, even before the railways, had none of the stigma attached to Sunday travel (unless it was on a Sunday, of course). The Leeds Intelligencer noted that whilst a reduced service was in operation, first-class tickets were available on the Manchester & Leed Railway to 'giving first-class parties some privilege in travelling at Christmas.'
Thus, from the very beginning of seasonal rail travel, all the rush, delays, crammed carriages were part-and-parcel of the experience. Do they now count as a Christmas Tradition, or a reflection on the railways' 180 years lack of being able to cope with bad winters and the seasonal rush?