A campaign for family-friendly trains in 1858

The calling for improvements in facilities for families on British trains has a long history, stretching right into the nineteenth century. Whenever the campaign comes across previous advocates for improved family travel, they are unified in what they are facing up to. Transport organisations shape what facilities should be available to families, what fares to charge, how they should be treated and how to sell services to them, and their capacity to act is regulated, reinforced and influenced by external factors, such as government regulation and social norms. A common thread from the past to now is that campaigners have sought to influence and change these systems, structures, and the nature of the decisions around family travel, as one case from 1858 demonstrates.

On 6 July 1858 Johnson Atkinson Busfield (a wealthy solicitor), Mary Elizabeth Busfield and their family decided to take a trip to the coast from their home in Bingley, near Bradford in Yorkshire.[1] Their route would take them via the Midland Railway to Leeds, where they would proceed onwards to the ‘sea’ via the North Eastern Railway. They presumably had a young child with them and so, as many parents do today, they took their perambulator (a pram to you and I). They received a shock when they arrived at the station; the clerk charged them 2 shillings 6 pence extra for its carriage, where previously no charge had been levied.[2]

To modern eyes, it may seem illogical to charge independently for an item of everyday use, especially one for which there is no charge now. But in the 1850s prams weren’t considered a common feature of bringing up children. They only started to become popular amongst the elites when Queen Victoria – that trendsetter of the age – bought a number for her children in 1846,[3] and most babies were carried at this time. This was reflected in railway charges, many early railways only conveying babies free if they were ‘in arms’.

Royal endorsement also did not prevent hostility towards perambulators from emerging that possibly discouraged their use. Some considered they might harm children; the 1860 edition of Chavasse’s Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Offspring warned that they were ‘…very apt to make a child stoop, and to make him both crooked and round-shouldered. He is cramped by being so long in one position. It is painful to notice a babe of a few months old in one of these newfangled carriages.’[4] Others considered them an annoyance to other pedestrians. A letter writer to the Norwich Mercury argued in 1859 that where babies used to be carried, perambulators were now used ‘to the great annoyance and inconvenience to the public’.[5]

Despite such opinions, their increasing use amongst elite families, such as the Busfields, and presumably growing numbers of them being carried by train, compelled the railway industry to address how to handle them and if charges should be made. In 1857 the goods managers’ committee of the Railway Clearing House (RCH), where many intercompany arrangements were made, agreed on a national charge for when perambulators were sent as merchandise by freight train.[6] The next year, the RCH addressed their conveyance with passengers, which led to a small campaign and a court case that centred on how to define a perambulator in such circumstances. Were they or were they not luggage?

The railway companies’ right to charge for the transit of anything was underpinned by legislation. Their authorising acts of parliament specified the maximum charge for carrying passengers and that they could take with them free an amount of ‘ordinary luggage’ that did not exceed certain weight and size limitations. ‘Ordinary’ was nonetheless a vague term, although in 1855 a court case laid down that it was defined as ‘clothing and such articles as a traveller usually carries with him for his personal convenience’.[7] 

Until 1858, the status of perambulators within this framework had not been codified and extra charges were not applied when they were carried by train. Then, in early-1858, someone senior at the Midland Railway decided that the railway should begin charging for them, as they could not be thought of as ‘ordinary’, not being used frequently by families. On 17 June the company’s Superintendent of the Line, Mr Needham, went further. He raised the issue of rates for carrying perambulators at the Coaching Superintendents Committee of the RCH and eight companies then agreed to a scale of charges.[8] The notice of these, revising on the Midland its earlier scale, was sent to all stations on 7 July (the day after Busfield’s journey).[9]

Given the perambulator the Busfields took with them to the seaside was within the weight and height limitations for ‘luggage’, Busfield wrote the Midland’s General Manager, Newcombe, asking under what circumstances the railway was allowed to charge extra for their carriage. The Manager’s rather caustic response was that if one person claimed to carry a perambulator, another ‘might claim to carry a bath chair, and another by a very easy gradation might claim to have a small basket pony carriage conveyed as luggage’.[10]

Not accepting this outcome, and possibly aware of the broader rollout of charges and hoping to set a precedent, Busfield went to court in August to claim back the 2s 6d. He argued, again, that given perambulators were common when going to the seaside, they were ‘ordinary luggage’ when within restrictions. The judge, James John Lonsdale, disagreed. He ruled that whilst the Busfield’s perambulator did not fall foul of the regulations for the weight and size of ordinary luggage, it did not fall into this category because ‘cases to take them [by train are]…the exception, and not the rule’. He reinforced his position by stating that unlike other luggage, perambulators in luggage vans could not have items stored on top of them without them incurring damage, thus they took up more space than, say, a suitcase.[11]

The right of the railway to charge had been upheld, corporate power had won the day reinforced by a judicial ruling, and as far as is known no one further contested the extra charges for the carriage of perambulators (which remained until the late-20th century). Busfield, despite his short fight failing, nonetheless became the first known individual to campaign for changes in the systems and structures shaping the travel of families by rail.

[1] The National Archives [TNA], HO 107/2286, 1851 Census, Registration District: 494: Keighley. Registration Sub-District: 1 Bingley, Folio 250, 23.TNA, RG 9/331, 1861 Census, Registration District 494: Keighley. Registration Sub-District: 1 Bingley, Folio 111, 5.

[2] “Can Perambulators be considered as Passenger Luggage”, editorial, Bradford Observer, Aug 19, 1858, 5. “Busfield v. Midland Railway Company”, editorial, County Courts Chronicle, Oct 1, 1858, 228.

[3] Abigail Hammond, “The Perambulator: A technological advance or social evil?” History of Childhood and Youth, Nov 16, 2016, accessed Feb 13, 2023, https://ellendorey.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/the-perambulator-a-technological-advance-or-social-evil/

[4] Pye Henry Chavasse, Advice to a mother on the management of her offspring (London: John Churchill, 1860), 100.

[5] Civis, “To the editor of the Norwich Mercury – Children’s Perambulators”, Norwich Mercury May 21, 1859, 5.

[6] TNA, RAIL 1080/164, Goods Managers’ Committee, 25 Jun 1857, p.247, minute no. 1108

[7] “Busfield v. Midland Railway Company”, editorial, County Courts Chronicle, Oct 1, 1858, 228.

[8] TNA, RAIL 1080/101, Coaching Superintendents Committee, 20 May 1858, p.2, minute no.440.

[9] TNA, RAIL 491/838, Midland Railway, Orders and circulars (from No.1), circular 132, 7 July 1858.

[10] “Can Perambulators be considered as Passenger Luggage”, Bradford Observer, Aug 19, 1858, 5.

[11] “Busfield v. Midland Railway Company”, editorial, County Courts Chronicle, Oct 1, 1858, 228.

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