In the final part of her series on Victorian society and crime, Margaret Callow looks at the early days of rail – and a particular form of entertainment …
“It would be a exciting day out. Not only was there a new train to travel in, but also a chance to visit Norwich and see the execution. We never missed such an event if we could help. Such excitement, such crowds and everyone in a jolly mood. We wouldn’t worry too much about being hungry, not with the Pie Man offering his wares outside the Castle. They said the smell of offal escaping through the vents in the crispy pastry was enough to set all the juices rolling around the mouth. And that was just standing in the queue. Such long queues he had and our stomachs grumbled, but it was worth it.
Until a few years ago, the trains only ran as far as Bishop’s Stortford and then went back to London. That meant we had to take the stage coach or hire a private carriage if we wanted to travel, but in 1844 it seems come the summer so many people wanted to spend their holidays in Norfolk, the Eastern Counties Railway thought the trains would soon pay for themselves. And so after the major extension, we could journey all the way to the terminus at Trowse just outside Norwich. Another line went north to Cromer and east to Great Yarmouth too. Seaside places they were and hardly a space on the train to be had once the weather turned warm.
A notice said: ‘The Yarmouth and Norwich Railway will be opened to the public on Wednesday, 1st May next. Trains will leave Norwich at 9 and 11 o’clock in the morning and 4 and 7 o’clock in the afternoon. And from Yarmouth at 8 and 10 o’clock in the morning and 3 and 8 o’clock in the afternoon. Fares:- First class: 3s 6d; second class 2s 6d; third class 1s 3d. Tickets to and from Norwich and Yarmouth on the same day: First class 5s; second class 4s; third class 2s.’
We travelled third class in a coach with no roof on the day we went to watch the hanging. It didn’t have seats either so when your legs got tired you sat on the floor, if there was room of course. On the day the railway opened, they said first class got the best of everything and seats. A brass band played in the carriage next to the engine and the food was like nothing us sort would know about. ‘Pickled salmon, green geese, tongues, plover’s eggs, peaches and strawberries too,’ they said afterwards.
On the day everyone arrived early. Well they would, wouldn’t they? Getting a good viewing spot is important at a hanging. The first train from Yarmouth emptied out its passengers so fast the platform was clogged with people and when the trains from Suffolk, Essex and us from London arrived almost together, the station heaved with folk.
You could almost touch the excitement as if we were all off to a fair or a great theatre. We stayed a moment in the meadow. Not too long mind, the wind was cold and the sky quite grey.You could see our train on its single track as it raced on towards the bridge, leaving the stout flint railway buildings and the jaded looking goods shed behind it. It swooped through the brick arch leaving drifts of white smoke like aerial cobwebs. Its reedy whistle made a triumphant noise, yet warned too so that cows might get off the track.
Rich people took a horse and carriage to and from the station, others like us had to walk, but we never minded because we got to cross the Foundry Bridge and look down into the Wensum. A dark place that river was too. When a stone hit the surface, the water creased and the ripples spread out slowly like thick green broth.
Sometimes we saw a wherry, but there was a Goods van on the train that took boxes of tea and coffee for a shop in London Street. We guessed it was only a matter of time before the train carried more freight and sure enough there were less wherries and the stage coaches that ran between Norwich and London stopped all together a few years later. The streets would be quieter without the coaches, but just the same we should miss them.
We could hear the bell booming out before we reached the Market Place. St. Peter Mancroft it was. Such a surge of people, thousands of them on their way to the Castle Hill. Some had climbed up to the square tower of the church, others sat on the tops of houses to be sure not to miss anything. Everything was set for a good day out, even the sun started to shine on that April morning. We managed to get quite close and could see the gallows on the bridge over the moat. Good job it was dry now or else someone might have toppled in the way people pushed and shoved.
Then as the church bell tolled noon, there was movement on the bridge. We could see the sheriff and the under sheriff walking towards the gallows and then the felon himself with the chaplain next to him reading to him from the Bible he carried. There was a little gasp when he appeared. A short man, he was, broad too and dressed to his toes in black. His head was bare and a little breeze ruffled his hair. He wore no neck cloth, his hands were gently clasped and he walked with a goodly stride.
The Pie Man was busy, but suddenly as if one the crowd went silent. Those who were with him accompanied him to the scaffold and waited whilst he climbed the steps. There was such a hush. . . then someone in the crowd shrieked as the drop fell and the body swung out. The satisfied murmuring sound rippled through the crowd like a winnowing wind in a cornfield. ”
Margaret Callow’s historical crime novel ‘Rust‘ launches in March 2015 from Grey Cells Press