Above: Passengers arriving at Charing Cross Station.
When was the last time you got off a train at Charing Cross Station and you saw so few passengers on the platform? By the look of the train it was probably made up entirely of Pullman carriages. So the next question is – ‘Did you ever travel on a Pullman train?’
Every London railway terminus had a hotel built either beside it or on top of it. This was because railway travel was so slow that those travelling to London by train – when the London termini first opened – would need to spend a night at the hotel near their destination railway station to recover from the journey. The following morning they would be refreshed and ready to travel to another destination. Of course, we are talking about the wealthy here. If you have been into the Charing Cross Hotel and seen the grand staircase leading up to the dining area on the first floor you will have seen the extravagance that such travellers were provided with.
London railway termini and hotels once went hand-in-hand: Liverpool Street Station had the Great Eastern Hotel above it. It is still there today but it now caters for business people staying overnight in London or tourists wanting a central base in which to do some sight-seeing. St Pancras International had its grand hotel which has ‘come back from the dead’ within the last few years. Paddington Station had the Great Western Hotel, now known as the Hilton London Paddington Hotel. Victoria Station has the Victoria Station Hotel. Above Cannon Street Station was a hotel until it was bombed during the Second World War. London Bridge Station had the Terminus Hotel situated on part of the site of the Shard of Glass. Thinking about it – the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel is handy for the newly built station but it was not really opened to cater for passing trade from railway passengers!
There is however another scenario to this picture. While our intrepid travellers could be travelling to Charing Cross Station, staying the night in the Charing Cross Hotel before journeying to York or Norwich the next day, for example, they may have come to stay in London. The post-card mentions the ‘Folkestone Express’. In which case the clue may be in the title. Folkestone, in Kent, was – and still is – a port. People from various parts of the Continent travelled across what we British called the ‘English Channel’ and arrived in England via Folkestone and thence by train to London. Charing Cross Station was the Edwardian ‘Gateway’ to the Strand which was the ‘Playground of London’. Even today most people know that the Savoy Hotel and the Waldorf Hotel remain in the Strand from Edwardian days. Why was that? – it was because the playboys of the day wanted to travel to London (often from the Continent) and stay in good hotels. They wanted entertainment by day – in the form of high-class shops, fine restaurants (of which Rule’s and Simpson’s still remain). By night their entertainment was in the form of attending the theatres of which you are still spoilt for choice in and around the Strand to this day.
Although only three hotels from Edwardian times have been mentioned. There were plenty more. Waterstone’s book shop is on the ground floor of a very large building that was built as the Grand Hotel. The imposing buildings lining Northumberland Avenue were nearly all hotels and very grand ones too! Today’s South Africa House stands on the site of Morley’s Hotel. So our elegant travellers in the picture could have come to while away the days in the pursuit of pleasure – shopping, eating and attending concerts of the theatre.
The scene looks like pure fantasy today but this was the reality of life at Charing Cross Station in the ‘good old days’. There are train attendants and guards to help them with their luggage. It was all neatly stowed in the guard’s van. I remember guard’s vans on trains when I travelled up to London Bridge Station on the way to school. The trains were so full in those days that passengers often stood in them rather than be packed like sardines into the normal passenger carriages.
I also remember the Pullman carriages although they were more modern in design than those in the picture. In the 1950s and 1960s New Cross Gate Station had extensive sidings at the London end of the platforms. On those sidings were held many Pullman carriages waiting to be added to passenger trains on longer railway journeys to places including Ramsgate and Brighton. Mentioning Ramsgate reminds me that trains from there to Victoria were often made up of Pullman carriages sometimes the whole train had such carriages. If you chose to sit in the carriage, having your normal train ticket in your pocket, you showed that ticket and then paid a surcharge to travel in the Pullman. Many of the carriages were laid up for dining – lunch or dinner – depending on the time of day. It was all very grand and certainly a cut above the poor service that we all endure over half a century later!
One regret about the picture is that the right-hand end of the view has plenty of smoke or steam, presumably emanating from the steam engine ‘up the front’. Sadly the engine cannot be seen. Oh well, you can’t have everything!