I find myself on trains a fair bit, often travelling through Rugby. It never ceases to amaze me what a poor job the people who run stations do with franchising their refreshemnts. A captive audience, often plenty of space on the inter city platforms and cavernous Victorian buildings yet the ubqiuitous Pumpkin chain never fails to depress, the one at Stoke-on-Trent stands out as an especially sad welcome to that glorious city. It's not just Pumpkin though they are almost all bad. There are some lovely exceptions where independents get in (at Bath Spa for instance), but they are a vanishing minority.
Charles Dickens wrote some savage short stories about his experiences at Rugby Junction station, thinly disguised as 'Mugby'. Rugby in his day was a byword for chaos in changing trains. Dickens apparently had a bad experience in the refreshment room at the station 'it never yet refreshed a mortal being' and took pitiless revenge in the the razor sharp story 'The Boy At Mugby' an in character piece by the boy servant in the rooms.
This piece is as relevant today as it was over one hundred years ago. It seems to be the origin of all British railway sandwich humour. Next time you are stuck with the Pumpkin as your only source of sustenance on a cold night, read this, extracted from Project Gutenberg and weep at he state of progress:
CHAPTER III—THE BOY AT MUGBY
I am the boy at Mugby. That’s about what I am.
You don’t know what I mean? What a pity! But I think you do. I think you must. Look here. I am the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction, and what’s proudest boast is, that it never yet refreshed a mortal being.
Up in a corner of the Down Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction, in the height of twenty-seven cross draughts (I’ve often counted ’em while they brush the First-Class hair twenty-seven ways), behind the bottles, among the glasses, bounded on the nor’west by the beer, stood pretty far to the right of a metallic object that’s at times the tea-urn and at times the soup-tureen, according to the nature of the last twang imparted to its contents which are the same groundwork, fended off from the traveller by a barrier of stale sponge-cakes erected atop of the counter, and lastly exposed sideways to the glare of Our Missis’s eye—you ask a Boy so sitiwated, next time you stop in a hurry at Mugby, for anything to drink; you take particular notice that he’ll try to seem not to hear you, that he’ll appear in a absent manner to survey the Line through a transparent medium composed of your head and body, and that he won’t serve you as long as you can possibly bear it. That’s me.
What a lark it is! We are the Model Establishment, we are, at Mugby. Other Refreshment Rooms send their imperfect young ladies up to be finished off by our Missis. For some of the young ladies, when they’re new to the business, come into it mild! Ah! Our Missis, she soon takes that out of ’em. Why, I originally come into the business meek myself. But Our Missis, she soon took that out of me.
What a delightful lark it is! I look upon us Refreshmenters as ockipying the only proudly independent footing on the Line. There’s Papers, for instance,—my honourable friend, if he will allow me to call him so,—him as belongs to Smith’s bookstall. Why, he no more dares to be up to our Refreshmenting games than he dares to jump a top of a locomotive with her steam at full pressure, and cut away upon her alone, driving himself, at limited-mail speed. Papers, he’d get his head punched at every compartment, first, second, and third, the whole length of a train, if he was to ventur to imitate my demeanour. It’s the same with the porters, the same with the guards, the same with the ticket clerks, the same the whole way up to the secretary, traffic-manager, or very chairman. There ain’t a one among ’em on the nobly independent footing we are. Did you ever catch one of them, when you wanted anything of him, making a system of surveying the Line through a transparent medium composed of your head and body? I should hope not.
You should see our Bandolining Room at Mugby Junction. It’s led to by the door behind the counter, which you’ll notice usually stands ajar, and it’s the room where Our Missis and our young ladies Bandolines their hair. You should see ’em at it, betwixt trains, Bandolining away, as if they was anointing themselves for the combat. When you’re telegraphed, you should see their noses all a-going up with scorn, as if it was a part of the working of the same Cooke and Wheatstone electrical machinery. You should hear Our Missis give the word, “Here comes the Beast to be Fed!” and then you should see ’em indignantly skipping across the Line, from the Up to the Down, or Wicer Warsaw, and begin to pitch the stale pastry into the plates, and chuck the sawdust sangwiches under the glass covers, and get out the—ha, ha, ha!—the sherry,—O my eye, my eye!—for your Refreshment.
It’s only in the Isle of the Brave and Land of the Free (by which, of course, I mean to say Britannia) that Refreshmenting is so effective, so ’olesome, so constitutional a check upon the public. There was a Foreigner, which having politely, with his hat off, beseeched our young ladies and Our Missis for “a leetel gloss host prarndee,” and having had the Line surveyed through him by all and no other acknowledgment, was a-proceeding at last to help himself, as seems to be the custom in his own country, when Our Missis, with her hair almost a-coming un-Bandolined with rage, and her eyes omitting sparks, flew at him, cotched the decanter out of his hand, and said, “Put it down! I won’t allow that!” The foreigner turned pale, stepped back with his arms stretched out in front of him, his hands clasped, and his shoulders riz, and exclaimed: “Ah! Is it possible, this! That these disdaineous females and this ferocious old woman are placed here by the administration, not only to empoison the voyagers, but to affront them! Great Heaven! How arrives it? The English people. Or is he then a slave? Or idiot?” Another time, a merry, wideawake American gent had tried the sawdust and spit it out, and had tried the Sherry and spit that out, and had tried in vain to sustain exhausted natur upon Butter-Scotch, and had been rather extra Bandolined and Line-surveyed through, when, as the bell was ringing and he paid Our Missis, he says, very loud and good-tempered: “I tell Yew what ’tis, ma’arm. I la’af. Theer! I la’af. I Dew. I oughter ha’ seen most things, for I hail from the Onlimited side of the Atlantic Ocean, and I haive travelled right slick over the Limited, head on through Jeerusalemm and the East, and likeways France and Italy, Europe Old World, and am now upon the track to the Chief Europian Village; but such an Institution as Yew, and Yewer young ladies, and Yewer fixin’s solid and liquid, afore the glorious Tarnal I never did see yet! And if I hain’t found the eighth wonder of monarchical Creation, in finding Yew and Yewer young ladies, and Yewer fixin’s solid and liquid, all as aforesaid, established in a country where the people air not absolute Loo-naticks, I am Extra Double Darned with a Nip and Frizzle to the innermostest grit! Wheerfur—Theer!—I la’af! I Dew, ma’arm. I la’af!” And so he went, stamping and shaking his sides, along the platform all the way to his own compartment.
I think it was her standing up agin the Foreigner as giv’ Our Missis the idea of going over to France, and droring a comparison betwixt Refreshmenting as followed among the frog-eaters, and Refreshmenting as triumphant in the Isle of the Brave and Land of the Free (by which, of course, I mean to say agin, Britannia). Our young ladies, Miss Whiff, Miss Piff, and Mrs. Sniff, was unanimous opposed to her going; for, as they says to Our Missis one and all, it is well beknown to the hends of the herth as no other nation except Britain has a idea of anythink, but above all of business. Why then should you tire yourself to prove what is already proved? Our Missis, however (being a teazer at all pints) stood out grim obstinate, and got a return pass by Southeastern Tidal, to go right through, if such should be her dispositions, to Marseilles.
Sniff is husband to Mrs. Sniff, and is a regular insignificant cove. He looks arter the sawdust department in a back room, and is sometimes, when we are very hard put to it, let behind the counter with a corkscrew; but never when it can be helped, his demeanour towards the public being disgusting servile. How Mrs. Sniff ever come so far to lower herself as to marry him, I don’t know; but I suppose he does, and I should think he wished he didn’t, for he leads a awful life. Mrs. Sniff couldn’t be much harder with him if he was public. Similarly, Miss Whiff and Miss Piff, taking the tone of Mrs. Sniff, they shoulder Sniff about when he is let in with a corkscrew, and they whisk things out of his hands when in his servility he is a-going to let the public have ’em, and they snap him up when in the crawling baseness of his spirit he is a-going to answer a public question, and they drore more tears into his eyes than ever the mustard does which he all day long lays on to the sawdust. (But it ain’t strong.) Once, when Sniff had the repulsiveness to reach across to get the milk-pot to hand over for a baby, I see Our Missis in her rage catch him by both his shoulders, and spin him out into the Bandolining Room.
But Mrs. Sniff,—how different! She’s the one! She’s the one as you’ll notice to be always looking another way from you, when you look at her. She’s the one with the small waist buckled in tight in front, and with the lace cuffs at her wrists, which she puts on the edge of the counter before her, and stands a smoothing while the public foams. This smoothing the cuffs and looking another way while the public foams is the last accomplishment taught to the young ladies as come to Mugby to be finished by Our Missis; and it’s always taught by Mrs. Sniff.
When Our Missis went away upon her journey, Mrs. Sniff was left in charge. She did hold the public in check most beautiful! In all my time, I never see half so many cups of tea given without milk to people as wanted it with, nor half so many cups of tea with milk given to people as wanted it without. When foaming ensued, Mrs. Sniff would say: “Then you’d better settle it among yourselves, and change with one another.” It was a most highly delicious lark. I enjoyed the Refreshmenting business more than ever, and was so glad I had took to it when young.
Our Missis returned. It got circulated among the young ladies, and it as it might be penetrated to me through the crevices of the Bandolining Room, that she had Orrors to reveal, if revelations so contemptible could be dignified with the name. Agitation become awakened. Excitement was up in the stirrups. Expectation stood a-tiptoe. At length it was put forth that on our slacked evening in the week, and at our slackest time of that evening betwixt trains, Our Missis would give her views of foreign Refreshmenting, in the Bandolining Room.
It was arranged tasteful for the purpose. The Bandolining table and glass was hid in a corner, a arm-chair was elevated on a packing-case for Our Missis’s ockypation, a table and a tumbler of water (no sherry in it, thankee) was placed beside it. Two of the pupils, the season being autumn, and hollyhocks and dahlias being in, ornamented the wall with three devices in those flowers. On one might be read, “MAY ALBION NEVER LEARN;” on another “KEEP THE PUBLIC DOWN;” on another, “OUR REFRESHMENTING CHARTER.” The whole had a beautiful appearance, with which the beauty of the sentiments corresponded.
On Our Missis’s brow was wrote Severity, as she ascended the fatal platform. (Not that that was anythink new.) Miss Whiff and Miss Piff sat at her feet. Three chairs from the Waiting Room might have been perceived by a average eye, in front of her, on which the pupils was accommodated. Behind them a very close observer might have discerned a Boy. Myself.
“Where,” said Our Missis, glancing gloomily around, “is Sniff?”
“I thought it better,” answered Mrs. Sniff, “that he should not be let to come in. He is such an Ass.”
“No doubt,” assented Our Missis. “But for that reason is it not desirable to improve his mind?”
“Oh, nothing will ever improve him,” said Mrs. Sniff.
“However,” pursued Our Missis, “call him in, Ezekiel.”
I called him in. The appearance of the low-minded cove was hailed with disapprobation from all sides, on account of his having brought his corkscrew with him. He pleaded “the force of habit.”
“The force!” said Mrs. Sniff. “Don’t let us have you talking about force, for Gracious’ sake. There! Do stand still where you are, with your back against the wall.”
He is a smiling piece of vacancy, and he smiled in the mean way in which he will even smile at the public if he gets a chance (language can say no meaner of him), and he stood upright near the door with the back of his head agin the wall, as if he was a waiting for somebody to come and measure his heighth for the Army.
“I should not enter, ladies,” says Our Missis, “on the revolting disclosures I am about to make, if it was not in the hope that they will cause you to be yet more implacable in the exercise of the power you wield in a constitutional country, and yet more devoted to the constitutional motto which I see before me,”—it was behind her, but the words sounded better so,—“‘May Albion never learn!’”
Here the pupils as had made the motto admired it, and cried, “Hear! Hear! Hear!” Sniff, showing an inclination to join in chorus, got himself frowned down by every brow.
“The baseness of the French,” pursued Our Missis, “as displayed in the fawning nature of their Refreshmenting, equals, if not surpasses, anythink as was ever heard of the baseness of the celebrated Bonaparte.”
Miss Whiff, Miss Piff, and me, we drored a heavy breath, equal to saying, “We thought as much!” Miss Whiff and Miss Piff seeming to object to my droring mine along with theirs, I drored another to aggravate ’em.
“Shall I be believed,” says Our Missis, with flashing eyes, “when I tell you that no sooner had I set my foot upon that treacherous shore—”
Here Sniff, either bursting out mad, or thinking aloud, says, in a low voice: “Feet. Plural, you know.”
The cowering that come upon him when he was spurned by all eyes, added to his being beneath contempt, was sufficient punishment for a cove so grovelling. In the midst of a silence rendered more impressive by the turned-up female noses with which it was pervaded, Our Missis went on:
“Shall I be believed when I tell you, that no sooner had I landed,” this word with a killing look at Sniff, “on that treacherous shore, than I was ushered into a Refreshment Room where there were—I do not exaggerate—actually eatable things to eat?”
A groan burst from the ladies. I not only did myself the honour of jining, but also of lengthening it out.
“Where there were,” Our Missis added, “not only eatable things to eat, but also drinkable things to drink?”
A murmur, swelling almost into a scream, ariz. Miss Piff, trembling with indignation, called out, “Name?”
“I will name,” said Our Missis. “There was roast fowls, hot and cold; there was smoking roast veal surrounded with browned potatoes; there was hot soup with (again I ask shall I be credited?) nothing bitter in it, and no flour to choke off the consumer; there was a variety of cold dishes set off with jelly; there was salad; there was—mark me! fresh pastry, and that of a light construction; there was a luscious show of fruit; there was bottles and decanters of sound small wine, of every size, and adapted to every pocket; the same odious statement will apply to brandy; and these were set out upon the counter so that all could help themselves.”
Our Missis’s lips so quivered, that Mrs. Sniff, though scarcely less convulsed than she were, got up and held the tumbler to them.
“This,” proceeds Our Missis, “was my first unconstitutional experience. Well would it have been if it had been my last and worst. But no. As I proceeded farther into that enslaved and ignorant land, its aspect became more hideous. I need not explain to this assembly the ingredients and formation of the British Refreshment sangwich?”
Universal laughter,—except from Sniff, who, as sangwich-cutter, shook his head in a state of the utmost dejection as he stood with it agin the wall.
“Well!” said Our Missis, with dilated nostrils. “Take a fresh, crisp, long, crusty penny loaf made of the whitest and best flour. Cut it longwise through the middle. Insert a fair and nicely fitting slice of ham. Tie a smart piece of ribbon round the middle of the whole to bind it together. Add at one end a neat wrapper of clean white paper by which to hold it. And the universal French Refreshment sangwich busts on your disgusted vision.”
A cry of “Shame!” from all—except Sniff, which rubbed his stomach with a soothing hand.
“I need not,” said Our Missis, “explain to this assembly the usual formation and fitting of the British Refreshment Room?”
No, no, and laughter. Sniff agin shaking his head in low spirits agin the wall.
“Well,” said Our Missis, “what would you say to a general decoration of everythink, to hangings (sometimes elegant), to easy velvet furniture, to abundance of little tables, to abundance of little seats, to brisk bright waiters, to great convenience, to a pervading cleanliness and tastefulness positively addressing the public, and making the Beast thinking itself worth the pains?”
Contemptuous fury on the part of all the ladies. Mrs. Sniff looking as if she wanted somebody to hold her, and everbody else looking as if they’d rayther not.
“Three times,” said Our Missis, working herself into a truly terrimenjious state,—“three times did I see these shameful things, only between the coast and Paris, and not counting either: at Hazebroucke, at Arras, at Amiens. But worse remains. Tell me, what would you call a person who should propose in England that there should be kept, say at our own model Mugby Junction, pretty baskets, each holding an assorted cold lunch and dessert for one, each at a certain fixed price, and each within a passenger’s power to take away, to empty in the carriage at perfect leisure, and to return at another station fifty or a hundred miles farther on?”
There was disagreement what such a person should be called. Whether revolutionise, atheist, Bright (I said him), or Un-English. Miss Piff screeched her shrill opinion last, in the words: “A malignant maniac!”
“I adopt,” says Our Missis, “the brand set upon such a person by the righteous indignation of my friend Miss Piff. A malignant maniac. Know, then, that that malignant maniac has sprung from the congenial soil of France, and that his malignant madness was in unchecked action on this same part of my journey.”
I noticed that Sniff was a-rubbing his hands, and that Mrs. Sniff had got her eye upon him. But I did not take more particular notice, owing to the excited state in which the young ladies was, and to feeling myself called upon to keep it up with a howl.
“On my experience south of Paris,” said Our Missis, in a deep tone, “I will not expatiate. Too loathsome were the task! But fancy this. Fancy a guard coming round, with the train at full speed, to inquire how many for dinner. Fancy his telegraphing forward the number of dinners. Fancy every one expected, and the table elegantly laid for the complete party. Fancy a charming dinner, in a charming room, and the head-cook, concerned for the honour of every dish, superintending in his clean white jacket and cap. Fancy the Beast travelling six hundred miles on end, very fast, and with great punctuality, yet being taught to expect all this to be done for it!”
A spirited chorus of “The Beast!”
I noticed that Sniff was agin a-rubbing his stomach with a soothing hand, and that he had drored up one leg. But agin I didn’t take particular notice, looking on myself as called upon to stimulate public feeling. It being a lark besides.
“Putting everything together,” said Our Missis, “French Refreshmenting comes to this, and oh, it comes to a nice total! First: eatable things to eat, and drinkable things to drink.”
A groan from the young ladies, kep’ up by me.
“Second: convenience, and even elegance.”
Another groan from the young ladies, kep’ up by me.
“Third: moderate charges.”
This time a groan from me, kep’ up by the young ladies.
“Fourth:—and here,” says Our Missis, “I claim your angriest sympathy,—attention, common civility, nay, even politeness!”
Me and the young ladies regularly raging mad all together.
“And I cannot in conclusion,” says Our Missis, with her spitefullest sneer, “give you a completer pictur of that despicable nation (after what I have related), than assuring you that they wouldn’t bear our constitutional ways and noble independence at Mugby Junction, for a single month, and that they would turn us to the right-about and put another system in our places, as soon as look at us; perhaps sooner, for I do not believe they have the good taste to care to look at us twice.”
The swelling tumult was arrested in its rise. Sniff, bore away by his servile disposition, had drored up his leg with a higher and a higher relish, and was now discovered to be waving his corkscrew over his head. It was at this moment that Mrs. Sniff, who had kep’ her eye upon him like the fabled obelisk, descended on her victim. Our Missis followed them both out, and cries was heard in the sawdust department.
You come into the Down Refreshment Room, at the Junction, making believe you don’t know me, and I’ll pint you out with my right thumb over my shoulder which is Our Missis, and which is Miss Whiff, and which is Miss Piff, and which is Mrs. Sniff. But you won’t get a chance to see Sniff, because he disappeared that night. Whether he perished, tore to pieces, I cannot say; but his corkscrew alone remains, to bear witness to the servility of his disposition.