On 1 November 1879 the Great Northern Railway introduced the first public dining car service in Britain. The Prince of Wales dining car ran from Leeds to London King's Cross and passengers were treated to a six-course meal while hurtling across the country—a pivotal step in railway catering in Britain. But how did these restaurants on rails fare against the challenges of the 1900s?
Uncomfortable travel and stale sandwiches
As we can see from the LNER poster here, railway travel was not always a comfortable experience. In the early days railway journeys could be distressing—not only because of the speed in which they travelled, but they could be noisy, smelly and cold.
Passenger comforts were not initially a priority, especially when it came to railway catering. Terrible coffee and stale sandwiches were the source of many complaints.
However, by the late 19th century, new innovations had improved the quality of the railway journey for those on board.
The Pullman Company Car
One such innovator was George Mortimer Pullman, an American engineer who designed luxury railway cars including the sleeping car and the dining car. The first dining car he personally designed was named ‘Delmonico’ and ran on the Chicago and Alton line. His designs were a vast improvement on the comfort of passenger rail travel.
The Pullman dining cars made their way across the pond on 1 November 1879, when the ‘Prince of Wales’ ran on the Great Northern Railway from Leeds to London. This was the first public dining car service in Britain and was exclusively for first-class passengers. It was a success from the beginning and the Wakefield Express described the first journey:
"Glasses were filled with wine and placed on the tables, and not a drop was spilled. Ordinary decanters and bottles betrayed no tendency to topple over into the laps of the guests, or plates to empty their contents on the carpet, and considering the unprecedented speed at which the train travelled the cars were remarkably steady, and there was an entire absence of the feeling of rapid travelling. The lunch passed over to the entire satisfaction of all."
The introduction of the dining car was embraced by the public as an opportunity to dine in comfort. Over the next 25 years railway companies across Britain began introducing their own dining cars for both first- and third-class passengers.
Dining cars came in varying designs and layouts reflecting the fashions of the time. The one below was made at the Wolverton Works for the West Coast Joint Stock for the Caledonian and London & North Western Railway Companies in 1900. It was for first-class passengers and won a gold medal for craftsmanship and finish at an exhibition in Paris. When it returned to Britain it was used as part of King Edward VII’s Royal Train. Despite its royal connections, the interiors were very typical for the period, with upholstered chairs, wooden panelling and tables laden with cloths and silverware.
Six-Course Meals for One
From the late 1880s to the 1920s, dining cars served a variety of different types of foods, but passengers usually ate a range of courses, from starters of soup to fish dishes, a meat dish and dessert. Most dishes served were fashionable French or British recipes and sometimes the menus were even written in French.
To make sure the quality of the meals and the dining car service were up to scratch, the LNER hired restaurant car inspectors. Their job was to use the dining car, disguised as a passenger, and report back on the quality of the food and the service. These inspectors were previous dining car conductors and refreshment room manageresses.
Crockery and Cutlery
Not only did the food have to taste good—it had to be served correctly, too. Crockery and cutlery had to match and could not be used if it was chipped. They would also go missing, perhaps by accident or perhaps stolen, maybe even as a souvenir from their journey.
Cooking On The Move
By the 1920s up to 200 meals a day were served on a single dining car, this meant a lot of work for those working in the kitchen. The kitchens were small and the cooks and kitchen assistants had to prepare, cook and plate each dish within a tiny space whilst travelling at speed.
Many cooks were hired from ships due to the similar working conditions. Not only did they have to prepare a lot of food, but they were expected to make meals to a high standard. As the dining car became more popular, railway companies began opening kitchen depots at major stations, where a team of chefs and kitchen assistants would partially prepare some of the food for the journey.
‘Sea legs’ and starched uniforms
Not only did the cooks have to work hard but the dining car attendants and conductors, too. They were expected to gain their ‘sea legs’ as they served meals on the move. They provided a luxury dining experience for the travellers , answering their every need. The luxury provided in the dining car contrasted with the more industrial image of the railways—even the dining car workers uniforms were made to be luxurious.
As you can see below, the dining car conductors of the LNER wore white Eton jackets. Other railway companies such as the Great Western Railway had strict uniform rules, if dining car attendants’ uniforms were not cleaned and ironed properly, they were not allowed to work and they could not be seen by the public with the sleeves rolled up.
Dining Cars Are Withdrawn
By the late 1930s, dining cars were a well-established part of the passenger railway service. However, the Second World War brought a series of changes. Dining cars were withdrawn from the railways twice, first in 1939 and again in 1944 to be restored again in October 1945. Additionally, the introduction of rationing extended to crockery, cutlery and linen as well as food, reducing the quality of the dining car service.
As a result, when dining cars were reinstated in 1945 the food service was much simpler than what had previously been on offer. Instead of six-course meals, passengers were served no more than three, usually featuring meat pie, sausage or cod. As the railways were nationalised, one of the many problems they faced was restoring railway catering—regardless of their efforts, they rarely matched the expectations and memories of the dining car in its prime.
- Neil Wooler, Dinner in the Diner: The History of Railway Catering (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1987)
- Chris de Winter Hebron, Dining at Speed: A celebration of 125 years of railway catering (Kettering, Northants: Silverlink Publishing Ltd, 2004)