Deconstructing Shaw's sketch of the Railway Office

The classic image of the Liverpool Railway Office, i.e. the 1830 Crown Street station, is by Thomas Talbot Bury. My preference, however, is for the sketch by Isaac Shaw (zoomable version courtesy of Yale Center for British Art). Both, in fact, depict the station in 1831 when the train shed was built. We can see the skylights in the train shed compensating for the shadow cast by this new shelter for the expensive railway carriages.

As with the Barton Moss pictures, it is almost as though the two artists were present at the same scene though there are differences in both cases. Whether the railway company exerted any editorial influence is unknown though some think it likely.

Like so many railway artists, Shaw occasionally struggles with perspective (the two omnibuses that brought first class passengers from Dale Street, for example) and scale (some people are dwarfed by what were actually quite small carriages) but he tells a more interesting story.

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Figure: Liverpool Crown Street station by Thomas Talbot Bury (left; Wikipedia) and Isaac Shaw (right; Yale/Public Domain)

The omnibuses

Firstly, the two omnibuses parked in the station yard clearly differ. This is not entirely surprising because the nearest has the same shape as the red one in Bury's print, the remainder being yellow like the first class "glass" coaches. As previously with the Mona's Isle advert on the righthand wall, the image can be manipulated to reveal the text on the righthand coach, in this case "Liverpool Post Office".

The Royal Mail started using the Liverpool & Manchester Railway soon after it opened and operated a superior grade railway carriage to carry the mails. Shaw's sketch presumably ante-dates arrival of this special carriage but indicates that the mail street coach, like the railway carriage, carried passengers as well as post.

Both omnibuses have metal edging around the roof to prevent luggage falling off. The post office omnibus used a tarpaulin as well. Several men and one of the women are carrying umbrellas so it may just have finished raining.

The presence of the extra horse is curious as it suggests that the teams are being changed. Perhaps the sheds behind the station building are actually stables?

Presumably the passengers have left the omnibuses which are now waiting for the next train to arrive once this one has departed (the tunnel is single-track).

The railway carriages

The departure platform is on the left and four coaches have been assembled. Trains typically comprised 4-5 coaches and we can see another coach on the right under the train shed. However, this has been forsaken for the 4-inside premium coach being hauled in from the right. This would appear to take two additional passengers riding in the coupe compartment at the front as well as the guard or brakesman at the rear. It differs from the later mail carriage but its spaciousness similarly came at a (slightly lower) premium.

Presumably the 4-inside was normally located in the main train shed and the track to the adjacent Millfield station had been used for a brief stop while it was swapped for one of the yellow coaches which we now see resting in its place. We can see one of the turnplates clearly but there were actually three, one for each track.

The departing passengers

While the station may appear a bustling hive of activity, it is likely a pale shadow of its normal self prior to departure; we are probably witnessing latecomers. After all, a four carriage train could accommodate 128 people, passengers who are presumably already onboard the train.

The two couples who are to be the occupants of the 4-inside are being addressed by the guards (perhaps mail trains had two, one specifically for the mails), both of whom are dressed in heavy overcoats as protection against the elements. I assume the remaining two passengers riding in the coupe at the front are the man with his hat tied down, possibly a trusted servant who fears the worst, and the lad with the hat who looks as though he may be going away to school. His sister and mother are there to see them off — there was no barrier to public access to the station at Liverpool, unlike Manchester.

The arrivals

Trains arriving would have been rope-hauled up the centre track by the winding engines at the far end of the tunnel. The rope has presumably been withdrawn at least as far as the tunnel to prevent it being fouled and damaged by carriage movements.

To the right of centre we see a man in a heavy cloak and an accompanying woman. These may be passengers remaining from the previous arrival who have been awaiting their personal carriage to take them home while the train they arrived in is manually shunted to its present position on the departure platform. The porter beside them will take their baggage to the carriage waiting outside the main gate.

The reflected shadows on the windows of the mail omnibus might be construed as people inside but I think not.

The porter is one of three men seen actively carrying baggage, presumably all porters. One seems to be specifically attending the occupants of the 4-inside but another may be assisting the group of two women and accompanying girl who are waiting for him before boarding the train. Presumably this is a company porter who may also assist the women into the train from the trackside despite the presence of a reasonably elevated platform/verandah (where an overlooker is keeping an eye on matters). Legend has it that the twelve pillars supporting the train shed sometimes interfered with the opening of doors so that passengers had to enter on the other side.

The two women and girl are waiting by what is generally termed the Chinese coach.

The Chinese coach

There is no sign of "indoor" porters loading baggage onto the carriage roofs and, indeed, no sign of baggage on any roof. My guess is that the Chinese coach is carrying the luggage for this train along with the mails (it also appears in Bury's print albeit at the opposite end).

I speculated previously on the role of this carriage. Perhaps Shaw's sketch brings us closer to the truth.

The tunnel

Two pillars can be seen above the tunnel and these are the two "Pillars of Hercules", actually chimneys serving the boilers for the winding engines in the Moorish Arch at the far end of the tunnel. Look at the tunnel closely and you will see the locomotive at the other end awaiting the train. The train was started by a manual push and then descended through the tunnel under gravity.

The group by the hut to the right of the tunnel presumably includes the policeman/signalman who manages access to the tunnel based on signals sent to a bell by wire from the Moorish Arch. There may also be the Inspector of the Coach Wheels and, logically, a pointsman who changes the points (assuming this is not done by the policeman). Alternatively they may be trackworkers, including a lad, who are stopping for a chat.

A different world

The picture reminds us of a society still only on the cusp of a momentous change. The steam age as seen here still depends on horses and humans and operates for the benefit of the well-to-do or, in the case of the 4-inside, the very well-to-do. Most railway employees were classed as "servants" and poorly paid for long hours doing work that was often hazardous. That would change, albeit gradually. Anyway, what appears on the surface to be a charming if somewhat arbitrary picture in fact reveals a lot of what was needed to make the railway work.