How British Rail limited the butter on its sandwiches, and other Station Stories

Love it or loathe it, the provision of food by railway companies has always been an important part of the rail passenger experience.

The fare on offer has varied from the luxurious hampers available to first class passengers in the early days of rail travel, to the pre-packaged meals that we’re more familiar with today.

I’ve been told a host of foodie stories throughout my time running the Station Stories project. These range from the excitement of eating in a dining car, to recollections of the less exotic fodder offered by the on-board trolley service.

I’ve collected a varied menu of stories for you to savour:

Waiter service in a first class Great Western Railway dining car, 1938.

When my mother and I travelled we would have afternoon tea on the train. I remember the lovely waiters dressed up very smartly. The toast was dripping with butter and jam in small china pots. The tea was poured out from big shiny silver teapots. I always had several helpings of toast, as somehow it tasted much better than ours at home.

Pullman stewardness serving a breakfast platter, 1980s.

That early morning breakfast, with egg, bacon, sausage and bags of toast on the Manchester or Liverpool train out of Euston in the 70s and 80s was a joy! For years it was only £13 and was cooked fresh in the train’s kitchen.

BR poster showing the refreshments offered by Travellers fare on Inter-City trains, 1977.

I never once experienced anything that looked like the adverts. There were always those curly and yet at the same time soggy sandwiches, or miniature pork pies that were fashioned from concrete and gristle. You only once ever ordered tea or coffee because the two were indistinguishable. You were much better off with a can of beer or shandy bass.

Vending machines in a British Railways Eastern Region station, 1956.

The station master at Compton was Mr Webb. He stocked the chocolate machines on the platform. There were two of these machines, one for Fry’s chocolate and one for Cadbury’s. A bar of Fry’s cream filled chocolate was my favourite. The cost was one penny.

Aside from vending machine snacks, all these eating experiences would not have been possible without the staff provide the service.

Here’s a few titbits to give you a taster of their side of the story:

Serving counter at the railway buffet in Waverley station,Edinburgh, 1947.

When I worked as a buffet girl there was a little Cockney lady called Dolly, who used to stand at the back of the kitchen. When the big hams came in she cut it on a machine. The bread came in big sliced loaves. She buttered the slices and slapped the ham in them. She was so fast and so quick, this little woman. If she liked you, she would hand you a sandwich. We were always hungry.

Young boys manning a refreshment trolley in Paddington station, 1910.

The summer I was fourteen, I sold ice-cream from a mobile cart. In my mind it was a job of real skill and agility. I knew that the long distance trains from London, heading for Newcastle and on to Edinburgh, were where the best sales were to be achieved. I worked as quickly as I could, providing thirsty passengers with ice creams and lollies. They would take their time, much to the frustration of customers at the back of the queue. I put the money into a brown leather satchel, draped around my neck, and carefully counted out their change.

BR advert for Journey fillers from the train buffet, 1981.

When I was at sixth form college I had a weekend job with British Transport Hotels and Catering on the old Birmingham New Street Station.  I worked as a kitchen porter in the ‘Roll Room’ on Platform 11. It was our job to butter and fill up to 3000 rolls each day, putting them into cellophane bags and taking them to the various refreshment rooms on the station.  British Railways rolls were easy targets for comedians, but I can vouch for the fact that, while many of the fillings came from tins (eg ham, tongue and salmon), the rolls were certainly fresh. It is true that we were instructed in the art of spreading the butter on the roll and then scraping it off again, so that only the thinnest residue would remain.

Do you find railway food refreshing or depressing? If these stories have whet your appetite to tell us about your experiences you can do so by filling in our online story form, or emailing your story to stationstories@nrm.org.uk

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About Sally Sculthorpe

I'm Sally, an Assistant Interpretation Developer at the National Railway Museum.
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