Sound clip: railway refreshments

Hear an excerpt from a radio documentary about the North Island main trunk line.

Transcript of this file

Neill Atkinson: One of the aspects of the main trunk that's entered New Zealand folklore is the place of the refreshment rooms. In the early years, from the outset in 1909, there were dining cars on all the main trunk expresses. But they really only catered for a minority of passengers because they were quite expensive; also they couldn't fit in everyone on the train. Most second-class passengers brought their own food along or purchased food when the train stopped. The dining cars were quite luxurious, with sort of silver service, waiters with bow ties and so on. The dining cars were removed in 1917 as a temporary wartime measure, but they were never reinstated in that form. And at that time, in 1917, there were a number of privately run refreshment rooms at stations, and these were taken over by the Railways Department as a means of expanding that service to replace dining cars. They would have their 'girls' in uniforms – always called 'girls' – offering rows of pies, sandwiches and cakes and steaming hot tea in thick railway cups, and really stopping off for these eight to ten minute stops at Frankton, Taumarunui, Taihape, Palmerston North, other places, this became a central ritual of New Zealand life. In a way it was a curious sort of teetotal equivalent to the infamous six o'clock swill, which curiously enough also started in 1917 as a temporary wartime measure and would last for 50 years.

Duncan Smith reading:

Ten minutes for refreshments is the signal for the rush
As the famished hordes exterminate the feeble in the crush
No battlefield is grimmer, where battered heroes die
Than the bloody railway battle for a cuppa and a pie.
In a scrum All Blacks would envy
Only hardy souls remain
To grab a bun and sandwich is the saviour of the train
But every second station the milling hundreds press
For gourmet treats, refreshments on the Wellington Express.

[Sound of train]

Woman: I can remember the rush for going to the refreshment rooms, and grabbing a cup of tea, which used to be in these great big thick cups, [laughter] terrible, terrible things, and then rushing back and getting onto the train and possibly knocking into somebody and their cup of tea, which you'd spilt onto your saucer. [Laughter] Oh, dear.

Woman: Every refreshment room had a number on the cups, Palmerston, I think, was six.

Man: Those famous railway cups.

Woman: Yes, because Jack used to have to get on the train, get them all off you. They used to have wicker baskets, and in the wicker basket was a kerosene tin that you would pull out and you used to have to scrub them, keep them all clean. He would place them out right down the platform before the train so they could just jump on and off filling them. They just had to bring them in, and we washed them all by hand, of course. He used to have to sort them and send number 1 to whatever number 1 station was and send them all back to their respective stations.

Man: Of course these cups would've been gathering as the train progressed.

Woman: Mm, yes, yes, and there used to be a tremendous amount of crockery on there, and saucers 'cause the saucers we used sort of like as a plate.

Second woman: I think that's a thing that the people, the public, don't realise, you know they, they really expected to go in there and have bone china cups you know, and I often wonder how bone china cups or even a bit thicker than that would have performed being put into—

Man: They wouldn't have survived would they?

Second woman: No, no.

Neill: Despite its reputation for being indestructible, railway crockery was frequently broken, lost or stolen, and the Railways Department was losing £1500 a year in crockery in the late '20s. This increased in the late '30s to around 28,000 cups a year being lost or broken or stolen. In one train, 'passengers in a southbound train were seen to fling dozens of cups and half a dozen pillows into the Wanganui River'. In 1946 the department reported that over the previous six years their losses had been 674,000 cups and 163,000 saucers.

Woman: We used to get a total further back, they would ring us and say, 'Oh, there's 400 on this one' or 'There's 450' or how many passengers were on the train, and we could gauge roughly from that how much food we would need.

Neill: There were numerous complaints about the quality of the food and the tea, as well as the conditions in crushing in to get the food. The tea was, on one occasion, described as 'a mixture between a bad disinfectant or a mouthwash that had deteriorated'. On another occasion the food was referred to as 'half-hot pie crusts surrounding the appendages of sundry animals, named and unnamed'.

The poet Rex Fairburn wrote this about the Mercer refreshment rooms:

Duncan Smith reading:

The thought recurs to those who are entrained:
The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained

Neill: But despite the complaints, overall the quality of the food and service at refreshment rooms was probably as good as, if not better than, that found in most other restaurants or hotels in New Zealand at the time. This was an era when the hospitality industry in New Zealand was really in its infancy. It was also hard work for the refreshment room staff, who had to deal with a huge rush of customers in a matter of minutes, especially when special trains were running to races or shows or other events. This account describes the arrival of a race special at Frankton in 1920.

Duncan Smith reading:

It is estimated that there were over 1000 passengers on this train, and there would probably be as many on the platform for other trains. The crowd is stated to have been the most drunken and unruly that the staff has had to deal with, there being also much bad language. At Mercer the train was delayed about 1¾ hours owing to a derailment, and the drunken mob took charge of the rooms, where only women were in attendance, stealing both food and property.

Neill: In 1949, an ex-railway refreshment room girl from Putaruru told the New Zealand Herald:

Woman (historical recording): 

I worked as a counter waitress for the railways for three years, and believe me, that's the place to get an insight into people and their natures. They think the waitresses are animals by the way they shout and whistle and hammer their fists on the counter.

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Posted: 18 Nov 2019

'North Island Main Trunk line' etc
A pity someone didn't check out Neill for his enunciation - 'era': long 'e', not erra, all his 't's are 'd's.