Queen Victoria’s relationship with the railway began on 13 June 1842, when she drove from Windsor to Slough with Prince Albert, to make the historic first royal journey by train to Paddington. This relationship would continue throughout her life and endure, even beyond her death, as the Great Western Railway conveyed the Queen’s body in the Royal Train from Paddington to Windsor for her funeral. Movingly, the Royal Saloon was marked in the specially illuminated timetable as containing none other than the ‘Coffin of Her Late Most Gracious Majesty’; in attendance on this saloon was the Dukes of Portland and Norfolk, accompanied by the Earls of Clarendon and Pembroke. There were five further saloons and two semi-saloons; the royal footmen and attendants travelled in the latter.
The Queen’s coffin had been placed in her GWR Saloon at Gosport station when it arrived over the Solent from Cowes. Queen Victoria regularly used the station, disembarking from Royal Clarence Yard. The GWR Saloon of 1897 was new for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The same GWR Royal Saloon used to convey the Queen’s body was again used in 1910 for the funeral train of her son, Edward VII when it too travelled from Paddington to Windsor in the aptly chosen locomotive No 4021 King Edward (Patrick Kingston, Royal Trains, p. 56, Guild Publishing London, 1985). But there was another Saloon.
Queen Victoria’s 1869 LNWR Royal Saloon is one of the treasures of the National Railway Museum at York. The two railway coaches were commissioned by the Queen, made at Wolverton Works and designed by Richard Bore. According to information supplied by the National Railways Museum, it was thanks to the workforce at Wolverton that the Saloon was not later dismantled. Only one section of the Queen’s 1874 GWR saloon survives, and this is now in the Museum of the Great Western Railway at Swindon. The two coaches of the 1869 LNWR were converted into one single Saloon in 1895. Queen Victoria used the Saloon regularly for travelling between London and Balmoral on the LNW and Scottish Railways from the end of the 1860s right up until 1900 – the year before the Queen’s death. The Saloon would have arrived at the small village station of Ballater, the terminus station on the line from Aberdeen where the Queen had her own privately appointed Waiting Room, since rebuilt and restored.
Designed as an opulent palace-on-wheels, the Saloon provides an extraordinary insight into the Queen’s private world, and in particular, her tastes – the Queen personally chose the furnishings. It enabled the Queen to travel with a high degree of privacy and relieved her of the arduous hours of early nineteenth-century horse-drawn travel, which she had known for example, on her early English progresses in the 1830s as Princess Victoria. When travelling, the Queen is said to have preferred a limit of no more than 40 miles per hour for the Royal Train.
The Saloon allowed the Queen to travel between her residences in the utmost comfort and also contained that most private of spaces – her sleeping compartment. It considerably shortened her journeys to Scotland, something which the ageing Queen-Empress would have no doubt appreciated. The Saloon is richly upholstered in bright blue silk with matching chairs, curtains and hangings. Each carriage has a quilted ceiling; the walls are padded with cork. There are numerous bell-pulls in both the day carriage and night compartment. The gilt oil lamps have yellow shades, and the candleholders have shades of blue. Even the tassels for the window-blinds are of blue and gold. Preserved still is the table on the train at which Queen Victoria played patience. The waxwork of Queen Victoria, which used to sit in the day compartment, is no longer in the Saloon.
The Saloon also included private facilities. The toilet, with its lid supposedly of solid silver, would not have been used by the Queen. The window for her washbasin was decorated with the Order of St Patrick.
Contemporary royal equivalents to the Royal Saloon might be seen in Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s luxurious 1873 Hofwagen-Ensemble with sleeping compartment, surviving in Vienna’s Technisches Museum. King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s mirrored, neo-Rococo railway coaches (or Hofzug), are still preserved at the DB Museum in Nuremberg and are popularly known as ‘Versailles-on-wheels’, with its gilded salon, sleeping cabinet and toilet cabinet.
We do not know whether the Queen furnished the Saloon with the kind of precious clutter which normally filled her rooms abroad. When on the continent, the Queen travelled by special train under her preferred pseudonym of the Countess of Balmoral. She wrote down in 1876, her idea of what a railway carriage should contain: ‘We started at once in my new and very comfortable carriages, built at Brussels entirely on the plan of those I always use going to Scotland. viz. a sitting saloon, with compartment for attendants joining it, a little dressing room and bedroom, with compartment for maids adjoining the latter, all very prettily fitted up’. (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, p. 41, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993). The Queen was quick to comment if she had been unable to sleep in a railway compartment, writing during one of her later trips to the South of France: ‘Nothing could have been more uncomfortable than my bed, very narrow, with too large a mattress squeezed in upon it’. (cit., Ibid, 41). Her 1869 Saloon adheres to her preferences for the perfectly designed railway carriage; it contains her own day compartment and sleeping quarters, with a separate compartment for her ladies-in-waiting and personal attendants.
The Saloon’s sleeping compartment contained two beds, one for Queen Victoria and a second, for one of the princesses. It was a supreme honour to share the Queen’s sleeping compartment. The best account of anyone doing this, who recorded their experience, is almost certainly her granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Prussia whose unforgettable description of sharing the sleeping compartment with the Queen in her nightgown is to be found in her letters, published as Queen Victoria at Windsor and Balmoral by James Pope-Hennessy in 1959. The Queen’s sleeping compartment has an individual, dark-blue blind fitting for each window, while the carpet features a lattice of roses and flower-garlands on a pale blue ground. The walls are padded with stuffed leather, and there is a red footstool, a pair of chairs and a small wooden table. Its appearance is unchanged from 1900 when the Queen last occupied it. Touchingly, the little bell-pull still survives, set between the windows and labelled in black: ‘DRESSERS’ – ‘PUSH’. The beds in the Queen’s sleeping compartment have brass knobs and a pair of practical wicker baskets attached at their feet, presumably for laundry or personal necessities such as caps, socks or nightwear. The beds are covered in black counterpane with a gold, crossed design. The royal compartment had porcelain doorknobs; elsewhere in the Saloon, they were of amber-coloured glass. One of the Queen’s sleeping compartment windows was blocked in 1895 when the coaches were combined into one carriage.
Closer inspection reveals touching details in the delicate design: the exterior panels bear the Royal Arms and the badges of the Order of the Bath, Order of the Thistle and Order of the Garter. The Sovereign’s Crown in gold appears on the roof decoration of the Saloon amidst carved roses; poignant, if we consider that the locomotive that brought the Queen’s body to Windsor had a crown and wreath at its front, with the Royal Coat of Arms covered in purple mourning cloth. The royal lion of England also appears in gold on the roof pelmet, amongst carved leaves.
The Queen would often stop for refreshments in her Saloon on her journey north. We can see from her Journal that this sometimes took place in Leamington Spa, or at Banbury. One timetable for Her Majesty’s Train from Windsor to Sheffield and Sheffield to Ballater for 21/22 May 1897 shows between the GWR from Windsor and the LNWR for Leamington, the inserted line: ‘BANBURY – Refreshments – Ten minutes’ (Kingston, p. 36). Research in the Queen’s Journal confirms that the Saloon quite often stopped in Banbury for supper or refreshments en route from Gosport to Ballater or Edinburgh. In the timetable for the Queen’s trip to Balmoral in 1897, the Royal Train continued on the Midland Railway to Sheffield, on the LNW as far as Penrith and from Carlisle on the Caledonian to Perth, picking up the Great North of Scotland railway from Aberdeen and terminating at Ballater. The last time that the Queen stopped at Banbury was en route from Windsor to Ballater in May 1897, when she stopped for refreshments.
The Saloon took the Queen to Balmoral, her beloved castle in the Scottish Highlands. She could not have known it, but in 1900 she bade farewell to Balmoral for the final time. The Queen noted in her Journal in the train on 6 November 1900 that when she drove to the station [Ballater], the weather was ‘wretchedly gloomy & dark’. (cit., Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, p. 142, Philip Wilson Publishers Limited, 1985).
The Royal Train was bound for Windsor, where it arrived the next morning. It would never again take Queen Victoria to Scotland.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2020