Curious Incident of the Luggage at Holyhead in 1850

britannia bridge 1850s
The Britannia Tubular Railway Bridge in 1850

When the Britannia Bridge carried its first train across the Menai Straits on March 18th 1850, this meant that people could more easily travel to north Wales, not only to places they’d never seen before but also by a method of transport which was in its infancy. Such was the case of a Mr Bower, a barrister from Birkenhead who headed a party of eight people on a tour of places of interest lying along the route of the Chester and Holyhead railway. On August 13th 1850 they boarded a train in Bangor and travelled to Holyhead. What happened next was to affect the rights of train travellers to this very day.

As the train (described as ‘the express’) came to a halt in Holyhead Mr Bower and his companion, Mr Griffith, went over to the luggage van to claim their trunks and suitcases. They were told by the stationmaster, Mr Massingberd, that they could sustain injury if they entered the van. To their amazement, the train was reversed out of the station and shunted to the pier and the awaiting packet boat. The two gentlemen made their way (presumably along Land’s End) to the pier to find that all luggage was, by then, stowed away in the ship’s hold and was inaccessible. Mr Bower boarded the vessel and remonstrated with the crew but to no avail because, even as he spoke to them, the gangplank was lifted and the packet-boat began to move away from the quay. Mr Bower clambered onto the paddle-box on the stern of the vessel and leapt across the divide to land on the pier itself. (which must have been quite a sight!).

unknown artist; Paddle Steamer Passing South Stack in a Storm
Holyhead to Dublin Paddle Steamer of circa 1850

In a disturbed state, Mr Bower and Mr Griffith went back to the station and argued their case, quite forcibly, with the stationmaster. He, eventually, agreed to take action and that the ‘lost’ luggage would be returned from Ireland the following day and, in fairness, the much-travelled items were delivered to the party at 6:00pm the following evening. The complaints then increased – Mr Bower had no clean linen, Mr Griffith had to stay in bed at the Holyhead hotel until his shirt had been washed, the ladies had no combs, brushes or change of clothing and, as a final blow, they found Holyhead to be completely uninteresting and, where they had expected to enjoy open views of the sea, all they saw was a mudbank. (We are not told what area of Holyhead was being viewed).

On his return home, Mr Bower decided to take the matter up with the Cheshire County Court and it was during this hearing that the facts were divulged. The Chester and Holyhead Railway Company’s defence was that the ‘express’ was 40 to 60 minutes late and that Mr Bower’s party was the only one not travelling on to Ireland. The Company said it had done all in its power to retrieve the luggage but the judge in the case felt that this was not the standard expected from the Company or from its workers and that all Railway Companies had a responsibility not only to deliver passengers safely to their journey’s end but also to care for and deliver their luggage. He judged in Mr Bower’s favour and asked the jury to assess a suitable sum of compensation for the inconvenience caused. The Chester and Holyhead was ordered to pay the plaintiff £20.

This was possibly the first legal case ever where lost luggage was the issue and Holyhead played a role in a situation that resulted in all railway companies since 1850 having to accept their liabilities.

Contributed by Dr. Gareth Huws

Image of the Britannia Bridge is from the National Library of Wales – https://www.llyfrgell.cymru/ by Lizars, W. H. (William Home) 1788-1859 engraver.

Image of the Paddle Steamer is by an unknown artist and from the Holyhead Maritime Museum Collection (https://artuk.org/)

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