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The day Train spotted chance to make a fast buck

On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary visits the station that was our gateway to Europe, and recalls the adventurer, businessman and crook who brought trams to Britain

07 August, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

George Train

GREETINGS, my partners in virtual walks. Let us once again don a pair of imaginary shoes and set off to find out what world this week we shall discover…

We were outside the Victoria Palace Theatre last Friday, recalling the story of dodgy, racing horse-owning Tory MP Alfred Butt, who had to resign his seat when he was caught on the fiddle (plus ça change!).

We commence by heading round the corner from the theatre and move onto Victoria Street, which is linked with another chap known for having an eye for a score.

The name Victoria describes an area that runs for about half a mile south of the high walls of Buckingham Palace and the name for this ’hood dates from 1837, a year after Vic was handed the crown (at this point without the stolen Koh-i-Noor diamond from India).

It started with Victoria Square, built near the Royal Mews. Next came Victoria Street, and pretty soon after these royal-kow-towing trailblazer developments, the whole neighbourhood became synonymous with QV.

And while we gaze at Victoria Street, let’s recall the appropriately named George Train.

You may not realise it, but you probably have heard of Mr Train already. Jules Verne based his book Around The World In 80 Days on this chap.

An American adventurer, inventor, businessman, radical and crook, he ran sailing lines, helped organise the Union Pacific Railroad and brought trams to the UK, envisaging a horse-drawn public transport system across the city – and he proved its value by creating a tram line up Victoria Street and into town.

Born in Boston in 1829, he had been prepared for a life as a Methodist minister, growing up in an orthodox Christian family. But as a young man his calling was engineering and commerce. He came up with the idea when a American émigré to England moaned about how hard it was to get around his adopted town of Birkenhead.

It spurred Train into action: in 1860, he headed across the Atlantic and established horse tramways in London (and Birkenhead). It didn’t always go smoothly: rails laid in Uxbridge weren’t sunk into the thoroughfare, causing obstructions.

Victoria station

Though popular with passengers, they were criticised for being impractical and he then faced the added expense of tracks sinking into the ground.

Back across the Pond, in 1864 and as the American Civil War raged, the Union Pacific Railroad was established with Train at its centre. Designed to take passengers from Missouri to the Pacific and seen by Abraham Lincoln as a way to unite states, Train had more base motives. He and fellow company directors put together a blag to turn a hefty profit.

They set up a separate firm as construction contractors to build the line – with a board that was exactly the same as UPR – and then awarded themselves the contract. They sent the US government a wildly overpriced bill and the scam was not discovered until 1872.

Train then got into radical politics, supporting a free Ireland and Republicans in Australia. He ran for US president as an independent in 1870 with a campaign that included a global tour, garnered plenty of press and inspired Verne’s Phileas Fogg character.

A two-month stay in France saw him arrested for supporting the Paris Commune. He was saved by the novelist Alexandre Dumas, who got him out prison after an uncomfortable two weeks.

As with us all, his eccentricities became more pronounced as he got older. He held rallies (with the chutzpah to charge people to get in) and he’d make barnstorming speeches, calling people to appoint him as Dictator of America. This was a golden era of lecture circuits, with the likes of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens speaking to thousands – and Train’s firebrand skit was a jolly night out.

He eventually fizzled out and fell into poverty. In his last days, Train could be found sitting in Madison Square Park, New York, giving dimes away from a sack beside him, and had a Golden Rule: only speak to children and animals.

On that note, we turn tale and go inside Victoria train station where once crawled animals when the Earth was a child.

Six fossils of a snail-like creature called a nautiloid, estimated to be 50 million years old, were dug up when the navvies made the Victoria line.

And these Victorian nautiloids were babies in the grand scheme of things – these creatures have been on Planet Earth for about 500 million years, and are still around today. Think of that next time you are stressing out about catching the train.

For much of the 20th century, Victoria station was the gateway to Europe, considered in the same way the Eurostar is today.

It was where a boat train called The Golden Arrow express set off, whisking passengers to Dover and then to a ferry.

It also means these platforms have seen a million tragedies played out, linked forever with the British soldiers and the First World War.

It was where they set off alive, and where their bodies came back.

From 1936 Victoria became a staging point for left-wingers joining the fight in Spain against Franco.

Volunteers had a fiver in their pocket and a ticket to catch the Arrow to Paris, where French comrades would than take them south… Special Branch lingered in cafés and pubs, trying to find a communist to follow.

Ernest Bevin summed up Victoria’s reputation as a place that links London with the rest of the world when, as foreign secretary in 1951, he said: “My policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please.”

And on that note, so will we. Till next week, reader, stay safe, stay well.

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