Colleagues of 71-year-old railway worker James Baigent thought he seemed in good spirits and health at his retirement do. This event took place on 20th June 1913 at the Bridge Hotel on Mount Pleasant. James was presented with a writing desk, in recognition of 45 years’ service, letters were read out from those who had not been able to attend and entertainment was provided by several ‘artistes’ brought down from London. The Chairman of the South Eastern Railway Company made a speech, expressing the hope that James’s retirement would be filled with happy days, and gave him an inscribed gold watch. James said he was looking forward to spending time with his books and his friends.
James had joined the station’s staff as a 22-year-old back in 1868. He had an early experience of dealing with customer complaints; a new line to London had just been opened, via Sevenoaks rather than Redhill, and passengers were indignant that the same fare was being charged, even though the journey now took less time. Throughout his long career passengers would continue to have many complaints – as well as excessive fares, there was dissatisfaction with matters such as being unable to book through tickets to stations on other lines and the condition of third class carriages.
During his first two years in the job James and his wife Elizabeth had two children, Douglas and Lottie, born in 1869 and 1870. Sadly Elizabeth died soon after Lottie’s birth and James was left to bring the children up alone. Glimpses from the following two censuses indicate that he probably had help from his mother Mary and his sister Sophia.
James was happy with his work and with life in Tunbridge Wells so, although he was appointed as a Platform Inspector in around 1886, he never looked for further promotion. He became a well-known figure to passengers. In reporting his retirement the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser said: ‘The duties appertaining to the post of Platform Inspector are not always pleasant ones, as can well be imagined, but Mr Baigent’s tact and invariable courtesy always pulled him through, and it is not an exaggeration to say that during his long period of service he has not made a single enemy. On the other hand he has made many hundred friends….’. According to the same article he was an exceptionally well-read man and passengers ‘of all grades of thought and opinion’ enjoyed chatting with him; whatever the subject, he always had something to say that was worth listening and expressed his views with ‘kindly shrewdness and cheerful philosophy’.
James witnessed the arrival and departure of a number of famous visitors, including royalty and politicians. In 1876 Queen Victoria travelled by train for her final trip to the town, to visit her daughter Princess Louise at Dornden in Langton Green. The Queen’s grey horses and carriages arrived by train early in the morning and shortly after 11am the station was closed to the public and a crimson carpet laid for her to walk on. Despite this being a private visit, the Queen was cheered by a crowd of several thousands as she arrived and transferred to her carriage.
Early in 1891 82-year-old William Gladstone (leader of the opposition at that time), travelled to a meeting in Hastings by a special train, which made a planned stop at Tunbridge Wells. The platform was jammed full with Liberal supporters, plus a few Conservatives, all of whom fortified themselves with beer as they waited. When Gladstone finally arrived, the Professional Military Brass Band, who were seated in a truck on the opposite siding, began to play ‘A Fine Old English Gentleman’ and the crowd surged forward. Chaos ensued, but Gladstone was unfazed and gave a short speech through the train’s window.
It was not just human passengers James had to deal with. Another of his duties was managing the transportation of cattle during the annual Agricultural Show, which became a larger and larger event over the years.
In May 1913 James had a medical, arranged by his employers, the result of which led them to retire him from the service immediately. At the presentation event the following month it was announced that a collection was being held for a testimonial fund and contributions should be sent to Mr Baldwin, the local excursion agent (whom he had assisted many times). Over the following week donations were received from the Marquess of Abergavenny, Sir David Salomons and many others.
Sadly James did live long enough receive the money, or enjoy his retirement. Only a week after they reported the presentation at the Bridge Hotel, the newspapers informed their readers that James had died. This could have been down to the condition identified in his medical or, it was suggested, to a chill he caught while reading a book in the Grove. However some were convinced that in truth he had died of a broken heart, due to the shock of being asked to leave his job with no notice. A person signing themselves ‘A Passenger Who Knows the Facts’ wrote to the Advertiser, claiming that James’s feelings had been crushed when ‘he was instantly dismissed like a felon receiving a well-deserved sentence’.
James was buried in the Borough Cemetery, amongst the graves of many whose tickets he had checked over the years and many who had enjoyed talking with him and hearing his views. His plain stone, with plain words stating briefly his service to the railway, does not convey the affection which it seems was widely felt for him.
- The rail line between London and Tonbridge was completed in 1842 and extended to Tunbridge Wells in 1845. Initially the station was where Goods Station Road is now, although a year later, after tunnelling work was completed, Tunbridge Wells station was opened at its present location. The line to Hastings was completed in 1852.
- The town’s other station, Tunbridge Wells West, opened in 1866 with services to Brighton, Eastbourne and London Victoria. It was closed to mainline passenger services in 1985.