Jake breathed in deeply, but ended up in a paroxysm of coughing. There was plenty of fresh air, rather too much at times, but there was also the occasional gust of smut laden fumes that refused to lift in the damp atmosphere. Jacob was learning to hold his breath as the stream of smoke from the locomotive's tall stack swept across the open carriage, but at times it wasn't easy, the smoke catching out the unwary traveller.
But the excitement and the exhilaration were almost too much. The speed, and the smooth ride of the carriage! Jake had been told that other railways had their rails placed closer together so that the carriages oscillated, bumped and swayed, and produced an altogether inferior ride to that of the Bristol and Exeter Railway with its rails set fully seven feet and one quarter of an inch apart. Mr Brunel the engineer, thought Jake, must be a giant of a man!
It had been in the pre-dawn light that a friend had rowed him out from his home in Exmouth to one of the fishing smacks waiting to run up the river to Exeter on the tide with its cargo of fresh fish. His mother had bid him a tearful farewell. Take care Jacob, she told him, like all mothers using his full given name, and write to me when you can. The skipper of the smack knew Jake from the help he had given his friend, whose father was a longshoreman, and was happy to give him a lift. With the tide in full flood Jake had enjoyed watching the crew manage the boat with just her topsail set to catch the wind up the river and give her steerage way over the tide. Once tied up at the fish dock Jake stepped onto the quay, avoiding the wicker baskets of fish, the men who were carrying them and the cat calls of the women suggesting what they might do for the 'young sir'. Jake was as susceptible to a pretty face as any lad his age, and the almost constant tightness in his trousers could be an embarrassment, but there was nothing here to interest him, and he set out for St David's Station to catch the train for Bristol. Once he had paid for his ticket and found himself a meat pie for breakfast he waited until the hissing, fire breathing engine arrived with its train of carriages. There were closed ones for the first class passengers and open ones with plain wooden seats for the third class, where Jake would travel.
There were few other passengers in the open carriage and Jake sat in one corner, facing forward. Several obviously working men occupied the other two compartments and just before the train was about to leave a woman with two children came along, and having surveyed the accommodations and their occupants, smiled at Jake and pushed the children towards his compartment. Jake blushed at the attention, but reached forward to help the little ones up. The woman held out her hand to be assisted too, and smiled again as he helped her. She sat opposite him, and he was unable to stop himself gazing at the cleavage exposed by her low cut dress as she fussed with the children, ensuring that they were well wrapped up, something that they were none to keen on. She glanced up at Jake and he realised he had been caught staring, and he blushed as he averted his gaze, feeling his trousers tighten. She glanced down, smiled again, but more to herself as she made sure that her shawl was tightly wrapped around her, and her hat was secure with a long scarf tied under her chin ready for the rigours of the journey. Eventually there was a loud whistle, the guard waved a green flag, and the train started with a jerk, then another, and then steady acceleration to the quickening beat of the exhaust which gradually steadied as the train reached its full speed.
He had no idea how fast the train was going, but it must be much faster than a galloping horse. He wrapped his coat around him, aware that the year before a passenger on the Great Western Railway had died of exposure in one of these open carriages, his father had remarked upon the coroner's report in the newspaper. He knew that the mail coach, from London to Exeter, now no longer run in favour of the train, had taken eighteen hours, but the train could do it in half that time! And via Bristol too, and that included plenty of time for refreshment. A stop for the mail coach had been less than the minute that it took the ostlers to change the horses. If you could grab a drink and some food from the innkeeper, and throw him a few pennies for his trouble you were lucky, although to be fair there was a half hour allowed at Salisbury for breakfast, and one at Dorchester for dinner, but if there were delays on the road then the coach wouldn't stop that long. Jake's father had done the journey often in the course of his work, and had delighted his son with descriptions of the ride and the people who travelled on the potholed roads, the long drawn out wail of the horn across the downs to alert the next inn to have the team ready, the rattle and jingle of harness, the thump of the horses hooves and the scrunch of the iron tyres on the hard road.
Sadly, Jake recalled his father's recent death, the cause of his present situation, and his pleasure at the memories and the exhilaration at the train ride disappeared in a moment of contemplation. He knew that his journey would end at Temple Meads Station in Bristol, his ticket said that, but where would his adventure end? He had a new life ahead of him, full of unknowns, but at the moment he had to admit that the hard wooden seat was making his backside sore. On the wide curves across the Somerset levels he could see the engine ahead, the engineer dressed in long coat and stove pipe hat, and fireman in baggy trousers and waistcoat, flat cap and a scarlet kerchief tied round his neck. He could see the great driving wheels, an immense nine feet in diameter, the spokes invisible as they span, and he could hear the steady beat of the engine's exhaust carrying steam and smoke up the stack. And then he was enveloped in the noisome fumes again.
Puxton, Yatton, Nailsea, Flax Bourton, the name boards proclaimed each station in turn, the hissing and the roar as the steam exhausted from the cylinders, the whistle blowing mournfully as they neared their destination. Two hours five minutes and fifty seconds the timetable had said; it was almost unthinkable compared with the time it would have taken only a year or two previously.
The train rattled across the points, the carriages shunting together as the train slowed, and as it entered the station Jacob looked across to see the London train about to leave, at its head a Great Western engine with its varnished wooden boiler lagging, shining green and red paint, and gleaming brasswork, the name 'Iron Duke' on a cast and polished brass plate attached the frame. Then there was the final squeal of brakes and hiss of steam from the engine, and the train stopped. Jake opened the door and turned to assist the woman by first taking the children and standing them on the platform, and then assisting their mother, who by this time had loosened her shawl in the comparative warmth of the station. Jake once again found his gaze drawn to her décolletage, and he jerk his head up to see the woman's broad smile. She thanked him and left.
Jake looked up at the station clock. Eleven forty seven, just one minute late. The date was the seventeenth day of June eighteen fifty four, and, standing on the platform of Temple Meads Station, aged sixteen and two months, Jacob White was ready to take on the world.
His problem, as he would discover in the coming months, was that the world was not entirely convinced that it should take on Jacob White.
That, in particular applied to his uncle James Underwood. On his father's death Jake's mother was left in somewhat straightened circumstances, whilst she had a small house, and sufficient money to support them, she was unable to provide for her son's further education, and he would therefore have to obtain employment. Unfortunately, she could not afford to pay for an apprenticeship, and so she wrote to her brother James to ask that he take him on and teach him the trade of a grocery and provision merchant. James ran a large chandlery in the port of Bristol, which had originally been inherited from their father and so James felt obliged to help his sister in this respect, despite the fact that he had not liked Jake's father, and had a couple of likely lads working for him already. He also had two daughters whom he hoped to marry off advantageously. So an additional relative was not particularly welcome. The ladies of the household were, however, rather more interested.
Jake handed his ticket to the ticket collector and stepped out through the gate into the throng of people and vehicles in the street outside. There were people of every class, gentlemen in the fashionable stove pipe hats and tail coats with ladies in dresses with voluminous skirts on their arms, men in ragged trousers and shirts labouring under heavy loads, plenty of urchins running about and a few women helping to carry bags and packages for passengers, and one or two women plying a different trade. A couple of coaches which had dropped passengers for the London train were weaving their way through the throng, and there was a procession of heavy carts moving slowly up from the docks. He gave one backward glance at the castle like façade of the station and then, with his bag over his shoulder and stepping carefully to avoid that worst of the horse droppings in the street, he made his way down towards the centre of Bristol and the floating harbour where his uncle's business was situated. There were innumerable public houses along his route and outside one he saw a couple of soldiers in white pants and scarlet tunics with black facings and gold braid, lounging on a bench with tankards in their hands, their black shakos on the bench alongside them.
.... There is more of this story ...