AN EXCHANGE OF LETTERS
The epistolary novel, where the whole action and development of the story is conveyed by means of letters, has not been particularly popular as a literary form, but it can be a very effective one. Laclos’s Les Liasons Dangereuses is a masterpiece of the genre, where the characters are revealed gradually, in all their manipulative nastiness, through their own writings.
In the following brief exchange of letters there is no manipulation, and nothing that could really be termed nastiness, although the tale it tells is not a happy one. There are four characters and, with a little imagination, we can picture them all, scanty though the details are. The date is December 1915, in middle of the horrors of the Great War. The writers are The Traffic Manager of the Midland and Great Northern Railway, Mr Petrie at King’s Lynn, and the Station Master of the M & G N station at North Walsham, Mr Say. In the background are two others, whose voices are not heard, but whose actions prompted this revealing correspondence. These two addition characters were in effect the principal players. They were a railway clerk working at North Walsham M & G N station and his mother.
Before going any further, I should warn you although there is no real nastiness, there is a villain this story, and it is Mr Petrie. It is hard to feel much sympathy for the M & G N traffic manager. On the contrary, he appears as a rather harsh authoritarian, in fact the kind of person who would choose as his telegraphic address: “VIGOROUS, KING’ LYNN”. The interchange privilege ticket referred to provided concessionary fares for railway employees and others (perhaps!) over lines operated by rival companies; in this case the Great Easter Railway.
Midland & Great Northern Railways Joint Committee TRAFFIC MANAGER’S OFFICE JNo J. PETRIE TRAFFIC MANAGER
Telegrams “VIGOROUS, KING’S LYNN” Reference P 92 December 9th 1915
Dear Sir, Interchange Privilege Ticket, order No. 76676 Cawston to North Walsham. September 1915 With reference to the enclosed.
You have no authority whatever to issue privilege ticket orders in favor of housekeepers over the G. E. Co’s System or over any other railway and I shall be glad to have your immediate explanation……….Yours truly,
Mr Say, the Station Master, knew that when his boss demanded an immediate explanation it was wise to comply. The reply is dated the following day, but he has had time to do some research and put together a pretty good case. (Note that while the Traffic Manager’s office had a modern typewriter and a typist to operate it, the Station Master’s reply was hand written.)
Decr 10th 15 Jno. J.Petrie Esq Kings Lynn
Dear Sir Interchange Privilege Ticket order No 76676 Cawston to North -Walsham September 1915 This was issued with the understanding that it was quite in order. Clerk Newstread’s wife being dead his mother keeps his house. Therefore it is only extended to the mother. Moreover I find the Engineers Dept allow housekeepers privilege ticket orders, therefore I think you will agree there should not be any exception. Yours truly
J L Say
Station Master Say was mistaken in his assumption that the Traffic Manager would agree with anything, especially to the suggestion that the matter be left as it was. Reading between the lines,which is necessary when the lines are so few, we can guess that he knew the Traffic Manager well enough to anticipate the reaction which was forthcoming. Most reasonable people today would think that the Station Master had made a good case for this clerk. He evokes sympathy for him as a widower, and makes a valid comparison with the established practice in the Engineers Department. None of this carried any weight with his boss.
King’s Lynn. December 13th 1915
Dear Sir, S.2908 Interchange Privilege Ticket order No. 76676 Cawston to North Walsham.
You have no authority whatever to issue Interchange Privilege Ticket Orders in favor of housekeepers and you will note definitely for future. If Clerk Newstead desires local privilege tickets in favor of his housekeeper he must make application when I will give the matter my consideration.
There is no reply extant to this letter, and indeed the whole tone of it suggests that no reply was expected or even possible. Mr Say had been given a ticking off, and that was that. There was one crumb of comfort however – it was just possible that if in future Clerk Newstead’s mother wished to travel by Interchange Privilege ticket, and if application was made to the Traffic Manager himself, that the concession might be granted. Nothing could be taken for granted however.
It seemed that everything that could be said had been said, but that wasn’t quite the end of the matter. No sooner had Mr Petrie sent this letter than he realised that one important instruction had been omitted. The final letter in the series is date on the same day as the previous one.
Reference P 92 Dear Sir, S.2908 Interchange Privilege Ticket order No. 76676 Cawston to North Walsham. Further to my letter of 13th instant. Please instruct clerk Newstead to pay to North Walsham G.E. the difference between fare paid and the third single.
Less than ten days to Christmas, and already the spirit of Scrooge is at work!
I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that there were four characters involved, but there is a fifth who is never mentioned by name, and that is William Marriott, whose name is almost synonymous with the M & G N. He had first come to the Norfolk at the beginning of the 1880s, before the original companies had merged to create the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway. In fact he was involved in building the line, being employed by the contractors Wilkinson and Jarvis on the Great Yarmouth to Stalham section. It was not long before he had added mechanical engineering to his civil engineering responsibilities, and from 1884 he was working as Locomotive Superintendent. He was a very different character from J. J. Petrie, as we can tell from Mr Say’s letter. Mr Marriott would never have made such a fuss about a privilege exchange ticket – after all we are told that it was quite acceptable for housekeepers to travel on these tickets in the Engineer’s Department! William Marriott’s approach to his managerial duties was much more enlightened and humane.
In 1898, when the post of Traffic Manager became vacant, it was generally expected that Marriott would add this to his two other positions within the company. Just before the appointment was to be made, however, his main sponsor, the Chairman of the Midland Railway Sir Henry Oakley resigned, and the job went instead to the efficient manager of the Severn and Wye joint lines, Mr John Petrie. There is no reason to doubt that Petrie did a good job for his employers. He was certainly zealous in pursuing the balance between the fare paid by Newstead and the price of a third class ticket, even if the money went to the G E R and not to the M & G N. In any case his time as Traffic Manager was coming to an end. Within three years Mr Petrie was dead, and on 1st January 1919 William Marriott at last got the job he had been in line for over twenty years earlier. He continued to fill the three managerial posts until his retirement at the end of 1924, after a career of over forty years on the M & G N and its predecessors.
Concerning Clerk Newstead and his domestic arrangements we can only speculate. Why was his mother travelling from Cawston? Would things have been different if she had gone not from Cawston’s GER station, but from the nearby Bluestone station (a mere three stops down the line from North Walsham), which did not close to passenger traffic until March 1916? If she had done so, the entire journey would have been on M & G N metals, and no interchange ticketing would have been involved.