The Victorian Language of Flowers: Carnation

I will never forget you: that’s the romantic message a Victorian young lady would read into a bouquet or corsage of pink carnations. Imagine the story that may lie behind such an offering.

By Kaz Andrew  via Wikimedia Commons
By Kaz Andrew via Wikimedia Commons

Is the young lady’s suitor leaving her for ever, perhaps because her father has refused his permission for them to marry? Maybe he is off to the war in Afghanistan or Crimea, or to make his mark in India before returning to claim her hand.

A mix of carnations would give confusing, mixed messages, especially if red blooms were set alongside yellow for red carnations signified “yes” while yellow blossoms gave an unequivocal “no.”

Some species of carnations, (latin name dianthus,) are best grown in greenhouses. These provide the long-stemmed varieties that florists sell: I carried a bouquet of peach-coloured beauties at my wedding, many years ago.

It’s possible that the common name “pinks” may derive less from the colour of the carnation, more from the frilled effect at the edges of its petals, similar to that achieved by cutting with a pair of pinking shears.

Have carnations fallen out of fashion a little in recent years? I no longer grow them in my garden, but that is more because they soon die. I like to blame the mix of salt in the air and a clay soil for this, but I must be alone in my incompetence, as my Somerset neighbours chose Dianthus gratianopolitanus, the Cheddar Pink, as our county flower.

Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net
Ghislain118 http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net

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Victorian Life: Train Accident at Sonning Cutting

Eight people died in a dreadful train crash on the Great Western Railway, at Sonning Cutting, in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1841. Better safety regulations were enforced by legislation in 1844. Here’s the story of the accident.

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In the dark and cold of a winter morning, at 4.30am on the 24th December 1841, labourers returning home from London for Christmas piled onto two third-class carriages at the Paddington terminus. There were just under 40 passengers in total. The journey to Bristol was expected to take 10 or 12 hours.

Carriages
Their carriages were placed between the tender and the station truck, with 17 heavy goods wagons travelling behind. Third class carriages had no coverings at that time and were left open to the weather. This had been poor that year with an excessively wet autumn. The seats in the carriages were 18 inches high, but the sides only two feet tall.

Disaster
The train’s route took it via Twyford, where it arrived around 6.40am. The train was running ten minutes late as it left the station, with Reading the next stop. Was it running fast to make up time? After 2½ miles it came to what was then known as the Sunning-Hill Cutting, cut through clay and gravel, 60 ft deep and more than a mile long.

In the pitch black of the night, at around 6.45am, the train hit an obstacle, later discovered to be a land slip casued by the rain. The engine left the rails but did not overturn. The carriages containing passengers, though, were overrun by the following truck, which was in turn pushed forward by the goods wagons behind.

All the passengers were thrown out, eight were killed and 17 injured.

Reports
The first report, written by Lt Col Frederic Smith, Inspector-General of Railways, on 25th December, suggested that the loss of life may have been less if spring buffers had been attached to the passenger carriages, with a white reflector lamp on the buffer beam.

In Lt Col Smith’s opinion, passengers should not be travelling on any train that carried heavy good wagons.

Action
Within three days, on the 28th December, the Board of Trade wrote to the Great Western Railway Company, recommending that spring buffers should be fitted and the sides and ends of the passenger wagons be raised to at least four feet six inches above the floor.

The Company replied the next day, stating that such improvements had been agreed “some weeks ago” and were already in hand.

I wonder whether such prompt action would result from an accident today?

Read more
See a facsimile of the original report from 25 December 1841 on the Sonning Cutting accident here

Read a report from The Spectator archive here

Find a list of the victims here in the newsletter of the Sonning and Sonning Eye Society

The photograph is of the North Star, one of the first to run on the Great Western Railway

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