Sunday, January 16, 2011

Customer Service in 1838

The Reverend George Phillimore was the Vicar of Willen, and although living in an out-of-the-way village had occasion to travel on the new railway line. He was not a happy customer, as this correspondence in The Times will show. Bear in mind that at the date of his travel the line had not been completed, and passengers travelling north of Denbigh Hall had to travel by coach. The line through Wolverton was fully opened two weeks after this correspondence.

Wednesday September 12th 1838


Sir, - Knowing the interest you feel upon with all subjects connected with the welfare and convenience of the general public, and relying upon the laudable zeal which your able journal has aways exhibited in the exposure of abuses, I hope you will allow me, through its valuable medium, to state an occurrence which happened to me a short time ago when travelling by the London and Birmingham Railway. That company is, by act of Parliament, invested with such extraordinary powers, that it appears to me to be the bounden duty of every individual who may suffer from any abuse of these powers to make known his grievance, in order that such details may operate as a stimulus upon the Legislature to interfere in behalf of the public, before the monopoly becomes complete by the extinction of stage coach travelling. Permit me, then, to lay before you a correspondence which has taken place between myself and the directors, upon the occurrence in question, which seems to me will speak for itself.

Willen Vicarage, August 25, 1838.

"Sir - I beg to call your attention to the following occurrence which happened to me upon my arrival at Denbigh hall, by the train which left London at 3 p.m. this day, I was accompanied by a lady, who was going to Northampton. In order to secure an inside place by the coach from Denbigh hall, she had, at my suggestion, booked and paid for, at the Golden Cross office, Regent Street, a place in the first class carriage from London, (getting in, however, at Watford,) and an inside place by the Northampton coach. At the Golden Cross a receipt was given for the payment of the fare thither. The receipt was objected to at first by the Watford bookkeeper as not being a proper ticket, but upon conferring with the guard of the train, he admitted it to be so, and directed him to pass my companion to Northampton. Upon arriving at Denbigh hall, however, great was my surprise to find this ticket refudsed by Simcox, the check taker, who affected entire ignorance of its purport. When upon this I assured him that everything was right, and that the guard knew it to be so, he answered me insolently, that he must be paid. Wishing to avoid any unpleasant altercation occurring before my companion, I desired her to pass on, and told her that I would settle the matter. Again, I assured the check taker that the fare was paid, when, upon endeavouring to pass him, I was immediately seized and collared by him! In spite of my remonstrances I found it necesary to break away, and whereupon he called policeman 73, to whom he gave me in charge. I offered an explanation to the policeman, which he peremptorily refuse to hear, and proceeded to collar and detain me. I begged the guard might be summoned, who at once corroborated the truth of my statement. I tehn offered to go away, but was again seized and detained by the policeman. I asked Simcox his name, who refused to give me his name, as did the policeman. I lose no time in forwarding my complaint, and beg your immediate attention to it, and a satisfactory redress for the insolence and assault on the part of two of your servants, forebearing to make any comment, however obvious, upon the above statement. I ought to add, that before they would release me, 7s. was demanded, which I gave, in payment of the fare; and also that the coachman of the Northampton coach showed me my companion's name on the way-bill, as booked from London to Northampton, and at my desire showed it to Simcox, who persisted in refusing to acknowledge its correctness.
"I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
"To the Secretary of the London and Birmingham Railway."

To this letter I received the following reply:-

"London and Birmingham Railway-office,
Euston-square, August 30, 1838.

"Sir - Having laid your letter of the 25th inst. before the committee of management, and a rigid investigation into all the circumstances connected with your complaint having been immediately instituted, I am instructed to express to you the regret of the company that you should have been exposed to so much annoyance, and to apologize on their behalf for any failure in proper respect to a passenger on the part of any of their servants. I am desired to add, that the immediate cause of this annoyance is the conduct of persons connected with the intermediate coaching, and that this evil will cease on the general opening on the 17th September.

"I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
"R. CREED, Sec.
"To the Rev. S. Phillimore, Willen, Newport Pagnel."
Richard Creed was the London Secretary of the Company, which also had another, in the person of Captain Moorsom, at its Birmingham office. Both held important and influential positions and may have had a larger role than Company Secretaries have today.
The Rev. Phillimore was not to be fobbed off so easily.

To this I replied as follows:-
"Sir, - I received duly your letter this morning; and, in reply, must candidly confess that the explanation which it contains is anything but satisfactory. I do not find therein any mention made whatever of reprimanding, or in any way punishing the servant or servants, through whose negligence I was insulted, but the onus of the transaction is attempted to be laid upon the 'persons connected with the intermediate coaching,' a statement which, if borne out by the fact, would only throw additional blame upon the Company for their bad arrangement. Again, a point upon which not only myself, but the public at large, are materially interested, viz., the extortion of money for a fare already paid, and the restitution of money obtained under circumstances of personal violence and detention, is passed over, after the "rigid investigation," which you state to have taken place, in total silence. What am I to infer from this! Either that the 'investigation' was a very loose one indeed, or that the money will not be restored. Once more, therefore, I am compelled to draw your attention to the following points: - 1. The book-keeper of the Golden Cross, which in your advertisement in The Times is stated, under the signature of your two secretaries, to be one of the offices where places may be taken, gives my servant a ticket, upon payment of the fare, to Northampton. The servant expressly asks whether that ticket is sufficient. The book-keeper replies that it is.
"The book-keeper at the Watford station, after learning from the guard of the train that the lady whom I accompanied was duly booked, desires the guard to pass her on to Northampton free. Now, in the case of this ticket being an improper one, the book-keeper at the Golden Cross (which is expressly declared by public advertisement as an authorized office for booking places on the railroad), was to blame for not giving a correct one; and in any case, it was the duty of the Watford book-keeper to have seen that she was provided with a proper ticket before allowing her to enter the carriage. But it does not appear that the latter ever doubted the validity of the ticket, for he took the assurance of the guard, and declared the fare paid to Northampton. Is the negligence of your servants to be made the cause of assaulting and wounding the feelings of a gentleman, and the justification of committing extortion upon a passenger? Are the public to suffer from the carelessness or faulty arrangements of the railroad directors? Are they to believe the advertisements which they seen in the newspapers, signed by the two secretaries, stating that there are certain offices in London where places may be booked? Are they made to be liable, when travelling by your conveyances (whether male of female, gentle or simple) to be assaulted, and, for a mistake clearly committed through the fault of your Company's servants, to be collared, and given in charge to a policeman, and, in order to obtain release, to be compelled to pay a fare over again; and in the end, when demanding redress for such usage, to be soothed with the satisfactory intelligence that "the immediate cause of this annoyance lies with the conduct of persons connected with the coaching department?" I am very much mistaken if the public at large will put up by these things, or if the Birmingham Railroad Company will find their interests advanced by such occurrences, and such unsatisfactory replies to just complaints. I am not of a litigious disposition, but every man possesses feelings which may properly be called into exercise on certain occasions, and these urge me, as well upon public as upon personal grounds, to seek a satisfactory redress and a restitution of my money, both of which demands I feel confident the committee will see the propriety of acceding. I await your immediate reply, &c.

"I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
"To the Secretary of the London and Birmingham Railroad."
In this account we only get the Reverend Phillimore's side of the story. It does appear that he had foundation for his grievance. In mitigation for the railway, these were very early days. All the jobs were new and the Company was unable to call upon any experience. Men were hired, provided they could read and write, on the recommendation of a worthy and respectable person. Staff training, as such, was probably non-existent, but employees were provided with written instructions, or "rules" for the execution of their duties. They probably did not cover situations like this.
To this the Committee replied as follows:-
"London and Birmingham Coaching department,
"Euston-station, Sept. 3, 1838.

"Sir,- I am instructed to transmit to you a Post-office order for 7s., in reference to your communication of the 31st ult., to which the Seretary has replied.
"I am, your obedient servant,
"Rev. G. Phillimore, Willen.
At this point Richard Creed was unwilling to waste any more time on this country parson and delegated the matter to someone in his office. He may have overlooked the fact that Phillimore was 7s. out of pocket from the first letter. His instruction must have been, "pay the man and close the matter."
Reverend Phillimore still had bruised feelings.
Upon submitting the above to a respectable solicitor, it appeared that my only remedy for the above treatment was to enter an action against the Company - a remedy expensive and unsatisfactory; but upon mature consideration, reflecting that my end being not merely of a personal nature, but to expose the abuses of a great monopoly to the public, with the hope that the Legislature will interfere to put a stop to them, I deemed that the most effectual means of doing so would be to obtain a place for the above correspondence in the columns of your widely circulated journal.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Willen Vicarage, Sept. 7.
A few days later, Phillmore threw in the towel and resorted to the publicity he could get from The Times. I don't know if this is one of the first instances of a customer using the press as a means of getting attention to a perceived wrong but it is probably an early instance. The London and Birmingham Railway is an early instance of a large public company providing service to the public and entering into a new type of customer service. If Josiah Wedgewood sold you a flawed piece of china it could be replaced, and no harm done. If a railway traveller had a poor travelling experience it could not easily be put right. The L&BR plainly did not know how to deal with such situations as experienced by George Phillimore and by today's standards would fall very short. Everybody was learning.

We might also consider that this correspondence was conducted before the age of the typewriter, carbon paper and any easy means of copying, so Phillimore must have made hand-written copies of his own correspondence and copied all this for The Times, which in turn had to be type set for publication.


haycock said...

I am left wondering who was the lady from Northampton and why did the vicar have to pay her fare.
My impression is that he made a nuisance of himself with the staff who enjoyed using the situation to redress 'a toff'. His ability to write a good letter enabled him to get it published.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

I suspect you are right. George Phillimore probably had an inflated sense of his own importance. He was Vicar at Willen from 1832-1852. I don't think Willen was ever a rich parish and he would not have had much of an income. He had the curacy of Little Linford as well, so he might have mustered an annual income of £150 - £200. And here he was taking on Richard Creed who was paid £1500 per annum!

haycock said...

Weren't clergymen generally from privilaged backgrounds. After all one of grandest house's in Wolverton was the Vicarage complete with a butler's pantry and enormous grounds etc.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

Phillimore had an MA, so he must have been to either Oxford or Cambridge.His family could therefore afford it. Clergy usually came from well-to-do backgrounds, sometimes with a private income. The vicar at Stony Stratford, for example, had enough money behind him to build St Pauls (the private school) at his own expense. It later became Fegans. Generally the income from most parishes wasmodest, but the work was undemanding and many clergymen had time to write book, conduct scientific experiments,breed roses etc.
To give you some yardstick for measuring incomes, at Wolverton in 1850 the Works Superintendent, JE McConnell was paid £750, the Chief Accountant, £300, the Vicar, George Weight, £250, the Schoolmaster, Archibald Laing, £100. Engine Drivers were paid £2 a week; most tradespeople 18s to 30s a week. Porters and labourers a little less. And those still working in the villages as agricultural labourers earned from 6s to 8s a week.
George Phillimore was certainly middle class and a significant figure in his community, but the relative income of clergy began to decline around this time as the earning power of working people increased with the industrial revolution.

Outsource Call Center said...

Well, customer service in our generation was already improved, but sadly some of the business/companies doesn't have good customer service. Anyway, thanks for the post. Looking forward for your next post.