LNWR Society Portfolio No. 6 - The LNWR Bloomers
Amelia Jenks was, without any doubt, serious, thoughtful and courageous. She married a lawyer, Dexter C. Bloomer, and by the age of 33 in 1851 she had been editing and publishing a pioneering fortnightly magazine for over two years. She deserved consideration, if not outright admiration. But as an American, a teetotaller and a campaigner for women’s rights and dress reform, she came ready-made as a joke to the press of Victorian Britain.
When a few young women appeared on the streets of London attired – not in normal tight-laced corsets with yards of flannel petticoats and crinolines which swept the pavement dirt – but in loose knee-length frocks and light-weight pants down to the ankles, as recommended by Mrs. Bloomer, they created a sensation.
Perhaps a surfeit of Great Exhibition earnestness called for some light relief; perhaps men felt threatened by women ‘wearing the trousers’. Whatever the reason, the press went wild.
The girls were followed by gaping crowds, guffaws and catcalls. After their mentor they and their dresses were called Bloomers. Suddenly the word was heard everywhere. Concurrently three London theatres put on Bloomer farces. A brewery clad all its barmaids in Bloomer costume. Mrs. Bloomer, Bloomerism and Bloomers preoccupied the British autumn of 1851.
Anything novel and striking was likely to be labelled Bloomer, and when in early September a new engine – bold and unusual in appearance – arrived at Camden Shed, the men bestowed the inevitable nickname.
There are many railway nicknames which reflect the crazes and topics of their time – Jumbo, Jazz, Ironclad, Klondyke, Ginx’s Baby, Little Egbert, Dreadnought, Austin Seven, Abyssinia, Bill Bailey, Tishy – sometimes with an apt or ironic basis, sometimes not, but few caught on so quickly or completely as Bloomer. Within a very short time the name was used in official correspondence, and the engines have never been known as anything else.
Efforts to rationalise the meaning by referring to ‘clearing away the decent skirting’ of the outside frame are misguided, and make no sense in a LNWR context; at the engines’ debut most of the others on the line had naked wheels. The reason for the nickname is simply that the engines looked unusual and arrived at the height of the Bloomer excitement.
It is a pity that the word later took on a comic-postcard flavour, and (from Australian slang, apparently) a bloomer came to mean a stupid error. These engines were far from that. They were among Britain’s best.