Back in Victorian times, two young girls from the country were going to visit their aunt in the big town. Their mother put them on the train, promising that someone would be there to meet them at the other end.
This was not only the first time they had been on a train, it was the first time they had even seen a train, and while they were excited, they were also very nervous. All that noise and smoke and steam!
They found themselves in a compartment with a friendly sailor, who told them he had just returned from a long voyage in exotic foreign places they had never heard of. Now he was travelling home to see his family, he said. He had girls of his own, he said, and he was looking forward to seeing them. He added that he had brought home some bananas with him for his family.
“What’s a banana?” says the older girl
“Why it’s a fruit, young lady,” he said. He reached into his bag and took out two bananas and handed one to each girl. “Here. I’ve got plenty to spare. You have one. They’re delicious!”
The girls had no idea what to do with the bananas, so he showed them how to peel them. “Now,” he said, “take a bite!”
As the older girl bit into her banana, the train went into a tunnel.
“Don’t eat it Rosie!” she screamed to her sister. “It’ll make you go blind!”
Well those were much more innocent times. weren’t they? You could tell a story about two schoolgirls, travelling unescorted, chatting with a complete stranger and accepting gifts from him, without anyone raising any eyebrows or thinking there was any funny business afoot, so although I can’t find an original source, it looks like a genuine Victorian joke. And bananas were indeed exotic things that few had seen in Britain until late on in the 19th century.
Nothing had a more profound effect on Victorian Britain, and then the wider 19th century world, than the coming of the railways. Steam-power and with it the cheap and easy transportation of goods and people, the fortunes that could be made and lost altered British society for ever. The psychological effects that railways had on our forebears are still being argued about, but on the most basic level, ordinary folk, on first encountering a train, were often frightened and confused. Why did they make so much noise? Was it really safe to travel at speeds of 30mph or more?
Tunnels were one of the commonest sources of fun in the early days of railways. For instance, it was considered a great joke to tell an ignorant or gullible fellow-traveller that if the train went too fast, all the passengers would go blind, then sit back and wait for it to enter a tunnel.
There were no end of gags and stories, most of them probably untrue, about the reactions of simple-minded country folk to the newfangled technology. One that crops up in several forms, for instance, has an old man from rural Wales, rural Yorkshire or rural Wherever, walking to visit a relation many miles away, and nearly being run over by one of the new trains. At his cousin’s home he sees the tea kettle steaming and whistling on the range and sets about it with his stick, saying: “I’ve seen what these things can grow up into! You have to kill them when they’re young!”