The London and Greenwich Railway

 

London Bridge Station was the first major railway terminus to be built in London, and one of the first railway stations to be built in the world. It opened it gates on 14th December 1836, when the London and Greenwich Railway, begun in 1833, was brought to completion. For the first time people were able to travel quickly and in comfort over a distance of almost four miles, a journey that might not seem long but which previously took much time and effort travelling by horse drawn coach or on foot.

 

 

Approach to London Bridge

View from the north west of the approach to London Bridge Station shortly after it opened in December 1836, showing the line ending at the the side of what appears to be an impressive station building at the south side of the viaduct. The approach to the station is via a broad ramp rising up from the right.

Today, a hundred and seventy-six years after first opening, London Bridge Station has become one of the busiest in the city. Every morning train after train runs into the station, delivering many thousands of workers close enough to The City for them to be able to either walk across London Bridge or take a bus or Underground train into central London. Every evening the reverse happens and a mass migration can be seen crossing London Bridge, making their way towards the station in the hope of catching a train that is on time and that will carry them home as quickly as possible.

 

Because of the present new development of a huge modernist tower called "The Shard", right next to the station, and the rebuilding of the station concourse, the whole site has been transformed, making this is the right time to look back at the magnificent Victorian achievement that was The London and Greenwich Railway, the world's first metropolitan steam railway, running from Greenwich to London Bridge, the line that carried the first commuters from the suburbs into the City.

 

Anyone who walks through this area of south-east London will not fail to notice a long line of fairly grim railway arches bisecting the districts of Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Deptford, running straight as an arrow from London Bridge to Deptford High Street, then curving slightly as they go on to Greenwich. They cut right through some of the most deprived and at the same time historic areas of London. These arches are part of the London and Greenwich Railway, built between 1833 and 1838, the time when there was the first great explosion of railway building in Britain. But despite their importance in railway history and for transport into the center of London, few people really notice them: they just sit there like all the other Victorian brick railway arches throughout London that carry lines into the center of the city. There seems to be nothing special about them, nothing remarkable. They appear utterly functional and serve only to carry commuter trains into town, and to house under their arches hundreds of back-street garages and warehouses and the odd club or art gallery. It is all slightly sad and depressing.

 

However, these arches are special and need to be valued because of the way they represent the first incursion of the railway into London, and the first commuter line into any capital city in the world. It is hard now to see just how revolutionary they were, because they are so overwhelmed by the scale and noise and bustle of modern road and housing developments. We see them as a hangover from the past, something we need for transport but feel little need to look at on their own terms. They are pushed into the background, seen only when one takes a side road that passes under one of the arches, and then they have tended to appear squalid, dirty and a little bit threatening, like the cold underbelly of the city. This is the way they were perceived during most of the twentieth century. It is only now in the twenty-first century, and still only occasionally, that redevelopment has cleaned up many run down areas, so that the arches can start to look attractive and speak of what was a truly magnificent achievement. It takes a bit of effort to appreciate and regard with affection a structure that is a world-changing example of Victorian engineering and ambition.

 

So how did the arches of this great railway viaduct get to be built? The story of The London and Greenwich Railway begins in 1831, when it was first proposed to build a railway between London and Greenwich.

 

It was in 1824 that Parliament first authorised the use of steam locomotives on public railways, and this decision set the scene for the sudden flowering of railways throught Britain, changing forever the rural and urban landscape. A dozen or so new railway companies were quickly formed, each raising capital by selling shares and proposing to build railways here, there and everywhere. Each company knew that the concept of the railways worked and would both revolutionise transport and generate huge profits for investors. There was an almost universal rush to build railways throughout the land. The London and Greenwich Railway was just one of these new companies.

 

The concept of such a thing as railways actually predates the introduction of steam powered locomotives. The first railways were horse drawn, that is, iron tracks were laid and horses pulled waggons along the tracks. The best example of a horse-drawn railway was The Surrey Iron Railway, opened in 1803, which ran between Wandsworth and Croydon. This was the world's first public railway, though it was for freight only, not passengers, and it was the first company in the world to use the word 'railway' in its name. However, the days of the horse were numbered as it became clear that steam powered locomotives were the future, offering greater power and speed. In 1837 William Jerdan (1782 - 1869) wrote an amusing essay called Hippoanasia: or The Last of Tails, published in Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 1, 1837, pp.319-324, (a journal edited by Charles Dickens) which lamented the death of the horse and predicted the collapse of society as the role of the horse evaporated. The Surrey Iron Railway finally closed in 1846, unable to compete with the new steam-powered railways, and the age of the horse was over.

 

Most people know that the invention of the railway was one of the most important events in the history of the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the pioneering engineer Richard Trevithick (13 April 1771 – 22 April 1833), who demonstrated his early steam locomotives in London, the potential of steam power became increasingly obvious. When the first proper, practical and workable railway in the world was constructed, the Stockton and Darlington line, which opened on 27 December 1825, there was no going back. It was here that Stephenson's Rocket, the first steam locomotive to be capable of practical work, trundeled along an initial nine miles of track, reaching a speed of 24 miles per hour, and carrying an 80 ton load of coal and flour. The track was eventually extended to 25 miles, reaching Witton Park Colliery. This line represents the birth of the railways as we know them. The initial concept was essentially that of carrying cargo, paticularly coal from the mines of north England to the coast, where it could be loaden onto ships and taken by sea all around the country.

 

The Stockton and Darlington line was followed by the Canterbury to Whitstable line in 1830, followed by the Manchester and Liverpool Railway, opened the same year on 15 September 1830, which can be considered the world's first inter-city line.

 

These events were world changing, and development was extremely rapid, but it is shockingly less well known that the very first inner city line, designed specifically for passenger transport rather than cargo, was the London and Greewnich Railway, which opened its first section between Deptford and Spa Road on 8 February 1836, extending itself a few months later to London Bridge.

 

Colonel George Thomas Landmann

In 1811 a colonel in the Royal Engineers called George Thomas Landmann (1780 - 1854) returned to England after service in Canada, Gibralta and Portugal. He was an interesting man who wrote a two-volume autobiorgaphy of his adventures working as a military engineer, published in 1852 as Adventures and recollections of Colonel Landmann, late of the Corps of Royal Engineers (2v., London, 1852). He retired from the Royal Engineers in 1824 and turned his mind to the design of railways. He had the idea of building a railway from Greenwich into the centre of London, or as close to it as possible, which meant London Bridge. On 25 November 1831 Landmann and his partner George Walter floated a company called The London and Greenwich Railway, which aimed to build this remarkable vision.

 

Parliamentary approval for the building of the railway was given on 17 May 1833 and construction began a year later, on 4 April 1834.

 

Prospectus

Share Prospectus for the newly formed London and Greenwich Railway Company. The document records the formation of the company by Act of Parliament in 1833, and gives the capital as 400,000, divided into 20,000 shares, which are offered at 20 each. This capital fell short of the 700,000 it actually cost to build the railway.

Reproduction of the document courtesy of and copyright of Rail Archive/Ian Dinmore - www.railarchive.org.uk

 

At the time railways were very new, having a history of just about six years, so this was an audacious and ambitious project, particularly for a man who had retired, and it was a project that presented many problems. South-east London was mostly a semi-rural mix of pastures, market gardens, orchards and farmland, but the closer one got to the city the more urban development crowded out the rural, filling the area with streets and houses and factories. So how could a railway be cut through this growing urban setting without having dozens of level crossings at every road along the way?

 

Landmann's solution was a stroke of genius. The entire railway, 3.4 miles long, would be built on a viaduct,a bit like an ancient Roman aquaduct. Small roads could simply pass under the arches of the viaduct, while larger roads and canals along the way could have specially constructed bridges going over them. Viaducts were, of course, already well known, but they had been used mainly to bridge wide country valleys where the gradient of the ground was too steep to manage, or, in the form of aquaducts, to carry a flow of canal water without having endless locks every time a gradient was reached. This new use of the viaduct, as a way of running a railway line into a city without blocking roads was unique, and proved to be a solution that would be copied in countless cities around the world.

 

Some 400 English and Irish workmen were employed to build the railway, who, because of off-site rivalry between the two nationalities, were housed in separate camps. There is to this day a small road off Tolley Street called English Ground, where the English workmen were housed. It is said that between them they laid about 100,000 bricks a day, adding up to an estimated total of 60 million bricks, which in turn caused a brick shortage in the country. This gives an idea of the sheer scale of the project.

 

It is worth mentioning that all these bricks came from the town of Faversham in Kent, which was the main source for the London Stock bricks that were used to build not just the railway but all the enormous housing expansion of London that took place during the nineteenth century. The bricks for the railway were loaded onto Thames sailing barges at Faversham and transported to Deptford Creek, close to the southern end of the railway, and to Bermondsey, at its north-western end.

 

Brick Barges

This is a photograph of Thames sailing barges at Faversham in Kent, the type of vessel that transported the bricks for the railway to Deptford Creek. This photo taken in 1895.

When the viaduct was first created, between 1833 and 1838, it strode across the landscape in a staggering line of 851 arches plus 27 bridges. All the arches were 20 feet wide, centre to centre, and 22 feet high, and were surmounted by a four foot papapet. This carried the two tracks as high as the average house height of the time. At 3.4 miles long it remains today the longest railway viaduct in Britain.

 

Most importantly, the viaduct was not just functional, but was designed to be magnificent and beautiful as well, complete with fine red and yellow brickwork, gas lighting along the full length, and a boulevard alongside planted with trees so that people could walk along as though they were walking down a splendid Victorian street. For a charge of one penny one could walk alongside the length of the viaduct in either direction. The beauty of it is now hard to see because the boulevard has gone and industrial squalor has encroached into every possible inch of it and cut it off from public view. The viaduct is now mostly encased in scrapyards and piles of rusting cars and in warehouses with iron gates preventing access. It takes an effort to find short sections that are visible and that speak of the original vision.

 

The original lavish design was frighteningly expensive, because it involved purchasing much more land than was actually needed just for the viaduct. The total cost was £733,000, instead of the estimated £400,000 the company planned to spend. In fact, the company never really recovered from this initial expenditure, and although the line was successful they found it hard to claw it back.

 

It was planned from the begining that the arches would be let as workshops, a tradition that has continued to the present day, and perhaps even housing, though the latter idea never happened because they were not properly waterproof and the idea of living under a railway arch was not particularly attractive.

 

To understand the achievement of this railway and its impact on society one has to imagine the impressive scale of such a creation suddenly appearing on the landscape in the late 1830s, majestically cutting a path through the fields, orchards, market gardens, factories and slums of south-east London, heading directly towards London Bridge. A triumph of the Industrial Revolution, and one that marked the point of no return in the dawn of a new age of easy and rapid transport between the suburbs and the city centre. For the first time in history, one could live in the attractive suburbs around London and commute into the city every day for work.

 

Deptford to Spa Road

 

Because the building materials came into Deptford Creek, work started in Deptford, and Deptford Station was actually the first railway station to be built. This makes it London's first railway station, and there is a plaque on the wall of the station recording that fact. Sadly, the station has been rebuilt, so the present station is not the original.

 

From Deptford, building work progressed north-west towards London Bridge. However, there were delays with the last section into London Bridge, so when the line first opened on 8th February 1836, it began at Deptford and terminated at Spa Road in Bermondsey, just short of London Bridge, making Spa Road London's first railway terminus. The status of Spa Road as the first terminus to be built in London is marked by a plaque on the station wall, pictured below.

 

Plaque on the wall

Plaque on the wall marking the fact that Spa Road was London's first railway terminus, June 2010.

 

The original Spa Road station was actually a couple of hundred yards north-west of Spa Road, at the place where Rouel Road passes under the viaduct. It was a humble affair, little more that a doorway under the arch, but it is a doorway that still exists to this day. Within a few years the station was moved to just south-east of Spa Road, and this is the location that bears the plaque marking it as London's first terminus. Although closed permanently on 15th

March 1915, because of both lack of use and lack of staff during the First World War, the arches housing the station are still visible and have the words Booking Office boldly written over the entrance.

 

Spa Road c.1904

Photogaph of the railway arches at Spa Road Station, Bermondsey, taken in 1904.

 

Arches at Spa Road

View of the arches at Spa Road with the booking office at the centre, June 2010. With the open space and trees planted by the viaduct, this picture gives an idea of how the design was intended to be seen: as an attractive urban development rather than a grim, functional bit of industrial engineering.

 

 

View of the arches

A closer view of the arches at Spa Road, with the arches running north-west towards London Bridge. June 2010.

 

 

The Booking Office

View of the Spa Road Booking Office as it is today, June 2010.

It is, however, important to understand that the viaduct was progressively widened between the 1840s and the 1860s as more lines were added, and the present facade of Spa Road Station is not the original 1836 facade but dates from about 1867, the original viaduct being hidden behind it.

 

Two of the railway bridges over roads in Bermondsay are original and quite remarkable. Firstly, there is the bridge that crosses Spa Road itself. This has a central arch over the road supported by 14 bright blue painted cast-iron Doric columns, with smaller arches over the foothpaths at each side, just like a church nave with side aisles. Additional brutal 20th Century widening of the viaduct can be seen in the massive steel work directly over the arch.

 

Spa Road Railway Bridge

The railway bridge over Spa Road.

Photo courtsey of English Heritage.

 

Second, there is a bridge of similar design, but of only 12 Doric columns wide, over Abbey Street, a bit to the north-west of Spa Road.

 

Abbey Street Railway Bridge

The railway bridge over Abbey Street.

Photo courtesy of English Heritage.

 

Both of these bridges were designed by the engineer G. T. Landmann are now Grade II listed structures.

 

On 14 December 1836 the section up to London Bridge was completed, making London Bridge the new London terminus.

 

Once the full length of line was opened, from Tooley Street (as London Bridge Station was then called) to Greenwich, it attracted many thousands of passengers. By 1840 it was carrying over a million passengers a year.

 

The way south-east to Greenwich took a little longer to complete, mainly because of the difficulty of crossing Deptford Creek, which was used by sailing boats and needed an opening bridge so that tall-masted boats could pass. But on 24 December 1838 the whole line was finished and trains began running all the way from London Bridge to Greenwich.

 

For those who want to see the original 1836 arches, the section of line passing through Deptford is important because all the added lines that made the viaduct wider and wider as it approached London Bridge branched off to the south, heading towards New Cross Gate, Forest Hill and Croydon, and towards New Cross, Lewisham and Blackheath, leaving just the original two-track viaduct to make its way to Deptford and Greenwich. It is only at Deptford that one can get a sense of what the original viaduct looked like. The whole of this section of the viaduct, from North Kent Junction to Greenwich, is a Grade II listed structure, apart from many of the bridges which are 20th century replacements.

 

Arches at Deptford

 

This is a section of the original arches near Deptford.

Photo courtsey of English Heritage.

The locomotives used by the London and Greenwich Railway were of the Planet class, a 2-2-0 type first designed by Robert Stephenson and Company for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

 

Engraving of Planet class locomotive

This is an engraving by William Miller after J. Kindar of a Planet Class Locomotive, showing side and front views. This is the type of engine that pulled the first trains into London.

During the early years of the London and Greenwich Railway eight locomotives are known to have been in service, most of them being of the Planet Class. The names of seven of them are known, though information about them is fragmentory. They were:

 

No. 1: Royal William (Supplied in 1835 by Marshall & Co.)

No. 2: Royal Adelaide (Supplied by Marshall & Co.)

No. 3: Dottin (Supplied by Marshall & Co.)

No. 4: Twells (Supplied by Marshall & Co.)

No. 5 Victoria (Supplied by Forrester.)

No. 6: (No information available.)

No. 7: Greenwich (Supplied in 1838 by Braithwaite & Co.)

No. 8: Hawthorn (No information available.)

 

Note that No. 3, Dottin, was named after the chairman of the company, Abel Rous Dottin, and No. 4, Twells, was named after the director and deputy chairman John Twells.

 

Some writers believe that engine No. 4, Twells, was one of two engines sold to the Admiralty in 1845 and fitted to HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to provide hot water and power during the arctic expedition led by John Franklin, which aimed to discover the north-west passage. However, the exact identity of the engines fitted to Franklin's ships is still unknown for certain. All we know is that two engines from the London and Greenwich Railway, or perhaps from the London and Croydon Railway, and perhaps one engine from the London and Birmingham Railway, were fitted to HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in early 1845. Setting sail from Greenhithe on 19 May 1845, the two ships, Erebus and Terror, never returned and all members of the expedition died from cold and disease in the arctic waters off the northern coast of Canada.

 

 

>Replica of Planet class locomotive

This is a replica of a Planet Class locomotive which gives a really good impression of what the original engines would have looked like running from London Bridge to Greenwich.