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68: London's First Railway

Where was London’s first railway terminus?

The railway first entered London in the 1830s, just before Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. 

The first section of the London and Greenwich Railway was built on a viaduct between Spa Road in Bermondsey and Deptford, near Lewisham. It was the first occasion where locomotives ran over a proper railway in the London district.

Questions answered:

  • How was crisis adverted?
  • Why was the project a Project Manager’s nightmare?
  • When did the first train leave Deptford?
  • Why was the original line from Deptford to Spa Road?
  • When did Spa Road station close

Join Hazel Baker as she explores this often forgotten history.

London’s First Railway

 

Recommended Reading:

 

 

Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

 

Where was London’s first railway terminus?

The railway first entered London in the 1830s, just before Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. 

The first section of the London and Greenwich Railway was built on a viaduct between Spa Road in Bermondsey and Deptford, near Lewisham. It was the first occasion where locomotives ran over a proper railway in the London district. There had been earlier attempts to run a railway in London but that’s for another day…

 

Where is Spa Road Station? Thousands of you will have unknowingly gone through Spa Road station if you have travelled into London Bridge by train. It’s no longer a terminus, in fact, it’s no longer a station. There are only fragments left to be seen,

 

Our story starts in late Georgian London….

Georgian Bermondsey was ripe for development. In 1829, James Savage completed St James’ Church, just off Jamaica Road. You may have noticed it when coming into London Bridge from Blackheath or Greenwich.

 

In 1833 an Act of Parliament granted the London & Greenwich Railway the rights to build a 4-mile-long (6.4 km) railway from the south end of London Bridge to Greenwich and to run trains along it for passengers. Technical advances and finances were available and so made what, to some would have only been a dream, become a very exciting reality. 

The ultimate dream was for the railway to reach from London to Dover and there was much talk of a London to Gravesend extension from Greenwich too. 

During 1835, construction of the viaduct both at the Greenwich and London Bridge ends continued while test runs of trains were made along the route. By early 1836 there was considerable pressure to open the railway especially from the investors. The heat was on and revenue was needed. There was welcome publicity to be had from being the first railway to run trains in London. It’s not the one who did it properly who goes down in history but those who come first, no matter the cost.  Another consideration was the company’s stock price, which stood high at the end of 1835 but was at risk of falling if the line was not soon opened. The board decided to open a 2.5 miles stretch from Spa Road to Deptford; 1 mile to Tooley Street & 0.5m to Greenwich. Spa Road was a temporary terminus during the completion of London Bridge Station. 

The subsoil was a blackish peat, which gave considerable problems, and Landmann pioneered the use of concrete to reinforce the foundations. Even so, several of the piers, near Corbetts Lane, moved four or five inches (100 – 125mm) out of the perpendicular. Elsewhere, iron ties were used to prevent lateral movement (bowing walls) in the brickwork. 

An early locomotive was used. Built for the South Eastern Railway, the overall length of the engine and tender was 36 ft. 4 in. The cylinders measured 15 in. by 18 in. and the drivers 5 ft. 6 in.

The first train left Deptford for Spa Road Station at 8am on Monday 8th February 1836 marked the start of a regular service from Spa Road. Just three weeks after two arches close to Tooley Street collapsed (18 Jan 1836)…oooops.

It must have been quite an experience to speed along in a train along the viaduct above the surrounding buildings of South East London and countryside. The Birmingham Journal on the 13th February 1836 reported “A passenger in a Greenwich Railway carriage, on Monday last, says that in one of the experimental trips, the train of six carriages was conveyed at the rate of a mile per minute, or 60 miles per hour! He adds that the sensation experienced was that of flying, rather than that which is felt in the most rapid of ordinary modes of travelling. There were two numerous parties of ladies in the carriages, who seemed highly delighted.”

Trains ran hourly on the half-hour from Spa Road, from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm, with a fare to Deptford costing 6d. At the line’s opening, fares  were one shilling (5p) first class; and eight pence (3p) second class. There were no services after dark, as there were no signals on the line and it was not illuminated. On the Whit Monday, following the official opening, the line carried around 13,000 passengers. 

 

Spa Road was the first London terminus, albeit for less than a year. The London Bridge to Deptford line opened in December 1836. The line extended to Greenwich and opened in 1838. 

 

The London Bridge – Greenwich line hit a number of firsts:

⁃ It was the first steam railway in London

⁃ It was the first to be built specifically for passengers

⁃ It was an entirely elevated railway – it’s an early C19th engineering marvel

 

878 brick arches were built, mostly of them being 18 ft. span and 22 ft. high which is the longest run of arches in Britain creating 4 miles of continuous viaduct (6.4 km). It’s estimated that 60,000,000 bricks were used, that is 100,000 bricks a day by a total of 400 navvies. The arches are now Grade II listed.

The sheer amount of bricks required created a shortage in London and drew the price of bricks up too. Unusually for the time, the bricks were made in Sittingbourne, Kent and brought to the construction site via canal barge.

Early attempts to put housing underneath the arches were unsuccessful, and the spaces were used by local businesses, as they still are today.

Victorian Bermondsey boomed. In 1839 the Croydon Railway opened. In 1844, the Bricklayers Arms opened on Old Kent Road. The viaduct above Borough Market and Clink Street linking to Cannon Street Railway Bridge was completed in 1866. 

From 1850 to 1901 the London & Greenwich ran trains on the right-hand side; the only British railway ever to do so. When the line was connected to the North Kent line at Charlton in the 1870s it caused operational problems and a scissor crossing had to be installed to enable trains to cross over to the left. This arrangement ended on 26th May 1901.

The London and Greenwich Railway (L&GR) was formed by Colonel George Thomas Landmann (a former Royal Engineer) and George Walter (an Entrepreneur) came together to build London’s first railway.

 

Inspiration from Stagecoaches:

Early railways took over the stagecoach arrangement of placing passengers on the outside of otherwise enclosed coaches.

Chose to fix benches across the end walls of its second-class stock, on which passengers could sit with their legs dangling over the track.

 

Built in Stages

The area of London Bridge was densely populated. Landmann and Walter had the foresight to see that running a railway at ground level would have caused considerable problems with the large number of streets that would have to be crossed by a railway, a time when horsepower was the main option for transport. The land was notoriously marshy (think Dickens’s Jacob’s Island) and the open land out towards Rotherhithe and Deptford was crossed by the Grand Surrey Canal and two rivers; Neckinger and Ravensbourne.

So they rose above it, quite literally. A viaduct would be able to carry the railway above the marshy ground and would also be able to ensure the busy London streets that the railway crossed could run underneath would not be obstructed by the railway. 828 arches were built, designed with a pedestrian toll-path along one side.

The route was surveyed in 1832 and in 1833 the Acts of Parliament had been approved and the Act to create the London and Greenwich Railway (L&GR) received Royal Assent on the 17th of May 1833.

Work started on the foundations in February 1834, and in places they had to dig down 24 feet to get a firm foundation for the arches.

The L&GR began compulsory purchases of land in 1834, and the enormous quantities of materials needed to build the viaduct began to arrive on site.

Early railway preference for stone blocks over wooden sleepers were influenced by horse-drawn railways – the blocks did not go across, unlike a sleeper. and so left a pathway down the middle. I don’t think this applied to London and Greenwich as Simon Bradby in his book The Railways uses the term ‘sleeper’ and that would make sense with this railways built with steam locomotives in mind.

Early railway engineers also thought securing the rails as firmly as possible a good idea and this was another reason they used stone blocks.  ‘The London & Greenwich even set its granite sleepers in concrete to make doubly sure.’

 

They later realised wood has shock-absorbing properties and thus reduces wear on tear and offered a much smoother ride.

The path did not last, and now that the line has been repeatedly widened it is difficult to sense its original appearance from a moving train. The frontage of the station is still extant and displays the signage of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway. There is still the Spa Road Station side on the side of the viaduct. You may fare better if you visit Bermondsey on foot, for: here and there you can see evidence of the original railway. Look where Spa Road passes beneath the railway line (by Little Bread Pedlar

Bakery), you’ll see massive Grecian colonnades of cast iron and they still separate the roadway from the paved walkways on either side, an echo from the last days of Georgian London. The site of the ticket windows is also visible. The disused platforms can still be reached via the old ticket office (no access to the public) and have occasionally been used in emergencies. On 8 January 1999, after two commuter trains collided and derailed in the Spa Road train crash, some passengers were evacuated through the old station. 

Construction of the viaduct started at Corbett’s Lane as this point was roughly in the centre of the route, and was in open country so was not dependent on the land purchases and demolition work required to prepare the route in central London. The viaduct included the stations of London Bridge, Spa Road, Bermondsey (closed 1915) and Deptford. A further station on top of the viaduct at Southwark Park was opened in 1902, but also closed in 1915.

The roadway and footpath built to go along the length of the viaduct was intended to provide access to the arches and also to provide a parallel walking and carriage route with the railway charging a fee for access. 

The first experimental trains were run in 1835. The structure was not however completed until December 1836, due to delays in obtaining materials for the Bermondsey Street bridge near to London Bridge. As originally constructed the viaduct included a ‘pedestrian boulevard’ where users could walk for a penny toll, but this was quickly replaced by an additional running line The boundary between the pathway and the adjacent country was made up of shrubs and bushes.

 

In 1832, the future location of Spa Road station was on the edge of development with open country and market gardens stretching out towards Deptford and Greenwich. Occasional houses, a windmill and the Blue Anchor Public House can be seen along the sides of the streets.

Now move forward, only 12 years to 1844, and a solid black line across the map shows the new viaduct of the London and Greenwich Railway with the new Spa Road Station now having been renamed The Spa Road.

Looking at the 1844 map, apart from the building of the viaduct, there hadn’t been much more development, with the route of the railway to the south east still running over open land, although more detail has been added to this map which shows the cultivated nature of the land.

As the viaduct was completed, there was considerable interest in the London & Greenwich Railway which the company encouraged by providing access to the viaduct. On Easter Sunday 1835 some 10,000 people walked along the viaduct with the company taking almost £50 in tolls.

 

Adverts in newspapers gave details of the services and fares. From the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser on the 10th February 1836:

“LONDON & GREENWICH RAILWAY COMPANY. A TRAIN of the Company’s CARRIAGES will start DAILY at the following hours, until further notice – Fare, 6d. 

From DEPTFORD to SPA-ROAD, BERMONDSEY, at eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four and five”

The return journey from Spa Road to Deptford was at half past the hour.

The first station at Spa Road was very much in a temporary form. Wooden stairs led up to the top of the viaduct where there was a narrow platform between the tracks and the viaduct parapet. The platform space was so limited that passengers would queue up the stairs until there was space to board a train.

 

Nov 1836 were suspended for a while after a derailment but resumed in 1837 with rumours circulating that trains had reached 60 miles per hour (97 km/h). 

 

Originally the line had single parallel tracks of Stephenson gauge 4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm), fixed to stone blocks or sleepers. By 1840 there was a mixture of bridge rails, single parallel and double parallel rails (see Rail profile). The original rails caused excessive noise, and damage to structure and rolling stock. Bridge rails were used on the viaduct between Deptford and Greenwich initially, laid on longitudinal timbers with cross sleepers at four-foot intervals. At this time, new double parallel rails of 78 lb. to the yard were laid for a quarter of mile (400m) at Deptford on timber sleepers, presumably as an experiment. The concrete underlay was replaced with a gravel ballast of 2 feet (610 mm) thickness.

The line reached Bermondsey Street in October, and London Bridge on 14 December 1836 (Spa Road was no longer used as a stop at this time). At the other end, the line reached a temporary station at Church Row in Greenwich on 24 December 1838, having been delayed by problems with the Deptford Creek lift bridge. 

 

For some years local children exploited the ticket stops at Spa Road. The ticket collections meant that up trains had to stand there for some considerable time, close to the parapet wall and perfectly visible from street level. One regular traveller, Alfred Rosling Bennett, later recalled, “Gangs of children made it a practice, especially on summer evenings, without any apparent hindrance from the police, to attend every train and, standing at the junction of Rouel Road with Frean Street, to shout in chorus with a sort of cadence, “Throw down your mouldy coppers!” The chorus was repeated incessantly until the train moved on, unless coppers, mouldy or otherwise, arrived and then there would be a glorious tussle of boys and girls in desperate strife for the prize. Coppers were often thrown; if one passenger started and so afforded others a specimen battle, another was almost certain to follow and he, very likely, would be joined by a third, all perhaps in different carriages. When a train resumed its journey [the children] would play about in the neighbourhood until the next drew up.

 

Expansion of the viaduct, from brick extensions to metal, showing how railway architecture changed over time

Usage of Spa Road station dropped significantly after the opening of London Bridge railway station, and for 15 months drivers only stopped at Spa Road if a passenger requested it. This changed in March 1838 when the company’s directors ordered trains to stop at Spa Road hourly throughout the day and reserved half a carriage for passengers to and from the station on Sundays and holidays.

They also took steps to improve access to the station. Despite this, it was little used and in late 1838 the L&GR’s directors decided to close the station. It was boarded up at the end of 1838 and remained out of use until 1842.

The line was further extended southwards to its final destination at Greenwich on 12 April 1840. The railway was planned with extensions in mind and the line into London Bridge was used by other companies as a route into London, these included the London Croydon in 1839 and the London & Brighton in 1841 and the South Eastern Railway in 1842.

 

In 1840, the L&GR applied to Parliament for powers to widen the viaduct, which was so narrow that the carriages only had a clearance of about 20 inches between their sides and the parapet wall, and about 3 feet clearance in the centre. There was no room for buildings of any description anywhere on the line.

Sections have been widened. Cast iron extensions to the side of the viaduct help carry the large numbers of trains that run along this route every day. Amazingly, the core of the brick viaduct is the same as when built in the 1830s.

The station was upgraded in August 1843 when signals were erected there, and in May 1844 the platforms were extended. To help cover the cost of the widening tolls were increased which forced the Croydon and South Eastern companies to consider building a rival terminus at Bricklayers Arms to avoid the Greenwich viaduct. To counter this, the Greenwich company agreed to lease their line to the South Eastern under an Act of 1845.

 

In 1845, the London & Greenwich ceased operating as a Company, and the line was leased to South Eastern Railway.

The original viaduct had been widened for 1.95 miles (3.14 km) of its length between Corbett’s Lane and London Bridge on the south side to accommodate the trains of the London and Croydon Railway and London and Brighton Railway, in 1842 and also for 2.65 miles (4.26 km) on the north side to accommodate the South Eastern Railway main line in 1850.

Fatal accidents at the station, due to lack of room for passengers. Passengers queuing on the tracks etc

There have been three fatalities in its short life as a station and a few near misses.

  1. If the platform was full, passengers were supposed to queue on the steps to wait for the trains. In practice, though, they often queued on the track itself. The company had not originally intended to provide platforms at all and had fitted its carriages with steps to allow passengers to board from track level, but found that low platforms were more convenient. The Commissioner of Pavements required the L&GR to maintain the staircases and to provide at least two services a day from the station. Perhaps not surprisingly given the station’s physical limitations, only a month after it was opened there was a fatal accident when passenger Daniel Holmes was run over by a train. The other passengers had been waiting with others on the track when the Deptford train arrived. They climbed up on to the platform but Holmes remained on the track. The engine driver, Thomas Millender, was distracted by Holmes and collided with the waiting southbound train. A number of passengers who had already boarded the southbound train were injured and Holmes was killed instantly when Millender’s runaway engine struck him. The duty policeman only just escaped, also being struck and was dismissed for failing to warn the passengers in time. The accident was witnessed by George Walker, the L&GR’s Resident Director, who subsequently wrote of the difficulties that his staff experienced in keeping people off the tracks.
  2. The company came under pressure to reopen Spa Road station, as competition from the railway had caused the demise of a horse-drawn coach service from Bermondsey to Deptford. It agreed to construct an improved station when the line was widened. This involved moving the access staircase to the north side of the viaduct, building a waiting and booking office room in the arches and constructing a shed over the line. A local contractor, Thomas Jackson, began work on the new station in June 1842 and it opened in September, with the work costing £450. The following February another life was lost at Spa Road when a man named Birmingham suffered a fatal injury in the station.
  3. The South Eastern Railway took over the L&GR the following year and rebuilt the whole station again. The reconstruction work, which took place in March 1845, saw the demolition of the stairway and the building of a new internal stair approach from an arch in West Street (now Marine Street) next to the arch occupied by the booking office. The tracks were re-laid to make them diverge slightly, providing room for an island platform about 10 feet wide. A small shelter was constructed there with a roof 12 feet above track level and projecting about 8 inches outwards, level with the sides of the carriages. A third-class passenger was killed on 1 April 1850 when he climbed part-way out of his open carriage and hit his head on the shelter’s projecting roof as his Greenwich-bound train passed through the station.

 

A subsequent Board of Trade enquiry recommended that steps should be taken to ensure that the ‘unruly class of passengers found in third class should not have the power to injure themselves in future. In the same year, a small shelter for ticket collectors was erected on the Spa Road platform and trains to London Bridge were stopped there to carry out ticket collections before arriving at their destination. This arrangement continued until Charing Cross railway station was opened in 1864.

 

Near Misses at Spa Road Station

1853 There was a rear collision due to very foggy conditions and station staff error.

Spa Road Junction rail crash 8 June 1999. 2 trains, 16 coaches derailed, almost 300 passengers put at risk, 4 serious injuries. Driver failed to stop at a red light. Used Spa Road Station to help some of the passengers exit the railway lines.

The fact this major part of railway history is so seldom known.

 

The station being re-sited a number of times:

First station (1836–1838) The station itself was very basic. It was squeezed into a narrow space on a two-track viaduct with no room for buildings of any sort.

Second station (1842–1867) moving the access staircase to the north side of the viaduct, building a waiting and booking office room in the arches and constructing a shed over the line.

Third station (1867-1915) In 1867 the station was resisted further along the viaduct about 200 yards (180 m) to the east, with an entrance accessed via what is now Priter Road. It was renamed as Spa Road & Bermondsey in October 1877 (Now SE & Chatham Railway).

 

First side opened 8 Feb 1836. Closed 1st Sept 1872. Opening company London & Greenwich Railway

Second site 1st Sept 1872. Closed 15 March 1915.

Closing company South Eastern & Chatham Railway.

 

The first Spa Road station in 1836. Built during an era when station design was still in its infancy, the original terminal was very basic indeed, consisting of two narrow timber platforms connected to the street below by a rickety wooden staircase. The ticket office was at street level and, as the image illustrates, passengers were often required to queue on the stairs whilst awaiting their train.

 

Drawing by Robert Blammell Schnebbelie

 

Spa Road Station forecourt in C.1904. Although the station was called Spa Road and Bermondsey, the prominent sign about the entrance to the booking office only shows Spa Road. The original Spa Road had only narrow timber platforms. The third station seen here had wider platforms with brick and canopies.

 

The former entrance in the arches below the viaduct survives on the southside of Priter Way, the arches are in light industrial use. The wording ‘SE & CR’ and ‘Booking Office’ is still visible in embossed concrete above two of the entrance doorways. The booking office has been largely stripped but one set of steps up to the platform has been retained and maintained for rail maintenance and emergency egress from the line above. Some sections of both island platforms still survive.

In 1867 the station was re-sited further along the viaduct about 200 yards to the east, with an entrance accessed via what is now Priter Road. It was renamed as Spa Road & Bermondsey in October 1877 although the c1904 photo reproduced below shows that it was still advertised as ‘Spa Road Station’. When the South Eastern and Chatham Railway was formed in 1899 from the South Eastern Railway and its bitter competitor, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, the station was given another makeover. The current appearance of the station frontage dates from 1900. The station was provided with two island platforms on the north side of the viaduct. Each platform had a brick building and a canopy. A signal box was located at the north end of the down platform.

 

Closure of the station followed on 15 March 1915 along with Southwark Park and Deptford stations, as a wartime economy measure. Only Deptford reopened. Spa Road continued to be used by railwaymen until September 1925, when it ceased to be used by the railway.

By the mid-1980s the old station had fallen into dereliction. It had lain empty for many years and the vacant land in front of it had become a site for the illegal dumping of rubbish. In 1986, British Rail, the Southwark Environment Trust and the London Borough of Southwark contributed £50,000 to restoring the station frontage and installing two commemorative plaques. The station arches and the land in front of them were redeveloped into a light industrial estate behind a housing block, accessed via Priter Road. Tram and bus competition was high.

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