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National Railway Museum






South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Alan Pegler OBE, FRSA; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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London's Victorian Railways
Mr R Brasier, London Transport Museum
21 September 1998

Despite the slide projector causing problems, Mr Brasier, from London Transport Museum, gave a very stimulating talk to 16 members, using his slides as "hook" to guide us through this complicated period of London railway history. Before joining the Museum, he worked for BR, in change of Southern Region Records, so he has extensive knowledge of the historic material upon which his talk was based. The material was drawn from the museum archives and his own slide collection, covering the period up to 1914.

The presentation began by considering the main London terminii - St Pancras was a pertinent starting point as the Group is about to have make a tour of the site. The General Manager of the Midland Railway decided to keep line high so that the under-track vaults as a store of goods, merchandise and Bass beer. The span of arches under station are reputed to be in units of Bass's beer-barrels. Moving across the intervening street, Kings Cross was built with the platforms at street level despite the resulting gradients, especially the dip under the Grand Union Canal, making for very difficult operations and ,ultimately, they had to shed a lot of the traffic to the North London. Kings Cross is earlier than St Pancras, dating from 1852, and designed by Cubit. It was the first building to be designed as a railway station with no pretence at mimicking cathedrals or other civic buildings. The clock was made by Dents for the Great Exhibition. It had a connection with Metropolitan Underground the suburban trains using the York Road and Hotel Curve lines at an incline of 1 in 35, on a curve, to reach the Metropolitan Widened Lines. The incline was so severe that there was a person stationed down the tunnel on a semi-permanent basis to put sand on the track to prevent locomotives from slipping.

Liverpool Street, by contrast, was below road level. Again, the General Manager was highly influential in its location; he wanted a direct line connection with the Underground but with connections far better aligned than the GNR at Kings Cross. It cost a lot of money to do this, but it was finally achieved just as a major financial crash happened, putting the Great Eastern in the hands of the receiver. To add insult to injury, the Metropolitan used the link for about 6 months and then built its own station, never using this link again.

The London Termiii were located on a ring around central London because the Government took fright at the large number of railways, promoted during the Railway Mania, which proposed to end in London. In 1856, a Royal Commission decided that no stations would be built in the central London area. Fenchurch Street and Waterloo had already been promoted, but all the others fell under the Parliamentary decision. While this protected large amounts of property from demolition, by the mid 1860s, because of the large amount of travel generated by the railways and the general upturn in the economy, street traffic was strangling London. The conditions were so bad that they even introduced streaming of horse traffic (regulated by speed) over London Bridge. The surface railways tried to encourage the Government to let them help the situation by penetrating into the centre of London. The government temporarily relented and allowed Cannon Street and Blackfriers to be built, and, finally at true cross London line in the form of the Snow Hill to Farringdon link. Perhaps frightened by what it had done, the Government then stopped all other plans. However, they did propose that all the terminii be connected by the new-fangled underground system.

Mr Brasier presented some rare photos taken in the mid 1880s show the Circle line being built. The Engineer was John Powler. The tunnels were built to a diameter of 26 feet, because the GWR wanted the broad gauge to run through. The tunnels were elliptical with no invert and light retaining walls resulting in a number of subsidence incidents. Retaining walls were later made far more substantial, and they modified the building technique so that they first dug trenches at for the side walls, then the centre spoil was removed until the arch could be built; and only then was the centre void was removed. The tunnels have about 8 rings of bricks. Indeed, so great was the demand fro bricks that railway building in London at this time caused a brick famine. While brick and cast iron were "de-rigor", concrete was used experimentally at various locations. The building process used large amounts of manpower with limited use of steam shovels. A photograph of a cutting construction showed arrangements which would now be considered highly dangerous, with rough catwalks over the drop, no handrails and, definitely no hard hats in sight! The number of accidents to workmen is not recorded but must have been substantial. While the building was taking place, the streets were closed, causing significant traffic disruption. The services, gas water had to be removed and replaced before the street was put back. Meanwhile life went on in the adjoining houses, despite the morass of mud and horse manure outside the front door.

The lines followed the streets because if it went under even part of a building, then the company had to buy the whole building. Nevertheless, there was a considerable amount of slum clearance. Unfortunately no replacement building were put up, so many people were left homeless. Stations were substantially constructed as an attempt to keep the atmosphere clean. The underground steam lines was cursed with foul air. Not only did the drivers grow extensive beards to cut out some of the muck, but an enterprising London chemist created a cough mixture especially for the travellers on the Metropolitan line. A photograph of the interior of Bayswater showed the gas lighted globes, similar the the replicas recently installed at Baker Street, which were used to provide a reasonable level of illumination in the dank atmosphere. Contractors provided their own locomotives operating on temporary track. Meanwhile London itself was expanding, made possible via the services of the railways, for example allowing the professionals and middle classes to seek the rural idle of Gloucester Road!.

Locomotives used by the suburban services were typically small tanks. Even the LCDR used such small engines to traverse the Snow Hill - Farringdon line with its fierce gradients. Mr Brasier showed early photographs of a range of locomotives, all making use of condensing apparatus to "consume their own smoke". It is doubtful how much condensing took place when the loco was under load. Also when the tank water warmed up, injectors wouldn't work, so at strategic points arrangements were made to replenish the tanks with cold water. The Farringdon line was a significant strategic line for the companies with access to it, even being used by slip coaches to take long distance services across London

The success of the London railways in attracting traffic was so great that it soon became necessary to extend the terminii. One which underwent drastic rebuilding was Charring Cross. Unfortunately not everything went to plan. On 5th December 1905, the roof crashed down, pushed out the retaining wall of Northumberland Road, and demolished part of the adjoining theatre, killing several workmen who were engaged on some modifications to the theatre layout. The cause was a poor weld in the girders of the roof which had been present since its original construction and was just waiting to fail. When the workmen put up their scaffolding, this was the straw which broke the camels back. Luckily the creaks and groans were so great just before it did fail that the station was virtually evacuated before the collapse, otherwise the loss of life would have been significantly greater. The original arched roof was replaced with a truss roof.

At around the same period, Victoria Station was rebuilt. The London Brighton & South Coast Railway decided to extend its station by building longer platforms so that two trains could be worked from each platform, making effective use of the central escape road to bypass trains in front. This allowed the Brighton to work a very intensive service. Victoria station itself was built over the Grovesnor canal, explaining why there are no arches under this London terminus.

Waterloo in the 1860s was getting a very bad name because of the piecemeal way it was built. Not only did the old Waterloo have very low roofs, it also had considerable clutter and lots of confusion caused by the partitioning of the station concourse. A new layout was provided with a new, high, roof which was carefully designed so that there are no vertical columns in the circulating area. Arching was also put in underneath the station to provide storage.

The Mr Brasier turned to the development of the London Tubes. This was made possible by the Barlow Shield, later perfected by Greathead, to allow burrowing in the London Clay, with cast iron rings used to stabilise the ground and produce the familiar "Tube". The City and South London was the first Tube railway but, the first tunnel to use the technique was the Southwark Subway. This was first used as a cable way but was not a success, reverting to a foot subway. The City and South London also proved the use of electric traction, but the system was still too small to be successful. The Central London Electric Railway was the first to make a success of the electric-hauled tube railway.

The real heart of the London Tube was developed by Charles Yerkes, an American entrepreneur and crook!. He realised that there was a lot of American money available to build some of the London lines which were in abeyance due to shortage of cash over here. Despite him "conning" the gullible Americans to part with their cash, there being little real return on their capital, it did create the heart of the Tube railway. A typical Yerkes tube station was illustrated on the early Piccadilly Line, with its glazed terracotta tiling covering a steel frame. Yerkes also brought across Mr Otis' electric lift, making it far easier for the passengers to get up and down to the platforms. The tube effectively filled the gap caused by the legislation, and allowed cross London running. It had taken half a century for the railways to get round the Royal Commission ruling of 1856, but they had finally done it.

Unfortunately their troubles were just starting. Electric tram competition was beginning to sap their traffic. The surface railway tried to reply to the competition by introducing their own electrification . The Brighton line tried overhead electrification in 1910, which lasted into the 1920s when it was replaced by the third rail, which the South Western introduced in the middle of the first world war.