London’s railway network stands out as one of the greatest achievements of the Victorian age for it was during the 19th century that much of the railway infrastructure still in use today was first established.
The first railway line in London opened in February 1836 (six years after the UK’s first line opened) and ran between Spa Road in Bermondsey and Deptford on the south bank of the River Thames. The line was extended to London Bridge in December that same year and again to Greenwich, from cross-Channel steamers left – in April the following year.
That same year – 1837 – the station at Euston opened as the final stop for trains from Birmingham (an earlier terminus as Chalk Farm was deemed too far out). It was followed by Paddington in 1838, Fenchurch Street – the first permanent terminus in the City – in 1841, Waterloo in 1848 and King’s Cross in 1850.
Having seen a boom period during the 1840s, development of new lines took a back seat in the 1850s but resumed apace the following decade with the opening of Victoria Station, connecting the city to Brighton and Dover. Stations followed at Charing Cross, Ludgate Hill and Cannon Street and alongside the grand terminus’ around the outskirts of London where trains arriving from distant destinations arrived, numerous smaller railways began to be built, such as the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway and the Victoria Station and Pimlico Railway, which took passengers on only short journeys across the city (these smaller railway companies all disappeared by 1923 when the 1921 Railways Act resulted in the creation of what are known as the “Big Four” British railway companies).
And, of course, the London Underground, has its first journey in 1863 but we’ll look at that in more detail next week.
Interesting to note that there were three classes of rail travel and while first and second class passengers had seats, this wasn’t always the case in third class where, writes Michael Paterson in Inside Dickens’ London, passengers, such as those on the Greenwich line, were initially forced to stand in open topped carriages known by some as ‘standipedes’.
Naturally, with the building of the railways came some spectacular stations – among the most spectacular is the late Victorian building which stood at the front of St Pancras Railway Station and housed the Midland Grand Hotel (pictured above). An exemplar of the Gothic Victorian style, it was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and, following a massive recent refurbishment, is now home to the five star Renaissance London Hotel and apartments.
We can, of course, only touch on the history of the railways in such a brief article – but we will be looking in more detail at some more specific elements of the system in later posts.