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The History of Kent

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History of London and Greenwich Railway

The London and Greenwich Railway opened on 8 February 1836 running a service from Spa Road, in Bermondsey, to Deptford, extending to London Bridge on 14 December and a temporary station in Church Row Greenwich on Christmas Eve, that same year.

Colonel George Thomas Landmann was born on 11 April 1780. The son of a professor of Artillery and Fortification, he spent his childhood in the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where he entered as a cadet on 16 April 1793. In June 1797, he was promoted to first lieutenant and posted to Canada. He went on to distinguish himself first in the Peninsular war and then on a second tour of Canada. He retired as a Royal Engineer in 1824. On returning to London, he developed an interest in steam locomotion and when in the following year the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened, he started to plan a passenger Railway in London.

His dream was for a Railway to run from London to
Dover, but quickly realised the difficulties of routing it through a suburb of London with the need to cross many roads. He eventually hit on the idea of a viaduct, which would need to go as far as Greenwich, where it could then move to ground level. In 1830, the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway opened, and during a visit, he met George Walker, who also had an interest in building a railway.

Having seen the difficulties the C&WR encountered with gradients, they decided to stop at Greenwich. The London and Greenwich Railway was floated, at a meeting on the 25 November 1831. An important feature was that the line would run from close to London Bridge, thus making it convenient for journeys to the City. The line would be some 3.75 miles long, and built on a viaduct of 878 brick arches, some of them skew. This was to avoid level crossings over the many streets which were already appearing in the south of London. Colonel Landmann envisaged the arches being used for low cost housing; however, it soon became obvious that this was impractical. The intention had been to descend to ground level after the Grand Surrey Canal, however, this was opposed by Parliament, and so it remained elevated as far as Deptford Creek on the River Ravensbourne, where there was a drawbridge.

The first Act of Parliament was obtained in 1833 for a line from Tooley Street (now known as London Bridge) to a station in London Street Greenwich. The ultimate intention was to reach Dover and there was much talk of a London to Gravesend railway which would extend from Greenwich. A scheme was presented to Parliament in 1836 but five others were competing for acceptance, and the bill failed on its second reading.

The line ran parallel with Tooley Street crossing Blue Anchor Road, Corbetts Lane and the Grand Surrey Canal. From there it curved towards the first station at Deptford High Street, and thence to London Street in Greenwich.

Sixty million bricks were used to construct the viaduct, by 400 navvies using more than 100,000 per day, creating a shortage for other building activities in London. They were all made at
Sittingbourne and transported to the site by barge. Work started on the foundations in February 1834, and 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.

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 to Corbetts Lane moved four or five inches out of the perpendicular and, on the 18 January 1836 two arches close to Tooley Street collapsed. Elsewhere, iron ties were used to prevent lateral spread in the brickwork. In 1840, many of the arches were improved by laying 9 inches of concrete above them, with a layer of asphalt.

From Deptford to Greenwich, the River Ravensbourne was crossed at Deptford Creek by means of a balanced bridge to allow vessels to pass. When the bridge worked, it could be operated by only eight men, although it was unreliable, possibly, due to a problem with the foundations. It was replaced in 1884 and again in 1963.

The viaduct originally included a 'pedestrian boulevard' where users could walk for a penny toll, but this was quickly replaced by an additional running line. 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 closed in 1915.

Originally, the track used single parallel rails to the Stephenson gauge of 4 ft 8.5 in, fixed to stone blocks or sleepers. By 1840, it would seem that there was a mixture of bridge rails, single parallel and double parallel. The original rails caused excessive noise, and also damage to structure and rolling stock. The bridge rails were used on the viaducts, between Deptford and Greenwich initially, and laid on longitudinal timbers with cross sleepers at four foot intervals. At this time, the new double parallel rails at 78lb. to the yard were laid for a quarter of a mile at Deptford, on timber sleepers, presumably as an experiment. In addition, the concrete underlay was replaced with gravel ballast to 2 feet thickness.

The first section, between Spa Road in Bermondsey and Deptford, opened on 8 February 1836. However, previously to this, a number of demonstration trains had been running from mid-1835. These were suspended for a while after a derailment in November, but resumed the following year, with somewhat apocryphal rumours circulating that some trains had reached 60 miles per hour. On the Whit Monday following the official opening, the line carried around 13,000 passengers. There was a fatal accident on the 7 March, when Daniel Holmes was run over, and a train collided with some carriages.

The line reached Bermondsey Street in October, and finally to 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 the problems with the Deptford Creek lift bridge. The present Greenwich station opened on 12 April 1840.

The first locomotives were built by Charles Tayleur and Company with three more by William Marshall of Gravesend. All would appear to be of the Stephenson "Planet" type. These were supplemented by two from Bury but subcontracted to George Forrester and Company. This was the first time locomotives with horizontal cylinders mounted at the front outside the frame, were used. While extremely successful for their time, they swayed so much that they were referred to as ‘Boxers’ and a trailing axle needed to be added. In the next four years three more locomotives followed, one each by R and W Hawthorn and Robert Stephenson and Company, with three axles, and one by Day, Summers and Company. This latter one was also modified with a trailing axle soon after delivery.

First and second class coaches were provided and were unusual in that the sole bars and headstocks were below the axles. This was a safety measure, as much of the line was built on a viaduct, in the event of a derailment, the coaches would drop only a few inches onto the rails

During 1838 and 1839, the London and Croydon Railway (L&CR) constructed a junction shortly after Corbett's Lane to join its own 800-foot viaduct to share the L&GR route to London Bridge. It is not clear when the station became known as London Bridge. Corbett's Lane Junction became one of the first major railway junctions in the world. A policeman was stationed at the junction to control movements of the trains; a wooden tower was soon erected on the viaduct to give him clearer visibility. A white disc was installed, for daytime use, with red and white lights at night. If the white disc or red light showed, the route was set for Croydon. If the disc was edge on, or a white light showed, the junction was set for Greenwich. The 'Corbett's lane lighthouse', as it was known, was the forerunner of the modern day signal box.

From 1841, the L&CR lines into London were shared with the London and Brighton Railway, and the South Eastern Railway (SER), due to join the collective from 1842. During 1841, it became obvious that the original viaduct would be inadequate to share the growing traffic of four railway companies, and so the L&GR constructed a second adjoining viaduct on the south side as far as Corbett's Lane. This provided two further tracks, which together with the southern viaduct were later leased by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway, the successor to both the L&CR and the L&BR. At this time, the Greenwich and the Croydon Lines exchanged places to prevent crossing each other at Corbetts Lane. A re-sited station at Spa Road opened in 1842.

By 1843, annual passenger numbers had risen to over 1.5 million, with an average fare per head of 6.5d. In 1844, numbers rose further to over 2 million, although the average fare had dropped to 5.2d. The company was never financially successful, due to the need to repay the very high capital expenditure in building the line; the toll to the other operators, for use of the line was increased.

The increasing congestion of the lines approaching London Bridge, and dissatisfaction with the high tolls charged, caused the SER and the L&BR to build a new terminus at Bricklayers Arms which opened in 1844, transferring most of their services, and reducing the fares accordingly. This reduction in toll revenues brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Prior to the opening of the Bricklayers Arms terminus, it had approached the SER, with a suggestion that they should either buy or lease the Greenwich line. The SER took some time to respond, and in the meanwhile, the company received a similar offer from the L&BR and also negotiated reduced tolls with the L&CR. Eventually the SER agreed to lease the London and Greenwich line from 1 January 1845, which thereafter became known as the Greenwich Line.

The London and Greenwich Railway company continued in existence until January 1923 but its activities were restricted to receiving the annual rent from the SER and distributing it to shareholders.

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