The History of Kent
Copyright Kent Past 2010
History of South Eastern Railway
The South Eastern Railway (SER) operated from 1836 until 1922. The company was formed
to construct a route from London to . Branch lines were later opened to Hastings, and other places in Kent. The SER absorbed or leased
other railways, some older than itself, including the
and the . Most of the company's routes were in Kent,
eastern Sussex and the London suburbs, with a long cross-
Much of the company's early history was attempts at expansion and feuding with its neighbours; the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) in the west and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR) to the north-
There had been proposals for a railway between London and Dover in 1825, 1832 and 1835, but they came to nothing due to opposition from landowners or the difficulties of bridging the River Medway near its mouth. On 21 June 1836, Parliament passed a Private Act incorporating the South Eastern and Dover Railway, which shortly afterwards changed to the South Eastern Railway.
At the time of inauguration, there were two potential rail pathways south from London, and the Speaker of the House of Commons had said no further pathways would be permitted. The SER therefore considered routes to Dover from the proposed London and Southampton Railway line at Wimbledon, or from the existing London and Greenwich Railway (L&GR) at Greenwich. The former left London in the wrong direction and then on a roundabout route. The latter provided a useful way for a northern route via Gravesend, Rochester, and Canterbury, except that lengthening the line beyond Greenwich was blocked by opposition from the Admiralty, and this route would involve tunnelling through the North Downs.
The SER engineer, William Cubitt, was also engineer of the
During Parliamentary discussions on the proposed route of the (L&BR) during 1837, pressure was put on the SER to divert its proposed route so it could share with the L&BR between Jolly Sailor (Norwood) and Earlswood Common, and then travel eastwards to Tonbridge. Under the scheme proposed by Parliament, the railway from Croydon to Redhill would be built by the L&BR but the SER would have the right to refund half the construction costs and own that part of the line between Merstham and Redhill. The SER gave way as it reduced construction costs, although it resulted in the route being 20 miles longer than by road, running south for 14.5 miles and then turning east. It also meant the southwards section from London Bridge passed over the lines of three other companies: the L&GR to Corbett's Lane Junction, the L&CR to 'Jolly Sailor',and the L&BR to Merstham.
Construction began in 1838 at several places simultaneously, and the Shakespeare Tunnel was complete by May 1841. The L&BR line to Redhill opened on 12 July 1841 and the SER line from Redhill to Tonbridge on 26 May 1842, when SER train services began. The main line reached Ashford on 1 December 1842; the outskirts of Folkestone by 28 June 1843; and Dover by 7 February 1844. On the same day, the SER offered to lease the L&BR for 21 years at £100,000 per year, but the offer was turned down. Later that year, the SER refunded to the L&BR £430,000 and took ownership of the southern half of the Croydon-
In 1843, when the railway reached the edge of Folkestone, the company bought the silted and nearly derelict harbour, built by Thomas Telford in 1809, for £18,000. They dredged the harbour and arranged for a steam packet company to provide a ferry to Boulogne. The following year it established the independent South Eastern & Continental Steam Packet Company, which it absorbed in 1853. In December 1848, it opened a steeply graded branch from the Folkestone station to the harbour.
The station at Dover (later Dover Town) was opened on 7 February 1844. This was originally a terminus, but in 1860, they extended the line to Admiralty Pier. The London Chatham and Dover Railway reached Dover in 1861 and in 1862 secured the contract for cross-
During 1843, before the main line was complete, the SER and the L&CR became anxious about the charges imposed by the L&GR for the use of the terminus at London Bridge and its approaches. Parliament had relaxed restrictions on new railways into London and so SER sought authority to construct a branch from Corbett's Lane to a new temporary passenger terminus and goods station at Bricklayers' Arms, for use by both railways, removing the need to use the Greenwich Railway. This opened 1 May 1844. According to Charles Vignoles, 'the making of Bricklayers' Arms station was a matter of compulsion in driving the Greenwich people to reasonable terms'. Plans to extend from Bricklayers' Arms to a new SER terminus at Hungerford Bridge, nearer the centre of London, were rejected by Parliament. Similarly, a revised proposal to extend the line to Waterloo Road in 1846 was rejected by a committee of Parliament.
The L&GR was nearly bankrupt in 1844 and the SER leased its line from 1 January 1845, changing the name to the Greenwich branch. Thereafter further developments were at London Bridge, as following a shunting accident during August 1850, which caused the collapse of a large part of the station roof, the SER closed Bricklayers' Arms terminus to passenger traffic in 1852 converting it into a goods facility.
Over the next two decades, the SER system spread throughout Kent and Surrey, building lines to connect towns to its main line or acquiring those already in existence. In 1844, they took over the bankrupt Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, which had opened in 1832. This continued to be worked as an isolated line until the SER reached Canterbury from Ashford in 1846, with its line to Ramsgate.
The first branch built by the SER was the Medway Valley Line on 24 September 1844, from
Leasing the London and Greenwich Railway gave the company control of its main line into London and provided a branch line to Greenwich. Further eastward extension was not possible due to opposition from the Greenwich Hospital, however it was eventually opened in 1878 when the line joined the North Kent Line at Charlton.
A secondary main line from Tonbridge to the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells opened 20 September 1845. It was extended to Tunbridge Wells Central on 25 November 1846. By 1 September 1851, the line had reached Robertsbridge and was extended to Battle and Hastings railway station on 1 February 1852. By this time, Hastings had been reached in a roundabout route from Ashford, which opened 13 February 1851. From this line was a short branch to Rye Harbour.
During 1846, another secondary main line was opened from Ashford to Ramsgate, with a branch to Margate on 1 December 1846. A further branch from this line between Minster and was opened 7 July 1847.
In 1846, the SER supported formation of the Reading, Guildford and Reigate Railway, a scheme to build a line connecting the London to Brighton main line with the Great Western Railway (GWR) main line at Reading, and agreed to operate its services. The new line was completed on 4 July 1849. In 1852, it was absorbed by SER. Both the LB&SCR and London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) regarded this acquisition as an incursion into their areas. Likewise, the acquisition of a line so remote from its main area, and of doubtful profitability, caused heated discussion and the resignation of several directors. Nevertheless, in 1858 the GWR, L&SWR, and SER made a three-
As the SER was prevented from extending its Greenwich line, it opened a secondary main line from Lewisham to Gravesend and then to Strood on the banks of the Medway on 30 July 1849. The second half between Gravesend and Strood had been built as the Gravesend and Rochester canal and a single track railway been added to form the Gravesend and Rochester Railway. The SER offered to buy the canal and railway in 1845, filling in the canal and doubling the track. The first section (built by the SER) connected Woolwich and
A branch from Lewisham to Beckenham opened in 1857, becoming the temporary terminus of the East Kent Railway. Following the dispute with the LB&SCR over New Croydon (see below) an extension of this line to Addiscombe (Croydon) was opened in 1864.
The acquisition by the SER of the bankrupt Caterham Railway, with a line from Caterham to Purley station in 1859 started a prolonged dispute with the London Brighton and South Coast Railway.
During the first years, relations between the SER, L&CR and L&BR were cordial, the companies pooling locomotives and forming a joint locomotive committee. However, all three considered they were disadvantaged by the arrangement and in 1845 gave notice of withdrawal. The merger of the L&BR and L&CR to form the LB&SCR in July 1846 created a powerful rival to the SER in areas of east Sussex and east Surrey not yet connected to the railway. Relations between the two companies were bad from the outset, especially at sites where they shared facilities, such as the approaches to London Bridge, East Croydon, and Redhill. In addition, the SER had long wanted to build a line to Brighton, and the LB&SCR inherited plans for a line into mid-
Unsuccessful discussions took place regarding a merger between the two companies, but eventually an agreement on 10 July 1848 (ratified in Parliament in 1849) abolished tolls for using each other's lines and prevented further eastward expansion by the LB&SCR beyond Hastings and westward expansion by the SER. Under the agreement the LB&SCR, would share the line from Bulverhythe to Hastings and transfer to the SER its rights to build a line to Ashford but retained the right to use the Bricklayers' Arms branch and construct its own 15-
The agreement did not prevent squabbling between the two companies, notably with the opening of the railway from Ashford to Hastings in 1851. The LB&SCR had sought to build it and had attempted to delay its completion by the SER. In retaliation, the SER attempted to deny LB&SCR access to its station. The matter was resolved in court in favour of the LB&SCR, but victory was short-
A more protracted dispute took place between 1855 and 1862 over the Caterham branch line, which was built by an independent company in SER territory but connected to the railway network at the former LB&SCR station at Purley. The SER refused to allow the line to be leased to the LB&SCR, which in turn refused to re-
The SER objected to the LB&SCR agreement with the East Kent Railway (later the London Chatham and Dover Railway) to provide access over its lines to its Pimlico station and later the jointly owned Victoria station, and also for handling that company's freight traffic at 'Willow Walk', (a part of the Bricklayers' Arms goods facility). Further difficulties occurred at East Croydon railway station in 1862. With completion of the LB&SCR line to Victoria station, extra platforms were needed to accommodate the service. The platforms were treated by the LB&SCR as a separate station, named New Croydon, with its own ticket office, and ran exclusively LB&SCR services. This enabled the railway to offer cheaper fares from New Croydon to London than the SER which only had use of East Croydon station. The SER responded by gaining Parliamentary approval to build its own line from New Beckenham to a new station at Croydon (Addiscombe Road), which opened 1 April 1864.
Between 1844 and 1858, the SER had a monopoly of rail transport in Kent, but served the north of the county poorly. The SER line from Strood into London opened in 1849, but there was no planned service to north Kent towns to the east of the River Medway. Likewise, SER routes to Margate, Deal, and Canterbury were circuitous and other towns had no railway at all. One group of SER directors were anxious to 'close the capital account' and build no more lines, even though this might leave the field open to rival projects.
Plans for an independent line from the SER station at Strood to
In 1856, the EKR again unsuccessfully sought running powers over the SER into London, however they obtained consent to build their own route via St Mary Cray and Bromley South railway stations, securing running powers over the LB&SCR lines into Pimlico, and after 1860, to Victoria Station. The EKR became the London Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR) in 1859 and completed its rival route to Dover on 22 July 1861. By July 1863, the LC&DR had its own independent route to Victoria and in 1864 its own terminus on the edge of the City of London at Ludgate Hull. For 36 years, it would be an important competitor of the SER for both Continental and also local traffic in Kent.
The SER and the LC&DR agreed to pool Continental traffic receipts between Hastings and Margate, together with local receipts to Dover and Folkestone. It then re-
In 1860, the LCDR had a more direct route to Dover than the SER, and both the company's rivals had access to a London terminus in the prosperous West End of London while the SER only had its terminal on the south side of the river Thames at London Bridge. The SER converted part of London Bridge to through platforms and extended to near Waterloo, then over Hungerford Bridge to a station at Charing Cross which opened on 11 January 1864. When the LC&DR built a line to Ludgate Hill railway station in the City of London in 1865, the SER built a new bridge over the Thames and a city terminus at Cannon Street railway station, which opened 1 September 1866. These extensions were difficult to operate and were congested at peak times.
On 16 August 1866, the SER agreed with the London and North Western Railway to build a joint line between Euston railway station and Charing Cross, with interchange of traffic, but the scheme was abandoned as a result of the 1867 financial crisis.
The SER therefore constructed the direct line via to Tonbridge. It involved crossing the North Downs by summits and long tunnels at and Sevenoaks. The latter was the longest tunnel in southern England at 3,451 yards. This cut-
In 1865, the SER joined a consortium of six railways to form the East London Railway, which used the existing Thames Tunnel to connect Wapping on the north bank of the Thames with Rotherhithe on the south. The other partners were: the Great Eastern Railway (GER), the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR), the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR), the Metropolitan Railway, and the Metropolitan District Railway. Over the next four years, it was converted to railway use and connected with existing lines. The line was principally used for freight across London but the SER introduced a service between Addiscombe and Liverpool Street from April 1880 until March 1884. From March to September 1884, the service ran from Addiscombe to St Mary's Whitechapel Road.
The collapse of bankers Overend, Gurney and Company on 10 May 1866 and the subsequent financial crisis during the following year had a severe effect on expansion plans of several railways. No new lines were built by the SER until the opening of the Sandling to Hythe branch line on 9 October 1874. The LC&DR went bankrupt and was taken into administration 12 July 1866, and in 1867, the LB&SCR was also on the brink of bankruptcy. The directors and shareholders saw that constant quarrelling between the three companies damaged their interests and decided to either merge or work together. In 1868, a Bill was presented to Parliament to allow for co-
One result of improved relations between the SER and the LB&SCR during the 1870s was that the two collaborated in construction of a line between South Croydon on the main Brighton line and Oxted. The completion of the Orpington cut-
As a part of the same scheme, the SER at last began to implement plans for a line from
From 1866 the SER was under the chairmanship of the railway promoter Edward (later Sir Edward) Watkin who was also chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway and the Metropolitan Railway, as well as being a director of Chemin de Fer du Nord in France. He saw the SER as one link in a chain of 'Watkin' railways from the industrial north of England to the Continent via a proposed Channel Tunnel. His plans for a Channel Tunnel were ultimately blocked by the War Office, and suspicion fell on J.S. Forbes, Chairman of the LC&DR for having urged the decision. In the meantime, the railway under his chairmanship was accused of only caring about Continental travellers and neglecting the interests of its other customers. A series of letters to The Times in 1883 demonstrated how unpopular the railway had become with its regular commuters. Ernest Foxwell, also writing in 1883, stated 'The great blots on the South Eastern are its unpunctuality, its fares, its third class carriages, and the way in which local interests are sacrificed to Continental traffic.' Hamilton Ellis described both the SER and the LC&DR in the 1870s as 'bywords of poverty stricken inefficiency and dirtiness'. Despite these criticisms, the shareholders stuck with their chairman, until they eventually realised that their own interests were suffering as well. A scathing article in The Investors Review for June 1894 demonstrated how poorly Watkin's railways had performed financially compared to others, and referred to the SER's 'bitter hatred towards all but first-
Some of the complaints of unpunctuality of the SER may have been exaggerated, or were at least soon remedied after Watkin's departure, since a statistical survey of the company's services conducted in 1895 by William Acworth found that, with the exception of the heavily congested and difficult to operate lines between London Bridge and Cannon Street and Charing Cross, the company did not perform significantly worse than others in London in terms of timekeeping.
During the 1870s and the 1880s, the railway attempted to exploit the potential of the East Kent coast as both holiday destinations and potential new channel ports. Thus branches were built from Sandling near Folkestone to
On 4 July 1887, the railway opened the Elham Valley Line from Canterbury West to Shorncliffe. However, there was, by then, already an LC&DR line from Canterbury to Dover and so the new line did not attract much traffic. Similarly, on 1 October 1892 the Hawkhurst Branch from Paddock Wood to Hope Mill was opened and extended to Hawkhurst on 4 September 1893.
The company also obtained Parliamentary Powers to build a line from Appledore to Maidstone via Headcorn and the Loose Valley.
Probably the most wasteful competitive venture by the SER was a second bridge over the river Medway between Strood leading to a branch to Rochester and
The area between the North Kent Line the Dartford Loop Line became well populated during the 1870s and 1880s, but the SER was reluctant either to build or else take over a proposed Bexleyheath Line, including stations at Blackheath, Eltham, Bexleyheath and Slade Green, in spite of public pressure in the 1880s. This line was eventually built as a private concern in 1895, and it was only after the original investors had gone bankrupt and Watkin had retired that the SER agreed to incorporate it into its system.
One of the last branch lines to be planned by the SER was between Purley and Tattenham Corner. The lines as far as Chipstead and Kingswood were opened in 1897, but the remainder was not completed until after the working agreement with the LC&DR.
During the early 1890s, competition between the SER and the LC&DR reached ruinous proportions with both companies offering nearly identical services to and from the same towns, which inevitably lost money for both companies. However, following the resignation of Watkin in 1894, relations between the two gradually improved under his successors Sir George Russell (1895) and, most notably, under Cosmo Bonsor (1897). Bonsor managed to persuade the two boards of governors to see sense and from 1 January 1899 the South Eastern and Chatham Railways Joint Management Committee was formed, with Bonsor as its chairman. On 5 August 1899 the South Eastern and London, Chatham and Dover Railway Companies Act was passed, resulting in the formation of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SE&CR). This was not a true merger since each company kept its individual board of directors within the organisation. The quality of service of the SE&CR and the level of public estimation of its two constituent railways increased considerably during the next thirty-
Throughout its independent existence, the SER was primarily a passenger rather than a freight railway, with passenger receipts accounting for more than 72% of its revenues. Prior to 1862, the company carried international postal traffic. However, in 1862 they refused to renew the contract as it stipulated the Dover-
The cement industry based around
One area where the SER did fail compared with the LB&SCR and the L&SWR was in developing effective services to the rapidly growing suburbs of south east London. This was probably due to an unwillingness to generate even more traffic through the very restricted entry pathway into London between Deptford and London Bridge. The SER did however have the advantage of taking commuters far closer to the centres of business and commerce at Charing Cross and Cannon Street, whereas the LB&SCR and LS&WR deposited them south of the river Thames at London Bridge and Waterloo respectively.
The SER served an area with a long coastline within easy travelling distance of London. During the 1860s, the railway was an important factor in the development of holiday destinations such as Margate and Ramsgate in Kent and St Leonards-
In May 1844, the SER organised the first of seven rail and ferry excursions that year, from London to Boulogne which together carried more than 2,000 people. By the 1870s, the SER was running Hop Pickers' Specials to transport large numbers of working-
The SER did not have a good safety record with a large number of both major and minor accidents throughout its independent existence. One of the most notable accidents occurred on 9 June 1865, when the boat train from Folkestone ran onto a partly dismantled bridge near Staplehurst. The locomotive and tender ran across the timber baulks to reach the far side, but the carriages were derailed and fell into the River Beult. The Staplehurst rail crash killed ten passengers and Charles Dickens narrowly avoided severe injury, or even death. He was travelling with Nelly Ternan and her mother at the front of the train in a first-
Other significant accidents involving multiple fatalities were as follows:
+ 11 December 1844 a boiler explosion caused a bridge collapse at Bricklayers Arms killing two staff.
+ 21 August 1854 a collision at East Croydon railway station killed three passengers. This accident also involved the LB&SCR signalman and was later judged to be partly the result of signalling error and poor communication, as well as the SER driver.
+ 12 September 1855 -
+ 28 June 1857 -
+ 30 June 1858 -
+ 16 December 1864 -
+ January 1877 -
+ 7 June 1884 -
+ 9 October 1894 -
+ 21 March 1898 -
Leave your email address to receive Kent Past Times free every month