We are not amused

Having discussed the gates of London, I thought it would perhaps be fitting to discuss their Industrial Revolution equivalents – I refer to the railway termini.

These days, railways – underground, overground or Wombling free – are a vital part of London’s transport network. Look at the chaos that results when there’s a Tube strike, for example. But what’s less well appreciated in our everyday lives is how much life in the city was changed by the coming of the railways. For instance, the fish and chip shops? Not possible before the railways – fresh sea fish couldn’t be transported inland in time. National daily newspapers couldn’t exist until there was a means to transport them. Perishable goods like meat and milk could only be sold locally, often to the farmer’s loss. Suburbia didn’t exist in its modern form, because only the fairly well-off could afford to live more than walking distance from work (although what would have been considered “walking distance” in the early nineteenth century was considerably more than it would be today).

So the big railway stations of London are gateways to the city in two senses – firstly, they are the physical gateways. Indeed, if you want to get philosophical, the entire railway is a gateway. You step through the carriage door in one city and when you step out, you’re in a different city. I think Baudrillard said something along those lines. Him or Foucault, I always get those two confused. Wow, I must be the first blogger ever to admit not being familiar with philosophy. Har.

Back on topic. But in another sense, the railway termini are a gateway in time – they makr the boundary between the old city and the modern. I will start my little series with Victoria, not so much because it has any special significance as because I was there the other day.

victoriaThe station was opened in 1860, built on the site occupied by a conveniently-abandoned canal basin. The western side of the station was run by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSC) and served the lines now running through Battersea Park, Balham and Crystal Palace.

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway coat of arms preserved on the viaduct at Battersea Park

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway coat of arms preserved on the viaduct at Battersea Park

The western side was owned by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR). Of course, despite being built on basically unused land, the construction of a terminus in fashionable Belgravia did not come cheap, and there were strict and frankly bizarre regulations put in place by the landowners – the lines would have to run under a glass roof from the river to the station and the rails had to be underlaid with rubber to deaden noise.

Despite this, the men of the Companies didn’t feel the need to build a station in keeping with its surroundings, and both the LCDR and LBSC made their home in shabby wooden shacks, and it was only in 1908 that the LBSC completed the rebuild of their half of the station (seen above). Not very fitting for station that promised luxury services to the South Coast and the Channel ports, but frankly this attitude wasn’t unusual in the mid-nineteenth century – the need to drive a line into London outweighed any aesthetic considerations. Shortly after the LBSC began their rebuild, the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (a company formed out of the LCDR and the South Eastern Railway) decided they weren’t going to be shown up and did some rebuilding of their own. The completed building featured, according to Alan A. Jackson, “a maritime flavour bestowed by four mermaids contemplating their well-parted bosoms”. Yoy. Less racily, due to the proximity of Buckingham Palace, the rebuilt station featured luxury waiting room for Royalty.

Victoria Station famously plays a part in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed, it is mentioned in the most oft-quoted section of the play:

JACK: The late Mr Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL: Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK: (gravely) In a hand-bag.


JACK: (very seriously) Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles on it – an ordinary hand-bag, in fact

LADY BRACKNELL: In what locality did this Mr James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK: In the cloakroom at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

LADY BRACKNELL: The cloakroom at Victoria Station?

JACK: Yes. The Brighton line.

LADY BRACKNELL: The line is immaterial, Mr Worthing. I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

The stations were united in 1923, when the Southern Railway took over both the SECR and the LBSC.

As well as offering Royal trains (not that these were unique), Victoria gained a name for prestige, luxury trains. Boat trains – trains timed to meet ships in the Channel ports – were a mainstay of services. There was even, for a time, a Flying Boat Train. This sounds like the most awesome form of transport ever, but was in fact just a train timed to meet seaplane services at Southampton.

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway locomotive. I'm not joking. You think I'm joking? I'm not joking.

London, Brighton and South Coast Railway locomotive. I'm not joking. You think I'm joking? I'm not joking.

Slightly cooler was a plan to build a heliport on top of the station in the 1950s. Fortunately, due to concerns about traffic congestion in the area, this idea wasn’t carried out – let’s face it, given the standard of architecture in the 1950s and 60s, we wouldn’t have ended up with anything beautiful. However, 1962 saw the start of the Gatwick Airport service that continues to this day in the form of the Gatwick Express.

Which was why, in the 1960s, it was thought that Victoria, rather than Waterloo or St Pancras, would be the terminus of the Channel Tunnel rail link. There were also plans to run a line to Victoria from Heathrow, the idea being that by the time all this was complete, Victoria would be a world-class epicentre of travel in the West End. The Victoria Line, opened in 1967, was in part intended to take advantage of this. Alan A. Jackson, he of the contemplative bosoms, noted in 1969 that this development would be essential with “the pending arrival of high-capacity civilian aircraft (the so-called jumbo-jets)”. Ah, hindsight.

Incidentally, to end on a low-down note, British railways (like most around the world) are divided into signalling sections. When a train is in one section, another cannot be allowed into that section until it has moved on. Thus are accidents prevented. The first section out of Victoria ends at a place called Pouparts Junction, which is brilliant.


I talk a little more about this on My Other Blog – http://coarsescale.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/layout-ideas-victoria/



Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, Literature, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Transport

4 responses to “We are not amused

  1. Pingback: Layout ideas – Victoria « Coarse Scale

  2. Lang Rabbie

    It is astonishing that the same sculptor, Henry Charles Fehr appears to have been responsible for both the SE&CR’s mermaids with the curiously spacious bosoms (who look most uncomfortable next to their attendant sailing and steamships) and the much more “refined” gothic carving on Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square recently “restored” for the Supreme Court

    [I’m not sure how much of the interior decorative scheme has survived at the Guildhall]

  3. Pingback: Thomas the Tank Engine – London boy? | London Particulars

  4. Pingback: New York, Paris, Colliers Wood | London Particulars

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