Gather round, children, and I shall tell you such a tale – a tale of rivalry, reconciliation and railways. You may recall in my last entry I talked about Deptford and briefly mentioned passing through London Bridge station. Well, I thought it would be nice today to continue our little history of the termini with that lad.
Anybody who has to use this station on a regular basis will know what a godawful pain it is to get around. There’s one set of platforms over there and there’s another over here and that one’s a through platform and that one’s not and this entrance is at right angles to that one and the sweet shop is overpriced. Alan A. Jackson describes it as “indisputably the most hideous of London’s termini.” I still say Euston beats it, but we can take a vote later if you like.
The reason for the messed up layout of London Bridge is that, unlike most of the other termini, it’s actually several stations crudely stuck together. The first station was owned by the London and Greenwich Railway, which you may recall from the previous entry opened in 1836. The idea was to build on a viaduct whose arches could be rented out as shops and houses, thus bringing in highly desirable revenue. There are some of the arches above.
The station as opened was nothing special – just the end of a viaduct, really, where Platforms 9 and 10 are today. It was known in those days as Tooley Street. There was no shelter and barely any platforms. Later on they used a sail as a shelter, which meant that the first train shed was basically a tent. History does not relate whether the sail was swiped from a ship by someone leaning out of the train, but I like to pretend it was. A grand Euston-style entrance arch was planned but never built.
The station staff were not great either – the low platforms meant that train carriages had to have folding steps to let people down, and the staff were in the habit of not letting the steps down fully, allowing themselves a glimpse of any well-turned ankles belonging to ladies stepping down. There was also a reported tendency for staff helping women on to the train to press the ladies’ fingers and “stare them full in the face” (so says the Kentish Mercury). I suppose this was the 1830s equivalent of the subway frotteur.
London Bridge was a pretty fine site for a station. I’ve mentioned in other entries the incredible difficulty and expense in building a major railway station within the City, and at that time it appeared that London Bridge was about as close as anyone could get. The London and Greenwich Railway had figured this, and had bought enough land on the site for other companies to build there. And so they did. Within a decade, the London and Brighton, the London and Croydon and the South Eastern Railways all had their London base there. A more pleasant but heinously undersized new station building was put up.
The history from here on gets very complicated and rather boring if you’re not a railway person, so I’ll spare you the full details. Long story short, L&GR got greedy, L&CR moved out to Bricklayers Arms, L&GR merged with L&BR and there was a lot of rebuilding at the station. The end result was one station owned by the South Eastern Railway and one owned by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, stuck together.
It’s a sign both of the somewhat unfriendly attitude between the companies at this stage that the two stations were wholly incompatible. That’s why nowadays you have a handful of platforms that, for no apparent reason, are much higher than the rest. That’s why the train shed doesn’t go all the way across. That’s why there’s a wall in the middle of the station. The companies didn’t even want to look at each other.
If you’ve ever wandered around outside the station, you may have noticed that there’s a St Thomas’ Street, but St Thomas’ Hospital is nowhere near. That’s the railway’s doing. In 1859, the South Eastern decided they wanted a terminus of their very own at Charing Cross, and so arranged to build a through line. At the time, St Thomas’ Hospital was just east of the station. There was no way to extend the railway without clipping St Thomas’ grounds. Not much, less than a quarter of an acre, and the railway was happy to pay a very fair £20,000. St Thomas’, however, demanded the price of the entire hospital and grounds – £750,000, 90% of the SER’s budget. The SER reluctantly handed it over, at which point St Thomas’ yelled “Suckers!” and used the money to build a new hospital in Lambeth.
In 1923, both the London, Brighton and South Coast and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (which the SER had become – I told you it was complicated) were taken over by the Southern Railway, who promptly banged the two companies’ heads together and knocked a hole through the wall between the stations.
The station took a hell of a hammering during the Blitz, with most of the buildings being damaged or destroyed by bombing. I think my favourite story from this period, though, was of the bomb that landed on the signal box on December 9th 1940, when a parachute mine got caught in a signal girder and came to a stop leaning against the box wall. It was eventually defused, but in the meantime the signalmen inside kept right on working. That, my friends, takes some balls.
Wartime damage was left largely unrepaired right into the early 1970s, when British Rail finally got embarassed enough to do something about it. The rebuilt station, opened in 1978, was generally agreed to be a great improvement on the old one. So remember that, commuters. When you’re running across the concourse because you’ve discovered your train leaves from a completely different set of platforms, things used to be worse.