Great

Do you know what today is, me hearties? Actually, it probably won’t mean much to most of you, but today is the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Great Western Railway. And to commemorate this joyous occasion (for geeks like me), I think we should spend today’s entry continuing the series on London’s termini with the GWR’s grand station at Paddington.

Architecturally speaking, I think Paddington may be my favourite of the termini (though Kings Cross was not without its charms before that municipal bus shelter-style extension was put on the front). The decor is beautiful, reminiscent of Art Nouveau, although it predates that fashion by some decades. Sympathetic restoration and the relative cleanliness of modern trains have done much to enhance its beauty in the modern era. Honestly, I could write a sonnet.

For the grandeur of the station, we have two men to thank. The first was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the legendary Victorian engineer and the mastermind behind the Great Western Railway.  It was he who designed the main structure. Matthew Digby Wyatt was the architect he hired to do the fiddly bits – it was not in Brunel’s nature to let anyone else do the lion’s share of the work.

Brunel wanted the very best for the London station of his great project. Initial ideas for the Great Western to share Euston Station with the London and Birmingham Railway must have made his blood boil. The site eventually chosen was not ideal for Brunel’s dramatic purposes. Being located in a cutting, it hardly made for a breathtaking monument to the steam age as one approached it. Wyatt, fortunately, came to the rescue and set to work ensuring that Paddington’s fiddly bits would be the fiddliest anyone had ever seen. He borrowed heavily from the Moorish style, experimenting with various different patterns around Brunel’s station-shell before settling on the final arrangement. The grandeur would be evident to anyone stepping off the train.

You may be wondering why I won’t shut up about “greatness” and “grandeur.” It’s sort of inevitable when you’re talking about a project where Brunel has been allowed to run wild. Brunel was perhaps the greatest exemplar of the short man syndrome – and I’m not just talking about his trademark top hat.

You see, Brunel, pictured right, was a man who always had to go one further, who always had to be a little bit different, no matter what the cost. I’ve already talked about the Great Eastern, the ship he designed that would remain the largest in the world for forty years (and whose problems would ultimately contribute to his death). When given the task of building a railway from London to Bristol, Brunel adopted much the same philosophy. He decided to throw tradition out of the window, ignore what the likes of Stephenson and Hackworth had been doing oop North and do things his way.

Iron Duke, a broad gauge express locomotive

Brunel’s great innovation was something called “broad gauge.” What this meant was that whereas most railways at the time were built to a standard gauge of 4 foot 8 1/2 inches between the rails, his were 7 foot 1/4 inch. The reasoning was that engines built to run on this gauge would be bigger, faster, more powerful and safer. You can’t argue with the physics, and frankly the man was right. The trouble was that he was two decades too late. Everyone else was already using standard gauge.

What this meant was that the GWR was incompatible with any non-Brunel-designed railway, which was most of them. Where two companies met, transfer sheds like the one on the left were built for goods and passengers to be transferred from one train to another. Eventually the GWR compromised with mixed gauge track, which you can see below the engine, compatible for both types of train and finally, in 1892, they were forced by Act of Parliament to switch completely. As a footnote, the first part of the Metropolitan Railway was constructed to use Great Western stock, and so the earliest London Underground line was broad gauge.

It’s fair to say that even after this embarrassment, the GWR retained a certain haughtiness, even bloody-mindedness. The name “Great Western” was not, in the eyes of the Company, an idle boast. After all, had it not been they who conveyed Queen Victoria from Slough to Paddington on her first train journey? And can there be a nobler act than conveying someone away from Slough?

Eventually they would build a branch to Windsor, largely for the purposes of serving the Castle. They also, in time, served such notable destinations as Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Plymouth, Truro, Cardiff, er, Slough. They were a holiday line, taking passengers to Devon and the Cornish Riviera (I recommend the St Ives branch for all fans of scenic gorgeousness). They were technologically forward-looking and yet, in a strange way, rather conservative.

Take the engine on the left, perhaps the most famous Great Western engine, Hogwarts Castle (or Olton Hall, to use its civilian identity). It has a rather Victorian look about it, would you not say? Yet it was built in 1937, while the other companies had wholeheartedly adopted ultra-modern streamlining. So it was with all the GWR’s locomotives. Even the ones they acquired from other companies soon gained typical Western trimmings – a process known to railway enthusiasts as “Swindonising” after the GWR’s main works at Swindon.

Indeed, when all the railways in Britain were Nationalised in 1948, the GWR seemed determined not to go down without a fight. Its works still turned out pseudo-Victorian engines. Its engines retained their numbers and their Brunswick green paint. Its coaches would soon be repainted in their old (and rather yummy-sounding) chocolate and cream livery. The independent spirit is still, to some extent, in evidence even today. What’s the name of the company operating passenger trains out of Paddington? Why, First Great Western!

The station itself has always remained in the Premier League of termini, never under threat of closure like Marylebone or St Pancras. These days it has another claim to fame in the form of Michael Bond’s creation, Paddington Bear. I’d be churlish to write an entire entry on Paddington without even mentioning him. Yr. Humble Chronicler was a great enthusiast for the adventures of this particular ursine back in the day. Apparently in his most recent book, Paddington gets done by Immigration. Oh well.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/what-a-big-ship-ive-got/ – This blog on the Great Eastern.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Notable Londoners, Photos, Transport, West End, Windsor and Eton

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