As regular readers will know, I’m fascinated by abandoned railway stations. Almost as fascinating, though, are the dilapidated ones, the ones that haven’t changed since some time in the early 1980s, shabby, echoey and grubby. Trains are few and far between, as are passengers. I don’t know why I love them so much, maybe it’s because such places feel undisturbed, like I have some sort of privileged access to them. Or maybe it’s just because I’m unbelievably strange and perverted.
For these reasons and more, I wish I’d had the opportunity to visit the terminus at Broad Street. Poor, poor Broad Street. If the London termini were people, Broad Street would be a pitiful drunk sitting in a bar telling everyone how he “used to be somebody.”
It started out so well. Broad Street was originally built by the cumbersomely-named East & West India Docks & Birmingham Junction Railway. The aim of this company was, as its name suggests, basically to make its fortune transporting goods from the Docklands to the London & Birmingham Railway. In this, it succeeded admirably. An early amendment was to change its name to the snappier “North London Railway.”
Commuter traffic was initially a secondary consideration for the NLR – they ran passenger trains fo’ sho’, but this was more of a “we might as well” measure than anything else. To the surprise of the company directors, though, it turned out that their passenger trains into Fenchurch Street (run by arrangement with the London and Blackwall Railway, who owned that terminus) were very popular indeed. This despite the fact that the NLR took a ridiculously circuitous route around London before reaching Fenchurch Street, no less than 44 miles.
It was therefore decided that the NLR could afford to take a gamble on getting more direct access to the City. Particularly since the London and North Western Railway (of which the aforementioned London & Birmingham Railway was now part) offered to stump up much of the cost in exchange for use of such an extension. The LNWR also supplied a designer, their own engineer, William Baker. The site of the new terminus was to be at the end of a branch from Kingsland, on the junction of Liverpool Street and Broad Street.
Construction was not without its difficulties. Building through crowded East London necessitated the demolition of many crowded streets – the NLR undertook to provide a cheap workers’ train from Dalston, but those forced out decided they’d rather walk and just moved to the neighbouring streets, making them yet more crowded. Excavation revealed some sort of medieval mass grave whose origins were not known – one theory had it that, as one of Bedlam’s several incarnations was nearby, this had been where its dead were buried.
Nevertheless, in 1865 the station opened. Alan A. Jackson describes the architectural style as “really rather horrid,” which I think is perhaps going a bit too far. The Illustrated London News was more charitable, describing the style as “mixed Italian.” Perhaps it is a bit over-elaborate for the size of the terminus. Oddly, we don’t know who the architect was – presumably William Baker had assistance, but from whom is unrecorded.
One ingenious feature to make the most of the very expensive land was to build the goods depot requested by the LNWR under the station, with wagons lowered by a hydraulic lift. As a result, whatever architectural merits the station may have lacked, it was undeniably an efficient use of space, taking up a mere 2½ acres in total.
The NLR nicknamed the station its “happy afterthought,” for it was immediately popular with commuters and rapidly became the third-busiest terminus in London. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one train a minute left the station, serving such varied destinations as Richmond, Chalk Farm, Bow, Watford, Kingston, High Barnet, Kew, Potters Bar, Mansion House, Kensington Olympia and even Birmingham.
Unfortunately, this prosperity was not to last. As it turned out, the success of Broad Street was largely based on the fact that it had a monopoly on fast commuter trains. As the Tube, tram and bus networks expanded, so people turned to those instead. The NLR desperately advertised their service as “the open-air route,” but no one fell for it.
In 1911, when passenger numbers reached their lowest since the station’s opening, the LNWR decided that electrification was in order – as has been mentioned before, this was seen as terribly clean and modern. This did seem to slow the decline considerably, but services never entirely recovered.
During the Second World War, many of the East London stations were severely damaged by enemy action, and it was decided after the end of the conflict that it wasn’t worth fixing them up again. The service to Poplar (which was rather unPoplar with passengers) was cut altogether. Broad Street itself had been hit, and again, it was not considered worth repairing.
The main station building was abandoned altogether in the 1950s and replaced by a couple of smaller buildings on the concourse. Traffic at this stage was so poor that only two staff were needed for the entire terminus.
In 1963 British Railways declared their intention to close the place altogether, but were thwarted by local opinion. Instead, BR carried out what is known in railway circles as “closure by stealth,” i.e. not officially closing the station but instead making the station so useless as to render it undesirable to keep open. To this end, services were diverted or cut altogether and maintenance was cut to the bare minimum. Part of the overall roof was removed in 1967 which, as you can see above left, gave the station a half-complete look. By the 1980s, only one platform was needed to accommodate the pathetically small number of passengers. Demolition of the rest began in 1985 and final closure came in 1986.
Although the North London Railway mostly survives as part of the Overground and Docklands Light Railways, nothing remains of old Broad Street. The Broadgate Estate was built on top of it, so it couldn’t be reopened even if anyone wanted to (and they don’t).
And it showed such promise.