Changing London

All change at London Bridge – It’s a tale of two stations


If you have visited London Bridge station recently you will know it is one big building site right now. While half of the shiny new concourse is now open, there are still six platforms that remain out of use (most of which won’t be open again to 2018). There is however helpfully a giant computer generated image in front of the entrance to construction site showing what the other half of the station will look like once it is complete.

Light and airy is the theme of the overall space, with a false wooden ceiling seeking to break up the monotony of the higher silver panels elsewhere. Unlike the impressive re-development of other London stations, such as Kings Cross and St Pancras, in recent years, London Bridge is by and large a brand new terminus. And as someone who uses this station on a daily basis, I can say that it is very much needed.

Once complete, access to the various platforms will be extremely convenient as the brand new concourse has been (and continues to be) built beneath the platforms. In the past, it has been a confusing experience if you have wanted to transfer from Southern to Southeastern services as it seemed they were largely run as two separate stations.

The half of the new concourse that has already opened currently looking pretty bare, but give it some time and as new shops and other useful outlets open I am convinced that it will be as bustling as London’s other major termini. Furthermore, the construction work at London Bridge also involves untangling the tracks outside the station, meaning that there will be more routes into the numerous platforms and thus avoiding the bottlenecks which create delays.

But the big question I have grappled with whenever I pass through or change trains at London Bridge is why there isn’t an intact 19th century station that could be restored like the others in the capital? The short answer is that since 1836 there have been a series of buildings that have been opened, only to be demolished again and re-built to cope with added traffic over the years.

London Bridge has had a complex history, with a number of different railway companies owning and using the station (or should that be stations??) and even at one stage swapping buildings. From here passengers have, for many years, travelled from the south east to London for work, or set off in the other direction for holidays on the continent. Other commuters have journeyed into the capital from Sussex – or headed the other way for day trips to the seaside. And many a writer has talked about the terminus, such as TS Elliot talking in his poem Waste Land about the clerks working in the new middle-class suburbs of Norwood, Sydenham and Croydon.


Vision of the future – what the new London Bridge will look like

London’s first railway terminus

The first London Bridge terminus was opened by the London and Greenwich (L&G) Railway – the capital’s first – on December 14th 1836, replacing a slightly earlier, temporary station at Spa Road, Bermondsey, which operated from February that year to serve the initial four miles of track sitting on 978 arches. The exterior of the three-storey block, which also contained the company’s administrative headquarters, was said by Building News to “not display architectural talent, though it betrays some considerable effort” and the interior was “certainly bad.”

That it was so sparse and architecturally uninteresting was to a large extent down to L&G’s dire financial situation. It struggled to get the funding it required, which would grow from initial estimates of £400,000 to an eventual cost of £1 million given the complexities of the engineering project. Although the company attempted to claw some of the money back by letting out space under the arches for residential and commercial use this took a long time to catch on. Many of the units are today used as workshops or as storage facilities.

And once the station opened there was, according to David Brandon and Alan Brooke, authors of Bankside, “a minor scandal caused by the low platforms”:

“Ladies had to climb down from the carriages and in doing so frequently exposed what they regarded as unacceptable quantities of ankle and, dare we say it, even leg. They had to do this under the lascivious gaze not only of railway workers but male passengers and even some base loafers who seemed to haunt the platforms for no other reason than to catch quick glimpses of such womanly flesh. A number of letters appeared in local newspapers taking the railway company to task for its low platforms and for allowing such opportunist undesirables to hang about and use them to titillate their lusts.”

But the fact that the London to Greenwich line brought convenience – it took half the time of that of the steamer – meant it would quickly become successful in terms of the volume of passengers carried. It brought nearly three-quarters of a million passengers in the first 15 months of operation and by end of the decade the Greenwich line was carrying two million passengers a year.

In the run-up to the opening of the station, London and Greenwich signed an agreement with the new London and Croydon Railway to use its tracks from Bermondsey. But the latter was sold some land so it could build its own passenger building.

However, to add to complexity, two other new companies were planning routes to London from Brighton and Dover, and the British parliament ordered that they should share existing lines in the run-up to London Bridge terminus. The London and Croydon Railway therefore enlarged its new station – even before it had actually opened to passengers in June 1839 (London and Brighton started using it from July 1841, followed by South Eastern in December 1842). If you enter London Bridge station from Tooley Street and walk through along what laid was laid out as Joiner Street, the brick fascade on the left (in front of the closed platforms 1, 2 and 3) is remnants of this building.


Traces of the old Croydon station

Given the traffic generated by four railways, the viaduct bringing lines to London Bridge station was – in a scenario to be repeated in current times – widened between 1840 and 1842, increasing the number of tracks to four. While this expansion would on paper ease congestion, trains from Croydon, Brighton and South Eastern companies would now need to cross the Greenwich lines to reach their platforms in the Croydon station. To avoid a potentially dangerously encounter, a station swap was agreed – London and Greenwich would take over the newly built Croydon station, while the other three companies formed a joint committee to demolish the very first London Bridge station and build a new one in its place.

The new, partially complete station – designed by Lewis Cubitt, John Urpeth Rastrick and Henry Roberts – opened for business in July 1844, but it would only last for five years. By the time the “quasi-Italianate building with a picturesque companile” welcomed the first passengers the South Eastern and Croydon companies had opted to construct a new station at Bricklayer’s Arms so they could avoid the high line tolls that the London and Greenwich Company charged. However, in 1846 the Croydon and Brighton companies merged to form the London Brighton and South Coast Company (LB&SCR) and it used the joint station until 1849.

This was then demolished to make way for an enlarged station to deal with additional trains from lines to Sydenham and Crystal Palace, as well as new lines to Victoria later on. John Davidson’s poem described the chaotic nature of visiting London Bridge at the turn of the century, but these words would be just as applicable to more recent times:

“Inside the station, everything’s so old, So inconvenient, of such manifold Perplexity, and, as a mole might see, So strictly what a station shouldn’t be, That no idea minifies its crude And yet elaborate ineptitude.”

But the construction work paid off judging by an account from the Illustrated London News in 1858, which said that the station built on arches was “suspended in mid-air, more wonderfully than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, looking down from an altitude of seventy feet upon Tooley Street and sending forth its convoys along an elevated route which lifts them above the chimney pots of Bermondsey.” And it added that the station roof was “unmatched in the world until the new Paddington Station was built.”

Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book to London of 1862 reported that the buildings of the different companies were to be found “at the end of a broad turning that leads from the main road up to the respective stations.” It added: “The premises are not without some pretensions to ornament; but, what is still better, their arrangements are admirably made to give the greatest possible accommodation to the public without the slightest approach to confusion.”

One thing London Bridge terminus didn’t have however was a “good hotel in proximity to the station” which, according to the Builder magazine was a “great thoroughfare to the Continent, the want of hotel accommodation has been more felt here than elsewhere…” This was remedied in 1861 when the LB&SCR opened the 150 bedroom Terminus Hotel on a plot of land purchased from St Thomas’s Hospital “and formerly covered with small and dreary houses built in the once fashionable hole-in-a-wall style.”

The new hotel featured bathrooms and WCs on each of its five storeys, lifts, a general coffee room (with a separate ladies room), as well as a smoking and billiard room in a separate block. And the Builder added that the architect in demonstrating “much originality in the manner in which he has dealt with a mass of building so nearly approaching a cube in shape.”

But it struggled to attract the discerning customers required – it was just as easy for passengers to cross the Thames and stay in the City or continue on to Charing Cross station once it had opened – and so by 1892 it had been turned into offices. The building was then badly damaged in the Blitz and so was demolished. What I find fascinating however is that the Shard is built on the site where the Terminal Hotel once stood (on the corner of Joiner Street and St Thomas Street). And on the 34th to 52nd floors of this is the luxury Shangri-La Hotel. The operators of this will be hoping the hotel here will be more successful in recruiting customers.

Meanwhile, the SER took over the London and Greenwich station (which had been built for the London and Croydon Railway) and enlarged it between 1847 and 1850, with designs drawn up by Samuel Beazley (who specialised in building theatres and also wrote over a hundred comedies and farces). Further work – which brought a maze of viaducts to the Borough area and forced the re-location of St Thomas’s hospital – was undertaken in 1864 to enable trains to pass through and each the new Charing Cross and, later, Cannon Street stations. Convenient as the extended lines might have been, the destruction the construction work brought to the local area was unpopular with some:

“Nothing uglier, nothing more objectionable in an artistic point of view, could possibly have been designed. It is a pity that there should exist such an utter disregard among out railway authorities…. for anything which is not strictly utilitarian. A few hundred pounds, and how many are wasted annually in civic feasts and ceremonials, could have given us a bridge which would have been an ornament to this approach to London… its ugliness serves, however, to set off the architecture of the fine church of St Saviour, who tower may be seen standing above it.”

Combined station, privatisation

With the advent of Southern Railway in 1923, the two London Bridge stations were brought into single ownership for the first time. British Railways (later British Rail) took it over in 1948 and, as the volume of traffic grew, it was clear it needed to be expanded again. Considerable sums were therefore spent between 1972 and 1978 redeveloping the station, including a new concourse.

But then came privatisation and while it is still managed as a single entity by Network Rail in reality in recent years it has felt like two very distinctive stations. Southern and Thameslink use one side (on the site of the original Greenwich station), while Southeastern operates from the other side (where the first original Croydon station was). But perhaps once the re-building work has been completed it will feel like a single station for the first time in its illustrious history.


Inside the new terminus


Inside the new terminus


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