The London & Greenwich Railway (L&GR)
may have been the capital’s first passenger railway, but the present day
Greenwich station is by no means London’s oldest, both in terms of structural
composition and location. The background of the L&GR is looked at in depth
within the London Bridge pages, but it is worth repeating a few key points here
to give this section flavour. Led by Colonel George Landmann and George Walter,
the organisation came into being in 1831 and two years later, had received
Parliamentary approval for a line between its namesake locations. Sixty million
bricks were used to construct an 878-arch viaduct spanning the dense suburbs of
South London – a ground-level line would have posed far too many level crossings
and have been susceptible to flooding. On 8th February 1836, the capital’s first
two stations opened: Spa Road and Deptford, with an hourly service in either
direction from the outset. In the westward direction, the end of the line was
finally reached when an extension to a then new terminus at London Bridge was
opened on 14th December 1836, the Lord Mayor of London and crowds of spectators
witnessing the occasion. Meanwhile, there was difficulty at the other end of the
line: for merely ¾ mile did the route require further lengthening to reach the
proposed Greenwich terminal site, but the presence of Deptford Creek was
hindering this. The ingenuity which helped build the huge viaduct was required
once again, this time to erect a unique style of bridge to carry the tracks over
the water. This undertaking took another two years to complete, but the line
could correctly be referred to as the ‘’London & Greenwich Railway’’ from 24th
December 1838 onwards. However, it would be until 12th April 1840 that a
permanent-looking station was eventually opened, but the travelling public were
not to be disappointed.
The terminus established at Greenwich was worthy of the home borough of the Royal Observatory. In light of the railway company’s original ambitions to lengthen the line all the way to Dover, the layout selected here was somewhat unusual. The main building was positioned end-on to the running lines, thus an extension eastwards would require its total demolition or a new set of platforms on a bypass line. The architecture employed was imposing and the original station building could accurately be described as simply being five-sevenths in length of today’s structure. Its style replicated the latter, although the original structure did not have the pitched roof which its SER replacement had. Black metal railings surrounded the building’s forecourt, complementing the complex. Two platform faces were separated by four lines, these of which converged at the station building end on a moveable sector: this could switch locomotives between tracks, but naturally, could not rotate them as per the more familiar turntable. No canopies or shelters were provided on the platforms, all waiting accommodation instead being incorporated within the main building.
It would soon be dire straits for the L&GR. By May 1842 it had three separate concerns operating over its metals into London Bridge: the South Eastern, London & Croydon, and London & Brighton Railways. To cope with this additional traffic, the L&GR laid an additional pair of tracks on the London Bridge approaches and then took the audacious step of demanding from each company just over ½ a penny more per passenger toll in access charges. Despite protests, the L&GR refused to budge, which forced the L&CR to stop operating and subcontract its passenger-carrying duties to the L&BR due to crippling costs. The SER and L&CR subsequently opened their own joint terminus at Bricklayers Arms to avoid the L&GR metals, which would starve it of the very rents it had relied on from the outset. In desperation, the L&GR offered the SER their line on a lease, but the latter was in no hurry to react, instead more intrigued with what events would unfold next. However, agreement was finally reached between the two in August 1844, and the L&GR was to be leased for 999 years at a sum of £45,000 per annum, this coming into effect at midnight on New Year's Eve of the same year.
The SER now had the Greenwich line within its grasp and went from strength to strength, subsequently receiving Parliamentary approval for the North Kent Line in 1847, after a year long campaign. Unfortunately for the company, the Greenwich line was a lame duck at this point, for the Royal Observatory would not allow an eastward extension of it, deeming it would interfere with studies of the skies. Using this line as the starting point would have been ideal, but the SER was instead compelled to follow the circuitous route via Lewisham and Blackheath, then back up to Charlton. Greenwich station did not become a through affair until 1878, when a westward single-track extension from Maze Hill came into operation on 1st February of that year. It was ‘’all change’’ for Greenwich, but despite these alterations occurring during the SER’s cheap clapboard era, the station received quite the opposite treatment – and rightly so. The original station building was demolished, there being no other practical alternative as a result of it backing onto the buffer stops. The SER would most likely have taken more care with this demolition as would usually be expected; much of the original brickwork was to be reused within the replacement building, and the architectural style was also to be perpetuated – economical, but still grand! Even the same style of railings were used around the station forecourt, which again suggests that these too were recycled from the original station. The viaduct also had to be partially demolished at this point, to allow a gradual descent of the tracks into the tunnel bored under Greenwich Park. Interestingly, the four tracks between the platforms were also retained and the selected site for the station building was on the ‘’up’’ side, but the track bed had been slightly re-aligned to the north of the original course. Platform canopies appeared on both sides, graced with an ornate valance (the SER’s trademark ‘’clover’’ pattern), and were copious, adding to the overall grandeur of the layout. A signal box was positioned to the west (‘’down’’ side) and east (‘’up’’ side) of the platforms, both two-storeys high and to the SER’s typical design with sash-style windows. These were both superseded in about 1910 by a single, much larger cabin, some three-storeys high, positioned at the western end of the ‘’up’’ platform. It was presumably built to this height to afford the signalman an unobstructed view of the whole layout, above the platform canopies, now that it was undertaking the work of two former cabins.
There were some significant changes under Southern Railway ownership. Rationalisation began in 1924 with the lifting of the two central tracks, their continued existence unable to be justified on the small amount of traffic which actually used them. The company followed a similar course at Hither Green in 1937, when the third centre track there was removed from the ‘’suburban’’ side. Also during the 1930s, Greenwich’s canopies were severely shortened to no longer than the retaining wall of the station building, and the valances were simplified. This coincided with the rebuilding of the platform supports into prefabricated concrete – before this they were wooden. Third rail had previously arrived in 1926, concurrent with the closure of Greenwich’s signal box, but steam services bound for beyond Dartford continued to serve the station. The station remained little changed until 1954, when the platforms were lengthened at their London ends with prefabricated concrete extensions in June of that year, ready for the commencement of ten-car services. British Rail’s last act at the station was the completion of a thorough refurbishment in 1988, which included the cosmetic cleaning of the station building’s brickwork and the restoring of the SER-style valance on the ‘’up’’ platform canopy. The ‘’down’’ canopy was demolished at this time.
More drastic change was on the horizon for the station. In November 1991, a Parliamentary Bill was deposited for the extension of the Docklands Light Railway from Canary Wharf to Lewisham via Greenwich. This was in response to the sudden boom in employment in Docklands and the Bill received formal approval in May 1993. The work included the boring of a tunnel underneath the Thames between the Isle of Dogs and Cutty Sark, and the provision of a cut-and-cover tunnel underneath the eastern end of Greenwich station. From there, the line then assumed a westward ascent underneath the main station building and emerged from darkness at the western end of the ‘’up’’ platform. The DLR line was double-track and was situated on the original course of the London & Greenwich Railway. Greenwich now had four platform faces; two for serving what was formerly British Rail, and two for the DLR. The original platforms received new all-metal ‘’V’’ shaped canopies, which returned to the station the majority of the weather protection provided by the original SER canopies, but these were decidedly more austere in their appearance. The DLR extension opened throughout to Lewisham in November 1999. Finally, in 2005, a new hotel was completed immediately adjacent to the station building’s western elevation and whilst constructed from yellow brick in sympathy with the SER structure, it sadly mars much of the latter’s elegance.
The façade of the station was an impressive sight to behold when viewed on 19th April 2006, it
still displaying the cleanliness acquired as a result of its refurbishment in the late 1980s. As part
of the same station rejuvenation scheme, the forecourt railings were reinstated, but these have
again been removed, seemingly as a result of the hotel complex. David Glasspool
A bit of editing here and there and we have the original London & Greenwich Railway station
building of 1840 depicted. It just proves how similar the two are: note the shorter length, the
lack of a pitched roof, but the same architecture. Of course, the original building was end-on
to the tracks. David Glasspool
An eastward view from the ''down'' platform on 19th April 2006 reveals the historic station
building, complete with restored SER canopy. The metal ''V'' shaped canopies date from the
advent of the DLR connection and whilst providing some much welcomed protection from
the elements, do somewhat obscure the fine station structure. The hotel of 2005 origin is also
in view, on the right. David Glasspool
The DLR platforms are indicated by the pair of ''V'' shaped canopies in this 19th April 2006
westward view. The ''up'' platform was rebuilt during the DLR works, receiving a new rear
wall built in sympathy with the station building, and the concrete platform extension was
replaced by a brick equivalent. David Glasspool
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