Today, this station serves as an important interchange between National Rail and Docklands Light Railway networks, the latter of which has been a catalyst for development in the area since opening to Greenwich and Lewisham in 1999. A fine main building, coupled with an ornate canopy, makes this a worthy station for this renowned South East London borough, but so much has changed at the site in the post British Rail era that the immediate environs are unrecognizable from earlier times.
Greenwich has a special place in the railway history books. The area formed the eastern terminus of the capital's first ever passenger line, the "London & Greenwich Railway" (L&GR), the Act of which received Royal Assent as long ago as 17th May 1833. The L&GR began life as a double-track line, carried upon an 878-arch viaduct formed of sixty million bricks, the first section of which opened between Spa Road (Bermondsey) and Deptford on 8th February 1836. A north-westward extension to London Bridge was opened on 14th December of the same year, and the railway had a basic service of one train an hour in either direction. An eastward extension to Greenwich was hampered by the presence of Deptford Creek, to the extent that it took two years to complete the remaining ¾-mile of the line. It really could be referred to as the "London & Greenwich Railway" proper after scheduled operation beyond Deptford Creek commenced on 29th December 1838. However, even at this stage, Greenwich did not have a permanent station:
Announced in July  that owing to complaints of noise due to stone sleepers and of leakage through the arches, the Deptford -Greenwich section, now far advanced, will be laid with wood and be made water-tight with asphalt. 4th December, Directors and Engineer inspected new work as far as Prince of Orange Tavern. 29th, Greenwich section opened to temporary station at Church Row. 2nd - class fare raised 6d. to 8d. Omnibuses for Blackheath, Lewisham and Woolwich attend every train.
[The First Railway in London: Being the Story of the London and Greenwich Railway from 1832 to 1878, Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1912]
In the railway's earliest years, signalling was handled by policeman using lamps and waving flags to coordinate trains. It is thought that the term "station" originated from the L&GR; it was used to describe the accommodation along the line used by the aforementioned policemen. An oddity of the route, at least with hindsight, was that of "right-hand running". Typically, for a double-track formation, trains run in their direction of travel on the left-hand track (not unlike driving on the roads in the UK today, which takes place on the left-hand side of the road). However, from the outset, the L&GR pursued right-hand running, a practice which remained on the route until 1901, in spite of adjacent lines operating on the left-hand running principle.
In 1840, it was finally reported that a permanent station for Greenwich was nearing completion, the set-up of which was fully described in The First Railway in London: Being the Story of the London and Greenwich Railway from 1832 to 1878 [Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1912]:
Announced that the magnificent Greenwich Station would be ready by Easter week, when the carriages would (for the first time) be stored under cover and kept in better order.
Greenwich station, standing on the viaduct prolonged and widened for the purpose, nearly on the same site as the present one, was by far the largest and best on the line. It was universally described as magnificent and in every way creditable to its designer and constructor, Colonel Landmann. The shed was 63 ft. 9 in. wide, 303 ft. long and 13 ft. 9 in. high. The substantial brick walls, strengthened by piers and pierced by seven Venetian windows on each side, supported a timber roof, which covered two side granite-paved platforms between which four tracks were laid. Alongside the viaduct and facing the Greenwich Road was built on the ground level a handsome edifice, containing a spacious booking-hall and other offices downstairs and waiting-rooms on the level of the platforms, which were reached by stone steps and inclined planes. The building was designed by Mr. George Smith, architect to the Mercers' Company. The area of the whole station was 25,000 square feet and its cost was £27,861, of which some £10,000 was spent on the nine special arches of 24 ft. 9 in. and 26 ft. span on which the shed stood.
A short prolongation of the line beyond the platforms terminated in a semi-circular recess in which was situated a traversing table, consisting of two cast-iron girders carrying rails and supported on eight small wheels which moved on two circular plates. The table was turned by rack and pinion to any of the four tracks and locked to the one to be used. The traverser is said to have been originally 26 feet long, but in my time it must have been 35 feet, as it accommodated engines and tenders measuring quite 40 feet over all. It was designed by Mr. Miller, who was the Company's superintendent in 1840, when the station was built, and is said to have been the first of its kind. The Metropolitan Railway had a similar table at Moorgate Street for the Great Northern engines when they first used that station, and another at Baker Street for the Aylesbury locomotives; and one on a much smaller scale than the Greenwich can now (1912) be seen at Victoria Station, S.E. and C.R., between platforms 5 and 6.
At the back of the traverser was a water -pipe terminating in a leathern hose served by a 26,000 gallon tank supported on the walls of the recess. Engines always arrived at Greenwich tender or bunker first , so that on being detached from their train at platform No. 1 or No. 4, which were used alternately, a couple of turns of the driving wheels sent them on to the table, where the driver found the hose ready to his hand over the back of the tender, while the fireman descended and moved the traverser to track No. 2, which was always kept free for the outward passage of engines, except during the night when it also held a train, all the rolling stock being assembled at Greenwich by the arrival of the last train from London.
The main building's position, being end-on to the tracks, indicated that there were no plans to take the Greenwich branch further east. The L&GR initially had ambitions to extend to the outer suburbs, but fierce opposition from the Royal Observatory, which claimed that trains would interfere with studies of the sky, was too great.
Operation of the L&GR passed to the South Eastern Railway (SER) on 1st January 1845, this being ratified in a 999-year lease on the line, effective 11th February 1845. The SER was able to extend London Bridge services into the outer suburbs and beyond by means of the North Kent Line to Strood, via Lewisham, Woolwich, Dartford, and Gravesend, which opened on 30th July 1849. For more than thirty-five years after takeover by the SER, the Greenwich route remained a dead-end branch line, retaining right-hand running when adjacent tracks on the London Bridge approaches were operating the left-hand practice. Change was finally afoot in 1870, when the SER advertised in The Railway Magazine and Railway News Journal for a contractor to build an extension of the line:
SOUTH EASTERN RAILWAY COMPANY LINE FROM CHARLTON TO EAST GREENWICH
The Directors are prepared to receive TENDERS for the CONSTRUCTION of the RAILWAY from CHARLTON STATION on the NORTH KENT RAILWAY, to EAST GREENWICH, about one mile and a quarter in length. Plans and sections can be seen at the office of the Company's Engineer, Mr Francis Brady, No. 5, St Thomas's-street, Southwark, S. E., after obtaining an order for inspection from the undersigned.
Tenders to be sent in not later than TUESDAY, the 5th April next.
JOHN SHAW, Secretary.
London bridge Station, March 19, 1870.
The advertised line was to be double-track, forming a junction with the existing North Kent Line at Charlton. The "East Greenwich" mentioned in the advert was Maze Hill, located on the north eastern fringes of Greenwich Park. The line came into scheduled passenger use between Maze Hill and Charlton on 1st January 1873; as a result, the SER had two dead-end branch lines within half a mile of each other. To fill the gap, and get round the problem of interfering with Greenwich Park, a 450-yard-long tunnel was bored under the Royal Naval College. At Greenwich, the course of the track at the Maze Hill end of the layout was realigned further north, to join the connecting line from Charlton. The original station building of 1840 was carefully dismantled and re-erected, brick-by-brick, in a revised position, this time on the south side of the running lines:
It [the station building] was taken down when the line was extended in 1878, and re-erected further back to serve for the new station. Its internal arrangements are now different, but it is difficult to trace any variation on the outside, except the unwanted appearance of ventilating gratings under the lower windows. [The First Railway in London: Being the Story of the London and Greenwich Railway from 1832 to 1878, Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1912]
28th November 1987
Bulleid-designed 4 EPB No. 5182 is seen approaching the station with the 13:07 Dartford to Charing Cross service. Note the check rails on both tracks here. The curved roof upon stanchions on the left protected the subway entrance leading from the "down" platform.
© David Glasspool Collection
16th October 1989
The metal girders across the tracks and gap mark the position of "Straightsmouth" street passing beneath the railway. The observation tower in the background, which also appeared in the previous photograph, is attached to what was originally Greenwich Town Hall.
© David Glasspool Collection