Hackney Central

This was one of four new stations opened on the eastern portion of the North London Line (NLL) between 1980 and 1985, to restore passenger services on a section of route which had seen nothing but freight traffic since World War II. Given Hackney Central is a comparatively recent opening, there is perhaps little merit in your author diving into the histories of the previous stations which were once situated here, but it is worth setting the scene with some background on the line’s formative years.

The NLL had originally opened to passenger traffic under the rather convoluted name of the “East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway”. Passenger trains initially started running between Islington and Bow Common on 26th September 1850; that part of the route from the former to Camden Town (later named Camden Road) followed on 7th December of the same year, and on 9th June 1851 a junction was opened with the LNWR at Chalk Farm. From 1st January 1852, passenger services were extended to Poplar and the docks. A line between Victoria Park (near today’s Hackney Wick) and Stratford opened to freight traffic on 15th August 1854, passenger trains commencing on 16th October of the same year. In 1853, the “East and West India Docks and Birmingham Junction Railway” became the “North London Railway” (NLR), and was later described in 1877 as thus:

Stations on the North London Railway.

Broad Street (City), Shoreditch, Haggerston, Dalston Junction, Canonbury, Highbury and Islington, Barnsbury, Camden Town, Kentish Town, Gospel Oak (for Highgate), Hampstead Heath, Finchley Road, Edgware Road, Kensal Green, Willesden Junction, Acton, Hammersmith, Gunnersbury, Kew Bridge, Kew Gardens, Richmond, Blackwall, Poplar, Bow, Old Ford, Victoria Park, Homerton, and Hackney.

Broad Street and Chalk Farm. – Trains run every quarter of an hour between Broad Street and Chalk Farm, calling at all intermediate stations.

Blackwall and Poplar Branch. – Trains run every quarter of an hour between Broad Street and Blackwall, calling at all intermediate stations, conveying passengers from Dalston Junction to Hackney, Homerton, Victoria Park, Old Ford, Bow, and Poplar, and exchanging passengers for Fenchurch Street, Burdett Road, Stepney, and Shadwell, at Bow Junction.

Fenchurch Street Branch. – Trains run every quarter of an hour between Bow and Fenchurch Street, in connection with the train service between Broad Street and Blackwall, to convey passengers between Fenchurch Street, Shadwell, Stepney, and Burdett Road, and stations on the North London Railway.

Kew and Richmond. – Trains run from Broad Street about every hour for Kew Gardens and Richmond, calling at Hampstead, Kensal Green, Willesden, Acton, etc. [Cook's Handbook for London, Thomas Cook & Son, Ludgate Circus, 1877]

The mentioned branch to the City terminus at Broad Street was opened to scheduled passenger traffic on 31st October 1865, this of which joined the NLR by means of a triangular junction at Dalston. Electrification of the route on the fourth rail system occurred half a century later:

More Electric Railway Lines

To-day saw the inauguration of an electric train service on the North London Railway. From Broad Street there is now a through electric route to Richmond and Kew Bridge, via Hampstead Heath and Willesden. The other North London lines from Broad Street to Poplar and Bow, via Dalston Junction, will continue to be worked by steam. A further electric train service is contemplated from Euston and Chalk Farm to Watford. In this way this district will be made accessible to the City and the West End by electric rail. [The Newcastle Daily Journal, Monday, 2nd October 1916]

We now fast forward to the early 1940s, when railway services in the capital were being withdrawn due to wartime economies and bomb damage. Initial cuts to passenger traffic along the NLL were publicised in newspapers:

Fewer Trains

In the London area, however, a few services are being curtailed. After Sunday next there will be no passenger trains between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on the North London line, which forms a big semi-circle between Broad Street and Richmond. Similarly, the L.N.E.R. have stopped their passenger service between King’s Cross and Moorgate. [The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, Saturday, 4th January 1941]

Worse was to come in 1944; on 14th May of that year, the last railway passenger services ran between Dalston Junction and Poplar, these trains of which were still steam-hauled. Stations at Hackney, Homerton, Old Ford, Bow, South Bromley, and Poplar (East India Road) closed, and they were not reopened after the war. Some sources – notably Clinker's Register (1980) – quote the official closure date of these stations as being from 23rd April 1945, because between then and the withdrawal of passenger trains, they were linked by a replacement bus service. The station at Victoria Park had ceased to serve passengers in the previous year, being closed from 8th November 1943.

As part of the enormous redevelopment plans for London’s Docklands, the Stratford to Dalston Junction section of line was to get a new lease of life as a passenger route. In 1978, the Government announced that British Rail (BR) had been given finance to open three new stations in Hackney, with a fourth likely to follow. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers from 1978 outlined the proposals:

These plans began to come to fruition with the extension of the North Woolwich to Stratford diesel multiple unit service to Camden Road on 14th May 1979, at the start of the new timetable. In the following year, two of the proposed new stations in Hackney were opened to passenger traffic. However, even from the outset, there was concern over the lack of station facilities:

Two new British Rail stations in London were officially opened to-day — but passengers wanting to spend a penny will just have to sit tight. For the new stations – Hackney Central and Hackney Wick – have no toilets. Said a B.R. spokesman: “Toilets are expensive and difficult to maintain. Rather than have tatty ones, the decision has been made not to have any at all. [Liverpool Echo, Wednesday 11th June 1980]

In spite of the article’s date, recounting the official opening, these stations had seen their first passengers a month previously, having come into use on 12th May 1980 with BR’s new timetable.

Period maps indicate that the then new Hackney Central was located at least partially upon the western portion of the site which had closed in 1944, two platforms of concrete construction, about 415-feet long, having come into use. Rather than being numbered, the platforms were labelled “East” and “West”. The main ticket office was located on the east-bound platform and was a single-storey rectangular structure built from a mixture of red brick and glass. It comprised a flat-roof with a plain timber canopy valance and was about 70-feet in length. The westbound platform was host to a waiting shelter, little over 20-feet in length, which shared the same red brick type and canopy design as the main building, and both sides were linked by a metal footbridge.

In 1985, third rail was laid through Hackney Central as part of the scheme to electrify the route from Dalston Junction to North Woolwich. This provided a complete electrified semi-circle line from the latter to Richmond; the then new stretch of third rail through East London, rated at 750 Volts D.C., was used by scheduled passenger trains from 13th May 1985. As mentioned earlier, the NLL had originally been electrified on the fourth rail system in 1916; however, conversion to third rail took place in the early 1970s. Your author has found it surprisingly difficult to track down an exact date, but bygone photographs suggest this occurred around 1970/1971.

In 1988, 25kV overhead wires were commissioned through Hackney Central, existing in tandem with third rail. The wires had been authorised in 1984 as part of a scheme to electrify a core six-mile freight route from Stratford to Camden Road Junction. The total cost at the time was £12.149 million which, according to Parliamentary papers from 1984, included the purchase of four new locomotives and electrification of some freight terminals in North East London and Essex.

In January 2009, the third rail through the station was still evident, but by the following July it had been removed. In 2012, the original footbridge of 1980 was equipped with lifts, and this was followed on 23rd July 2015 by the opening of a covered walkway between Hackney Central and Hackney Downs stations. The 210-metre-long walkway links the western end of Central’s Stratford-bound platform (No. 2) with the southern extremity of Downs’ platform 1.

In May 2021, it was announced that work would start in the following month on a £3 million upgrade of Hackney Central, funded by the Department for Transport. For the main part, this involves commissioning a new station entrance on the south side of the railway line and bringing into use an additional staircase for the interchange with Hackney Downs.

3rd June 1980

This view towards Stratford from the "East" platform shows the station within its first month of operation, prior to the official opening on 12th June 1980. Diesel operation was in force from the outset, hence the lack of both third rail and overhead wires seen in subsequent photographs. © David Glasspool Collection

23rd October 1990

A Stratford-bound view shows the station of 1980, accompanied by third rail from 1985 and overhead wires from 1988. The hoarding on the footbridge was a feature from the outset, rather than being introduced during overhead wire installation. At this time, the platforms were labelled "East" and "West". In the background, beyond the platforms, are the structures of the Hackney station of 1870, which saw its last trains in May 1944. The 1870 station had itself replaced the first platforms which were situated on the opposite side of the road passing under the railway in the distance. The next station in the Stratford direction is Homerton. © David Glasspool Collection

19th July 2021

A westward view shows that, cosmetic changes aside, the station remained largely as it did in 1990. Indeed, the footbridge now had the luxury of lifts, third rail had gone, and the red brick of the ticket office on the westbound platform (right) had been painted over in grey. In the background can just be seen the covered walkway linking the western end of Platform 2 (eastbound) with Hackney Downs, the latter serving suburban trains to and from Liverpool Street. Dalston Kingsland is the next station from Hackney Central in the westward direction. © David Glasspool