Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 30 - 1861 (continued) - The First London Railway

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1861 (continued) - THE FIRST LONDON RAILWAY

Greenwich Railway - First London terminus - Boulevard - Prince of Orange - "Kiss me, Hardy" - Captain Marryat - George Stephenson - Leased by S.E.R.- Enormous holiday traffic - Early poems and prognostications - And results - Enter the gorilla.

THE railway to Greenwich did not escape my attention. It was an interesting line in several ways. To begin with, it was the first in London, having been opened from Spa Road to Deptford on February 8th, 1836. It is comical to think that from that date until December 14th, 1836, when the section to London Bridge became available, the only railway terminus in the metropolis (Deptford for the nonce being reckoned provincial) was located in a back slum in Bermondsey, in West Street, now known as Rouel Road, for although there has been a Spa Road - so called - station since 1836, and still is, there has never been one actually entered from that thoroughfare. The access to this primeval terminus was through the first archway on the left coming from Jamaica Road. This entrance now appears very low, but I believe the street level has been raised since the sixties. The arch in which the old booking-office was situated may be identified to this day by its large ornamental window; it and some adjacent ones are now tenanted by Messrs. Lipton.
    Secondly, the railway was unique, being constructed on a brick viaduct 22 feet high from end to end, that method of building facilitating the crossing of the many intersecting thoroughfares. It was designed by Colonel G. T. Landmann, a retired Royal Engineer who had served with distinction in the Peninsula and Canada and had turned his attention to railway building only after his life's work might have been [-241-] reasonably reckoned as finished. In the Greenwich Railway he left an enduring monument. Completed in 1836, it is, in 1924, as substantial as ever and busy carrying locomotives and trains many times heavier than those he provided for. it has been imitated the world over. Landmann left four volumes of Recollections which are replete with interest of many sorts.
    In the third place, this railway afforded a striking instance of an undertaking sound in itself being entirely and irretrievably ruined by the possession by its promoters and managers, in a quite unusual degree, of those admirable qualities - ambition, initiative, foresight, enterprise, courage, energy, grit, tenacity, perseverance - which the old copybooks asserted were the infallible keys to success. Had the line been made at anything like a reasonable cost and restricted to serving London, Deptford, and Greenwich, the magnificent traffic developed would have resulted in splendid dividends; but, alas! such a circumscribed usefulness only formed a tiny morsel of the promoters' grandiose plans.
    Colonel Landmann's splendid viaduct, nearly four miles long and comprising over 900 arches and bridges, was in itself very costly, but immense sums were squandered in acquiring three times as much property as was needed for the railway in order to form a double road or boulevard on either side of the viaduct, to be planted with trees and made an attractive promenade. This was to create a new, direct and agreeable highway between London and Greenwich and to serve as approach to the dwelling-houses and shops the directors vainly imagined taking root under the arches. Strange enterprise for a railway company to oppose their own undertaking by providing special facilities for avoiding the use of it! It is true they levied tolls, but the amounts collected were derisory in view of the huge capital cost. This bizarre Boulevard proved a veritable Queer Street, for when the line was finished it had cost £733,000 instead of the estimated £400,000.
    Shortly before the opening the Prince of Orange, heir to the throne of Holland, rode over the arches on an engine, an event commemorated by the Prince of Orange public-house [-242-] which stands by the Greenwich Station to this day. Although the railway was largely used, there were some who distrusted it, even as aeroplanes are viewed askance by the multitude of our times. Amongst these was Sir Thomas Hardy, then Governor of Greenwich Hospital, one of Nelson's dare-devil captains and hero of the pathetic "Kiss me, Hardy " episode of the cock-pit of the Victory. Lady Hardy tried the new facility early and apparently enjoyed the experience, but Sir Thomas, no! He had gone through Trafalgar's trying day, and many another, with every possible credit, but the line must be drawn somewhere, and with him that line was the Greenwich Railway! His life was at his country's service at any hour of the day or night, but to risk it uselessly on the new-fangled railroad was not his intention. That was not included in the duty England expected every man to do; or, if it were, then England might expect to be disappointed.
    Very differently did another veteran of the cerulean deep welcome the locomotive. Captain Marryat, RN., author of Mr. Midshipman Easy and numerous other stories of the brine, was a guest at the opening of the first Belgian Railway on May 5th, 1835, travelled in the first trains, and wrote an amusing account of his novel journeyings in Olla Podrida. He called the engines steam-tugs and thought the priests, although good enough to bless the new concern, really in their hearts considered the chemin de fer as a chemin d'enfer. George Stephenson, who had supplied the tugs and engineered the line, drove one of them in person that day and was created a Chevalier de l'Ordre Leopold. Good old Geordie ! Seeing it was a steam-horse he rode Chevalier ci vczpeur de l'Ordre Leopold would have been even more to the point. It is noteworthy that little Belgium not only had the first continental railway, but that that railway ante-dated the first one in London by about nine months. She also built the first locomotive - a replica of one of those from Newcastle - produced across the Channel. Both the Germans and French were behindhand in opening railways and building engines.
    The permanent way of the Greenwich Railway proved too [-243-] rigid and had to be relaid at great cost. The arches could not be used as houses, for they were not water-tight and had to be stripped and coated with asphalte. Nevertheless, the Halfway House tavern established under an arch in 1835, close to what is now the Rotherhithe New Road, has preserved its licence to this day. The foresight of the promoters included an extension to Woolwich; the line, therefore, was stopped short in a part of Greenwich convenient for that purpose and the terminus buildings arranged accordingly, whereas the railway would have benefited enormously had it been carried to the river-side and connection established with the down-river steam-boats. The London and Blackwall Railway afterwards tapped that business with great success; very few people wanted to go to Blackwall itself, for, indeed, its natural beauties were few, if select, but myriads used the Blackwall pier.
    Another admirable piece of acumen which, in the end, proved the extinguisher of the poor Greenwich Company, was a scheme for making their arches the London approach for the London and Croydon Railway (afterwards merged in the Brighton Railway) and the South-Eastern Railway. These lines were made to join the arches at Corbett's Lane and run over them to London Bridge, paying a toll of fourpence per passenger. This those companies soon tired of doing, and conspired against the little Greenwich Company so successfully that it had to hand over its undertaking to the South-Eastern Company on a 1,000-year lease from January 1st, 1845. The warfare was very bitter, and the Croydon Company was accused of deliberately engineering a collision for the purpose of inducing a Select Committee then sitting to imagine that the existing arrangements were insufficient and dangerous. The London and Greenwich Railway Company continued to exist, but merely for the purpose of receiving and distributing the rent payable under the lease, until December 3 1st, 1922, when, under the Railway Grouping Act, it was compulsorily absorbed by the Southern Railway.
    When, in the early 1860s, I came to know the line familiarly, the traffic carried was great and the service of three eight-coach trains per hour clock-like in its punctuality. [-244-] The only serious opposition came from the smart river steam-boats. Trains did not exist and the omnibuses, although named after the great Nelson, were small, slow and infrequent. On general holidays trains were run as quickly as they could be loaded and got away, and that with a celerity not inferior to the hustling on our present-day Tubes, for the carriages were well adapted for rapidly filling and emptying. Our forefathers of the iron roads knew better than to force jostling crowds through end doors when they could have a separate portal for every ten. On such occasions overcrowding was quite the rule, although there were no straps to hang to.
    So a train came into the imposing and convenient Greenwich terminus every three or four minutes, disgorging multitudes of good-tempered trippers who thronged to the Park, Painted Hall, Blackheath, Tea-pot Row or riverside and enjoyed themselves mightily. The old Collegenian liked these holidays, for could he not talk about Nelson and Hardy; about the Shannon and Chesapeake; about Navarino, Trafalgar, Camperdown, the Nile? Might he not even have seen the boy who "stood on the burning deck"? So he tacked and filled and manoeuvred to gain the weather-gage of the visitors; and shivered his timbers and spliced the main-brace in strict conformity with the gospel according to Marryat; and was happy, poor simple soul!
    In view of the part played by railways in the late Great War - which, indeed, could never have occurred on the scale it did without them - heed ye, shades of Trevithick and Stephenson! - it would be amusing, if the theme were not so sad, to reflect that the iron road was hailed as a God-sent agent of peace and good-will. Early notices of railways develop this idea abundantly. A certain Mr. George Ponsford of Pentonville waxed eloquent on the subject, and wa~ sure that the new invention would convert swords into reaping-hooks quicker than a French cook could make omelettes; and Charles Mackay, a well-known poet of the period, sang in 1845:
        "Lay down your rails, ye nations, near and far;
        Yoke your full trains to steam's triumphant car;
        [-245-] Link town to town: and in these iron bands
        Unite th' estranged and oft-embattled lands.
        Peace and improvement round each train shall soar,
        And knowledge light the ignorance of yore.
        *    *    *    *
        Blessings on Science and her handmaid Steam!
        They make Utopia only half a dream."
Which only proves the prudence of the modern politician's maxim, "Wait and see!"
    How shocked the amiable Mackay would have been with some of the railway sights of 1917! One afternoon at Addison Road Station, Kensington, I saw a terribly long ambulance train draw up from the south, crowded with wounded: while, alongside it, on the middle down track, stood, stopped by signal, an ammunition train, en route for Woolwich Arsenal, of some forty closed vans stuffed with high explosives for charging shells. Cause and effect - seed and harvest - side by side! Had that nice little lot exploded, Olympia - think of it, ye gods! - would have gone skyward and the whole neighbourhood followed in chase. Scarcely the agricultural machinery effect contemplated by the sanguine Ponsford.
    Du Chaillu, discoverer of the gorilla, hitherto more or less a fabled monster, was much talked and joked about this year (1861). He claimed to have fought a duel with and killed a gigantic tree-man whose skin he brought home by way of circumstantial evidence. But a taxidermic expert, Dr. Grey, said the beast had been shot behind, which was not one of the locations recognised by the code of honour. Professor Owen and Sir Philip Egerton, two other specialists, were equally positive that Sylvanus had taken his wound in front like an old Roman. Who could decide? So there were partisans and pictures and skits; but Du Chaillu certainly brought home the skin.
    In 1861 the gorilla materialised out of more or less discredited story: in 1924 I read appeals to big game hunters to stay their hands, seeing that he is on the verge of extinction. Man, thou art the most destructive force in Nature - volcanoes are as nothing to thee!

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924