Prince Charles and Bishopsgate

PRINCE CHARLES’s entry into the debate over Bishopsgate goods yard last week will strike a chord with many Londoners nervously eyeing the encroachment of City office blocks into the East End.

The Prince issued an impassioned plea, arguing for the saving of the yard from demolition.

The irony is that, despite the old goods yard sprawling over an area the size of 20 football pitches, many East Enders will hardly know it’s there.

Bishopsgate is a legacy of an era when railway was the future, and the railway barons didn’t just build big … but gargantuan. And it was part of a trio of termini in the area who never quite lived up to their billing. Bishopsgate, Broad Street and Liverpool Street were the three great stations jostling for space on the eastern edge of the City. Today only Liverpool Street remains.

In the mid-1800s, London was undergoing massive redevelopment and expansion. Existing housing was demolished wholesale to bring the new railway lines into the capital, and they in turn brought in more people, new Londoners swelling the city even more. Spitalfields was no exception, and from 1839 an enormous site, 10 acres at the north of Brick Lane, was set aside for London’s second railway terminus, following Euston to the north.

The oldest part was the Braithwaite Viaduct, whose listed arches Prince Charles is now fighting so hard to save. The area is slated for demolition and redevelopment. And the plan is that it will make way for the East London Line extension and office building.

Almost from its beginning, Bishopsgate struggled to find sufficient business to be profitable. And by the time much of the building was destroyed by fire in 1964, only a small part of the station was still being used.

Unwelcome competition was soon to arrive in the shape of Broad Street. The station was built in 1865 as the North London Railway terminus. The idea was that Broad Street would be the starting point for goods from the docks, en route to the Midlands.

But even before the building was finished the Victorian developers (who were stronger on ambition than planning) realized that with one goods station already struggling in the area, a second wasn’t such a bright idea. Broad Street was swiftly converted to passenger traffic. And in 1900, it was second only to Euston and Liverpool Street in passenger numbers. Liverpool Street, however, was Broad Street’s downfall. The numbers never stacked up and the station shut in 1950. It slowly rotted until eventual demolition in 1984. Now the Broadgate development stands on the site.

In fact the main problem of the East London termini was always their proximity to and competition with other stations. Liverpool Street station was to survive, but it wasn’t plain sailing. In 1862, the newly formed Great Eastern Railway began looking for a site for a new City station, to extend from its existing terminus at Shoreditch. They chose the site of the notorious Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam). The problem they had was that there already a terminus a mile down the road. So, in Victorian style, the bosses decided that their new station had to be bigger, fancier and more ornate than Fenchurch Street.

It was certainly that. It opened in 1874 and by 1891 it was extended to have more platforms than any other station in the world – until that title was taken by Victoria Station in 1908. But the size of the station, and its number of platforms, was out of proportion to the region it served, and Liverpool Street struggled, lost money, and went into long-term decline. In the winter of 1944, Labour MP Tom Driberg described it as ‘almost completely squalid’, though Poet Laureate John Betjeman called it ‘ the most picturesque and interesting of London termini’.

So now, after forty years of partial use by small businesses, sports pitches and entertainment spaces, Bishopsgate faces demolition at last. Ken Livingstone, London Underground, Railtrack and the Corporation of London all support the move. But the Prince of Wales has one supporter. English Heritage argues that the East London Line could be run on tracks atop the existing goods yard – the very use for which it was originally built. Back to index

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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