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Category: East End transport

150 years of the Tube

Londoners have always had a love-hate relationship with their Tube. Alfred Leete’s classic 1927 poster ‘The Lure of the Underground’ shows passengers being sucked magnetically from the London street into a Tube entrance (looking suspiciously Paris Metro-like). Leete  was one of numerous commercial artists that the railway companies serving London, marketing

Classic Tube poster

Lure of the Underground by Alfred Leete

themselves collectively as London Underground, drew on during the early years of the 20th century to promote trips to the Zoo, to the Cup Final, to the British Museum … or just to ride on the Tube.

The earliest of those railway companies, the Metropolitan Railway, which first took Londoners underground in January 1863, even changed the shape of London, building suburbs in its image and along its routes. In 1915,the publicity department of the company dreamed up the name ‘Metroland’ to describe the green fields and hills of Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, through which the new lines snaked. Between the wars, the Metropolitan set up a new company to develop housing, shops and new suburbs along the lines, and that countryside was soon peppered with hundreds of identikit semi-detached-lined streets. It was a peculiarly English vision: a sentimental, tamed and cosy view of where town met country. Of neatly swept streets, roses in every front garden, and father returning home from the Underground station, pipe in mouth and Evening News under his arm.

But modern passengers, squeezed into a London Overground carriage with on room to breathe (how can a new line fill up so quickly?) may have difficulty seeing London metro travel as a leisure activity. And for citizens of the Victorian East End,the construction of the Underground wasn’t remotely idyllic. Viewers of the quasi-historical BBC drama Ripper Street a couple of weeks ago were treated to a fairly accurate take of the East Enders experience during the construction of Whitechapel station in 1876. By the time the City & South London Railway (now part of the Northern Line) was built in 1890, tunnelling technology had progressed to allow deep tunnelling of ‘tubes’ through which the trains could pass. It was swiftly followed by the Waterloo and City Railway (now Line) in 1898 and the Central London Railway (Central Line) in 1900. Disruption at ground level was now relatively slight. But in the early days, all the railways were built by ‘cut and cover’, which was as brutal as it sounded. A railway line would be

London Underground map from 1908

London Underground map from 1908

scoured through the London streets, to below surface level, then a cover put over the top, with buildings atop that. Along the District Line as it snakes out from Whitechapel to Bow Road, houses, shops, offices and roadways sit just a few feet beneath the railway lines beneath.

The disruption was appalling, and the slums of the East End were frequently cleared with little thought as to where the residents would go. As with the clearing of the Jago at the turn of the 20th century, it usually meant their being squeezed into an even-more crowded and noisome rookery just down the road. And the engines, steam-powered in those days of course, had to release smoke and steam into the streets above at regular intervals. To East Enders, it must have seemed that a hell had been created in their midst and beneath their feet.

It wasn’t planned either. Early maps of the Underground show just how lopsided development was – a result of a rash of companies all competing for the best routes. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that an Act of Parliament brought all the lines and companies together under one transport board. So a 1908 map sees the centre of London and the East End poorly served, while the companies are driving ever further north and west, to Highgate, Golders Green and Kingsbury (with the ambitious Metropolitan eventually ending up in rural Amersham). And the East End’s first Underground line originated in similarly haphazard fashion. The Thames Tunnel, built by the Brunels between 1825 and 1843 was, famously, an engineering masterpiece but a financial disaster. But in 1869, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway repositioned the failed foot-and-horse tunnel as a railway to link the docks at Rotherhithe with those at Wapping. The spacious tunnel had plenty of room to run trains through (and no need for new cut-and-cover construction of course). In 1876, the line was driven from Wapping to Shoreditch, running along the bottom of an old dock, with cover put over the top. From Shoreditch a line was run to the Great Eastern Railway at Liverpool Street. New stations were opened at

Classic Underground roundel sign at Westminster

Classic Underground roundel sign at Westminster Underground station

Shadwell and Whitechapel.

But the East London Line was marooned from the rest of the network by the inability of the District and Metropolitan Railways to join their services together in the eagerly awaited ‘inner circle’. City financiers and politicians watched with increasing frustration as the two big companies pushed further into the suburbs while leaving the City and West End underserved: the District Railway ended at Mansion House, while the Metropolitan frustratingly terminated at Aldgate, and no way to get between the two. So in 1874, a group of City men formed the Metropolitan Inner Circle Completion Railway Company and built a joint line to connect the two, with new stations at Cannon Street, Monument, Mark Lane, Tower of London, Aldgate East, St Mary’s and Whitechapel. From St Mary’s, the line curved down to join the East London Railway just south of Whitechapel. The East End was on the Tube map at last.

You see the slightly schizophrenic nature of the early Tube (part Metro system, part suburban railway) in the District Railway extension of a few years after. In 1902, it hooked up with the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway at Whitechapel. Now it ran trains all the way out to leafy Upminster, in the depths of the Essex countryside. The District even ran excursions out to East Enders favourite Southend-on-Sea, with passengers changing at Barking. And in 1946, it was joined by the Central Line. Driving out from its old terminus at Liverpool Street the line (recoloured red from its original blue) ran through Bethnal Green, joining the District at Mile End, before leaving the East End at Stratford. The furious pace of building would now slow, for a half century or so, before the Jubilee Line broke ground at Canary Wharf. And in 2010, the East London Line would be lost to the Underground once more, being subsumed into the new London Overground network.

Building the Metropolitan Railway in London

Building the Metropolitan Railway in London


Cut and cover construction building the Underground at Paddington

Cut and cover construction building the Underground at Paddington

Dock deaths and the Poplar Hospital

Docklands hospital in Poplar

Poplar Hospital catered for the wounded from the East India Docks

THE NAME of the infirmary was tellingly blunt. The ‘Poplar Hospital for Accidents’ suggested that the East End of the 1800s was a dangerous place where bad things happened. And though it would become a refuge for East Enders suffering every kind of ailment, primarily it was created to cope with the constant stream of broken and shattered men carried from the East India Docks – the most dangerous place of all.

Dock work was inherently dangerous of course. The frequently half-cut dockers (cheap booze being one way to make a hellish job bearable) were manoeuvring large, heavy objects between moving ship and stable shore across narrow gangplanks, often slick with ice or other muck. They worked in a confusion of men and vehicles, alongside precipitous drops into the filthy Thames, with sharp grappling hooks being swung around with sometimes careless abandon. But a series of historical turns would make the job more dangerous still during the 1800s.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Port of London was completely gridlocked, with ships taking days or weeks to be emptied, turned round and sent back to sea. The answer was to build a series of new, enclosed docks, increasing capacity while bringing down costs to the merchant companies, and thus of the goods they were importing. The West India Dock was built in 1802, the East India in 1803, London Docks in 1805 and half a dozen more would follow. The dock owners were now losing less stock through theft, with their well-protected docks, and so prices could come down further. It would lead to an economic boom for England and the beginnings of the great days of London retail. East End stores and market stalls were now selling imported fabrics, tea, coffee, rum, oranges and bananas, and East Enders could afford to buy them.

But with increased capacity came competition, as the dock owners cut prices to vie for business. That meant lower wages for the dockers, who were already on a daily rate or were being paid by the quantity they shifted throughout the day. And there was more competition for jobs, as new labour came in from the English countryside and from Ireland, forcing down wages further. Corners would be cut, and so accidents would happen.

The work itself was dangerous, dirty and tiring (and tired men had more accidents). Bags would burst, showering dockers with iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement or guano. A docker of more recent vintage, Bill Abbott, recalled the perils of working with inexperienced men, saying: “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”

Bill got off lightly. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings as they were being winched to and fro. The busy river would roll ships around at the dock, casting men over the side, to be drowned or crushed between hull and dock. Within the holds of the ship, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. In the confused melee of river traffic, collisions occurred, despite the skills of the watermen and lightermen – even those experienced river pilots went over the side from time to time. On the dock itself, cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the accident count.

So in the early 1850s, a drive was launched. Money was raised by charitable donations and the former Custom House was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855. It was soon bursting at the seams and had to be expanded twice over the following years; at one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.

Seventy years on, its role hadn’t changed. Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”

The injuries were horrific of course. Crushed limbs, severe lacerations, arms or legs often amputated by falling machinery or whipping ropes. And the Poplar Hospital, while a boon, was still severely limited in what it could do for patients. By the mid-1800s, anasthaesia was becoming established at least. In the early 19th century surgery had been an horrific affair, with pain relief consisting of biting on a strap of leather and a strong will. Unsurprisingly, many died of shock during their operations. One estimate put the post-operative death rate in London hospitals at over 90 per cent in the early 1800s. And it was a common saw that you were safer outside hospital than in. Infection was rife, with no understanding of what caused disease, let alone antibiotics to combat it. A docker might go in with a serious wound only to die from infections picked up in hospital. By the late 1800s, antibiotics had joined anasthaesia, and surgical techniques had improved, but survival rates were still pitifully low.

Times would change of course. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but wouldn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead. Downriver, at Tilbury, the docks may still be dangerous places but the advent of health and safety awareness meant the carnage of the docks was history.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel this week (9 April 2006)* marks one of the real pioneers of British industrial design. A multi-skilled engineer who built tunnels, bridges, steamships, railway trains and railway stations.

As well as a prodigious appetite for work, Brunel was a man who took risks, and alongside his spectacular successes were dramatic failures … sometimes with tragic consequences. The anniversary has particular significance for the East End of London. Brunel had worked on the Thames Tunnel, and during the 1850s he would launch the Great Eastern, the biggest ship ever, from the Isle of Dogs.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth the son of Sophia and Sir Marc Brunel, who had emigrated from France. The young Brunel was sent back to his father’s country to study, and at just 20 was made chief assistant engineer on his father’s Thames Tunnel project. The tunnelling shield, the first of its kind, supported the bore of the tunnel and allowed men to work inside. The technology forms the basis of tunnelling to this day.

It was unpleasant and dangerous work. The diggers were waist deep in foul water, there were two major floods, and several men were killed. On one occasion Isambard himself was almost drowned, and was never to fully recover. The tunnel took years to build, was a financial failure as a foot tunnel, and was then converted for use for the East London Line (Wapping-Rotherhithe).

Brunel had gained an extraordinary amount of engineering knowhow by his late twenties and began a prodigious career – one littered with ‘firsts’. In 1830, aged 24, he won the competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol – it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. Brunel became a bridge specialist: the new railways and roads meant bigger and better bridges were being built. The Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar followed, as did the Maidenheead Railway Bridge. It was another first – the widest and flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Brunel seemed able to work in any material, and on any project.

Aged 27, Brunel was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. Again he went out on a limb, deciding the lines from Paddington should be broad gauge, which he argued offered greater comfort than the standard gauge – Brunel brushed aside the fact that every other railway was using the standard gauge pioneered by George Stephenson. His railway became an engineering monument that defied nature – with dramtic viaducts and tunnels making light work of any obstacle (Box Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world). After Brunel’s death, though, the Great Western adopted standard gauge.

Some inventions never got off the ground, including the Atmospheric Railway, which was to use vacuum power to move trains through Devon. But Brunel looked ever forward, and even while he was wrestling with the demands of the railways, he was looking at transatlantic passenger travel. New ways of making steel and the advances in steam power meant this was now a reality, and the bold Brunel convinced his bosses at the GWR to build the Great Western, simultaneously. advertising the railway. Typically it was to be no normal ship.

At 72 metres in length, she was the biggest steamship ever. The Great Western eventually made 74 crossings to New York, cutting the journey time in half. He went on to build bigger and better ships, including the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. Launched in 1858, this vessel dwarfed the Great Western, being 700ft long and carrying 4000 passengers.

Thousands flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the work in 1858. She was the pride of Britain but, just before completion things began to go wrong. Several men died during the final stages of her construction: it was rumoured that a riveter and his mate were entombed between her twin hulls. From then on, hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night, horrifying the supersititious workers.

The launch was a disaster. Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt with a man was dead and four others badly hurt. It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by inch to the water. As the ship steamed into the Channel, the skipper allowed steam to build up and there was an explosion. Scalded seamen struggled to the deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s huge wheel. Three more died before the day was out. Visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles built for the Great Eastern.

The strain told, and Brunel died of a stroke in 1859, just days before the maiden voyage to New York. He was just 53. Yet in the BBC poll of ‘Great Britons’ in 2002, Brunel came second only to Winston Churchill. The reason is probably that in his risk taking he came up with so many firsts.The Great Eastern would never make money, yet it had an importance that Brunel could never have anticipated. It was the ship used to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable … putting Europe and America in telecommunications contact for the first time.

*Events take place all year. A complete programme of the events during the Brunel 200 celebration can be found online at

Brunel and the Great Eastern

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the biggest ship in the world being built.
She was the pride of Britain until, just before completion in the 1850s things began to go horribly wrong.
Because so much money had been poured into building the gigantic Great Eastern, cuts were made and risks taken. Several men died during the final stages of her construction. It was rumoured they included a riveter and his mate entombed between her twin hulls.
From then on, thoughts of the two trapped workmen made many of the crew nervous. Hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night and the ship was dogged by ill-fortune throughout her life.
It was a complete turnaround from the fortune that smiled on the ship when she was first designed by the golden boy of Victorian engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Brunel had already built a tunnel under the Thames, constructed railways and designed the Clifton suspension bridge. Everything in his working life was big. Even his railway stations, like Paddington, were the size of cathedrals.
But he went a feat too far in creating an enormous steamship which could carry her own coals on a voyage to Australia and back. He needed a partner to bring the idea to reality and, in choosing John Scott Russell who owned a shipyard at Millwall, he chose the wrong man.
Russell was a braggart who could not live up to promises he made to Brunel. He failed, for instance, to find suitable land on which to build the huge ship.
As a result she was built in a far from ideal spot and had to be launched sideways into the Thames at Millwall.

The launching was a disaster. Huge crowds turned out on the appointed day when Miss Hope, daughter of a shipping company director, smashed a bottle of Champagne against the hull.
Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but could not cope. They snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt but, by then, one man was dead and four others badly hurt.
The launching ceremony was postponed with the ship having moved only four feet.
It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by tortuous inch to the water. By now the national press was hooting with derision and Brunel became ill with worry.
Even when the ship steamed out into the Channel, disaster was at hand. The skipper allowed too much steam to build up and there was an explosion.
Scalded seamen groped their way up on deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s paddlewheel. Three more died before the day was out.
The Great Eastern limped back to port, her splendid Victorian fittings ripped to shreds, and did not re-emerge for a year.
Brunel died a broken man aged only 53 and, although the Great Eastern lived on for 30 years, she seemed jinxed.
She lost money as a transatlantic passenger steamer and was converted to the ignominious job of laying ocean cables.
Brunel’s dream, of using her on the Australia run, was never realised and eventually she was broken up for scrap.
Not much remains today of the Great Eastern apart from photos and souvenirs.
But visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles that were built for Britain’s ill-starred queen of the seas.
For further reading: The Big Ship by Patrick Beaver; Brunel and his World by John Pudney.

The Bridges of Bow

London owes its existence to its strategic position as a crossing over the River Thames, and since Roman times the city has grown and flourished as a ford as well as a port.
But not all roads to London led from the Channel or the North. One of the most ancient gateways to the capital is from Essex and the current Bow Flyover is just the latest in a long line of crossings over the River Lea, dating back to the times of Julius Caesar.
The original Roman road from London to Essex crossed the Lea at Old Ford – the only remnant now is Old Ford Road at the north end of Bow.
Farmers and their wagons would struggle through the tidal river across the flooded marshes of Leyton and Strat-ford, and on to the haymarkets that ran along what is now the Bow and Mile End Road.

But so treacherous was the crossing that Maud, the Queen of England, almost lost her life in the attempt, in 1118.
It was another 58 years before the bridge was started, but that still came 60 years before the first bridge was built over the Thames. And Bow Bridge had another claim to fame: it was the first in Britain with a stone arch. Unlike earlier wooden constructions, this was built to last.
And last it did, through long arguments about who was responsible for its upkeep and its repairs.
In the 16th century it lay within the jurisdiction of the old Langthorne Abbey at Stratford, remembered now in the Abbey Mills area to the east of the Lea.
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1535, he may have swelled the royal coffers, but he left Bow Bridge parentless.
The row rumbled on, astonishingly, for 300 years. In 1834, the Abbey landowners finally agreed to share the cost with the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust. Stratford lay in Essex and Bow in Middlesex and the trust’s engineer, James Walker, proposed a new stone bridge of one arch, its span of 70 feet and width of 41 feet more worthy of forming the principal connection between the counties of Middlesex and Essex .
In Walker’s words lay the real problem of the Bow Bridge: as the principal connection between the city and the farms that supplied it, it became a notorious traffic blackspot, with horses and carts taking hours to cross the Lea. The biggest corn merchant, Goulds, actually had its premises at Bow Bridge wharf.
So, in 1898, the London County Council proposed another new bridge, less than 70 years after the previous replacement had been built.
The new bridge was a plainer, metal affair and the cost was split between the LCC, West Ham Council and the River Lea Conservancy Board.
The result, Thomas D’Akers Bridge, stands to this day, although hidden under the roundabout beneath the flyover. It replaced the old Bow Bridge and a couple more to the north, the St Michael’s and Peg’s Hole Bridges, whose foundations were dug up and incorporated in the fabric of the new crossing.
But by the 1960s the crossing faced a new kind of congestion – cars. More than 1,000 an hour crawled over the bridge during the rush hour, and plans were laid for a flyover. In 1963 work started, at a cost of £1,784,500.
Today the bridge carries commuters out to Essex and East Anglia; hundreds of years ago it was used by arable farmers, but Bow’s proud history remains – as the first river bridge into London.

Bethnal Green Tube Station disaster

In early March 1943 the worst days of the Blitz were two years past. The horror of V1s and V2s yet to come. Yet in this relative calm on the home front, 173 East Enders would lose their lives during an air raid. Next Sunday*, the Church of St John on Bethnal Green remembers the men, women and children who died on 3 March 1943 – a disaster for years clouded by confusion, rumour and misinformation.

Although the skies over London were quieter by 1943, East Enders’ memories of the Blitz were raw. During the winter of 1940-41 the pounding of London had been relentless. At one stage, the city was hit for 57 nights running. 29 December 1940 saw the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as firebombs rained down on the capital. Through the night of 10 and 11 May 1941, there was another intense bombardment, and the East End as a whole, had taken more than its share of the bombing.

Just in case Londoners might forget, there was the continual peal of air raid sirens. Often the raid would be a false alarm, but with many of their children back from evacuation, East Enders would make for shelter at the first sound of the siren.
With up to eight folk crammed into the garden’s Morrison Shelter with little air, no light, and a chamber pot for a toilet, many preferred the Underground. In any case, they reasoned, a tin shelter wouldn’t be much protection from a direct hit or even falling masonry.

Bethnal Green was a new station – work had begun on extending the Central Line from Liverpool Street in 1936, but had been interrupted by the outbreak of war. With the track yet to go down, there was plenty of room, and the station was converted into a shelter with 5000 bunks. Sleeping in the Underground had big advantages over the Anderson Shelter; East Enders took their community spirit underground with them – there was light, company, singsongs and concerts, urns dispensing hot, sweet tea, even a lending library.

But as the siren sounded at 8.17pm on 3 March 1943, it all went horribly wrong. A woman, carrying her baby, tripped and fell as she went down the steps to the platform. At the top of the stairs, came shouted warnings of bombs falling. On that night many reported that they had heard ‘a new sort of bomb’. The people pushed ever more quickly into the shelter.

The way was now blocked, but still people poured in. There were no handrails, or crush barriers, light from a single 75 watt bulb and no white lines on the stairs to mark out steps. Within seconds around 300 people were wedged into the stairway. Shelterers, carried forward by new arrivals behind them, tumbled down the steep steps. Within 90 seconds, 27 men, 84 women and 62 children had died of suffocation and sixty of the survivors needed hospital treatment.

For two days afterwards, the Government maintained a blanket blackout, terrified of shattering fragile civilian morale, as newspaper reporters toured the East End offering payment to anyone who could tell them what had happened. Within a week a Government Inquiry was convened. Even then, its findings would be kept quiet until the end of the war. It cited insufficient lighting (due to blackout restrictions) as one cause of the tragedy. Lack of handrails in the centre of the stairs, and no police on duty to hold back the crowds were two more. It also found that the local Council had been asked to provide safety barriers months before but, strapped for cash, had not done so. Finally, it speculated on what had caused such a dash for shelter. Unknown to locals, the Government was testing a new type of anti-aircraft gun in Victoria Park. The noise was immense – this was the ‘new type of bomb’ people had reported hearing. After the tragedy, new handrails were installed on the steps down to the station. Each individual step was also marked with white paint to help people see them in poor light.

This wasn’t to the only disaster to befall shelterers in the Underground. On 17 September1940, Marble Arch station took a direct hit. The white tiles that covered the walls shattered into deadly shrapnel, killing 20 people. At Balham on 14 October that year, a bomb exploded above the station. The blast went down through the road and blew up water mains and sewage pipes, flooding the tunnel. 68 died and many more were injured. And at Bank on 11 January 1941, a direct hit collapsed roadway and station on to the shelterers below. 56 were killed and 69 injured. The bomb left a crater, 120ft by 100ft.

But the tragic irony was that nobody at Bethnal Green was a victim of a bomb – apart from the sound of friendly fire echoing from Victoria Park. When dawn broke on the next day, not one enemy missile had fallen on the East End. The 173 souls had been victims of panic, rumour, official incompetence and secrecy, but not German planes.

The memorial ceremony takes place on Sunday 2 March 2003 at 3pm at the Church of St John on Bethnal Green, 30 Victoria Park Square, E2 9PB. There will also be a small commemorative exhibition in the crypt of St John’s.

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

The East London Line opens once more

Londoners get used to delays getting to work. Nonetheless, passengers at Wapping must have breathed a sigh of relief last week when the first train for two and a half years rolled in to the station.

Even by the slothlike standards of our city’s transport system, the East London Line upgrade and extension has been a long time coming. And promises that this is just the first section of a line that will circumnavigate the capital will be met with sceptical shakes of the head by Londoners who waited more than 30 years to get this far. But then nothing has ever been straightforward for a line that was cobbled together from other people’s railways, continually reshaped and renamed, and which for years seemed to be dying a slow death.

Looking at the map of the London Underground (within which the East London Line is now hived off as ‘London Overground’) it’s easy to see a planned network of lines, but of course it’s nothing of the sort. Before they were lines they were railways, operated by separate companies which frequently lurched from financial calamity to near collapse. Just over a century ago, the Tube map of London, as well as not yet obeying the neat topography of the classic Harry Beck design, featured such oddities as the City & South London Railway and the Hampstead Railway.

At the eastern edge of that 1908 map sits Whitechapel and its defunct District Line neighbour St Mary’s. But there is no East London Line, even though trains had been running the route since 1869. Why?

The reason lies in the long and tortuous history of a line which, only intersecting with the rest of the network at one point, Whitechapel station, was a rather forgotten and semi-detached part of the network – not quite a Tube line in fact.

The world’s first underground railway was the Metropolitan (now the Metropolitan Line), opened in 1863 and joined a year later by the Metropolitan & District (which became the District Line). Both employed cut-and-cover architecture, where a shallow trench was dug for the tracks, then covered over, hence the spaciousness of these lines and their stations and their closeness to the surface. The goal, for the next generation of lines, was to go deep underground, using tunnelling to create a genuine ‘tube’. Ironically, the Brunels had already done just that, with their Thames Tunnel, built between 1825 and 1843. At enormous cost to human life, the father-and-son team had developed an entirely new means of construction.

The tunnel had been a commercial flop, but a consortium of railway companies (the Great Eastern Railway, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR), the South Eastern Railway (SER), the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District) saw huge potential. This was an existing crossing that linked north and south London and was close to the docks on both sides of the river as well as to mainline railway stations.

The railway programme of the mid-1800s had built lines that reached the edges of London – Kings Cross, Euston, Victoria and the rest – but didn’t venture into the centre. Fenchurch Street was a rarity, lying within the City of London. The lines that would make up the London Underground had been seen as filling that gap. And with their new East London Railway, the consortium saw a way of profitably joining the lines that ran into Bishopsgate in the City to southern lines running as far as Brighton and Dover.

Now it was possible to catch a train from Liverpool Street to Croydon should you wish. And passenger trains from the south would swing westward just before Whitechapel, taking the St Mary’s Curve tunnel to join the Metropolitan District Railway just before St Mary’s station. The next time you head west out of Whitechapel station, look out to your left and you’ll see the disused tunnel. The line did well out of freight too. Coal from mines in the north of England would arrive at the Great Eastern Railway’s Spitalfields depot and be hoisted by crane onto East London Railway trains.

The electrification of the District Railway in 1905 severed the passenger connection with the East London Line. The line finally caught up with electricity in 1913 and now services ran to Hammersmith and Kensington. At the start of World War II, these westbound services were cut, and now the East London Line (as it had become when the whole Underground was placed in public ownership in 1933) was marooned, only intersecting with the rest of the network at Whitechapel. Until 1948, and the full nationalisation of the railways, the East London Line remained a strange hybrid, with publicly owned trains running on track still owned by a private company.

In 1966, the Line was further isolated, as the passenger link to Liverpool Street was closed. It seemed as if London Transport were even uncertain what the tiny line was. Maps between 1933 and 1968 show it as part of the Metropolitan Line. It then became ‘Metropolitan Line, East London Section, with a white stripe bisecting the Met’s magenta. In the 1980s it became the East London Line, and from 1990 was recoloured orange. By then, plans and funding had been falling through for years and many sceptics assumed the line would never be extended. Even when the Government gave the plans the go-ahead in 2001, the project was fraught with difficulties. Plans to demolish the Grade II listed 19th-century Braithwaite arches in the old Bishopsgate Goods Yard drew howls of protest (from Prince Charles among others). And it took former Mayor Ken Livingstone to step in and save Wapping station, which was originally deemed too small to fit into the new line.

Finally though, East London has its own Tube line back, even if it has now been divorced from the Underground network, this time seemingly for good. Who knows where the line will eventually stop.