History of London

The Railway Age

So began the railway age, an age in which London would be broken up and remade. The construction of the railways saw whole swathes of the capital knocked down to make way for tracks and stations.
Jon E Lewis, London: The Autobiography

If there was one invention that changed the layout of London more than any other, it was the steam train and its railway. Almost the entire railway network, which is still in use today, was established during Queen Victoria’s reign.

London’s first railway line opened in February 1836 between Spa Road in Bermondsey and Deptford. The extension to the terminus at the south end of London Bridge opened on 14 December 1836 and to Greenwich on 12 April 1840: trains ran along London’s longest viaduct (4 miles) carrying passengers to the delights of Greenwich in just 12 minutes. This slashed the journey time by riverboat or omnibus. No wonder then that around 650,000 passengers travelled the route in its first 15 months.

To build a new railway, you had to demolish a lot of buildings - so it was easier to get approval for lines that ran mainly through poorer areas. This puts the locations of many London railway termini into context. Property was cheaper south of the river, for example, which explains why London Bridge was chosen as the first terminus.

But even the affluent City had to concede the inevitable coming of the railways, and the first permanent City terminus was opened in August 1841 at Fenchurch Street. Around 3,000 people had to be evicted from the East End to make way for this line.

The 1840s saw a railway boom, when permission was sought from Parliament for 19 lines in London, each with its own terminus in the City or Westminster. The idea of one large central station was also considered. In the end, only two of the 19 termini were permitted and in 1846 railway exclusion zones were set up on both sides of the river. Only Waterloo station snuck through the new red tape: with permission already granted before the new ruling, it opened within the southern zone in 1848.

Long distance train travel arrived in London in 1837, with the building of the Euston terminus at the end of the line from Birmingham. Other major termini soon followed, with Paddington opening in 1838, Fenchurch Street in 1841 and King’s Cross in 1850.

The growth of the railways had a dramatic impact on London. It squeezed the City’s residential population out, making way for a major commercial centre. It signalled the end of the old coaching inns. It caused central London traffic to rocket, as passengers travelled across town between termini and into work. (This was eventually alleviated by the construction of London’s Underground system, starting with the Metropolitan Railway.) And the huge termini, and the lines into them, split districts and communities forever.

Railway development stalled in the early 1850s. But not for long. In October 1860, Victoria Station opened, connecting the capital to Brighton and Dover. Before a wider central London exclusion zone could be approved in 1863, permission had been granted for Charing Cross, Ludgate Hill and Cannon Street termini, with bridges bringing trains across the Thames from the south. Thanks to the trains, Londoners’ horizons were broader than ever.

Did you Know

By 1843 you could travel from London to Paris by train, with a choice of eight different routes.