Above: The original South Eastern Railway Offices standing on the south side of Tooley Street until 2016.
As well all realise by now, London bridge Station is undergoing a complete redesign and rebuild. Much of the station is a collection of buildings and other structures that, although of some interest, are really not worth preserving. One ‘casualty’ of the rebuilding is about to be demolished and so there is a certain urgency about delivering this article before the work begins.
Anyone who has walked along Tooley Street from London Bridge Station – on their way to Tower Bridge – will almost certainly have noticed the extremely narrow five-storey building, situated beside the line of Platform 1. Its shape, narrowing to the width of a single room at its western end and almost triangular shape – with a straight side facing Tooley Street and a curved side gaining maximum ground area as it follows the curved viaduct of the railway lines on the north side of London Bridge Station – make it one of the most interesting structures in this part of London.
The rebuilding of London Bridge Station is not just about modernising the whole layout and providing step-free access to all of the platforms. It is also to accommodate passenger numbers at the station which have been rising sharply over the last decades and this trend is set to continue. Pavements around the station terminus are very narrow and clever ways have been found to provide more efficient ways of providing access to and from the station. Unfortunately, on the northern side of the station – which is beside Tooley Street – more pavement space is essential and this grand old building will have to be sacrificed in the name of progress.
The South Eastern Railways Offices building was designed by Charles Barry (Junior) and constructed in 1893. Of recent years the building has been called the ‘Flatiron building’ – mimicking the celebrated New York skyscraper of that name, because of its unusual wedge-like shape. The South Eastern Railway Company ceased in 1922, being taken over by the Southern Railway on 1 January 1923. The building was used in part by the ‘Churchill at War’ exhibition, a restaurant, and a paintball firm. Now, with the need for a new public plaza outside the north side of the station, the building’s days are numbered.
Brief History of the South Eastern Railway (SER)
The South Eastern Railway (SER) was a railway company in south-eastern England from 1836 until 1922. The company was formed to construct a route from London to Dover. Branch lines were later opened to Tunbridge Wells, Hastings, Canterbury and other places in Kent. The SER absorbed or leased other railways, some older than itself, including the London and Greenwich Railway and the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway. Most of the company’s routes were in Kent, eastern Sussex and the London suburbs.
Much of the company’s early history saw attempts at expansion and feuding with its neighbours; the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) in the west and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR) to the north-east. However, in 1899 the SER agreed with the LCDR to share operation of the two railways, to work them as a single system – under the name South Eastern and Chatham Railway – and pool receipts: but it was not a full amalgamation. The SER and LCDR remained separate companies until becoming constituents of the Southern Railway on 1 January 1923.
Origins of the Company
There had been proposals for a railway between London and Dover in 1825, 1832 and 1835, but they came to nothing due to opposition from landowners or the difficulties of bridging the River Medway near its mouth. On 21 June 1836 Parliament passed a Private Act incorporating the South Eastern and Dover Railway, which shortly afterwards became the South Eastern Railway.
Choice of route from London to Dover
At the time of inauguration there were two potential rail pathways running south from London. The Speaker of the House of Commons had said no further pathways would be permitted. The eventual route of the SER was via the existing London and Greenwich Railway (L&GR). This provided a useful way for a northern route via Gravesend, Rochester, and Canterbury, except that lengthening the line beyond Greenwich was blocked by opposition from the Admiralty, and this route would involve tunnelling through the North Downs.
The engineer of the new line, William Cubitt, was also engineer of the London and Croydon Railway (L&CR), which planned to use L&GR lines as far as Corbett’s Lane in Bermondsey before turning south towards Croydon. A new connection on this line near Norwood could provide access to a southerly route to Dover via Tonbridge, Ashford and Folkestone. This was less direct than the northerly route but passed through easier country. It involved one significant tunnel of 1,387 yards (1,268 m) through the Shakespeare Cliff near Dover. This was the route first chosen by the SER at its inauguration.
During Parliamentary discussions on the proposed route of the London and Brighton Railway (L&BR) during 1837, pressure was put on the SER to divert its proposed route so it could also share the L&BR mainline between the Jolly Sailor pub (at Norwood) and Earlswood Common, and then travel eastwards to Tonbridge. Under the scheme proposed by Parliament, the railway from Croydon to Redhill would be built by the L&BR but the SER would have the right to refund half the construction costs and own that part of the line between Merstham and Redhill. The SER gave way to this proposal as it reduced the construction costs, although it resulted in a route 20 miles (32 km) longer than by road, running south for 14.5 miles (23 km) and then turning east. It also meant that its trains from London Bridge passed over the lines of three other companies: the L&GR to Corbett’s Lane Junction, the L&CR as far as the Jolly Sailor, and the L&BR to Merstham.
Bricklayers’ Arms Terminus
During 1843, before the main line was complete, the SER and the L&CR became anxious about the charges imposed by the L&GR for the use of the terminus at London Bridge and its approaches. Parliament had relaxed restrictions on new railways into London and so the SER sought authority to construct a branch from Corbett’s Lane to a new temporary passenger terminus and goods station at Bricklayers’ Arms, for use by both railways, removing the need to use the Greenwich Railway terminus – at London Bridge Station. This opened 1 May 1844. According to Charles Vignoles, ‘the making of Bricklayers’ Arms station was a matter of compulsion in driving the Greenwich people to reasonable terms’. Plans to extend from Bricklayers’ Arms to a new SER terminus at Hungerford Bridge, nearer the centre of London, were rejected by Parliament. Similarly, a revised proposal to extend the line to Waterloo Road in 1846 was rejected by a committee of Parliament.
The L&GR was nearly bankrupt in 1844 and the SER leased its line from 1 January 1845. It became the Greenwich branch of that railway. Thereafter further developments were at London Bridge, and following a shunting accident during August 1850, which caused the collapse of a large part of the station roof, the SER closed Bricklayers’ Arms terminus to passenger traffic in 1852 converting it into a goods facility.
The above explanation of the South Eastern Railway (SER) route to Dover – including the problems it encountered realising a suitable route – are not only relevant in this article but they also provide further background to the railway that brought visitors from the Continent, via the ferry to Dover, before travelling by train to visit the Strand. The SER had a dramatic effect on the development of the Strand once the railway terminus at Charing Cross had opened.