Above: View of the railway arches just east of Deptford Station.
When the railway terminus at London Bridge Station first opened in 1836 there were just two railway lines on a relatively narrow brick viaduct. Due to the addition of several other lines (also on viaducts) it is hard to visualise what that 1836 viaduct originally looked like. There is no possibility of finding anything similar in the Bermondsey area because it is all so built-up today. However, if you go to the east of Deptford Station, the brick viaduct from the early days of the same London and Greenwich Railway remains in its original state. For a short stretch of track – from Deptford Station to the west side of Deptford Creek – there are two railway lines still carrying modern trains over the brick-built arches of the original viaduct.
The land they cross is a sort of public open space between several blocks of council flats and access can be gained either from Deptford Church Street via a footpath (running near the brick viaduct) or from a narrow street to the east called Creekside. Although there are descriptions of the viaduct and old prints and maps, there is no substitute for having a real life-size ‘visual aid’ and this piece of viaduct is the closest thing to seeing how it would once have looked on the south side of Tooley Street in the years following 1836.
Two last points of interest. The reason why the railway was built on a high brick-built viaduct crossing mainly open fields was because, with trains travelling at such high speeds – at least 12 miles per hour! – the railway company was afraid that those trains might have hit a stray horse or cow that could have strayed onto the line.
Above: Second view of the railway arches showing the little archway added to alternate arches with the idea of converting them into housing.
While building the viaduct, the Victorians were all too aware that the arches were open and empty. Someone had the bright idea that a wall could be added to the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of each arch and then it could be turned into a house. As they said at the time ‘There would only be a few trains passing in the morning and others passing each evening to convey the commuters up to work each morning and home in the evening’. Little did they realise how busy the line would become!
The housing idea made the builders of the viaduct think and they considered having a one-arch house for a small family and a two-arch house for a larger family. To that end every alternate pier along the viaduct had a small archway built into it so that, should the arches be turned into houses, there would be a small interconnecting archway already in place. The whole idea of domestic housing came to nothing but the little interconnecting arches can still be seen to this day.