Above: The elegant exterior of the ticket hall at Greenwich Station.
Greenwich Station is situated towards the western side of Greenwich, only a short distance from the River Ravensbourne. In 1836 the first part of the London and Greenwich Railway – London’s first passenger railway – opened between London Bridge Station and Deptford Station. Given the name of the railway, you might have thought that the last sentence would have ended by saying that the railway extended to Greenwich but that was not the case.
The London and Greenwich Railway was constructed on a brick viaduct, running east from London Bridge Station, via Spa Road Station (beside St James’s Road) to Deptford Station. Because most of the land was flat and in use as farmland, the viaduct was almost a straight line. If you are wondering why the railway was not just laid on the flat land, instead of having to construct the viaduct, the reason was that it was feared a few animals, like cows, might stray onto the line. The viaduct carried two lines – one up and one down. At London Bridge Station there were just two platforms, serving each of the lines.
Although intended to reach Greenwich Station, which is only about a mile further east of Deptford Station, the viaduct had to cross the River Ravensbourne. Constructing a bridge over the river would have presented no problems but the design was more complex and that was what held up the line reaching Greenwich. The part of the River Ravensbourne that needed to be crossed was the most northerly part, known as Deptford Creek. The Creek is tidal and, at high tide, it is relatively deep. It is also quite wide which meant that Thames sailing barges could use the Creek, proceeding south as far as Deptford Bridge.
Thames sailing barges have a tall main mast and, because they had been using the Creek for several centuries, they had right of way. Any bridge crossing the Creek was required to be high enough for a sailing barge to pass through. The railway on the viaduct was not sufficiently high and so the only alternative solution was to build a lifting bridge. This proved to be rather complicated and, therefore, it held up extending the railway line to Greenwich Station.
Eventually, the bridge was completed and a temporary station at Greenwich was opened on Christmas Eve (24 December) 1838. The London and Greenwich Railway had at last been completed. Two years later a handsome station building was designed by George Smith and opened in 1840, making it one of the oldest station buildings in the world.
The lifting bridge over Deptford Creek was made of iron and had a central section that carried the two railway lines. In order to open the bridge, bolts had to be removed from the two railway lines so that the bridge section could be raised high enough for a sailing barge to pass underneath. The bridge was then lowered and the bolts securing the movable part of the track were replaced. The whole procedure probably took between 30 minutes and an hour to complete.
You may be surprised to hear that the requirement to lift the bridge is enshrined in an Act of Parliament that is still in force today. Hardly any Thames sailing barges exist today but, very occasionally, a sailing barge passes through and the railway engineers have to comply with the regulations. The present bridge is not the original one but it works in exactly the same way as the first one and the procedure is still just as cumbersome.
Above: Looking west at the platforms of Greenwich Station. The lifting bridge crossing the River Ravensbourne (looking rather like scaffolding) is just to the right of centre. On the far left, it is just possible to see the DLR tracks rising steeply from the Greenwich DLR platforms.
Once the line from London Bridge Station to Greenwich Station had been completed, which is only about three miles in length, plans were made to extend the line further east, with the hope of one day of reaching the coast of England, at Dover. While constructing the railway line further east was only a matter of acquiring more land and laying out the tracks, there was another problem to overcome. The line further east needed to cross Greenwich Park. This was not only a royal park but it contained the Royal Observatory which stood on a hill, just a short distance from the proposed route of the line. At the time, delicate instruments were housed at the Royal Observatory, taking magnetic measurements. It was considered that the iron railway lines for the eastern extension might have an adverse effect on those measurements. Objections to the line held up its extension for several decades and it was not until 1 February 1878 that the extended line was opened, continuing eastwards via a cut-and-cover tunnel under Greenwich Park, towards Maze Hill. The line is still in use to this day.
When the eastern extension was completed, the original terminus at Greenwich Station had to be moved to allow for a slight realignment of the track. The line between Deptford Creek and Greenwich Station was altered slightly to feed into the new line under Greenwich Park. This also required the rebuilding of Greenwich Station at a slightly different position. This means that the elegant buildings at Greenwich Station are on a slightly different site from those in 1840 and that they date from the rebuilding in the 1870s.
In 1999 the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) opened a new extension to Lewisham. There are now two platforms for the Greenwich DLR Station which interchange with the other two platforms of Greenwich Station.
In summary, there were four stations on the original London and Greenwich Railway. (1) London Bridge Station was opened in 1836 as the London terminus. After being completely rebuilt, it was officially reopened on 9 May 2018. (2) Spa Road Station was also opened in 1836 but closed in 1915. Its platforms remain beside the modern railway tracks. (3) Deptford Station was opened in 1836. After being given a makeover, it was officially reopened in 2012. Its platforms are on their original site when opened in 1836. (4) Greenwich Station was first opened to passengers in 1838. The station buildings were completed in 1840 but moved to a new site in 1878. The platforms have not been moved since 1878 but two additional lines have been added for the DLR.