You should know Fulwell

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A few months ago I recounted how Network Rail, wanting historical information on the construction of a railway line in Kent in order to repair flood damage, had obtained this information from archives and claimed it as a discovery, when it is fairly well documented in secondary sources. Still, this is far better than failing properly to check the historical facts, as has now happened on another part of the network.

The Shepperton branch has long had a propensity to flood after heavy rain, immediately west of its first station at Fulwell. The branch is currently closed for two weeks while the drainage is improved. Network Rail and South West Trains have issued a leaflet informing passengers of these works and giving details of the replacement bus service. It also gives some historical information to show how the line came to be so vulnerable to flooding. “The Shepperton line,” it says, “was first built for freight trains in 1864 but was upgraded to allow pasenger services to use the line in 1901 and then electrified in 1916.”

Now this is rather obviously wrong. No one with the slightest feeling for architecture who looks at the station buildings on the branch such as Fulwell (pictured) could believe they were built as late as 1901, and if there was no passenger service until then why build them before? There was in fact a passenger service from the beginning in 1864, and Nigel Wikeley and John Middleton in Railway Stations: Southern Region (1971) say that these buildings, with their distinctive round-headed windows, are “believed original”.

NR and SWT have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. As Alan A Jackson records in London’s Local Railways (1978) the branch was built with its main line junction facing Strawberry Hill, and trains ran to Waterloo via Richmond. In 1894, largely for the use of race traffic to Kempton Park (and some freight), a chord was constructed from east of Fulwell to the main line facing Teddington. What did happen in 1901 is that occasional ordinary passenger trains began to use this chord to reach Waterloo via Kingston; only with electrification in 1916 did most of the service begin to run by this route, as it still does. All this is easy to discover. How did the garbled version get right through to the press, unchecked in either sense of the word?

Brush up your Shakespeare

The floods around Christmas damaged a number of railway lines, among them the South Eastern Railway’s main line at Shakespeare Beach, between Folkestone and Dover. The March issue of the Railway Magazine reports that Network Rail has carefully investigated the construction of the sea wall in planning the repairs to the line. The report, judging by its style, was compiled from a Network Rail press release: Network Rail has had to turn archaeologist… Steve Kilby, senior programme manager for Network Rail, said…”. “The company”, reports the RM, “is having to take this approach because of an absence of any significant maintenance records from the Southern Railway era (1923-1947).” They have carried out a laser survey, and dug trenches and bore holes. “Not only that,” the report continues,

but they have also been spending time in local newspaper archives to try and find any useful information.

They have discovered that the railway here was originally carried on wooden trestles above the beach, but in 1927 the Southern Railway built the current sea wall alongside it. Thousands of tonnes of chalk were then deposited around the viaduct to encase it; the railway being relaid across the top.

Now Edwin Course, in The Railways of Southern England: The Main Lines (1973) writes: “the east end of Shakespeare Cliff Tunnel led out on to the top of the beach, which the railway followed on a wooden trestle viaduct. In 1927, as part of the Southern Railway’s improvements for continental traffic, this was replaced by an embankment supported on the seaward side by a concrete retaining wall.” And C. F. Dendy Marshall’s 1937 History of the Southern Railway (in Roger Kidner’s revised edition of 1963) quotes the Board of Trade’s inspecting officer in 1844, “the two short portions of the railway formed along the beach… have been protected… [at Shakespeare Beach] by a strong timber viaduct”, and adds, “The timber bridge survived until 1927… The line is now carried on an embankment behind a concrete wall.”

I am very glad that Network Rail’s staff used archives in their work. It is likely that in consulting old newspapers they went beyond the bare facts and learned something of the context and historical detail of the times of the railway’s construction and of its reconstruction, which is illuminating in itself. But the essence of the story – the line‘s structure where it runs along the beach – was not their discovery. (Edwin Course, who in his preliminaries mentions having used Dover public library, surely consulted some of the same papers.)

I hope Network Rail’s staff have acquired a taste for archives and their possibilities. But it is a pity they presented as an original discovery something they could have got from a secondary source – and that the Railway Magazine swallowed their press release whole. The Railway Magazine, the oldest publication of its kind, has long been a journal of record, but in this case PR sadly seems to have smothered scholarship.