What is it about queens and roads?

Millicent Bell, in her notes to the Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, tells us that Bayswater station, on the Circle Line of the London Underground, and Queensway station on the Central Line, were both formerly called Queen’s Road. (Both stations stand in what is today Queensway.) According to Douglas Rose’s The London Underground: a Diagrammatic History Bayswater was opened by the Metropolitan Railway as Bayswater in 1868, renamed Bayswater (Queen’s Road) and Westbourne Grove in 1922 – after Henry James’s time – and reverted to plain Bayswater in 1933. Queensway station was indeed opened as Queen’s Road in 1900 and renamed in 1946. It is a name which seems to have caused trouble for railway authorities.

When British Rail were eradicating the last of the totem station signs (a subject I have discussed before) one of the stations to get this attention was Queen’s Road Battersea. According to Dave Brennand’s exhaustive documentation of British Railways Totem Station Signs (1991) the three words of the station name were arranged in two lines in the central section of the totem, and as was customary in capitals. About 1980 the totems were replaced by black on white Gill Sans upper and lower case saying simply Queen’s Road – no Battersea. Within months these signs were themselves replaced by new ones saying Queenstown Road, with Battersea in much smaller letters underneath.

Now Queenstown Road had long been the name of the road: it was shown as such in my parents’ Atlas of Greater London, which was published before 1960 since it did not show our road which was built in that year. So was the road ever just Queen’s Road? It had in any case been Queenstown Road long enough that British Rail should either have changed the name of the station when the totems were replaced or should boldly have kept the discrepancy: there can be no excuse for the waste of two changes of sign within a few months.

The current signs, put up by South West Trains, say only Queenstown Road – once again Battersea is omitted. This does mean that the station cannot be confused with the nearby Battersea Park station, but it would be helpful to know which district it serves. (It would anyway be difficult to confuse one station with Battersea last and one with Battersea first.) And today the booking hall at Queenstown Road is got up in a reproduction of the green and cream of the former Southern Railway, from which those who remember can catch a faint ironic mockery of the relentless replacement of totems over three decades ago.

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.

Solid evidence indeed

In an article in this month’s Railway Magazine Nick Brodrick looks at the Q class 0-6-0 locomotives designed by Richard Maunsell for the Southern Railway in the mid-1930s. In particular he discusses the one member of the class, no. 30541, which has survived in preservation. This sustained war damage in 1942 when a bomb exploded ahead of it on the track it was travelling along in Surrey. The damage to the track caused the locomotive to de-rail, and a fragment of the bomb pierced its firebox. Because of wartime conditions, instead of a full repair

the shrapnel “wounds” were plated over, and the last of these surviving patches on the backplate was only finally cut out, and a new piece welded in, during its latest preservation-era overhaul.

It is surely good that a proper repair was eventually done; in peacetime damage of that order would naturally have been fully repaired. But was something not also lost when the evidence of the locomotive’s turbulent history constituted by these steel plates was removed, especially as it had borne that evidence for decades? Here was an aspect of the record, solid evidence in both senses of the word.

Turning the green one white

The railway between Wimbledon and Sutton in south London was built cheaply by the Southern Railway in 1929-30 after a long dispute with the Underground about the possibility of building the line jointly. All the stations were built to the same simple design, consisting of a single island platform with the way to and from the street at one end, where there was also a tiny booking office of the type known as a passimeter, which doubled as a ticket barrier. Arriving at one of these stations, South Merton, in the early 1980s, I saw an angry screed pencilled on one of the panels of the passimeter.

“Queens Road Battersea and Brentford Central have fallen”, it began, “Which will be the next to fall? North Sheen? Norbiton? SOUTH MERTON?” The writer claimed to represent the Society for the Preservation of Green Signs, and by “fallen” meant that the stations named had had their green enamelled Southern Railway “target” or British Railways Southern Region “totem” signs replaced by the black-on-white Gill sans ones then used throughout British Rail, which had no distinguishing regional colours.*  “Keep ’em green”, the writer urged, “Down with stultifying utilitarianism.”

When I first knew the Wimbledon and Sutton it had an intense “Southern” feel to it, and undoubtedly the totems, which I think then still survived at every station, added to the effect. The survival of totems in odd patches was pleasing, as any relic of past times is. The pace of change in a townscape surely should be slow, so that at any time the scene straddles several ages and is something like a natural growth. British Rail arguably should have let totems decline gracefully rather than made a concerted effort to replace them, as they seemed to be doing then. Even before I read this graffito South Merton had “fallen”.

But even if change had been slower, the old scene could not have lasted for ever. Our anonymous writer was, however, an implacable diehard. Below the broadside on green signs was the afterthought: “Also, no 508s – keep 4-SUBs running”. This was a reference to the sliding-door electric trains then starting to appear on the Southern region to replace the old slam-door ones of the 1940s and early 1950s. You could not have done that: mechanical parts and interior fittings wear out, standards of comfort increase. (It was the 4-SUBs which gave rise to the stale jokes about cattle trucks.) That writer’s howl has faded away to silence. Today the passimeter itself has long since been pulled down, and old totems fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

*Apart from Southern green these were Western brown, London Midland maroon, Eastern dark blue, North Eastern orange and Scottish light blue.

On parallel lines.

In 1947 George Orwell wrote this:

Mr Harold Nicolson… perceived [that] the only positive satisfaction in growing older is that after a certain point you can begin boasting of having seen things that no one will ever have the chance to see again. It set me wondering what boasts I could make myself… Mr Nicolson had seen the Czar, surrounded by his bodyguard of enormous Cossacks, blessing the Neva. I never saw that, but I did see Marie Lloyd, already almost a legendary figure, and I saw Little Tich… and I have seen a whole string of crowned heads and other celebrities from Edward VII onwards.

But my subject today is things which happened in my lifetime but which I didn’t see, and which were quite different from the world I thought I lived in then as well as the one I live in now. For my taste this is best illustrated by railways.

I was a child of the Southern Electric – and my particular corner of it, in south west Middlesex, had been electrified before the first world war. I understood that steam, though much talked about, was now dead; only diesels and electrics were to be found. As far as I know I never saw a steam locomotive in passenger service. My first encounter with a working steam locomotive was a footplate ride on an industrial locomotive at the Steamtown museum in Carnforth – and this was, decidedly, an exotic novelty.

I was in fact nearly five before British Rail finally dispensed with steam, and their last steam locomotive, as is well known, was built in 1960, only three years before I was born. These may be thought of as residual. But the former London & South Western Railway main line to Southampton and Bournemouth – perhaps the principal main line of the Southern Region – was steam worked until 1967. Many of the minor railways which were closed post-Beeching were operating into my lifetime. We went on holiday to east Devon in June 1966, and paid a visit to Lyme Regis. Lyme Regis had lost its railway only seven months before, and it was worked as late as 1960 by William Adams’s radial tank engines of the 1870s, which would have seemed to me quite impossibly historic.

Steam, then, played no part in my emerging consciousness except as something legendary. I thought I not only never had seen, but never could see steam in regular service, but other people were then regularly seeing Oliver Bulleid’s by now decidedly grubby Merchant Navy pacifics as close to our home as Surbiton, and I certainly could have seen them at Waterloo on family visits to London. The historical record shows that it was so. But what the record shows is not something I have a sense of, even though it was contemporary with me. When I examine the record of this part of railway history, especially in photographs, it requires an effort of imagination, just as a genuinely remote age does, to use what the documents show to re-create it as an age of living, feeling people. We all have a sense of the ages we have lived through; but here is a corner of life where two quite different senses were formed concurrently by different people – and they do not touch.

Empiricism and evocation.

Reading recently, with as much patience as I could muster, Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, I reflected that re-creating the flavour of a time and place is not helped by too great an effort to do it. Some objectivity – an objectivity that archives are good at holding us to – is paradoxically far more evocative.

Scarp is a personal exploration of the ridge of high ground to the north of London on the Middlesex-Hertfordshire border. This is the eponymous Scarp, which the author claims to have identified and named. The book recounts some of his explorations of the area and his relationship to it throughout his life. But if his aim was, as the blurb says, “first and foremost a personal inquiry into the spirit of place” the attempt does not at all come off. It is pretentiously written: Papadimitriou strains after effect, over-ornamenting his description to the point of tedium, and recalling for this reader Orwell’s “a tremendous advantage is gained by not trying to be clever” and Samuel Butler’s “I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable”. The central premise is unoriginal: that ridge of high ground has been known for generations as the Northern Heights – a phrase Papadimitriou does use, on page 231, but in passing, and printing it in lower case. The nineteenth century railway engineers who built the main lines north from London all had the problem of penetrating the ridge; the plans drawn up between the wars to extend the Northern Line called the scheme the Northern Heights project; and Northern Heights was a name considered for what became the London Borough of Enfield. Papadimitriou often wanders off into fantasy – acknowledgedly to be sure, but it is difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins and hence what we should take seriously as personal testimony. We have here in short merely one mind’s discursive thoughts and reveries, and although he clearly does know some history and despite some close descriptions of nature I did not at all have a sense of the landscape he reckons to portray.

An instructive contrast is with Alan A. Jackson’s London’s local railways. Jackson simply recounts the story of the construction and operation of these local lines throughout their life, the changes they have seen and their effects on London’s landscape and development. He has quarried the archives very thoroughly. The book is – I suggest in consequence – far more atmospheric. His method is implied in the book’s dedication, “To the suburban traveller”, to which he appends an epigraph from Constable, “We see nothing until we understand it”. Understand your familiar scene, Jackson seems to say, know thoroughly its origin and its function over time, and you will feel more intensely its essence – indeed put like that it is almost a tautology. Jackson visited every one of the lines he writes about, in many instances more than once over decades, and his physical descriptions are commonly his own observations. Though they can be highly coloured he states exactly what he sees and uses it as historical evidence. They are personal, but objective in the sense that he wanted to give an account of what is “out there” rather than an account of his thoughts.

I like to think that the archives both anchored him to objectivity and inspired him to be atmospheric. When we use archives to write history we are bound to convey the knowledge they give us; but it is in giving it to us and as they give it to us that they take us close to the atmosphere of things as they were, an intense sensation which we will also wish to convey, and which we will convey by recounting with feeling what we find. The two things are indissolubly paired.