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?

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.

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.