Some railway stations are more worthy of a visit for their own sake than others. History, architecture, location, current operation and future plans, all contribute in their own way to give you a reason to explore a particular station. Within that station the rail enthusiast may also have a favourite spot they feel enhances that perception – the Sir John Betjeman statue at St Pancras, for example, or the new overbridge at King’s Cross. Perhaps it’s the delightfully restored platforms of Mornington Crescent, or next to the old water tower in the peace and tranquility of rural Chesham.

Wherever that spot is, chances are it won’t be the country end of the single island platform at St Johns. Yet this station has seen development, change, death, destruction and enhancement throughout its existence on a scale that may well be unequalled anywhere else in Great Britain – certainly well beyond that which one would expect for a minor London suburban commuter station.

At the end of the single island platform looking towards Lewisham

The area around St Johns is steeped in railway history and since the above photo was taken it has undergone its latest change. Unfortunately, as can be clearly seen, it is not at all photogenic. Even if the graffiti was not present it would be a brutal landscape of concrete, an unattractive trestle overbridge and cluttered unsightly railway paraphernalia.

St Johns is located between New Cross and Lewisham on the SouthEastern lines into Charing Cross and Cannon Street. It has a single island platform that normally only serves trains to and from Cannon Street for most of the day. The station is surrounded by a mish-mash of railway structures and a road overbridge – none of which are original. It is in a deep cutting. The complete lack of co-ordination of the surrounding features gives a clue to the many changes that have been made in this area and the drab features include the functional, but uninspiring, station which is painted in SouthEastern’s house colours and does nothing to indicate its sense of history. Indeed it is almost as if it is a metaphor for the place, with its history being painted over.

The coming of the railway – but not a station

In 1849 when the railway opened the layout could not be any simpler. Just two through tracks and no station.

The view prior to the latest changes. When originally built the bridge in the centre and the elevated track to the right would not have existed. Note how the middle two of the current four tracks almost align with the original alignment in the distance. The middle two tracks (to the immediate right of the platform) would also line up with original double bore of Tanners Hill tunnel, situated not far up the line from the other end of the platforms.

The railway line here was originally opened as a two track line as part of the North Kent Line of the South Eastern Railway (SER) in 1849. To the west was New Cross station (opened 1850) and a short distance to the east was Lewisham Station. There was really no point in building a station here because there were few buildings in the area. Even the church, which dominates the area and was to give the station its name, had yet to be built.

The railway is widened – at the cost of two lives

In 1864 the line to Sevenoaks was under construction. Rather than provide a junction at the point of divergence, the original line between St Johns and London Bridge was duplicated so that it was four track (at least) between St Johns and London Bridge. One reason for this decision may well have been the crude signalling available at the time, which would have severely limited capacity on a busy two-track railway. As part of that work labourers were employed “on a deep cutting on the North Kent line between the New-cross and Lewisham stations” so that the railway here could consist of four tracks. It should have been a straightforward task to cut through the chalk which was thought to be the only component of the subsoil in the area. Unfortunately it wasn’t and on the 1st September 1864, whilst excavating the cutting, a landslip occurred causing around 80 tons of debris to come crashing down. It buried four workers.

Two of the men buried in the debris were pulled out and survived, although one of those had to have a leg amputated. The other two men, however, could not be saved.

In fact, the reports in the local press don’t actually state that this accident occurred at St Johns. This is probably because the locality had yet to acquire that name – or indeed any established name. Another account, however, states that “Near Lewisham the railway is being widened, and about half a mile from the station a deep cutting was being enlarged”. There thus seems little doubt that St John’s station had an association with death before the station even existed.

It does seem rather strange that the location of the above incident was not given more exactly in relation to the local area. It would have appeared even by then to be an established community with attractive Victorian villas for the better off in society. Today it is part of a conservation area. Prior to the existence of the station no reference is made to the area as “St Johns” even though the church of that name was completed by 1855. Until the station was built it just seems that the area did not really have a definitive name. Indeed “Deptford New Town” appears to have been the most common description at the time.

In 1865 the railway here now has four tracks and is on the main line to Sevenoaks. There is still no station. Here and subsequently new additions are shown in red and any track abandoned since the last diagram shown in grey.

In 1865 the new main line was opened as far as Sevenoaks. Finding out exactly what was on the ground at the period in history is difficult to ascertain, but it appears that there was no physical connection between the two lines in this area and no indication that there was a signal box. The road that crossed the railway, and which is now called St John’s Vale, was certainly already in existence by 1871. This multi-arched bridge supporting the road would probably already have been in this configuration and would remain unchanged for the next hundred years.

A station at last – but not St Johns

A station was built and opened six years after the opening of the line to Sevenoaks at St Johns but it is not the station we are currently talking about.

Just to the south of the new viaduct was Lewisham Road station which opened in 1871 and was ideally sited on the main road. However the route into Ludgate Hill was not very direct and so it was vulnerable to competition.

In 1871 the rival London Chatham and Dover opened their Greenwich Park branch line from their station at Nunhead as far as Blackheath Hill (ultimately to Greenwich). One of the intermediate stations was called Lewisham Road and was located only a short distance from the current St Johns station. Its name would at first sight appear to be one of the all too frequent cases of railways giving their stations inappropriate names, as it is nowhere near the present day Lewisham Road.

The station building was in fact situated in a road called Loampit Hill. Today we can pinpoint it as the location where the current A20 changes from Loampit Hill to Lewisham Way. Before being called Lewisham Way, however, the road was known as Lewisham High Road and before that it was Lewisham Road, so in fact it was a reasonable name for a station at that time. The situation described is far from unique. The very next station along was called Brockley Lane but was situated in what today is called Brockley Road.

To continue from Lewisham Road station to Greenwich the line has to pass on a bridge over the SER lines in the cutting at St Johns. By this means they could provide a service, albeit a bit circuitous, between Greenwich, Nunhead and central London. One cannot really imagine the service being a success and, if the line was built for a rational reason, then that reason was probably not passenger traffic – at least not regular passenger traffic to London.

A curious fact concerning Lewisham Road station was that in the space of less than thirty years from its opening three of its station masters committed suicide although not when on duty and not at the station. The coroner presiding over the inquest of the third case refused a request from the jury to even consider that this was anything other than a coincidence.

St Johns Station is finally built

It is not completely clear why St Johns Station was not built at the time of the widening of the cutting, as just eight years later a station was deemed necessary. One could argue rationally that this prosperous area had probably now built up sufficiently to justify a station at St Johns. Alternatively the case could be made that Lewisham Road station showed that there was a demand, and a station on the direct SER line to London Bridge and Charing Cross probably had much more potential than one that went to Ludgate Hill by an indirect route. More likely it was the obsessive rivalry between the two railways, as documented in a recent article on this site, that led to an SER station being built two years later. They called it St Johns after the large nearby church with a substantial spire, even though Lewisham Road station was probably actually nearer to the church.

Having decided to build a station, the SER clearly did not do things by halves. Two island platforms, a booking office and a suitable footbridge would have been more than adequate given the fact that there was nothing there previously. This the SER provided and more. To this they added a third island platform and consequently the up Sevenoaks line became double faced. On the other side of this third island platform there was a terminating track with a set of buffers at the country end. Quite what rational purpose this third island platform served is hard to imagine. Indeed when referring to the six platform faces one is tempted to parody “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof” and refer to two going Up and two going Down and two going nowhere – just for show.

Having finally decided to build a station the SER did not do things by halves. This is the arrangement believed to have existed in 1873.

Initially it would seem to be the case that the terminating platform had a run-round loop for the engine. Accessible from the run-round loop was a short siding. The purpose of this short siding is not obvious, but it might have been a cripple siding in which to park broken-down locos or wagons away from the main line until such time that they could be repaired or recovered.

It is extremely hard to think of any rational explanation of how the terminating platform could be useful if trains were to run to Charing Cross or Cannon St, as the only intermediate stations before London Bridge would have been New Cross and Spa Road. It would also seem to be an unlikely location for a private platform for those wishing to charter their own train and certainly not one that would justify this extravagance. The only other explanation that comes to mind is that maybe someone thought this would have been a convenient station to terminate through trains from the northern suburbs via Farringdon, Blackfriars and London Bridge – a sort of 19th century Thameslink. Such a service did actually exist for a number of years terminating at Woolwich Arsenal.

On the St Johns 1895 track plan on the Kentrail website a track arrangement is shown that is not conducive to terminating trains at St Johns due to the point layout to the west of the station (not shown on our diagrams) consisting only of sets of trailing points. This would suggest that it would have been pretty difficult to use the terminating platform in normal day-to-day operation.

Further tragedy at St Johns

The Lewisham Rail Crash of 1857 meant that the St Johns area was already familiar with deaths on the railways, even excluding the previously-mentioned deaths during construction work in 1864. On 21st March 1898 a fatal accident occurred at St Johns station and fog, which was prevalent in the area, contributed to cause – sadly not the last time fog would be a factor in fatalities here.

The 21st March must have been very foggy because the signalman could not even see the length of the platform, despite being himself located at one end of it. Confused, he became convinced that he had forwarded a train to New Cross (towards London) when in fact it was still standing in the platform. He then accepted a train from Parks Bridge signal box located further down the Tonbridge line. With sad inevitability, this thus collided with the train still standing in the platform.

In terms of the development of railway signalling practice, this would prove to be a significant accident because, as the accident report would later highlight, the collision made it clear that a signalman should not be able to clear a block section merely by restoring the relevant home signal to danger. It must be the train itself that frees the signalling apparatus to allow the signalman to set a block section to clear.

As the accident report stated:

The occurrence under consideration strongly confirms an opinion frequently expressed by the inspecting officers of the Board of Trade that the train itself should release the block intrument on passing over a “treadle” and going forward into the next section. At St John’s the release is effected by the signalman putting his signals back to danger, which does not ensure the train having passed!

A subsequent letter in The Times also highlighted that rescue of people in the crushed wooden carriages was made more difficult because British trains, unlike those in the United States, did not at the time carry emergency apparatus such as an axe and a short ladder for use in such situations.

Only three people died on this occasion, but it was the continuation of a St Johns death toll that would sadly continue to rise in the following century.

Incredibly those injured at St Johns were taken to hospital by, it seems, shunting the damaged carriages into the sidings and then allowing the rest of the train to continue to London Bridge, so that the injured could get treated at Guys Hospital! This must seem extraordinary to us but this would not have been the first time that trains were used to take the injured to hospital in central London. Indeed this happened at the 1857 fatality at Lewisham when trains (on that occasion not the ones involved in the collision) were used to take the injured to St Thomas’ Hospital, then also located next to London Bridge station. Having grown up in the age of the motor car, it is also perhaps easy for us to forget that at the time this would have been the most expedient way of getting the injured to hospital, with speed being of the essence.

Carriages from the St Johns rail crash.

The above picture was almost certainly taken on 21st March 1898 – the day of the crash – and shows the damaged carriages in the run-round loop and siding at St Johns. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, then you may be able to actually read the name “St Johns” on the station running in board.

St Johns becomes a Junction

By 1906 the main line to Sevenoaks had become four tracked. As a result St Johns was now a true junction. It also led to a second signal box being provided at St Johns. It was located between the diverging tracks. This four-tracking probably probably led to the start of the long lingering death of the island platform on what would now be known as the “through” lines. Any trains calling at St Johns would probably be running on the “local” lines and call at the island platform that remains to this day.

By 1906 the Sevenoaks route was four-tracked. For a short period there was actually an up main loop but by 1913 it had been disconnected at the eastern end and buffers installed.

As part of the four tracking scheme the southernmost platform was served by an up fast platform loop line. The run round loop was converted to a siding and it is believed that the other two sidings were added then. The up platform loop clearly was not a success. It is difficult to see what great benefit this offered and it was converted to a long siding. This can be seen on the revised plan for 1916 on the Kentrail website. It would seem that the other sidings were very short and this was necessitated by the need to provide a shunting neck.

With the original line into the terminating platform effectively a siding there were, in effect, now four sidings. Given that they would not easily be accessible by road – the nearest road running parallel was not called Cliff Terrace for nothing – the only real use could be for storing vehicles. This would normally be goods wagons but on at least one subsequent significant occasion it was used to store passenger coaches – as in 1898. The sidings were almost certainly built on a worked out chalk pit and it was probably more a case of putting them there because the land was conveniently available, rather than any identified operational need. Access must have been inconvenient as the only way in was to carry out a shunt manoeuvre from the up main (Sevenoaks) line.

St Johns July 1913 HPR resized

This picture taken in July 1913 shows the overbridge taking the Greenwich Park branch over the SER main line.

If one could imagine standing at the country end of the current island platform 100 years ago the scene would have been very different. The massive metal bridge taking two tracks over the main line would not have been there and neither would the track on a gradient (the “flydown”) be present. The location of the latter would have at that time be the aforementioned sidings – flat and level with the running lines of course. Between the current platform and the sidings would be the two further island platforms. It is unlikely that there would be anyone present on them. The overbridge of the Greenwich branch would be just beyond the end of the platforms and at approximately at right angles to it. Steam trains would still be using it. From a passing train you can still see the railway embankment to the north which is now a nature reserve.

Services on the Greenwich Park branch beyond from Greenwich to Nunhead were withdrawn at the end of 1916 as a wartime economy. For that reason the date of final closure of the line beyond Lewisham Road station is generally given as 1916 or 1st January 1917, which was the first day of no service. This is, however, in a sense misleading as many lines that closed as a wartime economy measure did subsequently reopen – sometimes years later. Although the line was not maintained and left to fall into disrepair it was not formally abandoned either and was still in a state such that it could have been restored when the time came.

This is the sorry state of Lewisham Road station building today. Tarpaulins cover the roof. Until a few years ago it was distinctly recognisable as a former station building.

Yet More Expansion

By 1924 the newly created Southern Railway owned both the former South Eastern Railway and the disused Greenwich Park branch including the abandoned trackbed between Nunhead and Lewisham Road station. Just two years later the running lines through St Johns, but not the sidings, were electrified and it was at that time that the fairly useless third island platform was abandoned. The terminating track on the outer edge remained as a fourth siding. Electrification also meant that an enormous power distribution station was built just to the north of the track between St Johns and Lewisham. To this day this is a major location where electricity is taken from the grid to be distributed as appropriate to the substations on the electrified railway.

One of the problems that the newly created Southern Railway faced was the problem of extreme congestion at Borough Market Junction just west of London Bridge station. The primary cause was the large amount of steam-hauled freight traffic destined to locations north of London and routed via St Johns, London Bridge, Blackfriars, Farringdon and King’s Cross. Now that all the railways in the area were owned by the same company the proposal was made to re-open the abandoned section of the Greenwich Park branch between Nunhead and Lewisham Road and, with a new viaduct, join that section to the existing junction at Lewisham. Once this line was open it would be possible to re-route freight via Elephant and Castle and Blackfriars thereby bypassing Borough Market Junction.

Prior to building this new freight link it was desirable to remove the railway overbridge to Greenwich Park. This was done in 1927. It is this date then which can be taken as the date beyond the point of no return for the Greenwich Park branch, although the line was not formally abandoned until 1929.

1929 layout amended

The track layout as at 1929. This would remain unaltered for the next 30 years.

By 1929 the ramp, a new bridge over the main line and a new curve to join the abandoned trackbed that led to Nunhead had been built. In order to complete this work it was necessary to move Lewisham signal box a few yards as it was blocking the line of the new route. This route was intended only as a freight route so, despite the tracks being two of the four closest tracks to the main power distribution point for the railway in this area, the line was not electrified. For the same reason the idea of re-opening Lewisham Road station was not even considered.

Fortuitously, by 1929 colour light signalling was now sufficiently mature to be commonly used on main line railways. In fact the first installation in the world of four aspect colour light signalling had been installed earlier that year between Holborn Viaduct and Elephant & Castle. It made sense to replace both St Johns boxes and the one at Lewisham with a single modern signal box. Now that the Greenwich Park branch had been abandoned and the bridge abutment on the north side of St Johns station demolished, there was ample space to build what for the time was a modern signal box.

The not unattractive new flyover as drawn from the main line tracks to Tonbridge. The new St Johns signal box can be seen through the opening on the right. St Johns station would be just out of sight around the bend.

Until now, the history of the station (and the area, in railway terms) had been one of change. The next twenty five years, however, would prove to be somewhat more stable. Indeed the only event worth recording here is the electrification, in 1935, of the freight line to Nunhead. This enabled a Dartford to Holborn Viaduct service to be introduced. This period of peace, however, was not to last and in the second part of our narrative we will thus look at the dramatic changes that have taken place from 1957 onward, and which have continued to take place culminating with the latest change to the track layout in the surrounding area which was installed during Easter 2013.

Many thanks to considerable amount of work done by Swirlythingy for drawing, and re-drawing many diagrams, not all of which have ultimately been used, illustrating the various changes that taken place in this area. Any errors that there may be are the author’s and not his.

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There are 93 comments on this article
  1. Jeanpierre says:

    Fascinating article. I spent the first eight years of my life in New Eltham, and remember travelling by train to and from Charing Cross in the mid/late 1950’s, as well as over the flyover on trains to and from Holborn Viaduct, which was my father’s daily commute at that time. I know we haven’t got to that period yet, but I can remember being fascinated by the ‘temporary’ bridge erected to replace the damaged part of the 1929 bridge following the 1957 crash, and later learned that my father had been on the Holborn Viaduct-Dartford train following the one that only just stopped on the damaged bridge immediately after the crash.

  2. diamond geezer says:

    *round of applause*

  3. Greg Tingey says:

    More change at one site?
    I wonder …..
    London Bridge itself?
    Holloway GNR?

    Fascinating stuff, nonetheless – the history is necessary to understanding the present.

  4. swirlythingy says:


  5. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting – my only recollection of St Johns from my SR travelling days as a Central Division user of Charing X was the frequency of the “not stopping at St Johns” announcement – a rather negative distinction!

    I hope that we will learn more about the 1857 Lewisham crash – remind me to avoid the area in 2057!

    And a question for the more pedantically minded – why isn’t it (was it ever) the grammatically correct “St John’s”?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating. Couple of typos:
    [Fixed. Thanks. PoP]

  7. stimarco says:

    Re. Lewisham Road.

    I used to walk past that station every day for some years on my way to work. Back then (about 7-8 years ago), it was being kept in decent condition and even had an informational plaque added by the local council explaining its history. It’s amazing how long it has survived given the construction materials used, but it’s sad to see it falling into disrepair again.

    However, there was never any question of reopening this station when the line was diverted into Lewisham. If you look onto the tracks from the road overbridge alongside the station, you’ll see why: the Greenwich Park branch used to run dead straight towards the bridge over St. Johns and the platforms were indeed straight at this station. Today, the line curves sharply to the right immediately after passing under Loampit Hill / Lewisham Way. Furthermore, the original Lewisham Road platforms were much shorter than would be required today. A 10-car platform would require either widening of the Loampit Hill road bridge, or the closure of the Tanner’s Hill Flydown. It’s just not a viable location. A better option would be to reopen Brockley Lane.

    @Greg Tingey: I think St. John’s station’s history is of interest because it’s so varied (and tragic), but also because it’s an interesting topic to _write_ about. A write-up of most of the other termini would be of interest only to the hardest of hard-core architecture and rail fans. It’s not easy to make repeated variations of “and so they decided to add on a few more platforms and widen some bridges and cuttings” sound interesting.

    You do have a point about London Bridge’s history, but an article on that might be best left until the current work is completed. You could write an entire book on that station’s weird and wonderful history.

    Similarly, Waterloo’s history would be worth a write-up at some point. As would Clapham Junction, come to think of it. Now there’s a station that looks like it wasn’t so much designed as congealed.

    @Anonymous (11:15PM 25-APR-2013):

    A discussion on the use and abuse of the possessive apostrophe in station and place names would be an article in itself. Ignorance played a big part in this: we still hear complaints about the Grocer’s Apostrophe today and it was far worse back in the 1800s, when far more people were illiterate. However, there are a few reasons for not including punctuation:

    1. Design preferences. Early signage was painted, not printed, and punctuation was simply not used that often as it was not considered necessary.

    2. Usage. If the locals never (or rarely) use apostrophes or accents for the name of their town or village, why should the railway company?

    Many place names also went through a number of spelling mutations well into the 1700s, mainly because most of the residents simply wouldn’t know how to write it down and would try to spell it out to the itinerant cartographers of the day as best they could. Literacy grew rapidly during the Industrial Revolution and that’s when most place name spelling became fixed.

    3. Error. Signwriters can play host to Mr. Cock-Up, just like anyone else.

    4. Computerisation. Until the introduction of the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (“ASCII”) in the mid-1970s, there was no single industry-wide standard for encoding alphanumeric characters for computers.

    Prior to the adoption of ASCII character codes, every computer manufacturer used their own system, which was often far less complete. Many couldn’t even do lower-case letters, let alone basic punctuation. British Rail embraced computerisation way back in the 1960s, so they would definitely have been affected by this.

    My money’s on (4) being the primary reason.

    Once BR had spent a ton of money checking and typing in every station name on their network, the chances of them (or their successors) paying someone else to ‘correct’ them all later on, for no financial benefit, after a system upgrade are basically zero. It may be broken, but it isn’t broken _enough_, so why spend money on fixing a non-problem?

    And this is why some stations on NR’s timetables still appear without their apostrophes even today.

  8. stimarco says:

    To clarify point (1) in my previous post: the English language’s rules were still quite fluid throughout the Victorian period. You can confirm this by reading Austen and Dickens—the latter clearly loved long, run-on sentences separated by semicolons that would be considered a major violation of the “rules” of English grammar today. (Many writers of the day also continued a number of practices inherited from German, such as capitalising nouns that aren’t proper nouns. This fell out of favour entirely with the outbreak of WW1.)

    The Victorian period was also a time of fads and fashions. A brief fad for everything Latin killed off “fall” in favour of “autumn”, for example. It also brought about a change in how English grammar was taught, with an increase in Latin-derived ‘rules’ that made little sense logically, but fit the fashion of the time. Many of those Latin-based rules are still taught in many schools today, despite being discredited.

    On a large sign, painted in white against a dark background, as was common for station running boards, an apostrophe looks like nothing so much as a large pigeon dropping. It also adds little to no useful information about a station or place name, so it was common practice not to include them. Even today, messing about with spellings, capitalisation and punctuation is standard practice in corporate communications.

    However, none of this explains why Gravesend is run by a council that calls itself “Gravesham”.

  9. Greg Tingey says:

    Like Eaglescliffe & Egglescliff(e) I assume?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Partly answering my own question, it was St John’s in the 1910 and 1938 Bradshaw reprints.

  11. David Fisher says:

    Due to disruption at East Croydon this morning (knocked on from Three Bridges) I got the tram over to Beckenham Road for Clock House, and thus went through St Johns for the first time.

    Firstly: wow, they’re lucky sods who live on the Hayes branch! The contrast from ECR couldn’t be greater: nice well-preserved little station, frequent-enough trains, and when one arrived it was easy to get a seat and it whizzed me to Charing Cross in 20-odd minutes (missing out London Brige) — about the same as on the fast line from ECR. Lovely.

    Main thing I noticed about the newly double-tracked embankment at St Johns is how squashed it looks, only barely enough room for the two tracks! Looks finished, anyway, to my untrained eye. Looking forward to the second part of the story.

  12. MikeP says:

    Why Gravesham ?? For much the same reason we have “Tandridge” and “Waverley” (where ???). And “Reigate and Banstead” and “Epsom and Ewell”. When councils merge thanks to local government re-organisation, there tend to be 2 choices acceptable to the politicians and (allegedly) the locals. Choose either a name that represents nothing of the original council names, or add the two names together. But heaven forefend that the new council should have the same name as the largest or most powerful predecessor body. Creation of X & Y can lead to enough debate over whether or not it should be Y & X…..

    Mr Wikipedia claims that Gravesham “is the successor to the Gravesend Municipal Borough, Northfleet Urban District, and part of Strood Rural District”. So I guess the replacement of “end” with “ham” was a sop to those two other areas. And perhaps tried to make the area sound more like a little village…..

  13. MikeP says:

    Of course, the worst example of this was “Bath and North East Somerset”, which for years has tried to shake off the acronym “BANES”….

  14. Fandroid says:

    There was a short period in my life when I was responsible for works at Deptford Pumping Station, down the hill by the river. I hated driving into London so used the train. St John’s was the nearest station. I knew nothing of the history then, but it was a fascinating place to stand and watch the varied traffic passing through, including trains on the flydown (which I admit mystified me then).

    Great article.

  15. Fandroid says:

    As an aside, I think the massive fuss that goes on about apostrophes in place and street names is absurd. They are after all, ‘names’, ie a label for a place or road to distinguish them from other nearby places or roads. The deeper meaning behind the derivation of the names is great fun for researchers, but is a meaningless complication for those who simply want to know where they are going! It’s St Johns for me!

  16. Milton Clevedon says:

    Never mind about the apostrophe, note the Saint’s full stop also vanishing.
    @ Fandriod and stimarco are right, the moniker is a corporate label these days.
    Just checked my references, and, irrespective of how the name is displayed at the station, it was St. John’s in at least most timetables from the 1940s to 1981, then reduced to St Johns with new timetable format and typesetting in the BR 1982-83 edition. Then reinstated as St. John’s in later 1980s’ timetables, and again reduced to St Johns in the May 1992 edition! I suppose this reflects the tendency to simplify punctuation in this computerised age. Meanwhile on the London rail map TfL shows St. Johns but St. John’s Wood, and has Earl’s Court but Barons Court, and St. James’s Park but St. James Street.

  17. timbeau says:

    The position of the apostrophe can be significant though.
    Oxford University has “Queen’s College”, named for Phillippa of Hainault , the Queen of Edward III (not an Essex Girl – the Hainault in question is in Flanders). Cambridge has “Queens’ College”, named for Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville, the wives of the two principal protagonists in the Wars of the Roses.

    My favourite apostrophised station must be this one

  18. Stuart says:

    The two tracking of the Tanners Hill Flydown is indeed looking fairly finished and operational. But it is quite close to the main line, with a very steep bank of what looks like loose gravel holding up the line. I hope it is stable and that a train would not topple down it. Given St John’s accident record, I will try to cross my fingers every day when I go through it

  19. Ian Sergeant says:


    Correctly, The Queen’s College.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the 1857 crash, which happened to the east of that station, is illustrated with he same photo as above, although (apparently correctly) captioned as being at St Johns.

    The most famous example of a train being used as a ambulance following an accident is that of Stephenson’s Rocket, on the opening day of the Liverpool & Manchester railway. (Widely reported as the first railway accident, although I suspect some anonymous collier actually had that distinction)
    Having run over Mr Huskisson, the same locomotive was used to rush him to hospital at Eccles. Couldn’t happen today – the train would immediately have been cordoned off by the police as an “incident” scene.

  21. Fandroid says:

    @timbeau. I think you make my point. Queen’s or Queens’. Great fun for historians, but of very little relevance to people doing business with those colleges, especially as they are quite a few miles apart.

    I thought twice about the St in St Johns. St. has two meanings, either Saint or Street, and the presence or absence of a full stop does not help in the slightest. Context is all!

    As for the loose gravel supporting the flydown . Let’s hope that there’s a retaining wall hidden underneath.

  22. Kit Green says:

    Station name is shown as St John’s in my 1968 ABC Rail Guide. Has changed to St Johns in my 1983 all lines timetable. I have nothing inbetween to narrow down to the date of change.

  23. MikeP says:

    @stuart looking at the track and pointwork changes that occurred over Easter, it has to be operational if down trains are to use it. Yet to travel on a service with that potential, though.

  24. Stuart says:

    @ Mike

    Do you mean “down” in gradient or away from London. I have done the latter on it. The track didn’t give way yet !

  25. Anonymous says:

    My pet hate is Harringay / Haringey – thus the 141 runs past Harringay Green Lanes Station, then after Wood Green serves the stop outside Haringey Civic Centre, and in football they now talk about clicks in the team rather than cliques.

  26. Anonymous says:

    the lb of harringey is another portmanteau name – a compound of harringay and hornsey

  27. Slugabed says:

    Anonymous 7:05 26/04
    Not as simple as that….

  28. OK I'll Bite says:

    So should Tanners Hill be Tanner’s Hill or Tanners’ Hill?

  29. Pedantic of Purley says:


    I was thinking of the descriptions given in total. No doubt some places have changed more than St Johns but the haven’t had the same combination of events to such a degree. And as others have pointed out it not a case of more of the same (more platforms, more tracks) or a long decline. It is a number of transformations. Remember we are only on part 1.


    I avoided mentioning re-opening Lewisham Road as I didn’t want to trigger comments that needed a bit of a reality check. So thanks for providing the reality check from the outset. To your entirely valid list I would add that I cannot see any suburban station reopened for a half hourly service. More critically reopening the eastbound (down) platform would cause a situation where the necessary signalling overlap would foul the flydown route so any train stopping there would substantially mess up workings in the entire area.

    And just because I am in an über-pedantic smart-arse mood:
    (Many writers of the day also continued a number of practices inherited from German, such as capitalising nouns that aren’t proper nouns. This fell out of favour entirely with the outbreak of WW1.)
    In Britain maybe but the Danes didn’t abandon this until the Danish spelling reform of 1948. I believe they were the last to do so (except the Germans, Austrians and Swiss obviously who use it to this day).

    @Anonymous 2:20 p.m.

    That is indeed the source of that picture and why I was careful not to link to Wikipedia for that crash. There are a couple of obvious reasons why that is wrong. One is that the quality of the picture is far too good for 1857. Another, which clinched it for me, is that St Johns station did not exist in 1857. Except of course if you believe the St Johns entry in Wikipedia in which case St Johns station opened in 1849 and it follows that this entire article is a load of rubbish.

  30. Lew Finnis says:

    There is no full stop after St for one simple reason – where the last letter of an abbreviation is the last letter of the word being abbreviated, then there’s no full stop. Don’t ask me why – it’s just one of those strange rules of grammar!

  31. MikeP says:

    @Stuart down as in away from London, up the slope.

  32. qbj says:

    Anonymous @ 02:02PM, 26th April 2013

    I’ve now removed the photo from that article. I would’ve added it to the article on the 1898 crash, but sadly it seems that there isn’t one. ~~~~

  33. qbj says:

    Ha! I was so much in the swing of editing Wikipedia articles that I added four tildes to my comment!

  34. MikeP says:

    Mr Biter – If there was only one tanner in the area, then Tanner’s Hill. If more than one, Tanners’ Hill.

    Well, that’s wot I woz learned at primary school…..

    Assuming, of course, that this is the origin of the name. If it isn’t (and many name origins turn out to be anything but the obvious – like entirely different words transmogrified) then all bets are off.

  35. retired driver says:

    I went home passenger from Hither Green to Stratford one Saturday morning in the early 1990’s. The train was diverted via Nunhead as the line through St. John’s was blocked as they were demolishing the old road bridge over the line. I rode in the front with the driver and we saw two men working on the bridge. There was a lorry waiting to back onto the bridge to pick up the rubble that the two had created.

    When I got home to Essex, I turned on the news to find the bridge had collapsed killing the two men on it.

  36. Ian J says:

    Thanks for a fascinating article and I look forward with trepidation to Part 2 when things all go horribly wrong…

    The Queen(‘)s(‘) College apostrophe thing seems to have been invented by pedantic dons some time in the 1830s: see
    The formal name of the Cambridge college actually uses both forms.

    St James(‘) Park tube station is another one that comes and goes. But “St Alban’s” is always wrong, which shows that knowing the origin of the name is not enough: names have a life of their own and evolve over time.

    David Fisher’s comment about the Hayes branch hints at why the sometimes proposed takeover of the branch by the Bakerloo line might not go down that well with its users.

    One of the few examples of the dominant partner in a merged local council giving its name to the whole would the creation of Greater London itself in the 1960s. Thank goodness we didn’t end up with Thamesside County Council.

  37. stimarco says:

    Re. Gravesham Borough Council:

    According to the council’s own people, the name was chosen because Gravesend itself really was (very briefly) known as “Gravesham”. It appears named as such on at least one old map. Its choice may have been political to some extent, but there was no attempt to create a portmanteau-style name. It was felt to be a more neutral choice.

    However, I’m not entirely convinced that there is all that much need for such efforts. The London Boroughs of Bromley and Croydon don’t appear to have put much effort into hiding their egos, for example.

    @Mike P.

    The area uphill from St. Johns church was mostly brick makers until the late 1800s. Nearby Loampit Hill was so named because the loamy soil in the area was ideal for brick-making. The road that’s named Tanners Hill is actually some distance from the flydown that borrowed its name: it crosses the railway after the latter passes through the tunnels beyond St. Johns station.

    I suspect there may have been a tanner somewhere on Tanners Hill centuries ago, but it’s equally possible that the hill was simply named for a person rather than the industry. Furthermore, a tannery would be sited as close as possible to a river given the processes involved. (Tanning required lots of ammonia, for which the primary source was, quite literally, piss. Faeces was also used in the process. So you can imagine that they didn’t want that stuff lying around any longer than strictly necessary!)

    There was pretty much bugger all in the area until the mid-to-late 1800s, when housing started to encroach upon the area as the railways expanded. You can see a set of historical maps of the area (which was known originally as “Deptford New Town”) here..

    Of particular interest are the 1833 and 1842 maps: the former shows that there was indeed a “Tanners Hill”, but no street or road of that name at that time. Nor is a tannery shown anywhere near it. The later map clearly backs up the original article’s explanation for the naming of Lewisham Road station: the road now known as “Lewisham Way” is clearly labelled “Lewisham Road” in the 1842 map.

    Confusingly, the even later 1870 map appears to show the Greenwich Park branch actually under construction: the earthworks and bridges are clearly marked, but no actual tracks are visible, while the older route between New Cross and Lewisham is shown in full. Note how far away the street named “Tanners Hill” is from the site of the flydown: it’s beyond the tunnels. What’s puzzling is that “Lewisham Road” has already been renamed “Lewisham High Road” by this point, as the map clearly shows. Either the renaming happened around the same time, or the station was simply named “Lewisham Road” to avoid confusion with the nearby station at Lewisham itself.

    (I don’t know why the Ideal Homes site went to all this effort, but that site has some great photos of what the Lewisham and Deptford areas looked like back in the day, including a rather good one of Algernon Road, near Ladywell, under construction around the same time Tower Bridge was being built. It really does hit you just how quickly London’s urban sprawl changed and expanded.

    @Pedantic of Purley:

    My discussion of changes in writing style was only intended to cover British authors, but I didn’t make that clear; I’m aware that other Germanic languages had similar features. I think the evolution of English writing is easiest to see in the newspapers of the period. The use of bold-face and italic type added to the cost of printing, so writers would often use capitalisation the first letter of one or more words in a sentence to add emphasis instead.

  38. Milton Clevedon says:

    @Ian J – You might have ended up with Thamesside London Council which would have given TLC an entirely different context…

  39. Geoff Smith says:

    Excellent article.
    Just a minor comment, the diagram labelled “By 1906 the Sevenoaks route was four-tracked.” shows the terminating platform. The Up Main Loop existed before the widening to Elmstead [sic] on 18/6/05.
    Notice No12 says that on Sunday 12th March 1905 “the Up Main Platform Loop and the Up Sidings will be re-opened for Traffic”. I take that to mean that the former terminal platform became the Up Loop from that date.

  40. Geoff Smith says:

    If you are that keen on editing Wikipedia articles, the one on the 1857 Lewisham crash needs a complete re-write. Whoever wrote it didn’t read, or understand, the BoT Report and the inquest report, or have a basic understanding of contemporary signalling.

  41. Pedantic of Purley says:

    @Geoff Smith

    I don’ t quite follow what that means and you obviously have access to a useful document or book that I do not.

    If there is anything you can supply me with that would clarify things then I would be grateful for a further comment or email (pedantic ‘at’

    In quite a few places I have had to choose my wording with care (e.g. By 1906 …) as I do not know exactly when something happened, only that it had happened by a certain date.

    As another example, a couple of books have a wonderful photo dated 1913 that shows the Greenwich Park branch overbridge and the buffers of the extended track serving the westmost platform well beyond the bridge. Unfortunately there is probably still a copyright issue with the picture so I cannot use it. I have assumed that the extended siding was already in place by 1906. I think  what you are reporting is tending to confirm this.

  42. Pedantic of Purley says:

    @Geoff Smith,

    What? You have read the 1857 Lewisham Board of Trade report? I have been unable to find that anywhere though I presume it must be in the National Archives and I have had a long term intention to eventually go there and get hold of it if it exists.

    I also cannot find any reference to it in the Times which generally commented on these reports when published. The best I have managed was The Times for Saturday July 4, 1857 which has an article on “THE LATE FRIGHTFUL ACCIDENT ON THE NORTH KENT RAILWAY.” This is an article reporting on the coroners inquest.


    I hope this doesn’t mean that all references to that picture (in particular at full resolution) have now gone. Even if it was just put in “St Johns Railway Station” on Wikipedia it would be kept for prosperity.

  43. Geoff Smith says:

    @Pedantic of Purley, 1114 & 1128
    I’ll reply off-group later today.

  44. qbj says:

    PoP: To be honest I was trying to do the minimum possible! I already feel I spend too much time editing Wikipedia. If an image isn’t referenced anywhere then it doesn’t go away, although of course it’s very hard to find. I’ve now added it to the St Johns article; I’m not sure that that makes it much easier to find though. More usefully, the editor that added the picture has hinted that they might write a proper article about the incident.

    Geoff Smith, re. updating other articles: see above! I can’t spare the time I’m afraid, and if I could it would go on maths articles, which I can contribute more to.

  45. qbj says:

    I should probably have included a link to the St Johns article in my last comment.

  46. Anonymous says:

    “wonderful photo dated 1913 that shows the Greenwich Park branch overbridge and the buffers of the extended track serving the westmost platform well beyond the bridge. Unfortunately there is probably still a copyright issue with the picture so I cannot use it.”

    I would say “possibly”, rather than probably. The photograph will still be in copyright if the photographer was still alive in 1943.

  47. Pedantic of Purley says:

    Yes, agreed anonymous. But I cannot simply scan it out of a book because I am taking advantage of the format provided. As I understand it, even though the original work is not copyright the clock effectively starts ticking again for that image when published. I now have access to a suitable copy of the picture independantly obtained but I am having some problems including it the article – I don’t know if something changes when it “goes live”.

  48. Andrew says:

    A railway-related punctuation issue: a little while after computer-printed tickets came in that said “LONDON BR” instead of “London B.R.” i was stuck in front of someone complaining that they’d been sold a ticket to London Bridge when they wanted to go to Paddington.

  49. Graham Feakins says:

    Lewisham 1857 – The National Archives holds this: “Petition from members of churches at Greenwich expressing their deep concern at the accident on Sunday 28th June 1857 (at Lewisham) which resulted in 12 deaths, and their feeling that “no company of professing Christians is justified in holding out special inducement to the desecration of the Lord’s Day by Railway traffic, demoralizing to the community generally and most injurious in its effects on the servants of the company”.

  50. Pedantic of Purley says:

    I remember reading that in the Times archives. But it has only just struck me – why report 12 deaths? All other accounts report 11.

    Actually I think it was just a case of the Greenwich churches being a load of anti-railway nimbys and this was just their latest moan. At a vestry meeting on Friday 2nd May 1845 they got themselves in a tizzy about the SER being extended beyond Greenwich and decided they were going to petition against the extension of the railway.

    “If the Vestry should consider it more expedient to adopt a more active and energetic opposition, by the employment of agents, counsel and witnesses, it would be requisite to invest the proper parties with full powers to do all that might be needful- and to indemnify them. The parishoners in the Vestry were quite unanimous in censuring the proposed plan of the South Eastern Company, as altogether objectionable …”[continues in same vein ad nauseaum] .

    No doubt the lastest petition was just a case of any excuse to get back at the Southern Eastern Railway for whom they had obviously developed great loathing.

  51. Greg Tingey says:

    No – & – Yes
    Nutty christian sabbatarianism was rife in the earlier 19thC – but reached a peak, later, locally in Wales.
    Sunday Trains were only two steps away from the gates of Hell, according to some posters & accounts.
    Much preaching and loudmouthing generally was expended against the railway companies by the believers in BigSkyFairy.
    The length of time it took for even the “old” Sunday opening-hours in pubs to be forced through against the sustained rantings of the chapels is very recent history ….

  52. timbeau says:

    The Tay Bridge disaster “on the very last sabbath of 1879, which will be remembered for a very long time”, as McGonagall had it, was cited as a similar example of the consequences of breaking the Sabbath. And it is only very recently that some of the Western Isles have had a seven day a week ferry service.

  53. Whiff says:

    I was slightly dismissive of St Johns in my comments on one of the Tanners Hill Flydown articles so I’m happy to be proved wrong in such impressive detail.

    As for the ever-entertaining subject of apostrophes compare and contrast the name of an Underground station – St James’s Park – with the name of a station in Exeter – St James Park. There used to be a loophole where tickets from Paddington to the Underground station were valid to the station in Exeter but I think it was quickly closed.

  54. Bite yer back (a.k.a. 10 match ban) says:

    The apostrophe thing….

    I seem to remember that several years ago Tony Hawks (the comedian not the skateboarder) wrote to Ken Livingstone demanding to know why Earl’s Court had an apostrophe and Barons Court none. The lengthy response was littered with seemingly intentional apostrophe misuse. Try as I might I have as yet been unable to find copies on the net. Anyone got any pointers?

    Meanwhile I have been musing on why Reeves Corner is not Reeves’ Corner…

  55. Graham Feakins says:

    Re last posting: It’s neither, it’s Reeves’s Corner:

  56. Greg Tingey says:

    Another railway / Sunday story The Stromeferry Riot showing just how mad some people can be & how recently this sort of thing went on ….

  57. Anonymous says:

    …complete with multiple misused apostrophes!

  58. Fandroid says:

    @Pedantic. The churches are quite likely to have been trying to stop railways operating on Sundays, and some nimbyism may well have come into it as well. However, weren’t the Vestries the only form of local government back then? ‘Parishioners’ has a secular meaning as well as a religious one, even now. The anti SER sentiment may not have just been a church-inspired feeling. The words of the clergy would have been a better reflection of ‘church’ opinion, even allowing for the fact that a very large proportion of the general population in those days were regular church-goers. Something it’s difficult for us secular society inhabitants to imagine.

    I’m not sure what I’m arguing here! Perhaps I’m just saying that the story is complicated by the very different society that existed then.

  59. Anonymous says:

    To quote “The Sphere” for 1st September 1900 :
    ‘It has occurred to some genius with a Board School education
    that “St.James’s” is ungrammatical, and so the final “s” has been
    ruthlessly painted out from the District Railway boards and lamps, an
    ugly splash of paint having taken the place of the offending letter.
    But St.James’s Palace and St.James’s Park still abide with us’.

  60. stimarco says:


    You speak the truth. Communities were much more close-knit back then. History tends to favour the movers and the shakers, but 99.99% of the population barely left their local village until the railways came along. The nearest market town was often as far as they ever went throughout their entire lives.

    For example, the farmers in the tiny hamlet of South End (today’s Downham, at the junction with the A21 and Beckenham Hill) would have taken their wares to either Bromley, or Lewisham. (The latter was a little further away, but it would have been an easier walk as Bromley sits on a ridge.) Few people would have travelled more than about 20 miles a day on foot, except those few who might go on a pilgrimage. Everyone knew everyone else.

    The railways weren’t helped by their poor safety record at the time. Until the 1850s, railways tended to have very rudimentary signalling, so accidents were more common. As the network grew, the railways were forced to do something about it and the mode of transport became much safer as a result, but when the SER was extending its reach into Lewisham and beyond, the culture of safety we expect from railways today had not yet appeared.

    Parochiality reigned supreme. As did ignorance. Science had far fewer answers to offer back then; the Church offered their usual solution that their magical invisible friend did it all and most believed were satisfied with that. Any threat to the Church’s pre-eminence was treated with great suspicion, and the railways were the very embodiment of that threat.

  61. Ian Sergeant says:

    On the topic of Earl’s Court and Barons Court, the history is amusing. According to Wikipedia, close to where Earl’s Court already existed, the owner of Baronscourt built an estate. Naturally enough, he called it Barons Court. I suspect a little mischief here. But one of the roads on the estate has an official name of Baron’s Court Road, which has to be wrong. Also Earl’s Court was where the earls held their memorial court, so I have to wonder whether this should actually be named Earls’ Court. 🙂

  62. Rogmi says:

    I have the Alan Godfrey Ordnance Survey map reprint of the area (it appears that the Ideal Homes map is from the OS map).
    The map states “surveyed 1869-1871, engraved in 1872, published in 1873”. I suppose that, depending on when the area was actually surveyed, it’s possible that the Greenwich Park line was almost near completetion, but the tracks hadn’t actually been laid at the time of the survey and so weren’t shown.

    One thing I have to watch when looking through the OS maps is that sometimes new railways were overlaid onto an existing, earlier OS map, but the map still retained the original publication date when reprinted. This could mean that a map dated 1871 could have a railway shown on it that wasn’t constructed until, say, 1885! There is usually a footnote on the map regarding the additions.

  63. stimarco says:

    That would explain some of it.

    Even today, surveying an area that size for mapping purposes at the level of detail the OS required would have taken quite a while. With railways being built through it, there’s little chance that they’d have recycled old mapping data as railways through built-up areas tend to leave quite the impression on their surroundings. But it still takes months—if not years—to assemble a London-wide map at that scale.

    It’s also quite possible that the road still had its original name when design and construction on the station began. The rails are usually some of the last components to be installed. As signwriting at the time was an entirely manual process—literally painted on wood by hand, so lead time for multiple stations’ worth of signage could easily be months—it’s also possible that the sign writer was given the proposed name for the station some time earlier and management decided against changing it to the new name when informed of the change. The new name is longer and would have meant scrapping any signs already made.

    The station certainly doesn’t look like they wanted to spend a lot of money on it: only the (abandoned) below-ground structure is built of brick. The street-level entrance is one of the railway company’s cheap wooden clapboard affairs. That it’s survived intact as long as it has, given the fate of the similar structures on the network, is a minor miracle in itself. It’s slap bang in Zone 2, on prime development land, with examples of newer buildings surrounding it. Yet, in four more years, it’ll have the dubious distinction of having been a disused station for exactly 100 years. That’s sixty more than it ever spent in railway service. It’s definitely a survivor. Which is why I’m saddened by the photo of it in the article. It was in much better condition as recently as five years ago.

  64. stimarco says:

    … of course, the most likely reason for Lewisham Road station’s name may be that Lewisham simply didn’t bother to inform the railway company of the change in the nearby road’s name. There was clearly little love lost between the parish council and the railways, so why would they go out of their way to make life easier?

  65. Twopenny Tube says:

    stimarco @ 08:05PM: “… literally painted on wood by hand …”
    Had they not invented brushes by then?

  66. stimarco says:

    @Twopenny Tube:

    In Dickensian London? Why would their bosses waste precious money on brushes when their workers had perfectly good tongues to paint with?

  67. Greg Tingey says:

    Sitmarco @ 10.36 28/04
    The picture you paint might have been true in the 17th or early 18th C’s but not more recently. Admittedly there was a big religious revival in the 19th C, but the cat was already out of the bag by then.
    There is the case of someone approaching Geordie Stephenson (after the opening of the L&M, but I’m not sure exactly when) for donations for missions, & being told to get lost. “I will send the loco-motive to be missionary amongst them” was Geordie’s reply.
    That’s the way to do it!
    You have to remember that “The Enlightenment” was an 18th-C affair, & as usual, religion(s) rushed around to try to recover ground & denigrate & destroy painfully-acquired knowledge [ Exactly as they are doing now, in fact ]
    There is a famous poem, expressing belief in technological prowess, by Erasmus Darwin [ Chas’ grandfather ] … it used to be easy to find on the web, but now a full-text is almost impossible to get hold of … however, I have a copy:

    Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer’d STEAM! afar
    Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
    Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
    The flying-chariot through the fields of air.

    Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
    Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move
    Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowd
    And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.

  68. I have taken the liberty in the light of information and material provided by Geoff Smith to slightly modify the article.

    I have included a 1913 picture that I wanted to use from the outset but felt unable to do so up to now because of copyright restrictions. I now believe there is no problem.

    I have also slightly modified the text because it is apparent that from 1905 to an unknown date but before July 1913 there was an up fast platform loop line serving the southernmost platform. This would explain the very long siding.

    I am beginning to suspect that the intention even by 1873 was to four-track the main line to Sevenoaks east of St Johns and that was the reason for going to the trouble of building the third island. Also why the up fast was double faced. It wasn’t really a very good idea though because St Johns was basically a local station and it wouldn’t have made much sense to stop fast trains here unless the intention was to provide a junction for passengers wishing to change for Lewisham and stations via Lewisham. Remember that until 1929 it would not be possible for any train from Sevenoaks to serve Lewisham as the Courthill loop had not been built.

  69. stimarco says:

    @Greg Tingey:

    Your rebuttal ignores my earlier point that historians have usually focused their attention on major events and upheavals, while ignoring the fact that there was no TV, radio, internet or any other form of high-speed communication until the railways came along. Yes, many of those events began earlier, but so did the Renaissance, yet nobody was painting their living room ceilings until the 1800s. Why? No money, no time, and very poor levels of education remained the norm until well into the Victorian era.

    Many of those major battles between kings and pretenders we read about involved only a few thousand men and it could take weeks for the news of a new king or queen sitting on the throne to reach many of the smaller towns and villages. Horses and messengers could only ride so fast. Communities without access to decent communications (and roads and railways were communications media in their own right) became isolated, insular and parochial. Lewisham was no different in the 1830s. They had the example of the L&GR which opened only a few years earlier. As that sat on a massive viaduct and belched smoke and fumes onto the surrounding countryside, it’s hardly a big surprise that the parishes of Lewisham (who would have seen that railway in action as Greenwich and Deptford were well within walking distance) viewed the technology with trepidation.

    But the steam locomotive marked the first time humans could travel faster than any of their domesticated animals. A horse at full gallop might keep up with an early locomotive for a short while, but it would have to slow down for a breather pretty quickly. The locomotive just kept chuffing on for as long as it had coal and water.

    And that means, unless your hamlet, village or town was on the rail network, things didn’t change that much. Sure, some of the wealthier community members got their horizons broadened, but the majority remained isolated and poor, scratching out a living as best they could in the face of increasing competition from machinery and automation, scared by the knowledge of their own increasingly problematic lack of education. These people had no choice but to either stay put, or risk everything and travel to a big city to seek work in one of those newfangled “factory” things.

    An excellent example of what it was like back then for ordinary people can be seen in China today: we often hear about the appalling human rights issues and terrible factory conditions despite both being about the same as in England 150-odd years ago. What we don’t often hear about is that the majority of the population still lives on farms and ekes out a very meagre existence in small villages with close communities.

    China is similar to England during the early Victorian period. We’ve seen exactly the same socio-cultural patterns and cycles in other developing nations too. It’s the same old “mistakes” every time. Not because nobody learns from history, but because applying the necessary social engineering is usually too expensive at that time in the country’s development. The economy and society needs to be big enough and educated enough to absorb the costs and shocks of the transitions.

    Historians tell us that the Industrial Revolution began with the harnessing of steam and the building of canals. Bollocks. The Industrial Revolution began with the recognition that education and knowledge were the foundations of social and cultural improvement. You had to have both. A natural gift for machines was not enough: Even George Stephenson asked his son Robert to teach him what he was learning in school in order to improve his own level of education.

    The discoveries made by scientists and engineers may have been the lock, but universal education was the key.

  70. Graham Feakins says:

    @ Kit Green 04:08PM, 26th April 2013 – and my Network SouthEast Winter timetable Sept. 1986 – May 1987 for South-East Suburban reverts throughout to “St. John’s”.

  71. qbj says:

    Diligent Wikipedia editor Rickedmo has now written an article on the 1898 accident.

  72. Pedantic of Purley says:

    It is good that there is an article there. It seems to be a little confused but this is understandable because, unusually, the accident report, although not confused itself, is not exactly a model of clarity in its description.

    Much of the conclusion of the report is about the Sykes lock-and-block release key which the signalman used. However it seems clear to me that this actually played no part in the accident. The critical sentence from the report is:

    The somewhat reckless way in which the signalman used the key to release the back-lock of his advance station signal, also calls attention to a weak point in the system, although it must be remembered it want not done until after he had wrongly accepted the second train.

    The final part of that sentence convinces me that this is not what in modern parlance would be caused a causal factor in the accident i.e. it played no part in the events leading up to it.

    The report then goes on to point out the danger of misuse of the release key. This there clearly was on this occasion – but only after the accident was probably inevitable. Unfortunately for some reason the report writer seems to not to grapple with the issue properly and he fails to make specific recommendations. Instead he just made some comments that are not binding (“obiter” in legal parlance).

    It does seem that it is not just the 1957 accident that left opportunities missed because the misuse of this key was to cause other accidents in the future and these also tended to be in thick fog. Notable was South Croydon 1947 in which 32 people lost their lives.

    The accident report stated:

    I am distinctly of the opinion that it should not be in the power of the signalman to use the key without permission from another box and there are several plans which have been proposed, and tried, with this object in view ; failing the adoption of one of these devices, the key should be so protected that it cannot be used without a record being left.

    This was in fact partially implemented at some point because the later on the key could not be accessed without breaking a seal. In the case of South Croydon this was not enough because the signalman just presumed that the apparatus had failed and therefore broke the seal. He did not adequately consider the possibility that the apparatus was actually in full working order and operating as it should do to ensure safety.

  73. Anonymous says:

    I don’t understand that comment – whether or not he accepted the train, he couldn’t clear the signals for it without misusing the key to release the home signal. The previous box could release the starter, but the train would have had to stpo at the next (home) signal.

  74. Malcolm says:

    No, it was accepting the second train while the first one was still around that was the prime cause. The signal whose clearance allowed the crash to happen was the starter of the preceding box.

    In fact clearing his home signal might have delayed the crash, or even avoided it, if he had done it a bit sooner.

    Unless I have misunderstood, of course.

  75. Pedantic of Purley says:

    @Anonymous 10:01

    As I understand it – Yes he could. He could accept the second train because he had restored his station signal to danger. This then freed the mechanism for the next train to be accepted. Hence my quote from the accident report in the main article about requiring a treadle to free the mechanism because that is the only way one could be sure that the previous train had actually cleared the section.

    You convince me I did the correct thing in not mentioning the release key in the main article because it is irrelevant and would have caused confusion. I have only mentioned it now because the new Wikipedia article has gone down that route which I am convinced is erroneous.

  76. Greg Tingey says:

    Many of those major battles between kings and pretenders we read about involved only a few thousand men See you the battle of Towton & raise you! Over 1% of the country’s population killed in a single day on one field of conflict.
    Yu are misinterpreting what I actually said – the issue of SPEED is not an issue – you have chosen to make it so. I assume everyone here is aware of the amazing Fanny Kendall quotes about speed …..

  77. Anonymous says:

    “………. it could take weeks for the news of a new king or queen sitting on the throne to reach many of the smaller towns and villages”

    Or indeed for the news to reach the king or queen in question: often an opportunity for a rival to stake his own claim – Henry I for example, who just happened to be on the scene when William Rufus was shot and was therefore able to sieze the moment before his older brother, away in Normandy, had any inkling that the throne was up for grabs.

    When George, the Elector of Hanover succeeded to the throne of the UK in 1714, he had only been heir for a few weeks, following the death of the previous heir, his mother the Dowager Electress Sophia (whose maternal grandfather was James I).
    Since both George and Sophia were in far-away Hanover at the time, it is quite possible that news of Sophia’s death had not reached England by the time Queen Anne died, in which case the court would have expected the new monarch to be Queen Sophia.

    Some idea of the speed of communications in the 18th Century can be got from the fact that George himself didn’t arrive in England until six weeks later

  78. Greg Tingey says:

    See you Carey’s ride & raise you …
    24-26th March 1603
    London – Edinburgh

  79. timbeau says:

    Indeed – but that didn’t involve a sea crossing, and the urgency was known. There was no particular urgency to inform the British that Empress Sophia had died – Queen Anne was only 49 and although she had had several bouts of illness before, there was nothing to suggest she would not survive the next one.

  80. Whiff says:

    Bill Bryson, in one of his books, cites the example of the 1812 Anglo-American war where people were still fighting and dying around St Louis months after a peace treaty had been signed as the news had yet to reach them that the war was over.

    And while we’ve deviated into social and economic history, although I agree with most of Stimarco’s conclusions, universal education was not introduced until 1870 so cannot have been the key to the industrial revolution which had started about a century earlier. In fact one argument is that universal education was actually introduced in an attempt to maintain the country’s competitive advantage at a time when there were fears that other countries were already starting to overtake Britain.

  81. qbj says:


    I’ve now put a note on the talk page of the Wikipedia article for this, linking to your comment with feedback about the article. In future, feel free to just post your comment there yourself! You don’t even need to make an account (although it’s recommended and only takes a moment). If you don’t have time to actually change an article you can just post your comments on the talk page, just like you’ve done here.

  82. Kieran Turner says:

    I’m curious about the information that the station pre-dated even the church. Given that it also says that the church gave the station its name, I wonder if there was another church before the present building? Or was it merely church land?

    And on that last point, what actually brought me here to read this was that I’m trying to find out what the truth is behind a story that used to be on the station’s Wikipedia page, but was removed in 2008 because it was un-referenced. The story was:

    “St. Johns station is built on land originally owned by the nearby St. Johns Church, from which the station derives its name. Due to an archaic agreement, South Eastern Trains must make a small donation to the church every time a train stops.”

    It was added by an anonymous user (in 2007) so I can’t ask them. I lived in Blackheath for a while and frequently passed through St. John’s. And I could swear I’d heard or read this story sometime around then as well, although I really can’t recall from whom or where. So I’d love it if anyone can shed any light on this…

  83. Graham Feakins says:

    @Kieran Turner – I can’t answer your question but what you say might well have explained how there were so many trains “Not calling at St. John’s”!

  84. Kieran,

    I think you have misunderstood. The station definitely came after the church. I think I was pointing out that the Wikipedia entry was wrong in stating the station opened in 1849 (as it did when I wrote the article) as then the station would have had to have opened before the church was built that gave the station its name.

    Funnily enough I remember that Wikipedia entry and was curious about it at the time but could find no reference. I even looked at the church website to see if it was mentioned there but it wasn’t. Stranger things have happened though and I am pretty sure Hammersmith Depot is built on land leased from the local church in Hammersmith so LU pays rent on that. Even if this story about St Johns station and the church was once ever true I am sure that the railways would not have wanted the inconvenience and would have offered a lump sum to buy out this administrative burden.

  85. Kieran Turner says:

    Ah, thanks for those replies — and you’re right PoP, in terms of what came before the church, I’d confused the coming of the railway with the coming of the station. That’ll teach me about reading things late on a Saturday! 😉

  86. John U.K. says:

    The church of the parish of Deptford St.John was built in 1855, and the parish (1855) taken from the parish of Deptford St.Paul.

  87. Anomnibus (Lewisham People's Front [Catford Branch]) says:

    The early to mid-1800s saw a rapid expansion in the number of churches to cope with the increasing sprawl of the cities. London was no exception.

    Looking at the old maps of the area, it looks like the church predates the station, but not the railway itself: In the 1850s maps, the area is still mostly open countryside, with no housing nearby, and certainly no station. There’s no church either. To be fair, there’s not much of anything except the odd brickworks, some of which were still in use well into the 1870s.

    The church has been built by the 1860s surveys, but the station—as correctly described in its Wikipedia entry—only appears in the 1870s. You can see why from the maps: by the 1860s, Lewisham is spreading out towards New Cross. By the 1870s, the area is more or less as it appears today.


  88. Graham H says:

    @Anomnibus – the church was built in 1855, as John UK states. The relevant volume of Pevsner refers. The parish was split shortly before from that of S Paul, itself one of the Commissioners Churches intended to cater for London’s expansion in the early 1700s (and a notable baroque by Thomas Archer – as a more than honorary Italian,you’d appreciate the Borrominiesque design…)

  89. Anonymous says:

    You don’t mention the 1857 accident at Lewisham old station which may have led to the widening of the tracks I wonder?

  90. I mentioned the 1857 accident twice! And it didn’t lead to any widening of the tracks. If I ever get a chance one day I will write about Lewisham including the 1857 accident and the different stations at Lewisham – though, given that platforms are much longer now, the original and the replacement station are both effectively on the current station site.

  91. Max Brockbank says:

    It’s worth noting that at least until 2009 (when I moved away from St John’s) there was a Welsh Presbyterian Church on land next door to the Anglican church. At one point it even had a board outside listing its services in the Welsh language.

    My guess is that it was built to serve a community of workers in the brick industry drawn directly from the valleys, in the same way that Bedford’s brick works attracted ceramics craftsmen from Italy.

    Anyway, such staunch old-time religion was probably more anti-railway and Sabbatarian than it’s soft namby-pamby southern CofE neighbours.

    Just a thought.

    Anyway, I believe it’s gone the same way as most underused public buildings in SE13 and has been sold off for housing development and “luxury executive dwellings”.

  92. LadyBracknell says:

    @Max Brockbank: I left St John’s more recently – I used to live in Cliff Terrace – and one of the buildings on the Welsh church land has been turned into a nursery. I don’t know the current status of the other.

  93. Anonymous says:

    It’s bloody noisy living in Cliff Terrace I can tell you.

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