Accidents and Islands: A History of St Johns Station – Part 1

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.

Written by Pedantic of Purley