In the next instalment of this series on London’s major rail stations, we take a look at Fenchurch Street which, located on the eastern fringe of the City’s historic square mile and financial district, is one of the capital’s smallest mainline terminals.
Origins of the Street Itself
Fenchurch Street, from which this City terminal takes its name, is one of London’s oldest thoroughfares.
In the midst of the organised chaos that is London’s rush hour, the vast crowds of commuters pouring out of this city terminal every weekday morning probably don’t have time to pause and reflect on the fact that they are treading in the footsteps of ancient Romans…
It is believed the site of Fenchurch Street was originally occupied by a Roman fort, hastily erected to guard Londinium following Boudicca’s brutal, fiery revolt which had been unleashed on the fledgling city circa AD60.
As things settled down, the city’s founders went onto lay out the curved path which Fenchurch Street now follows.
The western end would have linked to the forum; Londinium’s hub of business and commerce, whilst the eastern extent exited the city walls at Aldgate, from where it merged with the main road to Colchester.
Over the years, a considerable bounty of Roman artefacts have been unearthed from beneath Fenchurch Street, including fragments of flooring, gold coins, evidence of workshops, a curios aisled hall and, as recently as 2008, a large, long-forgotten cellar.
As for the name ‘Fenchurch’ itself, the origins are uncertain, but it is generally believed the term derives from ‘faenum’; the Latin phrase for hay (a market selling hay was once held regularly near what is now the junction of Fenchurch Street and Gracechurch Street).
Much more recently, Fenchurch Street lent its name to the fictitious ‘Fenchurch East’ police station, around which the 1980s based time-travelling drama, Ashes to Ashes centred!
The Railway Arrives
The origins of Fenchurch Street station lie in the London and Blackwall Railway which was masterminded by Robert Stephenson and began operating in 1840.
At first, the line was short, running for just 3 ½ miles through the East End and, with stations based at Shadwell, Stepney, Millwall and the Isle of Dogs, the route was essentially created to serve London’s then sprawling dockyards.
Fenchurch Street remained closely associated with the docks for many years; a link which was atmospherically summed up in 1921 by the writer H.M Tomlinson when describing the station in his book, London River:
“Beyond its dingy platforms, the metal track which contracts into the murk is the road to China… it is the beginning of Dockland.”
A few years later, Ford Madox Ford described one of the most common types of passenger to be seen at Fenchurch Street; “huskily earringed fellows” donned in “blue-white spotted” neckerchiefs; sailors passing through the station making their way to or from a stint at sea.
Today, much of the original harbour-linked route is now traversed by the modern Docklands Light Railway, the Jolly Jack Tars now replaced by smart-suited financial workers.
During its first year, the city terminal for the London and Blackwall Railway was located on Minories, opposite the Tower of London and a few hundred feet behind the present Fenchurch Street station.
Today, this historic site is now covered over by Tower Gateway DLR station.
The Minories pub, which can be seen next door tucked away beneath the brick viaduct, occupies a space which was once home to one of the early station’s main entrances.
Fenchurch Street station opened in 1841, replacing the temporary terminal which had served the line for one year.
Although it wasn’t London’s first major railway station, Fenchurch Street represented the first time that the railways were allowed to enter the city’s historic heart (earlier terminals, such as Euston and London Bridge, had to make do with sitting on the fringes of what were then the capital’s outskirts).
The building was originally designed by Sir William Tite; the architect behind the Royal Exchange (once a major business centre, now a luxury shopping mall opposite the Bank of England).
Tite also carried out work on railway stations in Windsor, Carlisle and Edinburgh.
A fashionable Chelsea street is named after William Tite… and, for those with a less mature sense of humor, the great architect’s moniker is pronounced as in ‘tight’!
During the first nine years of operation, the London and Blackwall Railway was unusual in that no steam engines ran along its tracks… instead, the trains were hauled by long, sturdy cables, powered by stationary boilers housed in depots at Fenchurch Street and Blackwall.
On the approach into Fenchurch Street, the carriages would be detached from the rope, relying upon gravity to roll the convoys into their final destination.
When leaving, the cars usually required a slight push from the platform staff!
By 1849 this system was deemed clumsy and impractical. Regular steam trains were introduced and their wheel-less predecessors were auctioned off, fetching the handsome sum of £11,710.
In 1854, Fenchurch Street was enlarged by George Berkley who added a vaulted roof and the present day façade. Educated in Hampstead, George Berkley was well qualified, having worked on railways in India and South Africa, as well as the experimental London and Croydon ‘atmospheric’ railway.
Fenchurch Street also became notable for pioneering the first railway bookstall which was the brainchild of William Marshall and has been much emulated ever since.
Despite its central location and the role which it plays in London’s rush hour, Fenchurch Street is unique in that it is the capital’s only major terminal which has no direct link to the tube network…
Britain’s First Railway Murder
At 9.50pm on the night of the 9th July 1864, a Hackney bound service chugged out of Fenchurch Street, embarking on what should have been a straight forward journey.
In fact, the service proved to be far from routine and quickly found itself at the centre of one of the most notorious incidents in the history of Britain’s railways…
Being long after the rush hour, the carriages that summer evening were relatively empty and, settled down in one of the first-class compartments, there sat a Mr Thomas Briggs; a 70 year old banker.
At 10.10pm, the train pulled into Hackney Central station.
As two clerks prepared to board, the first class compartment in which Mr Briggs had been sitting was found to be in a complete mess; the plush interior splattered with blood. An abandoned walking cane and an empty leather bag lay amongst the carnage… but the occupant was nowhere to be seen.
Mr Briggs, the unfortunate passenger was soon discovered lying on the tracks, some distance back from Hackney station where the line passed Victoria Park. He had clearly been violently assaulted and robbed before being hurled out of the moving train.
Barely alive, the elderly victim was quickly carried to the Top O’ the Morning pub on nearby Cadogan Terrace… but sadly, it was to no avail and Mr Briggs died in the tavern.
The suspect was soon identified thanks to information from a London cabbie who had purchased a gold watch chain from a German tailor called Franz Muller… an item which it transpired had belonged to Mr Briggs.
Backed up by further evidence from a Cheapside-based pawnbroker (known by the rather startling name of John Death), Franz Muller became the prime suspect and a warrant for his arrest was issued.
However, by this point Muller had fled the country and was bound for New York.
Luckily the steamer he was on was rather slow and detectives from Scotland Yard were able take a faster vessel which overtook Muller’s ship… the cops were lying in wait for the killer when he docked in the Big Apple.
Upon his arrest, Muller was found to be in possession of Mr Briggs’ gold watch… along with his elderly victim’s hat, to which Muller had made several snazzy alterations.
Franz Muller didn’t have any time for sightseeing in America.
He was taken back to London and tried; the jury taking just 15 minutes to find the culprit guilty.
Unsurprisingly for the time, the sentence was death.
Franz Muller was hung outside Newgate Prison on the 15th November 1864, his execution being one of the last to be held in public. Despite this, there was still a great appetite amongst the public for these gory spectacles… Muller’s dance with the gallows attracted a crowd of 50,000….
Franz Muller’s fatal encounter with Thomas Briggs on the commuter train from Fenchurch Street that fateful Victorian evening led to a number of security features being introduced on Britain’s railways, including corridors to connect compartments and the emergency stop cord.
The vicious murder also helped to stoke fears of crime on public transport; a deep-rooted concern which has been with us ever since….