Handling an average of over 90 million passengers a year, Waterloo which lies close to London’s South Bank, is the UK’s largest railway station.
The origins of Waterloo Station stretch back to 1838 with the founding of the London and Southampton Railway, a company established to provide an important rail link between the capital and the docks at Southampton.
Originally designed with freight in mind, the London end of the new connection to the south coast opened on 21st May 1838 at Nine Elms, an area close to a wharf on the southern shore of the Thames- some distance away from the present Waterloo station.
Built in the neo-classical style, the station building at Nine Elms was designed by Sir William Tite, the same architect who designed the Royal Exchange which stands opposite the Bank of England.
Although a convenient place for shifting cargo, the Nine Elms location proved to be most inconvenient for the growing numbers of passengers who were beginning to use the line for trips into London.
There were pleasure gardens at nearby Vauxhall which were a popular destination, but for those wishing to travel onwards to Westminster and the City things were a real hassle with trips having to be completed by boat (which involved a lengthy wait) or by road (which involved high costs due to the existence of turnpike tolls).
As the London Illustrated News reported at the time, “the distance of the South Western’s metropolitan terminus from the heart of London has been a subject of complaint from the first opening of the line.”
Realising that their railway fell short- and that there was of course more money to be made- the company (now renamed the London and South Western Railway) decided to extend the line approximately 2 miles north across Lambeth Marsh in a project costing £800,000- approximately £35 million in today’s money.
The site marked for the new terminal was described as being “vacant ground, to a great extent occupied as hay-stalls and cow-yards and by dung-heaps, and similar nuisances” which lay close to the southern foot of the recently opened Waterloo Bridge.
A lost ‘Trafalgar Station’?
The station’s South Bank site was a plan B option- what developers had really wanted was to cross the Thames and build a station right opposite what was then a pretty much brand new Trafalgar Square.
The snag with this however was that the Duke of Northumberland’s mansion stood in the way and he refused to release the land… a 170 year old decision which still brings cabbies plenty of quick fares across the river during the rush hour!
Had the site been allowed it is quite possible that the LSWR’s terminal would have been named ‘Trafalgar Station‘… either way, a name in honor of one of the great victories of the Napoleonic Wars was inevitable!
Bridging the Bogs
In order to traverse the boggy ground the extension required the construction of a brick viaduct comprising 290 arches- very similar to the London and Greenwich Railway which was constructed on the opposite side of the capital during the same era.
Whilst building the viaduct from Nine Elms to Waterloo the tradesmen certainly didn’t hang around. The arch across Miles Street for example is said to have taken just 45 hours to complete from scratch, despite being at a tricky angle and requiring some 90,000 bricks!
The LSWR turned again to Sir William Tite to design their new terminal and, like the track extension, the station had to be built upon a series of arches in order to rise above the soggy earth; a high-rise position which is still evident to this day.
I wonder how many of the passengers in my cab who asked to be dropped at “Waterloo steps” realise why they have to huff and puff up such a steep flight in order to catch their train….
Named ‘Waterloo Bridge Station’, the new terminal, with a 600ft façade facing York Road, opened to the public on the 11th July 1848 with just three platforms and 14 trains a day.
Originally, the station was never intended to be the end of the line- it was planned that the rails would be forged onwards, right into the heart of the financial square mile.
As we can see today of course, this vision was never realised (with the exception of an underground link which we will come to later) and the site was officially renamed ‘Waterloo Station’ in 1886.
The Decline of Nine Elms
With the opening of the Waterloo terminal, the original Nine Elms Station closed to passengers in 1848.
A vast freight yard and wagon works flourished on the site but suffered heavy damage during WWII from which it never fully recovered. A clip of the site as it appeared in the mid-1960s, during the last days of steam, can be seen below (please click to view).
In the early 1950s, it was proposed that Tite’s surviving Nine Elms station building would make an ideal home for a planned National Railway Museum. However, British Rail refused to release the land and the museum eventually found a very worthy home in the beautiful city of York.
The Nine Elms building was sadly demolished in the 1960s, paving the way for the construction of New Covent Garden Market which still occupies the site today, maintaining the location’s historical link as a major hub for shifting goods into the capital.
In a few years’ time, the area will also provide a home for the new American Embassy.
Back at Waterloo
With the addition of connections to different railway companies, Waterloo station expanded in a messy, chaotic way throughout the Victorian period.
As new platforms were added they gained eccentric nicknames such as ‘Cyprus Station’ and ‘Khartoum Station’; each with their own entrance, booking office and Hackney Carriage rank.
Some platform numbers were duplicated whilst others weren’t labelled at all which created considerable confusion. In 1889, this bizarre situation was satirized by Jerome K. Jerome in ‘Three Men in a Boat’:
“We got to Waterloo at eleven and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course, nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to… the porter who took our things thought it would go from number two platform, while another porter, with whom he discussed the question, had heard a rumour that it would go from number one. The station-master on the other hand, was convinced it would start from the local.”
There was even a set of tracks which cut right through the pedestrian concourse and out through an arch towards what is now Waterloo East station.
Even by Victorian standards this rail link was a health and safety nightmare and was rarely used.
However, this curious set-up was still prominent enough to feature in H.G Wells’ 1898 classic, ‘War of the Worlds’ in a scene which describes troops departing Waterloo for Surrey in preparation for a clash with the Martian invaders.
“About five o’clock the gathering crowd in the station was immensely excited by the opening of the line of communication between the South-Eastern and South-Western stations, and the passage of carriage-trucks bearing huge guns and carriages crammed with soldiers.
These were the guns that were brought up from Woolwich and Chatham to cover Kingston. There was an exchange of pleasantries: ‘You’ll get eaten!’ ‘We’re the beast-tamers!” and so forth.”
The unusual bridge which linked the two stations is still in place and can be seen stretching over Waterloo Road.
Until relatively recently, it was used as a pedestrian link before being replaced by a more modern walkway (the grey, tube structure which can be seen running above).
Great history lesson! Thank you!
BTW: We’ll be needing your services in August; I’m finally realizing a lifelong dream to visit England. First stop, London. 🙂
I’ve never been outside North America and my daughter (who has travelled all over the world) somehow never got to England. 🙂 A first for both of us, and we’re wicked excited!
Thanks for the kind words…and hope to meet you in August! Will be more than happy to show around 🙂
🙂 We’re counting on it!
[…] Waterloo station: its early history. […]
Looking forward to part II. Thanks again.
great stuff as usual Robert, thanks
Many thanks, Adam.
Fascinating post. Thank you once again!
Many thanks, Richard.
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Any photographs of the actual memorials plaques on Waterloo station steps?
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Through the window from my apartment, I see the station everyday.
Great history lesson!
Thank you! 🙂