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Secrets of the Viaducts: Walking the London Bridge to Greenwich Arches (Part One)

Catch a train from London Bridge towards Greenwich and you’ll find yourself whisked along the entire length via a three and a half mile long viaduct; 878 brick arches which snake their way through London’s south-eastern suburbs.

A section of the original London to Greenwich viaduct, Druid Street.

A section of the London to Greenwich viaduct, Druid Street.

Built during the reign of King William IV, this impressive piece of engineering was originally a self-contained system; The London and Greenwich Railway which, as well as being the capital’s earliest railway, also achieved two other titles- being both the first suburban commuter line and the first elevated railway in the world.

The London & Greenwich Railway in 1837.

The London & Greenwich Railway in 1837.

Inspired by the world’s very first passenger service which had started operating between Liverpool and Manchester in September 1830, the London and Greenwich Railway was the brainchild of Colonel George Thomas Landmann; an engineer who had developed his talents in the military.

Landmann's representing Landmann's original route- the purple line being entirely elevated. (Image: Google Maps)

The purple line depicts Landmann’s original route- which is entirely elevated. (Image: Google Maps)

After gaining planning permission, it was agreed that the line was to be “constructed on arches, in such a manner that passengers and carriages may pass along the streets which the line will cross without being in any way obstructed.”

Arch over Bermondsey Street.

Arch over Bermondsey Street.

From the offset the project was clearly aimed at conveying city commuters, with a report in The Observer stating that “the man of business, who goes to town daily, will save eight hours of his time per week…”

The first stone was laid in November 1833 and by the 8th February 1836 the London and Greenwich Railway was open for business- on the first day alone, the line carried 13,000 eager passengers.

London and Greenwich Poster

At this early point however, the route had not yet reached London Bridge- trains could only run from New Cross to a temporary terminal on Bermondsey’s Spa Road (more of which in part two). The viaduct was fully completed on the 14th December 1836.

View near London Bridge, shortly after the station's completion.

View near London Bridge shortly after the station’s completion.

During the line’s earliest days, two other innovations were tested on the viaduct.

Originally, Colonel Landmann had suggested that there was money to be made by converting many of the arches into cheap housing- and a small collection of show homes were indeed added.

Experimental housing beneath the arches in Deptford (image: London Illustrated News).

Experimental housing beneath the arches in Deptford (image: London Illustrated News).

The residents who spent time in these “neat dwelling houses” apparently agreed that “the passing of the trains over is said to be only like the noise resembling thunder, but from the rapidity of the motion is away in an instant.”

Despite this positive feedback the idea never took off, thus leaving the arches ripe for occupation by garages, warehouses and the occasional trendy bar.

Trendy Bar

The other novelty to be given a trial was a pedestrian walkway which ran directly alongside the tracks and could be accessed by the public for a small toll. However, when directors realised just how profitable their railway had become, this path was promptly taken over by the iron road. 

Nowadays therefore the only way to follow the viaduct on foot is by weaving your way through its many arches at street level… which is a good thing if you enjoy exploration as there is plenty of history to discover down below…

Linsey Street: one of the London to Greenwich viaduct's many atmospheric arches....

Linsey Street: one of the London to Greenwich viaduct’s many atmospheric arches….

To be continued…