Perched on the north bank of the Thames between Southwark Bridge and London Bridge, Cannon Street station sits within an area particularly rich in history.
Some 2,000 years ago, in the days when the city was known as Londinium, the patch now occupied by the station was home to a large Roman building known as the ‘Governor’s Palace’; an imposing administrative block, estimated to have been built circa AD80 to AD100.
This bureaucratic building is believed to have contained suites of offices and was accessible from the Thames via a wooden jetty. Some remains of this Roman site still exist deep beneath the railway terminal.
Candles and Cannons
By the medieval era, the road from which the station takes its name had become known as Candlewick Street on account of the numerous candle makers who lived and worked along the thoroughfare.
The present name, ‘Cannon’ is in fact a corruption of ‘Candlewick’ and has nothing at all to do with heavy weaponry!
By the 10th century with the Roman office block long since crumbled, a major commercial base began to develop on the site.
Known as The Steelyard (derived from the German word, Stalhof meaning ‘trading base’), this large depot was owned and operated by the Hanseatic League; a powerful confederation of guilds originating in Saxony.
Dominating trade across Northern Europe for several centuries, the Hanseatic League was a precursor to today’s multi-national organisations. Their Cannon Street centre remained in use up until the 16th century.
Today, the Steelyard is commemorated in the names of two Thames footpaths; Hanseatic Walk and Steelyard Passage.
Running in a brick tunnel beneath Cannon Street station itself, Steelyard Passage is equipped with speakers which pipe out industrial sounds; atmospheric recreations of what one’s ears would have rung to in the days when the area served cargo ships rather than trains.
The Railway Arrives
Built as the London terminal for the South Eastern Railway, Cannon Street station opened on the 1st September 1866.
Designed by John Hawkshaw, the station’s first incarnation boasted towering walls and a soaring roof; 207 meters long and 32 metres high at its apex; “wider in a single span and longer than the roof of any other building in London” as a report from The Observer stated.
The same article also praised Cannon Street’s signal box as being, “the greatest thing of its kind in the world. It extends from one side of the bridge to the other, and has a range of 67 levers.”
Must have been quite a headache to operate!
All of this technology however couldn’t prevent an embarrassing mishap which took place in 1926.
Shortly after leaving Cannon Street and crossing the Thames, a steam engine took a wrong turn on a viaduct. Led into a siding, high over Southwark’s Park Street, the driver slammed on the brakes… but it was to no avail; his metal steed smashed through the buffers and straight into the roof of Barclay and Perkins’s brewery!
The 60 tonne engine ended up dangling 8 feet above the brewery’s vat room. Luckily, nobody was injured but the subsequent debris resulted in the tragic loss of over 200 barrels of beer!
A Grand Hotel for the City
One year after the station opened the Cannon Street Hotel was added to the fledgling terminal. Designed by E.M Barry- son of Charles Barry, the main architect behind the Houses of Parliament- this new addition blessed the station with an extremely elegant façade.
In its day, the Cannon Street Hotel was a popular venue for meetings and conferences; many of which proved to be turbulent and overheated. It was here, in July 1920, that the British Communist Party was founded, no doubt encouraged by the revolution in Russia which had taken place three years previously.
In 1927, whilst attending a dinner at the hotel, politician David Lloyd George had his expensive overcoat stolen from his room. The thief was promptly collared in the main lobby but the former Prime Minister was so moved by the “pathetic story of distress related by the thief”, that he insisted the misguided fellow be set free.
In the 1930s, the hotel bedrooms were converted into office suites. This new scheme did not last for very long however- the grand building was destroyed during the Blitz.
Another casualty of WWII was the station’s celebrated glass roof.
When hostilities broke out in 1939, the wide expanse of panes had been carefully removed and taken to a factory for safekeeping… unfortunately, this supposedly safe haven was itself bombed, taking the stacks of glass with it.
Scarred by bombs and with its roof lost, Cannon Street was in a sorry state following WWII.
As the rare image below, taken in 1957, shows, the lack of glass meant the terminal was open to the elements, requiring shelters to be built on the platforms.
The station remained neglected until the 1960s when the terminal was redeveloped in a style typically modern of the time.
The main element of this scheme was a large office block, replacing the old frontage once occupied by the Cannon Street Hotel. The skeletal, glassless iron frame of the old roof was also dismantled.
The new offices were designed by John Poulson… whom it was later discovered won the contract thanks to backhanders and a shady friendship with Graham Tunbridge; a surveyor for British Rail. Tried for corruption, the pair were found guilty- landing Poulson a seven year prison sentence.
With financial markets booming, further office space was added in the 1980s and the station’s famous towers were treated to a full restoration. A bold scheme to add a helipad, first mooted in the early 1960s, was also revived.
However, with the promise of up to 70 helicopters buzzing in and out of Cannon Street every day, grave concerns were raised as to the potential noise levels and their effect on offices and services at nearby St Paul’s Cathedral.
In 1990, the issue was raised in Parliament, with one MP suggesting that “the proposal is an utter disgrace… uncivilised and wrong.” Needless to say Cannon Street’s heliport never came to fruition.
Bombs and Crashes
During the morning rush hour of 4th March 1976, regular passengers from Sevenoaks into Cannon Street had an extremely lucky escape when a 10lb IRA bomb exploded on a train.
Miraculously, the train was empty; the device detonating as the carriages pulled out of Cannon Street shortly after unloading 100s of people. Eight people on a passing train suffered minor injuries.
Had the bomb gone off just thirteen minutes earlier the results do not bear thinking about.
Another shocking rush hour incident occurred on the morning of the 8th January 1991 when a train rolling into Cannon Street failed to stop, crashing into the buffers.
Although only travelling at 10mph, the impact had devastating results, turning the carriages into a crumpled mess.
Two passengers; 59 year old Patricia McCay and 24 year old Martin Strivens were killed and a further 542 were injured. With many people trapped in the tangled mess, rescue teams had to battle for 15 hours to cut people out.
During the inquest, it was discovered that two of the coaches involved had under bodies dating back to 1928 and 1934. Although the main bodywork had been rebuilt over the years, the bases of these carriages had become perilously weak, forcing the main compartments forward like a pack of cards in the low-speed shunt.
Cannon Street Today
In recent years, Cannon Street has once again undergone dramatic change.
Poulson’s 1960s block was swept away in 2007 as part of a £360 million project to revamp the terminal. Designed by US developer, Hines, Cannon Street’s latest look consists of 400,000 square ft. of gleaming office space accompanied by a further 17,000 ft. of retail space.
The once celebrated space above the platforms has also found a new lease of life… having been transformed into a stunning rooftop garden!
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….