Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Within a small private industrial estate near St James’ Church in Bermondsey, lies a small piece of London’s transport history. The only signs are some lettering on the façade over one of the arches under the viaduct taking trains into London Bridge that spell out BOOKING OFFICE and a few arches down the letters SECR (South Eastern and Chatham Railway). Apart from the bricked up ticket windows, this is all that remains at street level of the railway station that was the first railway terminus into what is now inner London.
Construction of the London and Greenwich Railway began in 1835 having received Parliamentary approval the year before. The first section of the line was opened between Deptford and Spa Road Station, Bermondsey in February 1836 with the track into London Bridge station completed at the end of the year. The line into a temporary station in Greenwich was completed in 1838 with the present Greenwich Station opened in 1840.
The railway was built on a brick viaduct and though there were viaducts in the countryside that spanned valleys and carried water, this was the first viaduct built in the urban environment to carry trains. Though we take the viaduct very much for granted today, when it was built it was the subject of much curiosity and attracted many sight-seers. Originally 3.75 miles long with over 850 arches, it used six million bricks that resulted in a shortage of bricks for the latter stages of its construction. It had originally been planned to provide living accommodation under the arches but this quickly proved unworkable and the arches came to be used as workshops as many still are today.
The line between Deptford and Spa Road was completed in December 1835 and rather than wait until construction was complete into London Bridge, the line was opened between Deptford and Spa Road in February 1836 to begin generating income. Revenue for the first week were £17 which almost doubled in the second week. The average number of passengers carried within the first year were 1,300 per day but, as a popular Bank Holiday attraction, it attracted 13,000 passengers on the Whit Monday following the opening. Initially, for a penny, the public were able to walk along the lines as if it was a boulevard on a Sunday when no trains ran but this was short-lived as the lines were soon brought into service for trains
The original Spa Road station was situated on the other side of the viaduct adjacent to Rouel Road. It was extremely rudimentary and would not even meet the most basic of health and safety guidelines today, and deaths did occur due to lack of space for passengers. The station at high level had two narrow wooden platforms linked to street level by a wooden staircase where passengers were expected to wait for their train.
The station closed shortly after London Bridge station opened due to a fall in passenger numbers but was reopened after refurbishment in 1842, with further alterations undertaken in 1845. The result seems equally as hazardous as before with now only one narrow central platform with a staircase in the centre with ledges only 2 feet wide on either side where passengers had to pass by. The staircase led down to an entrance under one of the arches which, though unmarked, can still be seen today in Marine Street.
By 1871, the viaducts had been widened four times for the laying of more tracks to accommodate the rapidly expanding rail network that included trains from Croydon, Brighton and the South Eastern network. When Spa Road Station opened there were two trains per hour, now there were 60 trains between the hours of 8 am and 10 am that passed through. The passenger numbers had increased from 1,300 per day to 12,000 carried just within the same two hours of between 8am and 10am.
In 1866, Spa Road Station was rebuilt and resited to where the few remains can be seen today at the end of Priter Road. A correspondent for the Railway News wrote that “This improvement has been long and urgently needed, especially since the opening of the Charing Cross line, from which time the traffic at Spa Road Station has greatly increased. … The new station has two platforms of 150 yards long each, the one 15 and the other 16 feet wide, with stairs to each. The inner platform has passage room on each side amply sufficient for a bevy of ladies to pass safely, albeit in fully-developed crinolines, provided they walk in single file. The new station is to be designated the Spa Road and Bermondsey, but the supplementary word is not likely, we should suppose, to be popularly adopted, and the new station will continue to be known by the old title as the Spa Road.” At least, with all the problems of travelling on trains during the rush hour today, we do not have to contend with ladies wearing crinolines!
Spa Road Station was closed during the first world war due to staff shortages and as an economy measure but was never reopened after the war had ended as a result of local competition from trams and buses. The next station downline, Southwark Park which had opened in 1902, was similarly closed. And nothing much happened to Spa Road station for many years. By the 1980s the land at street level had become a site for illegal rubbish dumping and the former abandoned station was dilapidated. In 1986 a partnership between British Rail, Southwark Environment Trust and Southwark Council renovated the station frontage and formed a small industrial estate from the vacant land in front of the station. To remember this little piece of transport history, commemorative plaques were installed.