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Time Travel Explorer Blog

The railway lands of South London

by Peter Watts 17. January 2011 15:20

The Great Fire and Blitz did their damage, but it can be argued that nothing changed the topography of London quite as much as the railways. From 1836 these industrial interlopers began to arrive in London, the first in Bermondsey and Deptford, causing houses to be demolished and huge tracts of London to become divided by high-rise red-brick arches carrying trains above the streets.

North of the river, the stations were kept out of the centre by Parliament and developers and were slung instead in a great line from Paddington to Liverpool Street, like the new gates to an old metropolis. But in the south, they encroached right up to the river, often taking root in land that had only recently been inhabited. Here you can trace the arrival of the station at Waterloo, on land that in 1746 was almost completely unoccupied.

Here is the same land in 1830, now more densely occupied thanks to the explosion of bridge-building that allowed traffic to cross the river more easily than ever before.

By our next map of 1862, the station has arrived, plonked messily in the middle of the map with railway lines shooting off it. 

It's these lines that would have so much impact on South London, which to this day can resemble a face that has been slashed and scarred by raised arches, embankments and bridges. The area between Waterloo and London Bridge around Southwark Street is particularly bad. See the map of 1862, with just a single east-west line, and compare it with the spider-web of lines on a modern map.

 

This vast network of interlocking and overlapping lines goes a long way towards explaining why some people find South London so confusing and alienating. The railway line create dead ends where none should be and force the roads to take confusing shapes to find their way through bridges and arches. Felix Barker and Peter Jackson wrote in 'A History Of London In Maps' that 'with the excitement of children laying out nursery tracks, prodigally financed companies spread networks so liberally that by the end of the (19th) century maps resembled cats' cradles.

But there are some benefits to this South London railway land. The huge number of railway arches can easily be transformed into cheap commercial space, granting parts of south London around Vauxhall, London Bridge and Waterloo a night-time economy that people are happy to cross the river to take part in.