Victoria Station – Gateway to the South

London Portrait Magazine – 11-1983

Gateway to Brighton, Europe and – via Southampton – the world, Victoria Station was a proud Victorian achievement. Today the clock has gone, the News Theatre closed, and offices climb through the glass roof. CHRISTOPHER LONG tells the story of the station that once did not impress Lady Bracknell and today impresses no one.

When Ernest Worthington shamefacedly informed Lady Bracknell that he had, as a baby, been 'found' in that famous handbag left at Victoria Station, she was not impressed. She was no more impressed when he tried to reassure her that he had at least been found in the cloakroom on the Brighton Line. "The line," she informed him, "is immaterial."

Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest reminds us of one important fact – Victoria Station is, or was, not one station but two, first developed by the Victoria Station and Pimlico Railway Company.

It was in 1862 that the construction of the Victoria Railway Bridge across the Thames at last allowed the London Chatham & Dover Railway Co. to run their trains across the river into the heart of London, to somewhat ramshackle, wooden-fronted premises on the eastern side of the present site. In the same year the rather more prestigious Brighton & South Coast Railway opened up on the adjacent western side.

A year before, in 1861, the Brighton Line had been completed with six platforms and ten tracks beside a brand new 300 bedroom hotel known as The Grosvenor. Only a brick wall separated the LB&SCR from the LC&DR which by 1869 had expanded to contain nine tracks serving the Thames estuary and Channel ports.

To make matters more complicated there was even a mixture of broad gauge and narrow gauge tracks in those days so that Great Western Railway trains (using the seven foot and one quarter-inch gauge) could be accommodated. The other companies used the 'standard gauge' (four foot, eight and a half inches).

This discrepancy didn't matter in the days when private railway companies had sliced Britain up like a cake so that each company ran its own trains in its own livery on its own tracks to destinations for which it held a monopoly.

At the centre of this 'cake' was London and each company tried to outstrip the others by building more and more impressive railway termini, often with hotels attached, in order to impress the public and vie with each other for the lucrative mid-Victorian travel boom. Euston, Paddington, King's Cross, Fenchurch, London Bridge and Waterloo had already arrived by the time that the Victoria Railways Bridge had made Victoria Station into the vital link with the south coast ports and the Continent.

If today we think that the micro-chip and information technology are propelling us into a revolution that is almost beyond our comprehension, the railway boom of the 1840s and 1860s was almost certainly as devastating in its far-reaching effects.

Vast areas of slums were pulled down to create the London railway system. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and often left homeless to make way for cuttings, embankments, bridges and stations in great swathes through the sprawl of mean streets that surrounded smart central London.

Then the poor lived where many London Portrait readers live today and needed to be within walking distance of Mayfair and Bloomsbury, Piccadilly and Westminster, where they worked. The underground didn't exist and omnibuses were too expensive. Coupled with the chaos and displacement caused by the coming of the railways, London experienced a staggering increase in its population. From 865,000 in 1800, the population grew only to 1,500,000 in thirty years. But from 1841 onwards the population grew by another half million every ten years.

At the same time the rich were moving out to the spacious new development areas of Kensington, Bayswater, Clapham, Sydenham and elsewhere – all thanks to the huge speculative building boom characterised by the pillared and cream stucco fronted houses that are so familiar today [see: Regent's Park and Nash]. The railways made the outward migration possible and to some extent made it necessary too.

Victoria Station was a key element in the revolution which effectively made London what it is today. In the Cyclopaedia of London, written before the Great Exhibition of 1851 and before Victoria Station was even planned, the author foresees the day when travel between London and Brighton will be so quick by rail that travellers will be quite grateful that there's any journey time at all – so that they can accustom themselves between shaking hands with friends in London and greeting new friends in Brighton.

The railway termini are, he says, 'the gates of the world' where Victorians could 'follow with antiquarian interest the route of Henry the Fifth's invading army via Southampton – looking for the samphire on Shakespeare's cliff at Dover; or, if we are in a great hurry, whirling away on the other side of the Channel to Paris or Cologne, towards Italy or Vienna, towards Siberia or Timbuctoo'. The journey to Paris, he predicted, would be eleven hours – and that was in the days when the 'excellent [horse] coaches reached York from London in a week, God willing'.

It is worth considering for a moment what the twin stations at Victoria meant to a generation which, until the arrival of the railways a few years before, had never travelled any faster than a horse could gallop or further than a carriage could take them. From Victoria, the piers at Brighton could fill paddle-steamers with a new generation of prosperous middle and upper-class adventurers who were happy to call themselves 'tourists' and who, for a few guineas earned out of Britain's burgeoning industry and commercial empire, could travel further and quicker than ever before – just by opening a steam valve.

In 1900 and on the profits of this new trade, the London Chatham & Dover Railway amalgamated with the South Eastern Railway to form the South Eastern & Chatham Railway Co. This was then so successful in developing the track system which served the southern suburbs of London that plans were laid to do away with the scruffy wooden-fronted station buildings and redevelop the whole site. Facilities had been so cramped that in 1870 a special new station had been built, called Grosvenor Road, at the northern end of the bridge over the Thames – where trains bound for Victoria were stopped for tickets to be collected.

Grosvenor Road station vanished in 1907 and the imposing building we know today was opened in 1908 with ample facilities for ticket collections – not to mention its own Post Office and gas-lit booking halls. It had rest rooms and all the conveniences that an Edwardian traveller might expect before boarding such opulent trains as the 'Golden Arrow' Pullman service to Dover and the three-times-daily, non-stop 'Brighton Belle' which was composed only of Pullman coaches.

Before long the new South Eastern company had developed the short sea crossing routes to Calais, Dieppe, Flushing and Ostend, almost as if they had foreseen the Great War of 1914-18.

For four years Victoria Station became not so much the 'gateway to the world' as the gateway to the hell and carnage of Flanders, The Somme and, with any luck, the Blighty wound that would bring a man back home, maimed but at least alive. There, where we now bewail the queues at the ticket office, men just back from the Western Front were greeted by another army of volunteer soup kitchens and put into the care of Red Cross VAD nurses.

But even in war the two stations were separated and divided until the wall came down in 1923 when the SE&CR combined with the LB&SC and LSWR to form the huge Southern Railway – one of the 'Big Four'.

The reconstruction of the old 'Brighton Line' half of the station before the Great War (and at a cost of £2 million) caused far-reaching effects on the whole area. The new frontage was set back 25 feet to allow for the creation of the present (omni)-bus terminus, while a hill was actually created along Buckingham Palace Road so that Eccleston Bridge could cross the tracks.

Impressive houses, hotels and shops sprang up to cater for the new 16-acre station which became one large concourse when the dividing wall was removed – even though the two halves are still architecturally distinct.

Eventually the nine-storey Victoria House was constructed over the new underground stations and the Victoria Palace Theatre of Varieties rose to replace the old Standard Music Hall.

Victoria Station was not named after Queen Victoria herself but after Victoria Street which had been called Shaftsbury Terrace until it was rebuilt in 1851 to become famous later on for high class shops and stores such as the Army & Navy.

Just as Victoria Station had become 'grand', so did the whole area become grand too – until, in the late 1950s and 1960s the rot began to set in. Nationalisation may have taken much of the glamour out of the railways – and certainly much of the economic efficiency – though electrification had started as early as 1909 with an overhead 6,700 volts AC system which was later converted and extended to a Third Rail system at 660 volts DC covering the whole region.

However, were still steam engines on the Oxted, Uckfield and East Grinstead line until 1963 and generations of schoolboys – including me in the 1950s – still took steam trains to London to buy their school uniforms at Gorringes just round the corner from Victoria Station. Afterwards they might have been treated to tea at the Hotel Rubens (a sister to the Van Dyke, Rembrandt and Vanderbilt hotels in South Kensington). Just as good was tea at Messrs J. Lyons & Co. in the spectacular Pillar Hall Restaurant inside the station – now desecrated by pedestrian planners at British Rail.

What really killed the great days of the railways was air travel and the motorway. Even before World War ll Victoria had offered the first rail/air link to Imperial Airways flying boats from Southampton to Australia and the Middle East. It was not long after the war that BOAC opened its own terminal in Buckingham Palace Road, connected by coach to the newly-built Heathrow airport. Nearby the Victoria Coach Station offered yet another threat to the railway. As the motorway system expanded and air travel killed off the passenger liners, Victoria Station was left with British United Airways (now Caledonian Airlines), plus hordes of low-spending cross-Channel tourists who, like the local commuters, wanted cheap convenience rather than the former splendour and service.

The nationalised British Railways was happy to oblige and the result is the sad and shabby sight we see today. Even the Royal Family seldom use the Royal Lounge on platform 2 nowadays.

The famous News Theatre, opened in 1937 to show short films and newsreels to waiting passengers, is still there – but empty. Instead, British Rail speaks proudly of electronic indicator boards, a £45 million signalling scheme, a £750,000 plan to modernise the interior of the station and a £1.3 million Sealink Centre.

Overhead a five-storey office block has broken through the Victorian steel and glass barrel roof in a joint enterprise with Greycoat Estates that should have provided the station with a new Gatwick Rail-Link Terminus above platforms 9 - 19. Instead all they've got at the moment is a vast, empty concrete slab, 20ft above the tracks because financial cuts have stopped the programme (though the non-stop train service will soon be starting without the check-in, departure and new platform facilities they had planned). [These have since been remedied to some extent]

Quite incongruously, and some might say insensitively, garish colours, Bauhaus design and functional modernity has filled the famous concourse. Yet there's still a Night Train direct to Paris via the Dover-Dunkerque train ferry. Yes, there's still one strip of wall with a preserved ceramic and mosaic map of the old LB&SC main line system and, yes, there are such things as shops, a hair stylist, a bank, a chemist and places where you can book hotels, theatre tickets and get information. There's even a French-style bistro – to make the French feel they've truly arrived in England?

What there is not is any sense of pride and purpose. What is lacking is courteous service, sensitive design and an atmosphere of assured and confident humanity in BR's attempts to serve the public.

No one in their right mind wants to go back to leather luggage and the smell of greasy steam, but if British rail really believes that Victoria Station and others like it have a future, then they must forget the garish gimmicks and tawdry attempts to put a modern face on a building that has dignity to the depths of its foundations.

Sad to say, Lady Bracknell would be still less impressed now by Victoria Station than she was 88 years ago. Let's hope British Rail will take a fresh look at the place and earnestly attempt to win the old girl round.

Captions to original article:

Victoria Station dressed for the arrival of Royalty in 1901.

The workman’s Penny Train arrives in 1865.

The taxi chaos was no better a century ago.

Buses and taxis always competed for forecourt space.

In 1903 tea was served from a pot on the platform.

© (1983) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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