Times review of Cathedrals of Steam

Review by Richard Godwin

London has 14 railway termini, more than any other city in the world. It has no Grand Central station like New York, nothing the Germans would call a Hauptbahnhof. It has no significant mainline stations that aren’t termini either and no line circling the city, like Paris’s Petite Ceinture. If you’re travelling from Manchester to Southampton, or Bristol to Norwich, say, you must change trains in London. Twice.

Of the 14, three are within a five-minute walk of each other (King’s Cross, St Pancras, Euston), three more line the north bank of the Thames (Victoria, Charing Cross, Cannon Street) and one is surely imaginary, existing only in Monopolyland (apparently 19 million passengers use Fenchurch Street each year, but I’ve never met one).

The first to be built, London Bridge (1836), is like a labyrinth from a Jorge Luis Borges poem, operating on many levels of track and consciousness simultaneously (“. . . the galleries seem straight/ But curve furtively, forming secret circles/ At the terminus of years”). Only after 1,000 journeys will the commuter unlock its mysteries — by which time all the exits will have changed places again.

None of this had to be this way, as the prolific railway historian Christian Wolmar stresses in this affable guided tour. Wolmar dedicates his book to John Betjeman, the saviour of St Pancras, “whose writing I sadly cannot match”. I’m glad he said it. But while he doesn’t offer much by way of lyricism, Wolmar builds a compelling narrative that celebrates these industrial wonders — and teases at how much better spent some of that Victorian money might have been.

All the “cathedrals of steam” were built in a four-decade burst of speculation between 1836 and 1874 (Marylebone, “a public library from Nottingham which has unexpectedly found itself in London”, as Betjeman described its quaint size, was the outlier, arriving in 1899). All would today be classed as “megaprojects”, costing hundreds of millions of pounds and making — conservative estimate — 120,000 people homeless. And all were built with no government help by “rapacious land grabbers” whose main thought was making life difficult for their rivals. The Victorians believed competition would sort out the men from the boys. No one, as Wolmar writes, “was giving any thought to the creation of a unified rail network; much effort was, however, put into ways of ensuring shareholders received a good return on investment”.

Competition did produce a few masterpieces. Why did the Midland Railway commission a vast neo-gothic hotel and majestic engine shed at St Pancras? Because its directors wanted to outdo the elegant twin arches of Great Northern’s King’s Cross next door. But while the spirit of the age could produce Brunel’s Paddington, it could also produce a mess. If you have ever wondered why Victoria’s platforms are split in two sections, it’s because for most of its history Victoria was operated as two stations by rival companies with a massive wall between them. In The Importance of Being Earnest Jack is quick to remark that he was found in a handbag on the (classier) Brighton side. “The line is immaterial!” comes Lady Bracknell’s reply.

Perhaps a love of detail for its own sake goes with the territory. I’m not sure I needed Wolmar to tell me that the company that provided refreshments at Waterloo was founded during the Australian gold rush of 1850. However, the incidentals are usually well chosen. A young Thomas Hardy found work exhuming graves for the construction of St Pancras. Waterloo, King’s Cross and Victoria all fell prey to “trunk murders” — a 1920s vogue for depositing murder victims in left luggage. The Eastern Counties Railway company spent £15 14s on firearms during its incursions into the dangerous Shoreditch slums. If you find people applying mascara on trains annoying, be thankful no one is cooking a herring.

Prostitutes soon cottoned on to the fact that if you pulled down the blinds of a first-class compartment leaving Charing Cross, you could get everything done in the seven minutes it took to reach Cannon Street — all for sixpence. This extracurricular activity declined once the service was diverted via Waterloo Junction. I felt a particular pang for the lost continental glamour of Charing Cross, which once featured a soaring glass roof and boat trains that could take you to Paris in six and a half hours.

And those Fat Controllers really hated each other. Edward Watkin, director of the Metropolitan line, and James Staats Forbes, director of the District line, couldn’t be in the same room. Trouble was, it fell to these two men to create the inner ring that would link all the mainline stations. When the forerunner to the Circle Line finally opened in 1884 (the Metropolitan initially ran clockwise, the District anticlockwise) they still weren’t averse to chaining the odd engine to the other’s track out of spite.

Wolmar is good on the long-term consequences of station building. By the time Liverpool Street was built in 1874, parliament was asking that some compensation be made to the communities it upended. So Great Eastern offered dirt cheap early morning “worker” fares. Working-class neighbourhoods duly bloomed down the line from Liverpool Street in Hackney, Tottenham, Edmonton, Walthamstow and Enfield. The Great Northern route into King’s Cross via Alexandra Palace was twice the price — and remained respectably bourgeois.

I wonder if there’s some general law that can be extrapolated from this? Civilisations inevitably take long-term decisions when they are at their most aggressive and thrusting. Consequently they will always be haunted by ghosts from whenever that period happened to be. The 21st-century commuter is trapped in a Victorian boardroom squabble.

But there is much cause for optimism. Even London Bridge looks spanking these days — and unloved Euston will have its second chance with HS2. During lockdown, passenger numbers have been as low as 5 per cent of usual capacity. A good time to go and marvel.