History of the Greenwich line

The London Bridge – Greenwich railway was the first in London. Building started in April 1834 and it opened in stages: from Spa Road to Deptford in February 1836; from London Bridge to Deptford in December 1836; and from London Bridge to Greenwich in December 1838.          

View from Spa RoadIt is built completely on 878 brick arches, creating a continuous viaduct of nearly 3.5miles, the longest run of arches in Britain. The arches are Grade II listed. Early attempts to put housing underneath the arches were unsuccessful, and the spaces were used by local businesses, as they still are today.

The biggest problem in building the line was the need to cross the River Ravensbourne. The ground conditions were difficult and a passageway for ships in the busy wharves of Deptford Creek had to be retained. It was agreed to build a drawbridge over the River, to allow access for ships, and it took two years to build the short section from Deptford to Greenwich. The original bridge was replaced in 1884, and the bridge seen today dates from 1963. It has a 40-ton centre platform that lifts vertically, and takes three minutes to lift. It was built by Sir William Arrol & Co. Ltd., of Glasgow at a cost of £92,000, but the bridge is now no longer in use.

At the line’s opening, fares  were one shilling (5p) first class; and eight pence (3p) second class. In 1845, the London & Greenwich ceased operating as a Company, and the line was leased to South Eastern Railway.

Bradshaw’s Handbook of 1863 says of Deptford that “the principal object of attraction…..is its dockyard, which has three building slips; but it is chiefly used as a victualling yard, the river being crowded with transports”. Bradshaw’s then gives a detailed and glowing description of Greenwich, and concludes “These are the principal objects of attraction and amusement in Greenwich and its beautiful Park, which have diverted for centuries generation after generation of the good folks of London; and we cannot but hope that the Park and the Heath may be preserved for ages to come, as an oasis in the desert, when the mighty city has spread its suburbs far beyond it, into the hills and dales of the surrounding country.”

Later extensions.  In January 1864, the line was extended from London Bridge to Charing Cross, and in September 1866 to Cannon Street.

In the other direction, it took 40 years before the line was extended from Greenwich to Maze Hill. The original intention had been to build a line from London to Dover, but putting a railway in a tunnel under the Royal Park ran into strong opposition from the Admiralty , as they feared it would upset the instruments in the Royal Observatory. After another attempt to get Parliamentary approval failed in May 1846, the railway company decided instead to build a more circuitous route through Lewisham, Blackheath and Charlton, which opened in July 1849.

Maze Hill station was opened in January 1873, when the line was opened from there to the North Kent line at Charlton, but it was not until February 1878 that Greenwich and Maze Hill were eventually connected, and the full Greenwich line opened. The present Greenwich station also opened at the same time. Westcombe Park (Coombe Farm Lane) station opened in 1879. For more details about the stations go to History of the Stations

A little known curio is that from 1850 to 1901 the London & Greenwich ran trains on the right-hand side; the only British railway ever to do so. When the line was connected to the North Kent line at Charlton, this caused operational problems and a scissors crossing had to be installed to enable trains to cross over to the left. This arrangement ended on 26th May 1901.

The line was electrified on 6th June 1926

Accidents. There have been two accidents of note on the line. The first, on 30th October 1856, occurred between Greenwich and Deptford. A train had left Greenwich station but did not cross over to the up track through some fault in the points, and it continued on the wrong line towards Deptford. It was dark and the driver did not notice until crossing the Ravensbourne bridge. Although he slowed down, the inevitable collision happened near Deptford station and 36 passengers, both drivers, guards and firemen were injured. The subsequent enquiry blamed wrong routing, coupled with lack of driver vigilance, for the accident but also said “the underlying lesson is the folly of the track and signal layout and the method of working employed at the station”.

The second accident was on 4th July 1958 at Maze Hill. A four-coach electric passenger train from Gravesend to Charing Cross ran past a red signal on its approach to Maze Hill station. It collided head-on with a nine-coach empty steam passenger stock train leaving the sidings and being shunted across the up line. The driver of the electric train saw the obstruction ahead and applied the brakes, but the collision occurred at a speed of 25mph. 45 people were injured.

The other Greenwich line, to Greenwich Park.

Greenwich Park station
Greenwich Park Station

The South Eastern Railway Company had a fierce rival – the London, Chatham and Dover Railway. They also wanted to build a line to Greenwich, terminating at a station called Greenwich Park. This line was opened as far as Blackheath Hill in September 1871, but did not reach Greenwich Park until October 1888 because of a lack of funds.

Old wall
Friends of Royal Hill community gardens – the old retaining wall for the railway cutting

Greenwich Park station was on Stockwell Street, where the Ibis Hotel and car park are now. Hardly anything remains of this line, but some of the retaining wall for the cutting the railway ran in could be seen in the Friends of Royal Hill community gardens. Unfortunately, these gardens are now closed. At this point, the railway ran diagonally underneath Burney Street, Royal Hill and Peton Place. The booking office for Lewisham Road station now forms part of the famous Aladdin’s Cave on Loampit Hill.

This line was never very successful as it was a circuitous route from stations in the City and trains took around 30 minutes to reach Greenwich Park, compared with the 11 minutes from London Bridge to Greenwich. The line closed in January 1917, but the track from Nunhead to Lewisham is still in use today for freight services and the Victoria – Gravesend services via Bexleyheath, providing a useful link from the Blackheath and Lewisham area to Peckham, King’s College and Victoria.