Archive for the ‘Public Transport’ Category

I live a matter of a few hundred yards from the major trunk road in question, so when I spotted this in a shop in Kew last week, I had to have it.


It’s a print commemorating the opening of the Great West Road in 1925 by George V and Queen Mary (who’d be a monarch, eh?). Made of tissue and folded like a paper napkin, it would have been dished out to the local crowds, or perhaps sold for a penny or two. It’s in really good condition, a remarkable survival.

The text badly spills over into the border decoration. This tells us, I think, that the souvenir printers made large stocks of coloured templates and then customised them for different occasions by overprinting text etc in black.

“The new Great West Road which has just been completed at a cost of £1,000,000 , will be opened by the King, accompanied by the Queen to-day. 

This new arterial road, which is eight miles in length, has for the greater part a width of 120ft. It extends from the Chiswick High-road near Kew Bridge, by-passes Brentford and enables traffic to avoid the congestion bottle-neck in the town.

The road continues through Isleworth and meets the main road again at the Bath Road, just beyond the Hounslow Barracks Station, then crosses the main road and passing through Hatton Village, joins the main Staines Road at Bedfont.” 

The building of the Great West Road was essential. Historically, the route to Bath and the west ran through Brentford. There was bad enough congestion during the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but once cars, buses, lorries and especially trams hit the streets, the narrow high street became all but impassable.

It didn’t take long for large businesses to realise the potential that the new thoroughfare offered. Beautiful industrial art deco buildings sprang up, giving us Brentford’s “Golden Mile”.

LH Member James Marshall wrote a book about this back in 1995. It’s out-of-print now, so available copies are very pricy. They are easily borrowed from local libraries however.






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Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Heathrow Airport, officially opened for commercial air travel on 31 May 1946. Initially, it was rather prosaically named London Airport, only becoming officially Heathrow sometime later, to many of us simply LHR. London Airport took over the role as London’s main airport from Croydon Aerodrome which had operated in that capacity since 1920.

But the origins of Heathrow as an airport go back to the early days of aviation. West London had been the base for military aircraft manufacturers such as Sopwith (later Hawker) in Kingston and Fairey in Hayes. Such was the craze for aviation in the early decades of the 20th Century that airstrips were common in London suburbia in places like Hendon, Croydon, Northolt … and a hamlet near Hounslow Heath called Heathrow. That now lost village existed from medieval times roughly where Terminal 3 is today.

Fairey Aviation, led by Sir Richard Fairey, having been evicted from Northolt by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s, bought land and developed a three runway aerodrome in the Heathrow area during the 1930s. It was variously known as Harmondsworth Aerodrome, Great West Aerodrome and Heathrow Aerodrome. But in 1944, under emergency powers, the government once again evicted Fairey from their home – without compensation. Hard to credit their grim luck. Not knowing what to do with it after the war, the aerodrome was turned over to civilian use. Result: London Airport.


Aerial image of LHR in the mid-1950s.

The following 10 years, the airport became very busy indeed, and yet it took until the mid-1950s for permanent terminals to be built: Terminal 1 Britannic (later Terminal 2, recently demolished and rebuilt); and Terminal 2 Oceanic (later Terminal 3 we still know, albeit re-developed). Terminal 1 was added in 1969, and that’s the way things stayed until Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 on the South Perimeter, the first passenger Terminal outside the central terminal complex. Terminal 5 opened near the West Perimeter in 2008. Terminal 1 is now awaiting demolition while the development of a modern expanded Terminal 2 continues. In addition to all of this there has been a long-term cargo area on the South Perimeter.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

The stars of any airport, of course, are the aircraft. Today the skies and runways are dominated by the giants birds of Boeing and Airbus. But we look back, perhaps ruefully, to the days when Britain played a more active role with our Viscounts, BAC 1-11s, Comets, VC10s. Best, fastest and most beautiful of all of course was much-loved and much missed Concorde, lost to us forever at the turn of this century. Most of all, LHR was her home. And while British Airways is such in name only a member of this or that “alliance”, some of us rue the passing of BEA, BOAC, British Midland, British Caledonian and so on. Especially those, like me, who worked at LHR years ago and today still live under her flight path. From where I’m writing this I look out the window where aircraft fly by every minute all day long: I love them all.

Happy birthday, Heathrow!

Excellent Crown Film Unit footage of the construction of early Heathrow.
Heathrow Airport history timeline on Wikipedia.

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A guest post by LH Member, Laurence Scales.

Herbert William Garratt (08 Jun 1864–25 Sep 1913)

In 1902 engineer Herbert Garratt patented ‘an improved egg-opener’ for dealing with boiled eggs. In the words of the patent ‘A spring strip or band is bent to form a circular portion a and handles b, and provided with teeth c on the circular portion, preferably by stamping, and is used for breaking-off or opening eggs.’ Unfortunately for Garratt the egg opener never achieved the indispensability of the tin opener, and he did not make his fortune. But greatness still lay ahead.

When my mother, a lover of nature and a painter, reminisced about her childhood in the Transvaal and her journey to school, the words ‘Bayer Garratt’ sounded as incongruous as if I had turned a page of Pride and Prejudice and suddenly found Elizabeth Bennet kicking the tyres of a Harley Davidson. The name of Herbert Garratt, tends to resonate with those of southern African heritage in a way that not even Sir Nigel Gresley could manage with those born near King’s Cross.

Garratt was born in Loddiges Road, Hackney and apprenticed at Bow Locomotive Works on the North London Railway. He then embarked on a career in and beyond the far outposts of the British Empire.

From 1889 to 1906 he worked on railways in Argentina, Cuba, Nigeria and Peru, all the while mulling over the problem of pulling heavy loads along steep and winding mountainous routes. The obvious solution to the problem was to couple several small locomotives together. But this was expensive in manpower and equipment. The alternative was to have one big fat locomotive. But then the boiler and firebox could not sit between the driving wheels or fit through the tunnels.

In 1907 Garratt patented his solution to the big fat problem, a very long articulated steam locomotive. In his design, rather than having the boiler directly above the wheels, a short fat boiler was slung like a hammock between two widely separated bogies (sets of axels). These bogies also carried the pistons, water and fuel. He was supported by Beyer, Peacock & Co. in Manchester. Garratt locomotives did not just sell around the British Empire. There were already rival designs notably those of Robert Fairlie (who lived in Clapham) and Anatole Mallet (Swiss) but the Garratts had advantages: energy efficiency, gentleness on the track and higher top speed.

The Garratts were a strange sight. In a sense they were like man-made elephants – enormous and with strange appendages. Perhaps they commanded in Africa the same awe and affection as the elephants with which they co-existed.

Rhodesia Railways

Rhodesia Railways

Rhodesia Railways

Rhodesia Railways

Rhodesia Railways

Rhodesia Railways

The first Garratt locomotive, known as K1, was more of a mouse built in 1910 for the narrow gauge of Tasmania. Sadly, Garratt died at his Ellerker Gardens home in Richmond in 1913 before he had lived to see his locomotive design succeed. Eventually 1,600 Garratt locomotives ran on 86 railways in 48 countries, greatly assisting their trade and development.

Although a rarity in Britain some Garratts, including the first, from Tasmania, can be seen working today on the steep narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway where the same requirement for power with economy drove the choice of motive power when the defunct line reopened in 2011.


Further images of Garratt Locomotives

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Sometime before the birth of powered flight – even before the Wright brothers themselves were born – there was the Royal Aeronautical Society. Founded on the 12 January 1866 in London, today is its 150th anniversary. Many happy returns.

The British Aeronautical Society HQ at 4 Hamilton Place, London W1.

The British Aeronautical Society HQ at 4 Hamilton Place, London W1.

The oldest of its kind in the world, the Society was founded as the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, holding its first public meeting on 27 June 1866. It became the RAeS in 1918 and moved into its current HQ – an elegant five storey building near Park Lane – in 1938.

The Society’s aims are to promote and support the advancement of aerospace through its 67 international branches. Society gold medal winners – rarely bestowed – include the Wright brothers, Frank Whittle, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, Sir Frederick Handley Page and most recently the aerospace entrepreneur Elon Musk.

We wish the Society all the best for the next 150 years.

Royal Aeronautical Society on Wikipedia.
Royal Aeronautical Society history page.
Royal Aeronautical Society 150 commemoration.

Royal Aeronautical Society on Twitter: @AeroSociety


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A guest post by London Historians Member, Simon Fowler, who remembers London’s worst railway crash. 

harrowplaque200Today marks the anniversary of London (and England’s) worst railway disaster and one of only three accidents in the United Kingdom in which more one hundred people lost their lives. In total, 112 people died and more than 300 were injured. It was also an exceptionally rare three train collision.

The accident took place at Harrow and Wealdstone station in north London at exactly 8.19am on 8 October 1952. It was a very foggy morning. The 7:31am Tring to Euston local passenger train stopped at Harrow and Wealdstone station, seven minutes late due to the fog. It had switched to the fast line just before the station to keep the slow lines to the south clear for empty stock movements. Carrying approximately 800 passengers, the train was much fuller than normal, as the previous service had been cancelled.

At 8.19 am, just as the guard was walking back to his brake van after checking doors on the last two carriages, the train was struck from behind by the night express from Perth travelling between 50 and 60mph.

The Perth sleeper train consisted of 46242 City of Glasgow with eleven carriages and some 85 passengers. Because of fog and other delays it was running approximately eighty minutes late.

A second or two after the first collision the 8am express from Euston to Liverpool and Manchester with its fifteen carriages and 200 passengers hauled by 45637 Windward Islands and 46202 Princess Anne, came through on the adjacent fast line in the opposite direction at about 60mph. The leading locomotive struck the City of Glasgow and came off the track.

Sixteen carriages were destroyed, of which thirteen were concertinaed together under the station footbridge.


The subsequent safety report found that the sleeper train had passed a caution signal and two danger signals before colliding with the local train. Why this occurred will never be known as the driver Jones and fireman Turnock on the footplate of the City of Glasgow – both experienced footplate crew – were killed in the crash. It is likely that the driver was concerned to make up time as the train was running very late and he and the firemen missed the warning signals in the fog.

A subsequent Metropolitan Police report praised the response from the emergency services. Co-ordination on the spot was hampered, however, by the lack of communications equipment. There was only one walkie-talkie that, in the end, was not used. And the only telephone was a walk away.

An exotic element was the arrival of medical personnel from the neighbouring American base at Ruislip. One sergeant from Boston commented on the behaviour of the injured: ‘The British don’t cry’.

The accident had two effects. Firstly it accelerated the introduction of the Automatic Warning System that told drivers that they had passed an adverse signal, although because of the cost its arrival on many lines was very slow. And the crash confirmed the strength of the new all steel carriages British Railways had begun to introduce as they were less severely damaged (and protected passengers better) than the older pre-war wood and steel carriages.

Because the accident happened on the outskirts of London there was huge media interest. As a result, unlike most other railway accidents, it is well documented photographically.

Find out more in Simon Fowler’s Railway Disasters (Pen & Sword, 2013 ISBN ISBN: 9781845631581)

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There is no question in my unbiased mind that our bridges on the Thames are the most interesting from an engineering point of view as well as being the most photogenic, and with magnificent variety. If you agree with me, you’ll love this new free exhibition at Museum of London, Docklands.

London Bridge-1789-Joseph Farrington-drawing; ink; wash-View of London Bridge from the South West. Museum of London ref 54.134/2

Joseph Farrington, drawing; ink; wash-View of London Bridge from the South West, 1789. Museum of London.

For centuries, central London had but one bridge which joined Southwark to the City. Our next crossing point upriver was miles upstream in Surrey at Kingston. Then Westminster Bridge came into being in 1750 and the City – not to be outdone – threw up Blackfriars Bridge in 1766. From then on, there has been no stopping us. Not only do we add extra crossing points frequently to this day (with the Garden Bridge in the immediate pipeline), we seem to like bashing down, extending, widening and rebuilding existing ones. Hence our oldest surviving bridge is the exquisite stone crossing at Richmond from 1780. All the others are relatively much newer.

Apart from a large oil of Waterloo Bridge and a few panoramic items, most pieces in this exhibition are quite small, and some very small indeed. There are photographs, oils, etchings, watercolours, pen n ink, engravings. Highlights include a depiction of Blackfriars Bridge under construction by Piranesi, who never actually visited London, but had met the bridge’s designer, Robert Mylne; an ancient 1840s photograph – the oldest in the museum’s collection – of Old Hungerford Bridge, by William Henry Fox Talbot. There is a gorgeous canvas of Waterloo Bridge (1821) by Charles Deane – the viewpoint is from Lambeth and it features watermen, Thames barges and lighters in the foreground. Old Waterloo Bridge features a lot in this show; I was quite taken by the 1930s demolition photographs by Albert Linney, cited by some as vandalism by Herbert Morrison and leading to the dull but worthy bridge we know today, largely constructed by women during World War Two.

My favourites, though are featured in this post, two series of images: four river views in pen and watercolour by Joseph Farringdon from 1789/90; and three etchings by James McNiell Whistler from around 1860.

The Museum’s Estuary show last year featured at least three or four fascinating film installations. Bridge has just the one – by an artist who featured in Estuary: William Raban. This film, Beating the Bridges from 1998, takes us on a boat journey downstream through Westminster, the City and down the estuary. His filmaker’s eye shows us detail most of us miss; much of the trip’s soundtrack is provided by an in-shot jazz drummer on the boat. So it’s a work with a twinkle in its eye.

64.6/7 -Billingsgate-Whistler, James Abbott McNeill -1859-print /etching published 1871

Billingsgate. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill -1859-print /etching published 1871. Museum of London.

68.7/3-Old Hungerford Bridge-Whistler, James Abbott McNeill-1861

Old Hungerford Bridge. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill-1861. Museum of London.


 Old Westminster Bridge. James Abbott McNeill Whistler,1859. print; etching and dry point. Museum of London.

This is a wonderful show which you must see. I bet most of you reading this have not been to Museum of London Docklands yet. Until early last year, I was in the same shameful position. Regardless of this lovely exhibition, everyone should visit the superb institution on its own merits. A short walk from Canary Wharf or West India Quay on the DLR, it’s really easy to get to. And free.

Bridge at Museum of London, Docklands runs until 2 November 2014.


London Historians’ Thames bridges album on Flickr.

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Guest Post. On the 10th anniversary of Concorde’s final commercial flight, David Long muses on the magic of our magnificent, lost Speedbird.

Concorde“I’ve flown Concorde.” Actually I’ve flown in a Spitfire – a rare two-seater, which is much more unusual – but somehow people relate more to the Concorde experience and even now, 10 years after this shimmering white exemplar of Anglo-French cooperation was canned, those few brief words will still bring a conversation to a sudden green-eyed halt.

For years, right until the very end, its unmistakable profile coming into Heathrow still made people look up – not just tourists, but Londoners too who must have seen it nearly every day – and as a child I remember the conductor at an outdoor concert at Kenwood or maybe Crystal Palace stopping the performance mid-symphony and gesturing for the orchestra to stand and applaud as the magnificent creation passed over.

Generally speaking most of us very quickly get used to anything new, but Concorde was always different. For nearly 30 years it really was one of the sights of London, and it belonged to London in a way that no other aircraft could possibly have done. (On the contrary: who in West London doesn’t literally hate the Boeings and Airbuses crashing into their consciousness at 6am every morning?)

Even people with no interest in aircraft loved Concorde, and in the face of the dreadful disaster in Paris, the far-reaching effects of 9/11, and a growing environmental awareness, most wanted it to continue flying even though for the overwhelming majority the chance of ever climbing aboard was never more than zero.


Admittedly our passion for it sometimes blinds us to the fact that when it all started Concorde wasn’t alone in racing for the stars. The Soviets actually entered service a few months earlier with the similar-looking (and slightly faster) Tupolev Tu-144. But rushed into production for propaganda purposes the shine very quickly came off ‘Concordski’ when one crashed at an airshow (also in Paris as it happens). The Americans took a run at it too, with the much larger Boeing SST – intended to upstage Concorde, it was designed to fly at three times the speed of sound instead of just the two – but the Senate refused to back Nixon as the price spiralled out of control and eventually the one completed fuselage was auctioned off for a mere $31,000

That left only Concorde. Not that it ever made much sense either, financially, although mentioning this now seems vulgar and in decidedly poor taste. Some things, we like to think, are simply above price although there’s no escaping the reality that the original budget of £150 million reached something like two billion of public money before the ‘planes were sold to what is now BA for a mere £1 apiece.

But then there are so many ways in which Concorde made little sense. That graceful, slim shape, for example, meant it was far more cramped than even the cheapest charter. (And this despite the fact that, in flight, it stretched by nearly 10 inches as its surface temperature rises to 100°C+) It was also a good deal noisier than conventional aircraft. Inside, I mean. From outside it was in a whole new league altogether with a signature sonic boom that would have shattered windows more than 60 miles away had it ever broken the sound barrier over land.

And as for the fuel consumption of its four gigantic Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 engines, famously the most powerful jet engines in commercial service? Well, let’s just say that given that they were already slurping 5,638 gallons an hour in the early 1970s – when OPEC started holding the world to ransom with increased prices for crude oil – the ability to fly at twice the speed of sound wasn’t the only miraculous thing about Concorde’s continued existence.

But balancing all of this, and flying at an apparently effortless 1,340mph, few then or now could deny that Concorde was beautiful. Really, really breathtakingly beautiful. It was also, inarguably, such a technological tour de force – the result of more than five million test-flight miles, much of it at Mach speeds – that it quickly came to symbolise European technical achievement and pride in a way which today – post-Dome, post-Eurotunnel, and in the midst of Crossrail – is impossible to imagine. The authorities weren’t blind to its symbolic value either, and when the US finally cleared Concorde to land in America two were sent over, carefully timed to land simultaneously and to taxi up to the terminal in a perfectly orchestrated delta-winged ballet of elegant, nose-drooping, synchronous showing-off.


From then on passengers on both sides of the Atlantic welcomed the chance to slice hours off their journeys: London to New York took less than three and a half hours, roughly half the normal time and surprisingly only 20 minutes more than if Boeing’s rival SST had made it to Mach 3. But, while not quite just a rich man’s toy, the example of Concorde certainly demonstrated that supersonic travel was never going to be for the masses – or at least not any time soon.

By the mid-1980s the hundred passengers on each flight had to cough up £2,200 apiece for a cheap-day return to New York and eventually you could more or less treble this for a fare which made First Class look a snip. The flights were therefore mostly full of corporate grandes fromages, show-biz types and the odd professional sportsmen. (Some of the former did it on a regular basis, like the oil exec. who according to BA was clocking up an average of three supersonic flights a week until the bitter end.)

To such people the time saved was clearly worth the money: the five-hour time difference between the UK and US meant in effect they arrived before they had taken off. But to those down on the ground it is, even now, much harder to say quite what Concorde represented or why 10 years on its loss is still keenly felt. But perhaps some things are never meant fully to be understood, and the truth might just be that Concorde really was that special.


London HIstorians member David Long is a journalist and author of many books, mostly relating to London and its history. His latest – Bizarre London – has just been published.

On this blog, see also.

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