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A guest post by London Historians Member Peter Darley.

robert stephensonA new thoroughfare, Stephenson Walk, will create a community facility, an essential through-route for pedestrians and cyclists between Camden and Primrose Hill. It will lead from Oval Road and the Regent’s Canal towpath to Regent’s Park Road bridge, with a possible extension to Primrose Hill Road. A celebration of Robert Stephenson (1803 – 1859), it will provide access to important heritage facilities he created, notably the Winding Engine Vaults and, at a later stage, the Primrose Hill Tunnel east portals. This section of the London & Birmingham Railway (L&BR) became Stephenson’s personal responsibility and he will have walked or ridden the route innumerable times while building the railway.

There had never been a project approaching the size and complexity of the L&BR, the first railway authorised to extend into London as far as the New Road (now the Euston Road) for passenger services. Yet Robert Stephenson  was appointed engineer-in-chief for the whole line in September 1833, when not yet thirty.

He spent the next ten years working for the L&BR, living first in Downshire Hill in Hampstead, and then from 1834 to 1843 at 5 Devonshire Place, one of a pair of semi-detached villas on the west side of Haverstock Hill, close to the corner with Belsize Grove. The house had a stable attached (out of view to the left of the photograph of 1903) where a groom, a carriage, a phaeton for his wife and one or two horses were accommodated. The photo shows part of the turning circle in front of the house. A modern block of flats called Romney Court now occupies the site.

stephenson house

5 Devonshire Place, 1903.

Stephenson’s wife Fanny, whom he married in 1829, died childless in 1842 and is buried in the cemetery of St John’s, Hampstead, the church where they worshipped. Robert, despite her entreaties, never married again. He is buried in Westminster Abbey beside Thomas Telford, another highly distinguished civil engineer.

As Chief Engineer for the L&BR Stephenson established the construction technology for the railway age. The Primrose Hill contract, the first nine miles from Camden Town, including Primrose Hill Tunnel and cutting, proved a difficult section of line and had driven the appointed contractor into bankruptcy after problems with ground conditions, particularly the swelling of blue London Clay exposed to the atmosphere. The engineer personally supervised the direct labour he employed to replace the contractor’s workforce.

The opening of passenger services from Euston in 1837 signalled the decline of longer distance commuting by road. But the initial stimulus for construction of the L&BR was goods traffic, a competitive threat to which the Regent’s Canal Company responded by insisting that railways take goods traffic no further into London than the canal. Camden Goods Station was therefore built adjacent to the Hampstead Road alongside the Regent’s Canal and rapidly developed into an important interchange depot, stimulating the growth of local industry and commerce in Camden.

The former goods depot and neighbouring areas, re-designated as the Chalk Farm Railway Lands, is an area in flux, with greatly intensified commercial and residential developments in the pipeline. Reconfiguring the former railway lands creates a unique opportunity for new through routes that serve the wider community and provide planning coherence across these diverse developments. Foremost among such routes is Stephenson Walk, soon to be the subject of a feasibility study.

Both the mainline railway and the former goods depot have left a railway heritage of international importance, one with which Camden Railway Heritage Trust (CRHT) has been involved for 15 years. Primrose Hill Tunnel east portals and the stationary winding engine vaults, both works by Robert Stephenson dating from 1837, have joined the Roundhouse as Grade II* listed structures. They form part of the Camden Railway Heritage Trail described on the CRHT website and in a pocket trail guide.

Stephenson Walk will facilitate public access to his railway heritage and act as a stage in its future restoration. It will not only reconnect the public to the area’s history, much of which he created, but foster a civic pride to offset the sense of loss that urban intensification can engender.

rsstatueRobert Stephenson remains virtually uncelebrated in this part of Camden, despite his long and fruitful association with the area. His statue resides at Euston station, at the west end of the elevated entrance forecourt, dwarfed by tower blocks, surveying a site from which every feature he created has been obliterated. Over its 150-year life the statue has already been relocated twice in response to development pressures and will have to move again before the station is redeveloped for HS2. He would be far more at home in a permanent location on Stephenson Walk, gazing at his railway across the entrance to the Stationary Winding Vaults.

Statue Image: London Remembers

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