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Review of Cathedrals of Steam By Christian Wolmar. A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.

‘These odd gazebos were a strange, eccentric even, addition to the station but were famous for the aroma of tea and buttered toast that wafted out of their open windows, mixing with the smoke and steam on the bustling platforms.’ Wolmar on ‘The Workers’ Station’, Liverpool Street, in Cathedrals of Steam.

I see that this is the third new book I have reviewed for London Historians in a couple of years concerning the London railway termini* and their hinterlands. Christian Wolmar is an affable transport expert, railway historian, author, and former London mayoral hopeful whose knowledge of our city runs deep. Whereas the other books I have on this subject were enjoyable to dip into, his is one that you can happily settle down to read from cover to cover.

It is, I think, aimed more at the cathedral lover than the steam enthusiast, though of great interest to both. Why would a history of the railway termini be interesting if you are not an enthusiast? London does not have much of its defensive city wall and gateways left to see, but the central metropolis is corralled by an impressive ring of Victorian rail termini. I learnt here that it has the most of any city: fourteen compared with Paris’s seven. (Beijing and Mumbai have five apiece.) Those termini, in a variety of architectural styles, reflecting the regions of the country with their different personalities, for example the self-confident newly affluent industrial midlands, and the South Coast playground of the rich with its golf links and race courses. (Check those out on the early 20th century tiled map at Victoria.)


Victoria Station

This being Britain, the termini arose in a totally unplanned manner, the only control at the outset being that they did not encroach south of the Georgian New Road. They had a massive impact on London, displacing its poor, enriching its lawyers in the course of all that displacement, testing the pockets of investors, and swelling the flood of produce and people.

By chance I was very recently enjoying another of Wolmar’s books, The Subterranean Railway (2004). It revealed to me how despite the lack of planning and indeed the intense and destructive competition between companies, the underground railway (Paddington to Moorgate) used to see direct services from trains accessing the main lines out of King’s Cross, St Pancras and other stations, making for a much more integrated service than we have today.

Wolmar’s tour takes us around in chronological order. Now, who doesn’t love a Victorian viaduct? If I asked you which is our country’s greatest viaduct you might by tempted to answer with that fog furled colossus of Ribblehead. But, if so, you would be neglecting the 878 arches which brought London’s first passenger railway, the London to Greenwich, into London Bridge station in 1836. It is still a feature of south east London, though considerably widened since. Unfortunately its engineer, Landmann, is perhaps now only remembered in the name of the road leading to the rubbish incinerator for south east London.


Landmann Way.

Next is Euston. I did not know that the station originally consisted of almost nothing but the expensive, famous and forbidding Doric arch with only a cheapskate shanty beyond. Some want to reproduce the arch. What I would love to see is the recovery of the later great hall (which I never saw) with the grand stair by which you made a dignified ascent to your waiting train.

And on we go. The timeless simplicity of King’s Cross, the gothic oddity of St Pancras, the neat and hidden away elegance of Fenchurch Street, the ghost of Broad Street, and so on. I learned that the author of the Victorian genre-initiating book ‘Self-Help,’ Samuel Smiles, was responsible for obtaining land at Charing Cross for a terminus, and that it once shared with Cannon Street an overbearing high arched roof, the pair described as ‘Brobdingnag Poke-bonnets.’


The coal drops at King’s Cross.

Odd comments that Wolmar has written in passing have me frowning and considering if he is quite correct. I will mention a couple. Of the Waterloo and City Line, the projection of Waterloo Station into the City, the author writes that it is ‘known colloquially as “The Drain” because of its notoriously leaky tunnel.’ Now, I have walked through it, both bores, with an engineer, and I can say that it is an unusually dry tunnel, particularly for one that crosses a great river. We are also told that Cannon Street Station was built on the site of a ‘medieval ironworks’ which I take to be his spin on the fact that the Hanseatic League’s steelyard, the merchants’ weighing scale, used to stand there.


The towers of Cannon Street Station.

If you already have a shelf full of railway books you may not feel the need to add this volume, but if you have not opened your heart to the joys of vicarious Victorian railway travel, or mugged up on this aspect of London’s social and architectural history then I thoroughly commend this book. It covers everything from these cathedrals’ inaugural banquets to their first public conveniences. But what this book also does, which some of the more niche ones about lines and stations cannot, is provide a more panoramic view of the economic and social revolution ignited by the railways in London.

The final two chapters bring the story up to date with bombs landing in two world wars, and the gradual electrification of the lines. Post war decades were lean years for the railways, and as much the Age of the Curling Ham Sandwich as Jimmy Savile’s Age of the Train. But these were also the years in which poet John Betjeman managed to kindle an interest in railway architecture, so that its highest expressions remain for us to enjoy.

Stations, however lofty, see both the high rollers and the dregs of humanity. In Victorian times even the dregs sound quite appealing, with complaints that workmen sometimes cooked herrings in the waiting rooms. For those of you that cherish your cars, I can say that railway termini still offer interest and a sense of occasion which your motorway services will never begin to approach. Get to know them with Christian Wolmar.

* The author has chosen to use ‘terminuses’ as the plural of terminus throughout the book, explaining that ‘ there seems no good reason to use Latin plurals for a technology that the Romans, despite their fantastic ingenuity, did not develop.’


Cathedrals of Steam, 352 pages, hardback, illustrated, is published today, 5 November, by Atlantic Books with a cover price of £25.00.

Christian Wolmar will be giving an online talk this coming Tuesday at 7pm via Zoom £3 – £5 + fee. You can book your place here


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