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The First Steam Railway to Operate in London

The invention of the railway was Great Britain’s crown and glory, a vital component in kick-starting the industrial revolution. The stimulus for its earliest development was the ability to move freight, particularly coal, and it was late to arrive in London compared with the industrial North of England. Most of the first passenger railways departing from London were created to carry people far around the country and had little impact on the City until the 1860s. But London’s first railway was a more local matter.[1] The London and Greenwich Railway (L&GR) was opened in London between 1836 and 1838. It was the first steam railway in the capital, the first to be built specifically for passengers, and the first entirely elevated railway. The line ran parallel with Tooley Street, crossing Blue Anchor Road, Corbetts Lane and the Grand Surrey Canal. Then, curving towards the first station, at Deptford High Street, and on to Greenwich. Shortly after the official opening, the line carried around 13,000 passengers on a bank holiday.

The London and Greenwich Railway as it was in 1837. It was opened on 14th December 1836, and was the first railway to operate services into London.

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Picture Credit: Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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The Weekly Chronicle (London)[2] described the ‘curiosity’ which drove many people ‘to make the experiment of a trip by this new conveyance,’ which initially took all of ten minutes. The paper reported the occasion on Sunday 25th December 1836 as follows:

The London and Greenwich Railway – Curiosity has drawn a vast number of persons to make the experiment of a trip by this new conveyance since it was opened by the Lord Mayor last week. Six engines, or tenders, are now in constant use going backwards and forwards every half hour, and oftener as circumstances may require. The trains to Deptford go on the right-hand rail, and those coming from thence on the left. They generally stop, going and coming, to put down or take up passengers at the Bermondsey-road.”

“The carriages are of various constructions, some being close omnibuses, for which the fair is 1 shilling. Other carriages open at the sides, but close[d] at each end, the fare is 9d; and others open all round for which the fare is 6d. The carriages are accompanied by guards in the livery of the company – dark green cloth, with a section of the railway on the button. The distance from Tooley-street to Deptford is generally accomplished in less than 10 minutes, including stoppages, and the necessity of starting and coming in at an easy rate.”

“A part of the journey is, however, done at the rate of 25 miles an hour – proof that in going long distances without interruption, the speed may be easily increased. At present, the train takes about 200 each trip, but the carriages may be increased according to the demand, and one engine may take 12,000 passengers diem. The Deptford end, from the establishment of the manufactories there, is at present the depot for the extra engines and they there undergo frequent and minute inspection, a large arched shed with a cast iron roof, having been raised to shelter the passengers coming and going.”

British Newspapers Archive is an incredible source of information, dating from the 1700s. The majority of the titles they have digitised so far (some 50 million pages) are local and regional newspapers from Britain and Ireland: but don’t imagine that local news is all that they covered.

Local newspapers historically were very different from today: as well as covering (in incredible detail compared to modern times) all the local events and the people and places that featured in them, they would also report news stories from around the country, and indeed from around the world. So, within the same issue, you could discover stories of international importance and a report of prizes awarded at the local agricultural show.

The cost of an annual subscription is £79. © 2021 Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited, in partnership with the British Library

The idea for the line came from Colonel George Thomas Landmann, who was, until 1824, a Royal Engineer, and George Walter, and the railway company was agreed at a meeting on 25th November 1831. It would run from close to London Bridge, convenient for journeys to the City. It would be some 3.75 miles long, on a viaduct of 878 brick arches, some of them skew (see London Bridge-Greenwich Railway Viaduct), to avoid level crossings over the many streets which were already appearing in the south of London. Landmann planned to rent the arches out as workshops. The intention had been to descend to ground level after the Grand Surrey Canal, but Parliament opposed this. The first Act of Parliament was obtained in 1833 for a line from Tooley Street (now London Bridge) to London Street, Greenwich. The ultimate intention was to reach Dover, and there was much talk of a London to Gravesend extension from Greenwich. A scheme was presented to Parliament in 1836, but five others were competing, and the bill failed on its second reading.

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The Viaduct at London Bridge Railway Station (then Tooley Street) in 1836. Picture Credit/Attribution: Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. File URL: 

The line ran parallel with Tooley Street, crossing Blue Anchor Road, Corbetts Lane and the Grand Surrey Canal. It then curved towards the first station, at Deptford High Street, and onwards to Greenwich. The contractor was Hugh McIntosh. The subsoil was a blackish peat, which gave considerable problems, and Landmann pioneered the use of concrete to reinforce the foundations. Even so, several of the piers near Corbetts Lane moved four or five inches out of the perpendicular, and on 18th January 1836, two arches close to Tooley Street collapsed.

Elsewhere, iron ties were used to prevent lateral spread in the brickwork. In 1840, many arches were improved by laying 9 inches of concrete above them, with a layer of asphalt.

Between Deptford and Greenwich, the River Ravensbourne was crossed at Deptford Creek by a balanced bridge to allow masted vessels to pass. Eight men operated it, but it was unreliable – possibly because of trouble with the foundations. It was replaced in 1884 and again in 1963.

Originally, the line had single parallel tracks of Stephenson gauge 4 ft 812 inches, fixed to stone blocks or sleepers. By 1840, there was a mixture of bridge rails, single parallel and double parallel rails (see Rail profile). The original rails caused excessive noise and damage to the structure and rolling stock. Bridge rails were initially used on the viaduct between Deptford and Greenwich, laid on longitudinal timbers with cross sleepers at four-foot intervals. At this time, new double parallel rails of 78 lb. to the yard were laid for a quarter of a mile at Deptford on timber sleepers, presumably as an experiment. The concrete underlay was replaced with gravel ballast 2 feet thick.

The Opening[5]
The first section, between Spa Road and Deptford, opened on 8th February 1836, although demonstration trains had been running from mid-1835, including Corbett’s Lane Temp Station. These were suspended temporarily after a derailment in November 1836 but resumed the following year, with rumours circulating that trains had reached 60 miles per hour (97 km/h). On the Whit Monday following the official opening, the line carried around 13,000 passengers.

In 1837, The Gentleman’s Magazine[6] celebrated the railway project, saying:

“This great national work reflects the highest honour on the gallant proprietor, Colonel Landmann, no less credit on the contractor, Mr Macintosh, under whose orders no less than 60,000,000 bricks have been laid by human hands since the Royal assent was given to the Act of Parliament for its formation in 1833.” [7]

The line reached Bermondsey Street in October 1836 and London Bridge on 14th December 1836 (Spa Road was no longer used as a stop). At the other end, the line reached a temporary station at Church Row in Greenwich on 24th December 1838, having been delayed by problems with the Deptford Creek lift bridge. The present Greenwich station opened on 12th April 1840.

Rolling Stock[8]
The first locomotives were one 2-2-0 built by Charles Tayleur and Company and three by William Marshall of Gravesend, of which one was 2-2-2. All would appear to be of the Stephenson “Planet” type. These were supplemented by two from Bury, subcontracted to George Forrester and Company.

For the first time, horizontal cylinders were mounted at the front of the locomotive outside the frame. While highly successful for their time, they swayed so much that they were called “Boxers”, and a trailing axle was added.

Three more locos followed in the next four years, one each by R and W Hawthorn and Robert Stephenson and Company, with three axles, and one by Day, Summers and Company. This latter one was modified with a trailing axle soon after delivery. Of the four locomotives built by Marshall, the first was named Royal William. One of the other three was numbered 4 and carried the name Twells, after John Twells, a London and Greenwich Railway director. Built in 1836, it was rated at 25 horsepower (19 kW). In 1845, it was sold to the Admiralty and was installed in HMS Erebus, which was lost in 1848 during Franklin’s last search for the Northwest Passage[9].

First and second class coaches were unusual in that the sole bars and headstocks[10] were below the axles. The line being for much of its length on a viaduct, this was a safety measure since the coaches would drop only a few inches onto the rails in the event of a derailment.

Later History[11]
Between 1836 and 1840, the line carried more than 1.25 million passengers a year, probably benefiting from a developing tourist trade.

On 5th June 1839, the London and Croydon Railway (L&CR) opened. It shared the line between Tooley Street and Corbetts Lane (close to what is now Rotherhithe Road), and its station was built between the L&GR station and Tooley Street. It is not clear when the station became known as London Bridge.

It is believed that at Corbetts Lane, the first fixed signal was installed to control a junction, a white disc operated by the pointsman. At night, this red light showed that the route was set for Croydon. If the disc was edge on or a white light showed, the junction was set for Greenwich.

In 1840, permission was obtained for laying additional lines as far as the junction at Corbetts Lane and for improvements and extensions to the stations at London Bridge. These were watched closely by a committee formed by the L&CR, the London and Brighton Railway (L&BR) and the proposed South Eastern Railway. The L&GR and the L&CR exchanged stations to avoid crossing each other at Corbetts Lane. A resited station at Spa Road opened in 1842.

Railways in the South East of England in 1840[12]
By 1843 annual passenger numbers had risen to more than 1.5 million, with an average fare per head of 6½d. The following year, numbers had increased to more than two million, and the average fare had dropped to 5s 2d. Greenwich trains ran every 15 minutes, Croydon trains hourly. However, the company was never financially successful due to the need to repay the very high capital expenditure in building the line.

The increasing congestion of the lines approaching London Bridge and dissatisfaction with the high tolls charged by the L&GR caused the SER and the L&CR to build a new terminus at Bricklayers Arms. It opened in 1844, transferring most services and reducing fares accordingly. This reduction in toll revenues brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Before the opening of Bricklayers Arms, it had approached the SER to suggest buying or leasing the L&GR. The SER took some time to respond, and in the meanwhile, the company received a similar offer from the L&BR and also negotiated reduced tolls with the L&CR. Eventually, the SER agreed to lease the L&GR from 1 January 1845.[13]

The L&GR continued in existence until January 1923, but its activities were restricted to receiving the annual rent from the SER and distributing it to shareholders.[14]

Greenwich Station[15]
Greenwich was the terminus until 1878, when the cut-and-cover
tunnel to Maze Hill was opened by the SER, linking it to the North Kent Line just west of Charlton. This ran beneath the grounds of the Queen’s House and Greenwich Hospital, where the graveyard was excavated, remains being reinterred in East Greenwich Pleasaunce approximately 1 mile (1.61 km) to the east. The section between Charlton and Maze Hill opened in 1873, with Maze Hill the terminus until 1878. Westcombe Park Railway Station opened in 1879.

The layout of Greenwich station still partly shows that fact. The line from London, on a continuous viaduct, was almost straight, but after Greenwich, it makes a sharp turn and dips into a tunnel. A space between the two tracks, for the locomotive ‘escape route’ to reverse the trains, disappeared in the 1990s when the station was altered to accommodate an extension to the Docklands Light Railway.

London & Greenwich Railway. Line engraving by Henry Alexander Ogg, after Edmund Bradley. Published by L. Stevens, London, 1836. “London and Greenwich Railway. From Forest Hill”.
Picture Credit:
[Cropped] “London and Greenwich Railway. From Forest Hill (print)” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Further Reading
  1. Source: British Newspapers Archive
  2. See:
  3. Source:
  4. Ibid
  5. Source:
  6. Address:’s_Magazine/
  7. Source:
  8. Source:
  9. Northwest Passage: the sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
  10. See:  “Glossary”. Railway Technical Web Pages.
  11. Source:
  12. Ibid
  13. Source: Turner, J.T. Howard (1977). The London Brighton and South Coast Railway. 1. Origins and formation. London: Batsford. pp. 201–3. ISBN 0-7134-0275-X.
  14. Ibid, P 203
  15. Source:

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