2-8 London Road, part 3: West Croydon Station in the 1900s
As I discussed earlier in this series, West Croydon was Croydon’s first railway station. Opened in 1839, it initially ran services up to London Bridge, and extensions were built later the same century running down to Epsom and Wimbledon. Together with East Croydon Station (which opened a couple of years later, in 1841), it was most likely a significant reason for the expansion of the town over the following decades.
One of the more important developments of the 1900s in relation to West Croydon Station — and other UK railway stations — was electrification. The earliest railways (like the Surrey Iron Railway previously discussed) relied on horses, though by the time the Croydon stations were built, technology had progressed sufficiently that the trains were powered by steam. However, by the early 1900s it became clear that further technical improvements were needed, for economic reasons if nothing else; electrification would bring not only cheaper running costs, but also greater acceleration, allowing faster journeys and more frequent services.
At the start of the 1900s, West Croydon and East Croydon stations were both controlled by the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway (LBSCR). This company was initially reluctant to consider electrification, despite complaints over long journey times. Nevertheless, the economic arguments, along with competition from the tram systems, eventually convinced the LBSCR to move forwards, and by January 1909 they were running trains on electricity between Battersea Park and East Brixton. These systems didn’t use the “third rail” direct current (DC) system used today, but rather an alternating current (AC) supply from overhead wires.
Over the next few years, the LBSCR rolled out electrification over other parts of their network. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought all electrification work to a halt, not only because many of the materials used were supplied by a German company, AEG of Berlin, but also because investment in railway infrastructure was limited to only that which was essential to the war effort.
Electric trains didn’t start running on the lines through West Croydon until 1 April 1925, with the service between Victoria and Sutton. By this point, the LBSCR had already been merged into the new Southern Railway company as part of the government-mandated grouping together of railway companies in 1923. The overhead AC system to Sutton lasted only a few years, as by September 1929 it had been converted to the third-rail DC system in the interests of standardisation; Southern had chosen the DC system for its own electrification projects, and it made sense to convert the electrified routes it had inherited to the same system.
Another major development was the rebuilding of West Croydon Station in the early 1930s. An article on Southern’s 1931 Development Programme published in the February 1931 issue of Southern Railway Magazine includes the announcement that “improvements will be carried out” at a number of stations including West Croydon. The October 1932 issue of the same magazine has a feature on “The Railways of Croydon” which discusses West Croydon Station’s location at the old terminus of the Croydon Canal; the author notes that the station is “in process of re-construction” and that this will probably eradicate all traces of its watery past. (Conversely, the building process did reveal one interesting relic of another aspect of the station’s history: work associated with drainage improvements uncovered a section of pipe intended for use under the short-lived atmospheric propulsion experiment of the 1840s.)
Hence, while the term “improvements” gives little away about the scale of the work, in fact the changes were significant. The buildings on the London Road side were completely demolished, and a new station entrance constructed “in the pleasant style adopted by the Southern Railway for new works”. This was a fairly utilitarian construction of concrete blocks, which were just starting to become a commonly-used technology at the time.
At the same time, new shops were constructed on either side of the station entrance, along the side of the road bridge which carries North End/London Road over the railway lines — prior to this, the sides of this bridge were open, as illustrated in the first photograph above. The passenger bridge over the lines within the station dates from this period too; previously, access between platforms was via a subway which was prone to flooding.
A new entrance was also opened on Station Road at the eastern end of this bridge, along with a long sloping walkway down to platform 4. This entrance was closed at some point later the same century, and today a chicken shop stands in its place. One very subtle trace of it remains within the architecture of the station: the top of the sloping walkway is actually higher than the floor of the bridge across the tracks, meaning that passengers coming up from platform 4 must walk up the slope and then immediately go down a few steps (see photos: 1, 2). This makes no sense unless you realise that it was necessary for the slope to go up high enough to reach the level of Station Road!
These new entrances were intended to be both more obvious and more accessible than the old. An article in the April 1934 issue of Southern Railway Magazine, “West Croydon Station Rebuilt”, expresses a very clear preference for the rebuilt station: “The old station buildings on the down [i.e. Station Road] side […] have rivalled, for nearly a century, the terminal part of the station in possessing an air of extreme depression. […] The entrances to the station are now noticeable and accessible, instead of being hidden away as they were in the old arrangement. […] White tiling and central heating add cheerfulness and comfort to the new building.” The new Station Road entrance used a passimeter system, while the new London Road entrance included a bookstall, a cloakroom, and “a really delightful refreshment room”.
Due to reasons of space, I will mention only briefly the other major railway development of the 1900s — nationalisation — as it’s a large subject covered in depth elsewhere, and I’m not aware of any issues affecting West Croydon Station specifically. As mentioned above, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway had been amalgamated with other railway companies in 1923 to form Southern Railway. Other groupings also took place under the same Act, with the result that from 1923 Britain’s railways were all controlled by four large companies: the Great Western Railway; the London, Midland and Scottish Railway; the London and North Eastern Railway; and the Southern Railway. Nationalisation took place under the Transport Act 1947 when the assets of these four companies passed to the Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission — or, to use its business name, British Railways (later British Rail). The railways were re-privatised in the mid-1990s, with operations split up over a number of different companies.
The final significant event of the 1900s relating to West Croydon Station was the ending of the service to Wimbledon. As noted in my previous article on the station, this service commenced in October 1855 and ran partly along the old route of the Surrey Iron Railway; the termini were Wimbledon and West Croydon, and a new bay platform was constructed at West Croydon to permit this. The line was electrified in 1930, at which point services ran half-hourly on weekdays and hourly on Sundays. However, by May 1990 the service had been cut back to once every 45 minutes. In addition to frequency changes, from November 1966 trains no longer ran on weekday late evenings or Saturday evenings.
Closure of the Wimbledon branch to passenger services was mooted as early as 1951, but the line was still needed for freight services at this point, and so most of the infrastructure needed to be maintained anyway; hence it was decided that passenger services might as well continue for the time being. The branch finally closed in May 1997, though much of the route was reused for Tramlink a couple of years later.
Thanks to: Peter Clark for fact-checking and additional information; Mark Justice for the loan of railway books; bowroaduk and Eleanor McMillan for use of their photos; all at the Croydon Local Studies Library; and my beta-readers bob, Henry, and Mark H.
References and footnotes:
- Information on the economic and social pressures behind electrification taken from Surrey Railways Remembered by Leslie Oppitz, Chapter 4, p27.
- Oppitz notes a contemporary report in The Times describing the LBSCR London-to-Brighton route as a “crawl to the south”, though he also says the fastest train on their schedule at the time took an hour and 5 minutes to get from London Bridge to Brighton, which isn’t far off current journey times.
- The effect of tram competition also comes from Oppitz, Chapter 4, p27. According to Robert J Harley’s Croydon Tramways, work to electrify Croydon’s tramways (which were previously horse-drawn) commenced in October 1900, and by Spring 1902 the town had “a fully functioning electric tramway network”. Peter Clark (personal communication) does note however that there were two tram companies operating in Croydon at the time — Croydon Corporation (CCT) and the South Metropolitan Electric Lighting and Tramways Company (SMET) — meaning that in some cases through journeys were not possible. For example, a journey from Purley to Central London involved a change of tram at Tooting; and due to CCT’s reluctance to let SMET trams cross its lines at West Croydon, it wasn’t normally possible to take a direct tram from Sutton to Crystal Palace. Hence trams were not as large a threat to the railways as they could have been if the two companies had been more co-ordinated.
- Date and mode-of-operation of electric running between Battersea Park and East Brixton taken from Oppitz, Chapter 4, p28.
- Information on electrification rollout and effect of WWI taken from Oppitz, Chapter 4, pp28–29, and expanded on using comments from Peter Clark.
- Information on the first electric running via West Croydon taken from Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith’s West Croydon to Epsom (Middleton Press).
- Date of and reason behind the AC-to-DC conversion of the Sutton route taken from West Croydon to Epsom and confirmed by Oppitz (Chapter 4, p29). Peter Clark also points out that the cost per mile for AC installation had turned out to be higher due to the need to erect overhead gantries and alter existing structures such as bridges. Many more details regarding all aspects of electrification can be found in the initial chapters of G T Moody’s Southern Electric 1909-1979.
- Copies of Southern Railway Magazine consulted at the Croydon Local Studies Library. The article on Southern’s 1931 development programme is in Vol 9 No 98 (Feb 1931), p42.
- Information on discovery of atmospheric pipe taken from Southern Railway Magazine Vol 11 No 127 (Jul 1933), p254. For reasons of space, I didn’t mention atmospheric operation in my earlier article about West Croydon Station in the 1800s, but it’s a pretty interesting subject. Ian Mansfield has written about it at length, both in an article on the Croydon atmospheric experiment and in a five-part series (also available as a Kindle eBook) on “London’s Lost Pneumatic Railways”. Grace’s Guide states that “the West Croydon pumping station was relocated to form part of the Surrey Street waterworks building, which still exists.”
- L Catchpole, “The Railways of Croydon”, Southern Railway Magazine Vol 10 No 118 (Oct 1932), pp378–383.
- “The Railways of Croydon” gives details of the alterations from the perspective of 1932; when completed, they “will close the present station buildings facing London Road, also the Down side entrance and office in Station Road. Offices will be provided on a new bridge being constructed over the lines near the South Signal Box and passengers will reach the Up platform by means of steps terminating near the Wimbledon Bay, and the Down platform, now extended, by a new covered way.”
- Quotation taken from “West Croydon Station Rebuilt”, Southern Railway Magazine, Vol 12 No 136 (April 1934), p152. Photo PH-07 1642 in the Croydon Local Studies Library has a good view of the old London Road entrance as it was in 1923. There’s also another photo of this entrance in the stairwell of the Ship of Fools pub opposite the station; get there quick if you want to see it, though, as this pub is due to be turned into a branch of Sainsbury’s.
- An article on blocks and blockwork published by the University of the West of England states that concrete blocks “have been in common use since the 1930s”. Peter Clark adds: “The Southern Railway reconstructed a number of stations at the time using concrete in various forms, from cast on site structures to those having a core of concrete blocks, most of which were faced with either cement rendering or other materials. Whilst utilitarian in construction the results were often called ‘Odeonesque’ or ‘Moderne’ although I am unsure what term applied to West Croydon. The blocks were probably made at the ex LSWR works at Exmouth Junction which produced a vast range of concrete products for the Southern Railway.”
- The shops built on either side of the new station entrance are currently occupied by Maplin through to Road Runners on the right of the entrance, and Greggs on the left. The backs of these buildings are visible from the southern end of platform 3 (see view from platform and view from passenger bridge) though they do look a bit tatty — I pointed them out to my dad once, and he thought they were actually derelict. I’ve previously mentioned the construction of these shops in my article on the renumberings of London Road. 3 Station Road (currently occupied by William Hill) is part of the same block, and was also constructed at the same time; photo PH/041 6281 at the Croydon Local Studies Library, taken during construction work, is a good view of this. I’m not sure when the shops on the opposite side of the railway bridge (Speedy Cash through to Zam Call) were built.
- “West Croydon Station Rebuilt” says that the old subway “was liable to flooding after storms”. West Croydon to Epsom includes a map from 1894 showing the location of this subway, which was roughly aligned with the modern-day Station Road entrance.
- West Croydon Station has had three different Station Road entrances throughout its history. The one that opened in the 1930s was the second of these; the first was located further down Station Road (as described in my first article on the station), and the third, which opened in 2012, was near where the first had been.
- Information on the location of the 1930s Station Road entrance comes from my own knowledge of the area today in combination with looking at old photos in Southern Railway Magazine and elsewhere. Jo Orr’s “Then and Now” image of Station Road was particularly helpful in this (though it has sadly now vanished from the internet; a larger and less-cropped version of Jo’s vintage photo appears as image 28 in Croydon’s Tramways by John Gent and John Meredith). I have no good reference for when it closed, but a commenter on the London Reconnections blog says that it “closed sometime in the 60s to my recollection”.
- I came up with this theory on my own, after a friend asked me why the slope went up higher than necessary, though I later saw that another London Reconnections commenter was hypothesising the same thing.
- Information on the presence of a passimeter at the Station Road entrance comes from “West Croydon Station Rebuilt”, which mentions “a new passimeter booking office”. I haven’t been able to work out what sort of passimeter this was, though; the term seems to have been used to mean either a turnstile-type entrance, or a freestanding ticket booth (the latter possibly specific to London Underground). The most likely type in Peter Clark’s view is “a central office with in and out routes on either side, one clerk being expected to manage both flows, issuing and collecting tickets. Fine when it was quiet, but not good if a queue on either side built up.” Geoff Smith, commenting on London Reconnections, notes that passimeters were unusual on the Southern Railway at the time.
- Information on the facilities at the London Road entrance (and the quotation about the refreshment room) also comes from “West Croydon Station Rebuilt”. It’s worth noting that the pre-1930s London Road entrance also accommodated at least one non-railway business: the Croydon Shopping and Entertainment News of August 1922 carries an advert for a “new Hairdressing Saloon” located “In the booking Hall on the Up Side” (“Up” meaning “towards London), with J Donald listed as the proprietor. Although this one was “for ladies only”, the advert went on to note that there were also “branches for Gentlemen at London Bridge and Cannon Street Station; also at Brighton.” A later issue, from December of the same year, carries a small advertorial as part of a column on suggested Christmas gifts: “Donald’s at West Croydon Station have any number of those little et ceteras so dear to the heart of a woman—tiny bottles of concentrated perfume, wee powder-puffs, etc.”
- Indeed, Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith’s Mitcham Junction Lines (Middleton Press) states that nationalisation “had little immediate effect on the routes” passing through the station.
- Information on nationalisation and re-privatisation taken from Wikipedia, though I’m sure there are better references than this. Peter Clark notes in addition that the structure after re-privatisation was not the same as the pre-1948 way of doing things. Before the post-war nationalisation, the railway companies owned both the trains and the tracks they ran on, and operated as common carriers, meaning that they had to provide services at set rates. In the system set up under the privatisation of the mid-1990s, the track, stations, and other structures are owned by Network Rail (previously Railtrack), the trains are owned by leasing companies, and the services are run by companies which bid for franchises and then hire the trains from the leasing companies.
- Information on electrification and service frequencies taken from John C Gillham’s Wimbledon to Beckenham Before Tramlink (Middleton Press).
- Information on the loss of evening services on the Wimbledon branch taken from M W G Skinner’s Croydon’s Railways.
- Information on the 1951 closure proposals taken from Croydon’s Railways.
- I’ll discuss Tramlink further, along with other notable events of the 21st century, in a future article.