In Search of the Greenwich Park Branch – Part 1 – Greenwich to Blackheath Hill

Running Past is a follower of things that aren’t always obvious to see – this has included often submerged streams, and a few years ago traced the route of the Greenwich Meridian back to the Observatory from the London border in New Addington.  The Greenwich Park Branch Line is a long closed and largely forgotten railway line in south east London.  However, I attempted to follow the route to see what remains of a line that mainly closed in 1917, ‘armed’ only with Victorian Ordnance Survey maps to guide me.

First the history – the railway was a relatively short lived one, built by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway from and existing junction at Nunhead to Greenwich Park. The original plan was for the branch to terminate at Woolwich Dockyard, but this idea was quickly abandoned, and there were serious problems getting funding for the section from Blackheath Hill to Greenwich – the former opened with the rest of the line in 1871 (apart from Brockley Lane station which opened in 1872) but passengers had to wait another 17 years to reach Greenwich Park, which makes some of the current delays on South Eastern seem almost acceptable.  The unmarked station can be seen at the top right hand corner of the map above. The line was never a financial success, journeys into central London were much slower than from Greenwich and changes often being needed at Nunhead.  The line closed in early 1917 due war time financial savings.  It never fully re-opened.  The section beyond the main line into London Bridge, near St Johns, was re-opened and connected to the main line in 1929, the stations never re-opened though and the section to the north and east between Lewisham and Greenwich had tracks removed and was largely abandoned until after the Second World War when it was gradually developed.

The terminus as the line’s names suggests was close to the Greenwich Park, in Stockwell Street, it opened much later than the rest of the line in 1888. The site is now home to the Ibis Hotel which opened in 1988.  The platforms are now home to a car park and the buildings edging the former station now house the Greenwich Picturehouse which is from the same era as the hotel.

The station building has been described as

‘canopied……built of yellow brick, with segmental arches above doors and windows picked out in red.  Adjoining the booking hall was a buffet, and first and second class ladies’ rooms, a two storey house was provided as a home for the Station Master.

Like much of the rest of the early part of the line, the station was in a cutting.as the levels below show.   After closure, the buildings remained, used first by the Mayfield Temperance Billiard Club and later a timber yard and saw mill.

Other than the footprint of the hotel and the car park, there is nothing to see in terms of remains of the station.  While there are several large chunks of masonry at the western edge of the car park, sadly none seem to be remnants of the station; signs suggest that they all relate to workshops for the blind which seem to have been adjacent to station buildings on Greenwich High Road, formerly London Street.  This was close to the business location of Edmund Pook who was (probably) wrongly implicated in the Eltham Murder in 1871.

While the line effectively closed in 1917, the route is relatively easy to pick out in Greenwich, the gaps between buildings with 20th and 21st century infill between Victorian properties make its course clear.  Out of the car park, the route across Burney Street is easy to spot; there is the now former Police Station on the corner of Royal Hill and the Burney Street Garden which would have been on the route.

The railway was bridged by Royal Hill at this point; the usually reliable Edith’s Streets suggests that there are some remains of the bridge, but alas dear reader, they proved impossible to find.  The next section, though, is easy to spot – there is a long site where there are periodically notices of planning applications which are then turned down by Greenwich Council.  It is currently home to the delightful Royal Hill Community Garden, pictured above.

The railway used to run almost parallel to Royal Hill and its former route continues to be clear as it crosses Circus Street – where a modern infill development, which includes the appropriately named Cutting House, partially fills the vacated space.  The theme of communal cultivation continues beyond Circus Street with the Prior Street allotments filling the void left by the railway.  There was a level crossing at this point.

As Royal Hill turns sharply back towards the High Road, a post war council block, Topham House, and its garages fill the space left by the departed steam trains.  Jervis Court is the next addition to the Greenwich streetscape – a thin block, barely as wide as the tracks that were its predecessor.  The line swung under Blissett Street, its cutting now filled and on the surface an imposing deck access block built into the hillside next to a 1970s fire station.

The railway was in a cutting here as it skirted the foot of Blackheath Hill, while it was filled in, two ‘signs’ of it remain.  A scramble across a small bit of waste ground reveals some of the cutting wall  and back at ground level, next to a basketball and football ‘cage’ that sits atop the former railway, is a bridge weight limit sign, for a bridge that is no longer visible in Lindsell Street, the gap it crossed no longer there but the restriction still applies, presumably due to difficulties of compacting the fill for the cutting.

Beyond the ghost bridge, the erstwhile track has been covered by an access road to the postwar council flats of Plumbridge Street and Dabin Close. The smoke and steam from the trains may have long gone but pollution remains as diesel lorries and cars toil up Blackheath Hill.

We will leave the railway at this point – just before the train would have reached the first stop – Blackheath Hill, returning to the line to take it on to its final destination of Nunhead next week.

Picture & Map Credits

Most of the black and white photographs come from Greenwich Photo History Wiki and are able to be used for non-commercial purposes such as Running Past, the exception to this is the photograph of the front of the station which was from eBay in September 2016.  The map is on a creative commons via the National Library of Scotland.

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The Lenham Road V-1 Attack

Lampmead and Lenham Roads are quiet residential streets coming off Lee High Road, they are mainly Victorian terraces.  There are also several infill homes built by the London Borough of Lewisham,or its forerunner.  There is a story behind their presence in the early 21st century streetscape – they are the indirect result of a V-1 rocket attacks which hit the junction of Lampmead and Lenham Roads on just before 5 am on the morning of 22 June 1944.

Running Past has covered several of the almost two hundred V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks on Lewisham, including the ones on Lewisham High Street, Lewisham Hill and Hither Green’s Fernbrook Road.  They are important to remember both in terms of the death and injuries caused to ordinary Londoners whose stories often get forgotten, but also in terms of their impact on the urban landscape – both in the short-term and longer term.

Six died as a result of the attack on Lenham and Lampmead Roads and no doubt many more were injured.  Those who lost their lives were James Joseph Carroll (20) and Patrick Leonard (26) who died at 34 Lenham Road; Hugh William George Harvey (59) who died at 6 Lampmead, Joseph Daniel Barry (55) died next door at number 8, his neighbour Alfred William Roedear (64) died at no 10 – his wife Annie appears to have survived, and Flora Borthwick (37) perished at 12 Lampmead.

What is perhaps surprising is that of those who died only one, Hugh Harvey, who was a groundsman and coach at the outbreak of the war living at 6 Lampmead Road, had lived there when the war broke out (1).  It is worth remembering that the private rented sector was still dominant at that time – accounting for almost 60% of homes – security of tenure, while perhaps slightly greater than it is now, was still limited.  In Lewisham these landlords included some of the bigger builders in the area – WJ Scudamore and James Watt.

During World War 1 there had been profiteering by some residential landlords which had led to rent strikes and unrest which threatened to undermine the war effort.  These had been repeated in the East End of London in 1938 and 1939. In this context, full rent control was introduced early in World War 2.  However, this seems not to have led to a stable community in this part of Lee – similar issues were found with the Lewisham Hill V-1.

The V-1 would have exploded on impact and a blast wave rippled out from the impact point, effectively creating a vacuum in the centre – the combined impact was to both push and pull buildings leading to large numbers of collapses.  The impact was often spread over quite a wide area with total destruction in the centre with much less damage on the outside.  The map below  produced by the London County Council during the war (2) shows this well – the darker the hand-colouring, the greater the damage.

Key: black=total destruction, purple=damaged beyond repair, dark red=seriously damaged (doubt if repairable), light red=seriously damaged (repairable at cost), orange=general blast damage (non-structural), yellow=blast damage (minor)

By the time the Ordnance Survey cartographers surveyed the area in 1949 (see below & note 3), the debris had been cleared and the site filled with 14 prefabs – a small part of attempting to deal with post-war housing needs.

The old Borough of Lewisham put up 1,610 prefabs by 1948 and a further 1,088 by 1955.  They would have no doubt not been that dissimilar to those on the Excalibur estate in Catford (below from 2014).  The prefabs probably lasted until the 1960s when they were replaced with council housing.

As the lower of the two maps above shows, there were several smaller gaps in the neighbouring Aislibie Road (named after Benjamin Aislabie – the last tenant of Lee Place), the result of bombing during the Blitz, the gaps were not used for the prefabs but they too were later filled by post war council housing.

Notes

  1. The 1939 Register didn’t cover armed forces so possible that some of victims had been living there before war broke out, employment details from Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  2. Laurence Ward (2015) The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 – permission has been given by the copyright owners of the map, the London Metropolitan Archives to use the image here
  3. On a Creative Commons via the National Library of Scotland