On 29th September we are mourning the 25 years since the closure of the High Level station - the highest railway station in London. To mark the closure, the railway bosses announced a special train to run on 19th September, 1954. It was, of course, a steam train whose locomotive bore on his front a huge white placard, telling us that we were ‘The last train from Crystal Palace’. The ticket for the train cost six shillings. Good value for money as the train consisted of 12 main line carriages and the journey was to last most of that Sunday. Where were we going? None of us knew - it was a genuine mystery journey.
Before describing the journey, I must explain the importance of the railways to the Palace; without their enterprise, the Palace would have been a failure. In the 1850’s, the Palace was deep in the country and accessible by train only. Public road transport was represented by horse-drawn buses (started in 1829) which plied for short distances in the centre. Most people walked to and from work - 2 or 3 miles at most.
As soon as it was decided in 1852 to move the Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham, the London Brighton and South Coast Railway got to work. Their line ran from London Bridge through Sydenham and Anerley; so they built a spur from Sydenham to the Crystal Palace - now the Low Level station. To connect with the West End, a tunnel was driven from the Low Level station to Gipsy Hill and then on to Victoria station, which did not open till October 1860. The London, Chatham and Dover Railway, exasperated at the success of its London Brighton rival in cornering the valuable Palace traffic, built a fantastic spur from Nunhead through Honor Oak, Lordship Lane, Upper Sydenham to the High Level station. I say ‘fantastic’ because it was a punishing climb for the locomotives of those days from Peckham to the High Level. This spur was opened on 1st August, 1865. Much was hoped from it as the station was built on a huge scale; you can compare it with the Epsom Downs station, also built in the days when everybody went to the Derby by train.
Our journey started at ten o’clock; at Upper Sydenham and Lordship Lane we were met by cheering station staffs dressed as Victorians, with pipe-stove hats and corduroy trousers. I found myself in a compartment with several teenagers and an old man who knew every inch of the track. I produced my trump card - an ‘Official Railway Map of London’, issued by the Railway Clearing House in 1935. It measured 54 by 40 inches and showed the most minute private sidings. Distances on it were marked in miles and chains; there was a small table in our compartment, on which we spread this map - to enable us to follow the wanderings of our train.
It apparently had the whole of the Southern system at its disposal. For instance, it ran through goods sidings. How pleased were we to find ourselves puffing through Stewarts Lane Junction - that mass of goods sidings you can look down on from Battersea Park station. None of us ever been there - we were explorers.
Finally we pulled into a siding at Richmond station about two o’clock. We were told that the train would stop for an hour to enable us to get some lunch in the town. We then set off in a sweep through Twickenham, Teddington and Kingston to get on the main South Western line to Waterloo. After leaving Wimbledon, the train stopped. The old man, who had been covering sheets of paper with figures cried triumphantly ‘ I knew she would have to stop. I worked out the weight of the train and the tractive power of the engine; it is not powerful enough to take us up the incline to Earlsfield. Look out of the window and you’ll see a second engine joining up.’ As he spoke the train shuddered as a second locomotive backed on to help us up. We gazed at the old man with respectful awe.
We paid a call at Blackfriars - our London terminal . The line was heavily used by workers in the City; my next door neighbour told me that he had had a season ticket to Blackfriars since 1879. After this farewell call, we set off for the High Level station, where we arrived about six o’clock. As the train stopped there was a rush by numerous youngsters to seize, as a souvenir, the placard on the front of the engine. We all shook hands in our compartment and I thanked the old man for showing such expert knowledge. He briefly replied ‘I’m an old railway engineer’. Thus ended a sad but fascinating day.
The Norwood Review Edition #104. Published 1979