The Norwood Society

Sir Joseph Paxton, who started his career as a gardener, became superintendent of the Duke of Devonshire’s gardens at Chatsworth when he was only 25. He rose to fame as the designer of the buildings for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and is well known as the builder of the Crystal Palace. The Palace was, in fact, the 1851 Exhibition building transferred, under Paxton’s direction, to the site at Sydenham still known as Crystal Palace.

One of Paxton’s schemes which has had much less attention was for a great railway girdle round London, which would have obviated any tunnelling work. The railway would have run in a sort of extended Crystal Palace 11 miles long, built of iron and roofed with glass. It would have been 72 ft. wide and 180 ft. high. The great glass structure would have run from the Royal Exchange, crossing Cheapside opposite Old Queenhithe, which, like the old London Bridge, would have had houses on each side of it. Passing through Borough and Lambeth, the girdle would have reached the South Western Railway, from which a loop would have been built to cross over a new bridge near Hungerford and ending at Regent’s Circus. The main girdle-line would have crossed the South Western Railway, run over a bridge at Westminster, and thence via Victoria Street through Belgravia, Brompton, Kensington Gardens and Notting Hill, to Paddington and the Great Western Railway. From there the girdle would have run to join the London and North Western Railway and the Great Northern Railway, and onwards through Islington to the starting point at the Royal Exchange.

Houses and shops would have been built on both sides of the railway ‘boulevard’, with an ordinary road running between them. Behind the houses would have run four lines of railway, built on top of a ‘raised corridor’ about 26 ft. above the road level: high enough to cross over existing streets without trouble. Under the ‘raised corridor’ would have been shops or flats (or ‘tenements’, as Paxton called them). These shops or flats were to have double walls with air passing between them (what are now known as ‘cavity walls’) to prevent the noise and vibration of the trains from penetrating. At least there would have been no smoke or fumes from the railways, for they were to have been worked on the atmospheric principle.

The cost of this gigantic enterprise was estimated at £34,000,000, and it was hoped that a Government guarantee of 4 per cent interest would be forthcoming. A profit of £400,000 a year was expected on the enterprise, but the whole thing seems to have been on much too grand a scale to win support.

Note: A rather grand version of CrossRail.

The Norwood Review Edition #27.