Victorian Unpleasantness

The whole subject of London’s First Railway (from London Bridge to Greenwich) is so huge and so beset with be-anoraked enthusiasts who will jump on me at the drop of a rivet that I confess I’ve skirted around the issue so far. I will, one day, get round to the fun and games around its birth, but for now, I’m content to enjoy a newspaper article I’ve found which is so wonderfully outraged that it puts us to shame today…

The London – Greenwich railway opened in 1836 and was an instant hit. It was especially popular on Bank Holidays when Greenwich Park became a riotous, joyous mayhem for thousands of cockney daytrippers, but the railway men had already had their beady eyes on expansion out into Kent for some time.

As far back as February that year, The Greenwich Gazette had been utterly fuming about the idea of an extension to Gravesend “cutting up of three great towns in order to effect a clumsy passage to a water-side place not half the size of either of them.” It was, the paper blustered, “so preposterous a suggestion that none but a madman could have engendered it.”

The paper couldn’t decide which way it would hate the new railway to sear through Greenwich most. The good burghers of Greenwich certainly detested the idea of it going underground – “so that the passers along The Broadway, London Street, Nelson Street and Powis Street should be just upon a level with the tops of the houses.” At this point, with hindsight, one begins to think that Dr Burney, the heroic instigator of the revolt, may just have been one of “those whose prosperity would be deeply affected by the passing of this outrageous measure.” And indeed the feature goes on to moan that “the persons by whom this extravagant undertaking is proposed are evidently of that class who care not whose house is on fire so that they may roast their own eggs.” It rages on:

“What female of any delicacy could venture into her own garden when she would know that doing so she would expose herself to the vulgar gaze and brutal ribaldry of a set of idle vagabonds enjoying their sixpenny ride?”

So. A class thing, then.

Well, not totally. I had to read a good half way down the article to get to the real problem. And to realise that we actually owe a vote of thanks to these proto-NIMBYS. We eventually get to the nub of the plan about 400 words-in, long after the outrage at the loss of back gardens.

What the developers actually wanted was an overground railway (the cheapest version, of course) – slicing right through Greenwich Park. The idea was that the area roughly around Romney Road should have a giant faux-classical bridge-type thing, with arches taking the railway directly through the middle, raised high above ground. There was a serious chance that “the authorities of the Admiralty will so betray their trust as to suffer that which indefeasibly belongs to the public to be taken away by a set of private speculators.”

I find it difficult to imagine this alternative Greenwich. A place without, possibly, The Queen’s House (I can’t find out whether or not it was planned to demolish it) and with a massive railway viaduct going right through between Greenwich Park and the Old Royal Naval College.

The objectors threw everything they could at it. Destruction of the park, offence to pensioners, smog, loss of the naval school, nasty poor people leering out of windows brandishing buckets and spades, the vibration of the earth by heavy steam engines wobbling telescopes and “endangering experimental science, which would be looked upon in no other light than a national sacrifice.”

In a strident call-to-arms, The Gazette suggests likely local people who would be good to get on board to defeat the Act in Parliament. This was war. The paper stops short of advocating violence, but says, and then repeats in capitals “THERE IS NO POSSIBLE MEANS OF COUNTERACTION THAN IN BRINGING DOWN MEMBERS ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE QUESTION.”

Doctor Burney, with his “unsullied honesty of heart” appears to be the Wat Tyler (or perhaps the Jack Cade) of the railway but the piece ends on an ominous note. It took me a moment to realise that the entire article talks about him in the past tense, and it is in the penultimate sentence that I begin to realise why the feature is written with such venom. The Gazette darkly intones:

“Now, for the Doctor – but no: we will leave him till next week. He is deserving of a separate article.

It is sufficient at present to state that Doctor Burney has withdrawn his opposition, ‘ in consequence of the very liberal offer made to him by the Directors.’ So it turns out that the Doctor, like those whose virtue is to be had at so much a yard, has only been writing for a larger mess of pottage – FOR AN INCREASE OF THE THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER.”

Blimey. I now HAVE to find out more about this guy. My search is on for the next Gazette feature. They just don’t write ‘em like that any more. In the meanwhile. I wonder. Is he anything to do with Burney Street? Could he have sold-out his neighbours in exchange for literal street-cred?

The good news is that, with or without their fallen hero, the protesters won, forcing the railway to tunnel underground through the ancient part of Greenwich. But that’s for another day…


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