Hammersmith & City Railway

After what has so far been an exhilaratingly busy 2014, I have finally stolen some moments to update the blog. One of the reasons for my distraction was the need to complete a book to a fixed deadline: the 13 June 2014. Many of you will realize this represents the 150th birthday of the Hammersmith & City Railway, opened in 1864.

My book was a London Underground commission. When I was first asked to look at the feasibility of a book I was concerned about what new one might say about what is, after all, under three miles of railway. I need not have feared.

It is an extraordinary thing, but actually it is a railway about which so little has ever been written that the field was wide open. It has (as far as I can see) never had a proper history written. There have been a couple of Railway Magazine articles that filled a gap, but so far as books are concerned the railway is only covered as an aside. Lee and Baker give it short shrift in their coverage of the Metropolitan, and although Alan Jackson (the nearest we will get to a dedicated Met historian) necessarily includes it in his book on the Metropolitan, the H&CR occupies surprisingly little space. McDermot’s 3-volume history of the Great Western gives it little more than a page, and then only if one aggregates all the references to it.

I would not suggest my book is much more than a ‘celebration’ of the railway, though it is more about it in one place than has been attempted before. What I hope it does is to inspire others to take an interest in what is actually quite an interesting little railway. I am grateful for the huge assistance rendered by an LU manager (a former colleague) who was able to wheedle out much new material from TfL archives, far more than I could use and with yet more untouched.

1928 Railway Clearing House map showing Hammersmith & City Railway and its joint ownership. The arrangements around Paddington are complex, but a story for another day

The things that struck me about the Hammersmith & City that make this short little line interesting include the following.

  • The original railway promoters were a combination of consulting engineers, contractors and property developers. Each had their own financial aspirations that would be met by building the railway and comparatively little thought was given to the communities it would serve and the passengers it would carry. It is quite an interesting ‘case study’ in how private railway development functioned at the time. The motives of some of those involved were dubious though, curiously, one of the more obvious money-grabbers does not seem to have been very good at it and died impoverished. There is an entire history that could be written about this aspect of the line itself.
  • The way the railway was managed was unusual. It was common for a privately promoted line to engage another, more experienced, railway to run it. In this case the Great Western Railway was the obvious choice. What was slightly unusual was that after only three years the railway was effectively sold jointly to the GWR and the Metropolitan. Usually a joint railway is a separate legal entity (whoever the ultimate owners might be), but in this case it was 50:50 joint property and this presented some untypical management complications. A Joint Committee looked after day to day operations, but anything more seems to have been painful, with each railway having an entirely different operating philosophy.
  • The way the railway was managed was actually untenable, and the Metropolitan (for entirely practical reasons) was the more convenient hands-on manager, though not until quite late. Even in the twentieth century we note the GWR was doing the station reconstructions at Hammersmith and Ladbroke Grove and installing the entire electrification system (from which the line could not finally disengage until the 1980s).
  • The arrival of London Transport in 1933 was interesting. As so often we have seen, the LT corporate mind was easily baffled by partners with whom it was not ideologically in tune. LT found it hard to accept that the GWR owned half the interest in the line and might therefore have a legitimate opinion. The GWR was by no means negative, just different. Another area about which a whole book could be written – LT and its joint lines.
  • The GWR, in a half-hearted way, regarded the H&C as its own plaything. Even as late as 1947, its system map showed the Hammersmith branch as part of the GWR system, with no clue it was connected to the Underground. This illusion was fuelled by the existence of complex through booking arrangements with the whole of the GWR system, requiring vast stocks of card tickets to be maintained, even for seemingly improbable locations. Many of these facilities survived until the 1970s!
  • The H&C Railway built a station without consulting the GWR, which originally ran the line, and were genuinely astonished to find the operator didn’t want to operate it as it was ‘in the wrong place’; it was either dismantled or rotted away. This is surely very unusual (another unwanted station built in similar circumstances was eventually opened to become Westbourne Park).

The Great Western connection seems to confuse: many know it was somehow involved but not how. Perhaps this gives rise to the sprinkling of GW memorabilia around the station. The upper of the seats reproduced here is (I am told) a reproduction. I understand this style of seat to have been introduced early in the twentieth century so use of this style at Hammersmith is perhaps appropriate. It is plausible that this exact style of seat was employed during the 1906-8 reconstruction as they would probably have been supplied by the GWR, which rebuilt the station.

The lower style is definitely reproduction (and can be purchased from several suppliers for £300-£400 each). Unfortunately this GWR roundel device was not introduced until about 1934, long after the GWR was involved in fitting out H&CR stations and use of such a style here is far-fetched; it would be better at somewhere like Royal Oak. I applaud the use of pre-LT features where appropriate, but we should of course aim to get it right!
The line has left mysteries I have yet to clear up. For example Metropolitan shareholders were told in 1867 that they now had a half-interest in the Hammersmith & City and that the original H&C Railway had been wound up. Later evidence suggests that a company with that name continued to function with the object of distributing share dividends (and was wound up in 1949). I have not got to the bottom of this. There are operational mysteries too. When did the last GWR excursion trains from Paddington use the H&CR (as I think they did)? How were the liquid hydrogen trains operated and where did they come from (and, earlier on, were car-carrying trains actually run to or from Hammersmith)? When were parcels last accepted at stations (for conveyance by the GWR and perhaps British Railways)? Will we get certainty about why the order of the names ‘Metropolitan’ and ‘Great Western’ vary as they are presented on the trains? Will we ever find photos of the H&CR in its early days, particularly of Hammersmith? When was the last section of GWR conductor rail removed (and was any kept)? As you see, there is still lots to go at!

By the way, Hammersmith is now so busy that a new entrance is having to be made onto the forecourt. Plans show that the ironwork used on the existing entrance will be reproduced for use on the new one as well, and I look forward to seeing it. Perhaps sadly, the only place the entrance could go was where the barber’s shop was located – this was a family business that had occupied the shop unit since 1911 when the ticket hall area was rearranged. It functioned for 102 years and I would think it a good contender for being the Underground’s longest tenant ever. It would be interesting to know if there are any other businesses that have lasted that long. Its prices were quite modest too, and an original gas lamp survived till the end (though not in use). It closed in 2013.
Anyway, the Hammersmith & City book was one of several large projects that has kept me busy. I understand copies of the book will be available from the Museum after birthday celebrations, if anyone wants to know more. In the meantime, perhaps some unused research might make its way into a talk I have agreed to give in November!

All for now.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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