Epsom Heritage - Part 7
The Railway Comes To Epsom
A Detailed Survey of Epsom with historical context by Tomas H.J. Dethridge.
The Railway Comes To Epsom
A painting of the Old Well House in 1795
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
If the discovery of the Well on the Common in 1618 led to the transformation of Epsom from a small rural hamlet to a popular spa town, the coming of the railway in the mid-19th Century stimulated its growth and development into the town we live in today. It is worth reiterating in greater detail that led to the evolution of Epsom's railways.
The first railway line to access Epsom opened on 10 May 1847. It was projected by the London & Croydon Railway running since 1839 from near London Bridge to West Croydon. The L&C favoured the atmospheric principle for propulsion, in which a truck was connected to a metal tube between the rails linked a piston which was drawn along by a vacuum in the tube created by pumping stations at intervals and pushed forward by air (atmospheric) pressure. The system achieved some success and even attracted the great BruneI but there were some inherent problems. The L&C proposed to extend its use to the new projected Croydon-Epsom line but the company was taken over by the London & Brighton Railway, to form the London Brighton & South Coast Railway (LBSCR), and the new owners wanted nothing to with atmospherics, instead relying on the steam locomotive. The new branch ran to a small terminus near the top of Upper High Street (formerly Station Road - present-day names are used in this article), probably just east of Church Road. On the west side of the town a small independent company, the Epsom & Leatherhead Railway (ELR), built a single-line track from a point where today's station stands to another on the north side of Leatherhead and with an intermediate halt at Ashtead. The local station was described as "Spartan and comfortless". This line opened on 1 February 1859.
Next to arrive on the scene was the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) from Waterloo with a branch originally planned by another independent, the Wimbledon & Dorking Railway. Although the LBSCR and LSWR were not keen on the activities of small independent concerns in "their territory" they solved the problem by buying them out. The branch left the LSWR main line at Raynes Park and formed an end-on junction with the ELR at Epsom. A through service between Waterloo, Epsom and Leatherhead was opened on 4 April 1859. The LBSCR also bought into the ELR, extending its line from its existing terminus, with a new bridge over East Street (which was formerly known as Volunteer Bridge) to the LSWR station but the layout was such that its trains did not use the latter station. This extension was opened on 8 August 1859 enabling LBSCR trains also to run through to Leatherhead. The line was doubled by 1867. The LBSCR built an extension to Dorking on 11 March 1867 and to Horsham 6 May 1867, while the LSWR extended to Effingham on 2 February 1885 to provide a link to Guildford.
The LBSCR, which was running from London Bridge and Victoria, in 1870 built a new station in the Upper High Street, to be known as Epsom Town, with staggered platforms connected by subway; its main building with its distinctive four chimneys survives to this day, concealed behind the shops at Nos. 47-51. It also constructed a Goods shed and yard, an Engine shed and a lofty signal box close by, but these were demolished in the 1960's for subsequent residential development at the site from 1974 on both sides of the line.
On 22 May 1865 the LBSCR opened a further branch from Sutton to a new terminus called Epsom Downs, immediately adjacent to Longdown Lane South (it was originally mooted to be located just 200 yards from the Grandstand but this was vetoed). It was a large affair with no less than nine platforms; most of which were used only on race days, but proximity to the course earned a major share of the traffic. The number of platforms was reduced to two in February 1972 and the station closed on 10 February 1989 to be replaced by a single-line structure 300 yards up the line closer to Banstead. The goods yard had already closed on 7 September 1964. The site of the former station with its Stationmaster's house and the very substantial lands thus released, were sold for housing development.
The Racecourse's traffic potential also attracted the attention of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (SECR), which operated out of Charing Cross, Blackfriars etc and (since 1898) from Victoria, mostly into Kent. The SECR constructed a branch line from Purley via Tadworth to Tattenham Corner. The line was opened throughout on 4 June 1901 and remains in use to this day. In recent years it has been used for the royal special train conveying the Monarch on Derby Day. The station buildings were partially demolished on 1 December 1993 by an early morning empty train than ran through the buffers; they were quickly reinstated.
Epsom had one other standard-gauge railway, the Horton Light Railway
, which ran from Ewell West Station into the hospital complex to the west of the borough. Opened on 20 April 1905 by a contractor to bring in building materials for the Long Grove Hospital, it originally crossed Hook Road on the level near to the Ewell West end but following a fatal accident in 1906 the line was altered to run under a bridge. The London County Council, original owners of the five hospitals, bought the railway in 1907 and constructed internal extensions in 1911. It had its own stud of tank engines and was used to bring in the copious supplies needed for the maintenance and support of its very large population. It is not clear that it ever carried passengers though there have been reports to this effect. Increasing reliance on motor transport led to declining use and it was abandoned in 1949. The track was lifted but traces of its former existence may still be found.
Engine Hendon at Four Acre Wood on the Horton Light Railway 1938
This 0-6-0 saddle tank engine was manufactured in 1926 by Manning Wardle.
Image Source: Greater London Records Office
Returning to the main line, in 1923 by an Act of Parliament the railways of Great Britain were with a few minor exceptions, grouped into four large companies; one of which, the Southern Railway covered the south of England by absorbing the LBSCR, LSWR, SECR (already mentioned) and a few smaller concerns. The new company inherited a number of suburban electrified services and committed itself to an ambitious programme of electrification, initially over the outer suburban area and, from the 1930's down to the coast, using the third-rail 660 volt d.c. system. Thus the lines to Epsom and beyond were converted as follows: from Waterloo on 12 July 1925, from Victoria/London Bridge on 3 March 1929, and the Epsom Downs and Tattenham Corner branches in June 1928 (the former replacing a short-lived overhead electric system). Goods trains and some longer-distance and special passenger trains continued with steam haulage for some time but steam was finally phased out in July 1967 excluding an occasional enthusiast special.
Concentration of ownership enabled the new Southern Railway to solve the problem of having two separate stations in Epsom. Although LBSCR trains ran through the centre of Epsom Station, they did not serve its platforms and the lines joined (and parted) south of the station by Wheelers Lane. A completely new station in the art-deco style much favoured by the Southern was built on the site of its old LSWR predecessor in 1928/29, to handle both the Waterloo and Victoria/London Bridge line trains and was opened on 3 March 1929. The original 1859 edifice had been replaced twice and had still comprised only two platforms (for LSWR trains only).
With the commissioning of the new station, the old Epsom Town station was closed and partially dismantled, but the main station building was left in situ, as already noted. It was damaged by fire in the spring of 1978, but fortunately repairs were carried out. Attempts to find an ongoing use for it have not so far proved successful. Other changes consequential on the building of the new station included a new bridge to carry the railway (actually there are three separate bridges) over Waterloo Road, previously leading only as far as the station, to be extended westwards, facilitating considerable residential development to the west of the line, which had hitherto been largely open country. Prior to the new section of road, the only way through had been an 1896 footway through a low tunnel.
Redevelopment of the 1929 station has been mooted off and on over the past 20 years or so but, although there have been some minor changes, it remains much as it looked 80 years ago. The small LSWR goods yard, was closed on 3rd January 1928 and activity transferred to the former LBSCR yard at Epsom Town station leaving two sidings adjacent to Station Approach used for horse-boxes; these were taken out in 1986 and the land reinstated in the 1990's, while the famous signal-box on a gantry straddling the lines at the south end - wrongly supposed to have been listed - was taken out of use on 29 July 1990 and despite efforts to preserve it was demolished in 1993.
The four railway companies set up in 1923 and known as the Big Four were nationalised as from 1 January 1948 by Act of Parliament, to become known as British Railways and later British Rail (BR). The Southern Railway now became Southern Region of BR but apart from some changes in train livery, not particularly obvious on electric trains, things generally carried on in much the same ways. Of course, with the passage of time, change came about but that could have been expected anyway. A process of contraction began particularly in the area of leisure travel, but the main task of the railway in Epsom, the conveyance of commuters to and from London (incidentally, the term commuter was unused in Britain 50 years ago) still persists and today's Epsom commuter has much in common with his predecessor of earlier periods.