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Today is the 13th April 2018 (and its a Friday!) 150 years ago on this day the Metropolitan and St. John’s Wood Railway was opened – the opening day in 1868 was on a Monday!
The Metropolitan and St. John’s Wood Railway was first incorporated on 29 July 1864 and an act passed in the same year.
‘The line authorised by the “Metropolitan and St John’s Wood Railway Act. 1864.” has been laid out’for the purpose of affording to the residents of St John’s wood, Belsize park. the Finchley Road, Kilburn. Hampstead. and their vicinity the advantages of a direct railway.”‘
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Despite its aspirations as an independent railway, the Metropolitan in fact had interests on the new line. The line was intended to end at a point above what is now Finchley Road and Frognal station. However it didnt get further than Swiss Cottage. An authorisation was gained in 1864/5 to build it to Hampstead Heath (west side) instead and the tunnels for this were in fact partly completed. The section to Finchley Road would have instead become a short branch.
It is evident the company spent a lot of money building its tunnel northwards from Swiss Cottage station. The original alignment extends about 375 metres, about as far as College Villas Road, possibly more. One writer claimed that tunnel almost reached level with the present Finchley Road station! The split between the old and new tunnels is approximately midway between Swiss Cottage and Finchley Road stations.
At this point I must stress its not easy to write about what became one of London’s major underground railway lines. Little research has been done in depth on it, however I have done that – including some history that’s practically never been written about the St John’s Wood Railway – therefore please forgive me if I jump around like a little boy excitedly trying to point out all the different things re this very interesting railway!
I thought I would deal with the proposed branch to Hampstead first and then focus on the actual railway that was built. Of this branch to Hampstead nothing was built apart from the short section of tunnel from Swiss Cottage to College Villas. I shall examine that tunnel more in depth later. However the next three pictures below show where the St John’s Wood railway would have gone through Hampstead en route to its proposed New End Square terminus.
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The St. John’s Wood Railway would have crossed High Street on a bridge between Perrin’s Court and the King William pub
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Gayton Road would have been the course of the railway – these houses hadnt been built then!
Upon leaving Finchley Road the route would have been approximately beneath Maresfield Gardens heading northwards to Church Lane in Hampstead. Here it would have turned north east and passing over Hampstead High Street before running along what is now the north side of Gayton Road on an embankment.
From Hampstead High Street it was a rather short distance to the proposed terminus at New End Square. This is at the junction of Flask Walk and Well Walk (in those days the latter was known as Lower Heath.) Unknown to most, historic Burgh House would have acquired a tube station right on its doorstep had the plans succeeded!
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A ‘tube’ station would have been built here at New End Square had the Hampstead plans gone ahead
The notion of a line to Hampstead was once again visited in 1877 when the North Metropolitan High Level Railway Bill proposed a line to Hampstead by extending the ready made tunnel at Swiss Cottage. This particular proposal included a continuation to Highgate and Alexandra Palace.
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Proposed continuation from Swiss Cottage to Hampstead and Alexandra Palace 1877
Back to the actual St John’s Wood Railway! It was acknowledged as the first ever branch of the London Underground system even though it was largely a single track railway. The company had plans for eventual doubling of the line. St. John’s Wood Road (later Lords) Marlborough Road and Swiss Cottage had loops. Both St John’s Wood and Marlborough Road stations soon acquired overall roofs.
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Engraving of the works for the new junction at Baker Street
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A present day view looking in the opposite direction. The actual junction is beneath the road at this point
Through services were operated from Swiss Cottage as far as Moorgate until 7th March 1869. Certainly they were not introduced right from the start as has been thought but were added some time after opening. After this date all trains from the north, even the new lines to Harrow and northwards, terminated at Baker Street. Despite promises from the Metropolitan Railway that the new arrangement was just for three months there was a gap of almost forty years before through passenger trains recommenced.
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Passengers waiting at Baker Street for a train where the original St John’s Wood tracks once ran
In January 1907 the Metropolitan once again restored through services to the City. The services from Harrow, Uxbridge, Watford, Amersham and Chesham to the City/Aldgate have been running ever since. The Metropolitan however lost its Aylesbury services in 1961.
At the opening of the line back in 1868, one acerbic review was conducted by no other than Mr. Punch himself. Published in Punch on 25 April 1868 it says ‘The past Easter has been marked by the opening of two railways into wild and savage northern districts. One is an extension of the Highland Line and is called the Sutherland Railway; the other is an extension of the Metropolitan Line, and is called the St. John’s Wood Railway.’
The ‘wilds’ of the Strath of Kildonan where there was once a gold rush, is a world away from the ‘wilds’ of St. John’s Wood where probably only gold rings and the likes could be found yet that didnt stop Mr. Punch criticising the new railway!
‘The line which is now open from Baker Street runs through the stern and frowning wood of Saint John, then takes a district which reminds one of the glories of Marlborough’s Arms, and finally conducts us into scenery which, surrounding a famous cottage, may was well be called Swiss as anything else. Here the rail halts, but it is to be pushed on to the swarthy moor consecrated by the memory of the patriot, John Straw.’
The name Straw clearly alludes to the proposed Hampstead extension, except Mr. Punch got this name wrong, its Jack Straw! In another part of his review of the new railway, he makes fun of the fact that passengers have to walk an inordinately long distance to change trains and makes the suggestion that should the railway authorities not remedy this state of affairs, ‘it will be Mr. Punch’s painful duty to be persistent in warnings which will not help dividends.’
Clearly Mr. Punch’s threats prompted the St John’s Wood line to commence operation of through trains to the City.
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Mr Punch’s threat to the St. John’s Wood Railway April 1868
Originally the St John’s Wood railway was accessible only by footbridge and passage from the 1863 platforms at Baker Street but soon a new station building was constructed adjacent to Madame Tussaud’s in the Italinate style of the earlier 1863 buildings. This gave direct access to both the eastern end of the 1863 platforms and the St John’s Wood branch and improved the interchange here.
The new railway was not just about building a new line. Very unusually among London’s underground railways, it was also all about building a new waterway! The River Tyburn, otherwise known as the King’s Scholar’s Pond Sewer (KSPS) – a regular bane of London’s new underground lines, sat on the route of the St. John’s Wood railway north of Baker Street. Originally the line to Swiss Cottage had been envisaged to open in 1866. The sewer’s owners, the Metropolitan Board of Works blocked construction of the new line because of the danger posed to the authority’s sewers, who said the new railway would ‘seriously interfere with the sewerage of St. John’s-wood, and will destroy the main King’s Scholars’ Pond Sewer for a length of about 2,000 feet in the Park-road…’
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The King’s Scholar’s Pond Sewer above Baker Street, 1911
In the end it was agreed work on the new line could begin after a replacement sewer had been built. This work entailed taking the Tyburn/KSPS down to a deeper level so it could pass towards Baker Street unheeded, as well as constructing new sections of other sewers in the Wellington and Finchley Roads. As part of the works the KSPS was diverted away from Regent’s Park entirely in order to shadow the proposed new railway’s alignment as far Sussex Gate, just north of Baker Street.
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Announcement of the start of works for the St John’s Wood Railway which were in fact for the new sewer. August 1865
The sewer had to be driven underneath the alignment of the new railway and also the Regent’s Canal. New junctions with the other sewers from the Wellington and Finchley Roads were also constructed. The oft regaled tales that the Tyburn crosses the Regent’s Canal on an aqueduct at nearby Charlbert Street are just not true. There was a water supply through here at one time for the park but certainly not since 1862. John Hollinghead’s exploits in that year shows the Tyburn at the time flowed through Park Road Bridge. And since the Tyburn has been diverted under the canal this bridge no longer carries any important sewers.
Diverting the Tyburn sewer about its old route was not possible as it would have to go under the St John’s Wood Line at some point above Baker Street. This meant the KSPS would have faced a rising gradient towards Baker Street which just wasn’t possible as a constant falling gradient is necessary to allow sewers to drain.
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View of the Regent’s Canal from an Aldgate bound train
The work was done to take the Tyburn/KSPS it under the new St John’s Wood Railway in the vicinity of the Regent’s Canal before passing underneath the canal via a pair of four foot diameter cast iron pipes. The works ensured the sewer retained a reasonable fall towards Baker Street, the difference being approximately twelve feet.
This enormous undertaking began in August 1865 and took the best part of two years. Messrs Fowler (the company belonging to Sir John Fowler who built the original Metropolitan Railway) agreed to undertake a substantial amount of the work. Fowler’s job was to build parts of the new sewer but also the difficult job of taking the tunnels underneath the Regent’s Canal at a cost of £7,000. Fowler’s utilised three cofferdams, one on the north side of the canal, one in the middle of the canal and another on the south side of the canal. These were done in succession from north to south so that canal navigation was not stopped.
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The cast iron sewer tunnels built under the Regent’s Canal by Messrs Fowler for the St John’s Wood Railway/Metropolitan Board of Works. Source: 28 Days Later
The passage under the Regent’s Canal consist of four foot diameter iron pipes. The entire project to divert the sewers cost a total of £35,000. The other £28,000 was borne by the Metropolitan Board of Works and grants from Government etc.
The St John’s Wood railway had hoped to tunnel its line under the Regent’s Canal. Alas the sewer now occupied the space in question and further land had to be acquired to allow this section of line to be built above ground – including a double track bridge over the Regent’s Canal.
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This open air section by the canal had to be built because the company couldn’t pursue its original plans!
Preliminary work on the railway itself initially began at Swiss Cottage, Wellington Road and Park Road/Sussex Gate in October 1865, the contractors again being Messrs Fowler. However it could only proceed where work on the Tyburn sewer was not being conducted.
The whole scenario caused the Board of Works to become extremely concerned of the injurious effects of the many new underground railways being proposed in London. They employed Joseph Bazalgette, London’s famous sewer engineer & troubleshooter to examine each of these transport plans. Mr. Bazalgette presented regular reports for the Board in parliament between 1865 and the 1870s as part of the Metropolitan Board’s objections against new underground rail schemes.
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Bazalgette’s first report on behalf of the Metropolitan Board of Works 1865
With the old Tyburn river now diverted into an even newer course of the King’s Scholar’s Pond Sewer, the St John’s Wood Railway company was finally able to concentrate on finishing its new line. It is said the railway initially built what is now the southbound tunnel and added the northbound later, except between Baker Street and Alpha Place where the northbound was instead built. Both lines were actually built as far as Sussex Place and then approximately 300 yards of single northbound tunnel was built as far as Alpha Place where the line met the lengthy open air section across the Regent’s Canal to Wellington Road, including the new St John’s Wood Road station.
From St John’s Wood Road station the southbound tunnel instead was built as far as Swiss Cottage. Each of the three new stations had a considerable length of double track tunnel stretching well beyond the stations’ environs. The tunnels didn’t end at Swiss Cottage as we have already seen, but were indeed built much further northwards to a different alignment in preparedness for the abortive extension to Hampstead.
The single bore tunnels were built oval in shape at an average of 27 feet below road surface (although at one or two points, the crown of the tunnel was in fact just a foot under the base of the road above, whilst at the North Star Inn the newer southbound tunnel built in the 1930s is just three feet below the pub’s base! The total climb from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage station was 97ft and just over 100 feet to the line’s eventual summit sited midway between there and Finchley Road.
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Beneath this grille is the former Swiss Cottage station. The roundel denotes the Jubilee Line station to the right
The St. John’s Wood railway was initially worked on the tablet system – the tablets being humans! Actually they were called pilots. Guys with red and green flags, whistles and a good knowledge of the line and its timetables. Despite this safety factor the line was a source of accidents in its early years, two of these occurred on one single day, and it does indeed seem they were in part a reason why the Metropolitan Railway wanted no more through trains from Swiss Cottage to the City.
In the morning of Friday 29 January 1869 a locomotive working on the branch at Baker Street somehow got disengaged and ran down the gradient to the junction where it hit a passenger train. The branch line engine was derailed by the impact but fortunately no injuries were suffered by anyone. The 0-6-0 tank engine was soon righted and train services recommenced.
Very unfortunately later that same day a train from Swiss Cottage to the City failed to stop at any signals and ran into the back of a Metropolitan Railway train held at signals outside Portland Road station. The Metropolitan Railway’s manager, Mr. Fenton, was on the scene within a few minutes of the accident occurring. At least thirteen passengers were injured though it is said none severely. Assistance was needed to help passengers out of the tunnels and assist those injured to the nearby Middlesex hospital. The line was cleared and services restored roughly two hours later.
There are no accident reports besides news reports of the time so its not known if the earlier derailment had some effect upon the lines’ signalling – thus causing the later mishap.
A few weeks later the St John’s Wood railway wanted to increase the number of its trains through to the City. Though the excuse given was there was no capacity to allow this, the Metropolitan may also have been alarmed by the St. John’s Wood railway’s apparent carelessness. The Metropolitan decided against this and the last through trains from Swiss Cottage ran in March 1869.
There were several other accidents on the line including one in 1876. A report of that is shown below:
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Report from ‘General Report to the Board of Trade upon the accidents which have occurred on the Railways of the United Kingdom during the year 1876’ (published August 1877.)
Despite these mishaps and somewhat poor passenger loadings in the early days of the line, it soon became so popular extension was mooted, and achieved, to Finchley Road, West Hampstead and Willesden Green by 1879 with Harrow being ultimately reached by 1880. That’s outside the remit of this article however as I want to focus on just Baker Street-Finchley Road.
However this new line was known as the Metropolitan Railway Extension Line. As first built it had a link to the Midland railway about where the O2 car park is just north of Finchley Road station. This consisted of a goods yard which opened on 1st October 1880. The yard and the said link to the Midland Railway was closed by the new British Railways Board in 1948.
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The former goods yard (left) at Finchley Road where a link was once possible from the Metropolitan to the Midland Railway
At the same time as the new goods yard was being built and the line extended further northwards, the original St. John’s Wood line was doubled by adding the long awaited second tunnel. Services through the new tunnels began on 10 July 1882.
Where did the Baker Street and St John’s Wood line get its trains – seeing it didn’t have any carriage sidings or engine sheds? Obviously these came from the Metropolitan Railway’s main depot at Chapel Street. In those days this was a substantial site consisting of carriage sidings and engine sheds where all forms of maintenance and cleaning were undertaken. The first locomotives to be used on the St. John’s Wood line were five 0-6-0 tank engines built by the Worcester Engine Company. These proved too powerful and were replaced by standard Met 4-4-0T’s. The line’s carriages were generally stabled at Baker Street overnight. Locomotives continued to be procured from Chapel Street until a new engine depot could be built at Neasden in 1879/80.
The St John’s Wood railway was taken over by the Metropolitan on 1st January 1883. The Met Railway were responsible for a tranche of new improvements including major remodelling of the junctions and stations at Baker Street.
Under this new ownership a different style of sleeper was tested on the open sections of line. These shallow trough cast iron sleepers commonly seen on European lines were made by Bolckow, Vaughan and Co, possibly to the designs by Cabry and Kinch. The Met found these sleepers made the track more difficult to maintain, especially on curves and the trial lasted only a few months.
Baker Street was remodelled in 1910-12. Parts of this work still remains to this day and is quite visible even though Baker Street station received further upgrades in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The through tracks at Baker Street to Finchley Road have always been on the same alignment as the original St John’s Wood railway. Their position is dictated by the nearby junction which obviously cannot be moved. There have been past proposals to modify and even move the junctions in order to increase capacity however these were seen as too expensive.
There is some confusion as to when electric services began on the St. John’s Wood line. Some reports say these began between Baker Street and Harrow/Uxbridge in January 1905 however other sources say this began on 12 November 1906.
As the tube system expanded and the Metropolitan Railway become more busy, relief was sought in the form of an extension to the Bakerloo Line between Baker Street and Finchley Road. This was built in the late 1930’s and resulted in the closure of the original three stations on the St John’s Wood railway.
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The closed Marlborough Road station
The new section of Bakerloo Line had stations built at St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage. The former was a direct replacement whilst the new St. John’s Wood station replaced those at Lord’s and Marlborough Road.
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The closed Marlborough Road station’s stairs as seen from a passing train
The three intermediate stations may be closed nowadays but they are needed for engineers or workmen to access the tunnels. Not only that they are also evacuation points should passengers need to detrain in an emergency.
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The original St John’s Wood Road station
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More or less the same site today (given that the road layout has changed completely)
Both Swiss Cottage and Marlborough Road still retain their original staircases for this purpose. However St John’s Wood Road/Lord’s station now has a hotel built on top and thus new staircases had to be built at the opposite end in Lodge Road giving access to that street instead.
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The emergency access point to St John’s Wood Road/Lord’s disused station
When the Bakerloo’s route to Stanmore was constructed, it was a difficult job. It meant the Metropolitan Line’s tunnels had to be moved. This was problematic as as the Great Central (now of course Chiltern) also ran beneath Finchley Road south of the station which meant there was no space left and so the new Metropolitan southbound tunnel had to instead go under the properties on the east side of Finchley Road.
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The North Star, under which the Met’s southbound tunnel runs. Finchley Road station’s in the distance
This new section of tunnel for the Met had to be built fifty feet east of the old tunnels under Charles House, the adjacent Nat West bank and the North Star inn before passing below the nearby petrol station forecourt and then back underneath Finchley Road. The structure is very close to the surface and a reason why one probably wont see any buildings erected where the petrol station is sited (picture below) because very expensive underpinning would be required.
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The Met runs under this road and service station forecourt before coming back under Finchley Road
It is said fifteen hundred men were employed on the new LTPB works between Baker Street and Finchley Road. The finance for this came from the Government’s new works programme 1935-1940.
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The tunnels at Finchley Road before demolition to make way for the Bakerloo
The reason for these new tunnels being built so close to the surface was not because they wanted it as such, but rather that the original Swiss Cottage line rose on a gradient in readiness for the extension to Hampstead. The lie of the land the other way towards Finchley Road was the problem. There was simply no way to dig these tunnels any deeper without incurring a penalty of severe and quite possibly dangerous line gradients.
The large department store (just outside Finchley Road station) which was once a branch of Habitat and now houses the Waitrose store was built in the mid 1930’s,just before the new tunnel works. The store had to be considerably underpinned to enable construction of the new northbound Met tunnel. Additionally a huge girder bridge 110 feet long with 21 spans (a covered way as some would describe) had to be built south of the station in order to accommodate the new tunnels and the ramps to the new tube tunnels, and also form the foundation for a much widened Finchley Road.
The merge between the old and new tunnels north of Swiss Cottage does show the original tunnel to Hampstead was built much further than anyone thought. This point at which the tunnels meet is the summit of the line between Baker Street and Finchley Road. According to TfL this location is 2850 meters from Baker Street and 350 metres from Finchley Road.
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The old tunnel for the aborted line to Hampstead – seen from a southbound train
Its not easy to see the tunnel in question, however observers can spot it just before the derelict Swiss Cottage station. Its announced by the train turning into a right hand curve where in an instant the old tunnel flashes past. Its obscured in part by cables and infrastructure. It seems the old tunnel itself has been propped up by supports or some sort of underpinning as a shopping parade has been built above.
The recent improvements track works over the past few years that have taken place between Baker Street and Finchley Road may well impress others to think the problems of the tunnels north of Baker Street are over for a good while. Perhaps this is so however its not that long since considerable works were undertaken to stablise the tunnels. That occurred in the late 1950s when a considerable stretch of the tunnels at Swiss Cottage had to have the old concrete invert replaced. The tunnels have a long history of structural problems due to regular water ingress from the roads above, including burst water mains, and although the current works will improve things considerably, their problems are by no means over.

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