Part three of a five part series.
Despite having apparently surveyed the plans to great detail and being sure that there were no hidden costs to dismay the investors, it wasn’t long before unforeseen problems started to crop up.
A series of letters in July 1866, nine months after construction started warning of problems with a sewer in Whitehall that could not be avoided. It was suggested that the railway adjust its cut/cover tunnel to run under the Duke of Northumberland’s garden, and also under the Rising Sun pub next door. The pub seems to have been paid compensation of £475, and the Duke got £750 for his garden.
Incidentally, the pub was badly damaged by a terrorist bomb in May 1884 and later demolished.
A shoemaker also made laborious work of seeking compensation for the demolition of his shop on the building site, and having failed to find an alternative shop to work from, was seeking employment “as a servant under the crown”. There’s no record of whether the unfortunate shoe cobbler was given a replacement job.
However, the problems with unexpected construction costs were as nothing compared to what was about to hit the company, and indeed, the entire country.
In June 1866, Overend, Gurney & Co, a bank so respected and important that it was known as “the bankers banker” collapsed. A banking crisis hit London, in a manner that would be quite familiar to readers today.
The bank was a particularly heavy lender to railway companies, many of whom were the dodgy subprime mortgages of their time, and when the bank collapsed, so did many railway investments that had previously looked perfectly sound.
During the crisis, around 200 companies, including several banks were forced to close down.
Despite the setbacks, as of the November 1866, the pneumatic railway was sufficiently interesting to attract the attention of the Americans, who reported that the first of the four iron tubes was now ready at the Samuda works on the Isle of Dogs. It was still intended at the time that the ends of the tube were to be sealed up, and the whole thing floated down river to Whitehall, where it would be sunk onto the foundations already prepared in the riverbed.
Had that happened — and sadly it didn’t — it would have surely been a great spectacle of considerable excitement to the Victorians, and amply recorded in the graphic newspapers of the time.
The below drawing is from the Scientific American magazine of March 1867, and was based on a photograph sent to their offices in New York. Regrettably, they don’t have the original photo, which could otherwise have been the sole photographic evidence of this remarkable structure.
Six months after the banking crisis hit the country, a board meeting at the pneumatic railway, held in December 1866 discussed the worsening financial situation. Two bills were being presented to Parliament, one to extend the company’s authority to build the railway, and the other, to shut-down the entire project.
The Chairman, R.H. Dutton MP explained that to abandon the railway would be to lose all the money invested with nothing to show for it, but that thanks to the banking crisis, it was felt that the future did not look promising. His prognosis of gloom was replied with muted cries of “hear, hear” from the other board directors.
As he noted, there is an entire apathy on the part of the general public, and that in great measure, that apathy was justified by recent events – doubtless referring to other railways, such as the London Chatham and Dover, which had suspended payments to their shareholders for want of funds caused by the banking crisis.
That the company needed more money that was originally expected was a matter of some considerable annoyance to the other shareholders, and one, a Mr Burney argued strongly that the project had been driven by engineers rather than by sound businessmen, and that they wouldn’t be in this predicament otherwise.
(One of the complaints most often levelled at railways today is that they are run by businessmen instead of engineers. Plus ça change!)
One misunderstanding that the inventor of the pneumatic system, Mr Rammell was being paid cash from dwindling resources was firmly rebutted. He was paid in shares, which would be worthless if the project failed, so he had a fairly strong interest in ensuring the Bill to close the railway was not approved by Parliament. It wasn’t, and they got an extension on the timescale to complete the railway.
Although the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway was funded by the sale of shares, and wasn’t itself directly dependent on bank loans, those shares were sold with a deposit first, and the rest of the funds due at a later date. With the banks in crisis, shareholders were no longer able to meet their obligations, and the firm was forced to seek outside assistance.
Due to the lack of cash, the Directors made approaches to the South Western Railway, who owned Waterloo Station to see if they would provide the £115,000 they estimated would be needed to complete the pneumatic railway.
In the meantime, all work was stopped on the construction of the railway, the building sites sealed, and the workers laid off.
During this time, there was also considered an alternative for the railway – and that was to build the tunnel, but scrap the railway entirely – opening it as a pedestrian tunnel with a small toll to walk through it. This was in fact quite a sensible proposal, as the Hungerford Bridge was at the time a toll bridge, so a tunnel offering a link to Whitehall, and doing so in the dry would have probably been popular.
The delay to the construction of the railway tunnel was also holding up the construction of another of the great Victorian endeavours – the Thames Embankment. The two projects had an agreement to work together at the point where the railway would pass under the Embankment, but stopping the railway works was now holding up the Embankment above.
By January 1867, the only works at the Embankment carried out by the railway, was to prepare and iron box for fitting on to the river end of the line.
A drawing from the Illustrated London News shows the relationship between the deep level pneumatic railway, the Embankment and its Bazalgette sewers, and what are today known as the Circle/District Line railways.
In February 1867, another board meeting was convened to discuss the ongoing financial problems. An attempt to raise an additional £30,000 by issuing new shares had been a failure with just £8,770 being received.
Having been blocked by Parliament in their attempts to raise money from the London and South Western Railway directly, they agreed to try and appeal to the shareholders of that railway to invest directly in their pneumatic service, arguing that their investment in the overland railway would be a significant beneficiary of the convenience of the underground link to Whitehall.
Such was the impact of the banking crisis and the general recession, that newspaper report on the state of the shipbuilding yards along the Thames in September 1867 found just one project under construction – the iron tubes for the pneumatic railway.
On the 13th February 1868, their fifth board meeting was held, where the Directors bemoaned the lack of interest in any railway projects since the previous meeting, and that they had failed to raise the extra funded they needed to complete the pneumatic railway.
Having come this far though, it seemed a waste to scrap everything, and it was proposed that for just £150,000 they would be able to create a rail link between Waterloo Station and what is today the Embankment Station. They planned to seek assistance from the London and South Western Railway (Waterloo Station) to secure the completion of the underground railway.
Not much seemed to happen though – the works were still abandoned in Whitehall, with nothing apparently having started in Waterloo at all.
The piling in the river was causing an obstruction to river traffic during the suspension of construction, and the matter was raised in the House of Commons to determine how swiftly they could be removed. The answer being, not very quickly.
One diversion took up some time though, as a shareholder, and former director of the company, Mr. Rothwell Ponnsett sued the company claiming that the directors had mislead investors by underestimating the costs of constructing it. He lost the case after the directors pointed out that they had sunk their own money into the company as well – which they were unlikely to have done had they faked the prospectus.
The abandoned site was continuing to cause annoyance though, and the issue of the “unsightly” wooden piling in the Thames was again raised in the House of Commons.
Eighteen months later, in July 1869, the directors finally bowed the inevitable, and sent a letter to the Board of Trade seeking Parliamentary approval to abandon the railway.
At the time of the abandonment, the records showed that the company had successfully constructed the tunnel from Scotland Yard to the Embankment, and the construction of part of one of the junction chambers by the station. They had dredged a portion of the river bed, and one single length of iron tube had been completed down in the Isle of Dogs. A second tube was assembled, but the brick linings hadn’t been applied, and the iron for the other two lengths of tube were cast, but not assembled.
The land at Scotland Yard had been cleared and was being used as a storage yard – and later for hackney cabs seeking operating licenses from the next door Public Carriage Office.
Despite a couple of objections, described as minor, and a claim for the costs associated with diverting some sewers, the letter approving the request to close the railway project was signed on the 6th September 1870.
The company had also been ordered to remove those troublesome wooden piles in the river before the Warrant was signed, as these had been due to be removed in early August 1869, but it seems likely that they were still there a year later, as the final Warrant of Abandonment was not signed until the 10th February 1871.
The railway was dead.
Tomorrow – other attempts to build a pneumatic railway
The web research notes will be published in part five.
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