Earlier this year I noted the 150th anniversary of the opening of London’s Charing Cross railway station, but it came very close to being a eulogy for a long since closed station.
Ever since its construction, there were voices raised in objection to the railway bridge crossing the Thames. Although a bridge had been in place for many years at that location, the railway bridge was seen as particularly ugly and all sorts of worthy voices were raised in objection to it.
Such was the pressure, and by the 1900s, powerful forces were being employed to get rid of it.
Charing Cross was the wrong place for a railway they exclaimed, the railway bridge was ugly they agreed, and road traffic was the future, not noisy dirty trains they declared.
Yes, to replace an ugly railway bridge, the consensus was for a wide road bridge instead. No one seemed to suggest building a nice railway bridge.
Get rid of the railway they all declared in near unison, and eventually, the London County Council agreed, and proposed shifting Charing Cross to where the South Bank is today, and replacing the railway bridge with a road bridge.
Those plans were however deeply controversial at the time, as basically while everyone agreed that the railway had to move, no one could quite agree on where to, nor on the design for the replacement road bridge.
One of the more illuminating publications at the time goes into considerable detail about the plans, and their predecessors.
The book itself is somewhat turgid to read, being very much concerned with the use of mere engineers as planners and how little thought is given to architects until after the urban plan is decided upon — a model that largely works today though.
Anyway, back to the river and the bridges — one of the earliest plans for a replacement would have seen a new “London Bridge” constructed, with shops lining the edges at the old medieval bridge once had. The practical utility of long rows of small shops seemingly having been overlooked by the designer, the proposal, however elegant was dismissed as totally impractical.
It had also failed to address the issue of where Charing Cross station would be moved to.
One of the more interesting proposals, and one that was to be offered by a number of other people over the years, was a station that would effectively mirror Waterloo, with a grand plaza between them.
Imagine, Waterloo East as less a little runt of a station stuck on the side of the mothership and more an entire Waterloo sized station in its own right.
Such was one proposal by W.D Caroe in 1917, who also suggested an elegant road bridge to carry traffic from the new Waterloo complex to Charing Cross.
One of the overwhelming images of the bridges though is to note just how little road traffic they seemed to carry. A misleading image if there ever was one at a time when London’s streets were deeply congested — and even if accurate, they then suggested no need for the bridges in the first place!
By 1916, the various plans seemed to have settled onto two options — a station mirroring that at Waterloo, or essentially a railway that runs upto the river, then stops dead, as if cut off by the water’s edge.
However, one of the most interesting plans came from Sir Owen Williams, who seemed to be one of the few who thought a railway station on the north side of the Thames wasn’t such a bad idea, and suggested a dual-level bridge to replace the iron and steel lattice work that so offended architects at the time.
His proposal would have have had a road running at street level, and the railway run above it. A new bridge would have been built to replace the old one, but the plans collapsed due to disagreements over the engineering of such a structure.
It was in fact the double aspect that was to prove the most controversial aspect of all the other road bridge plans — should the run at street level to meet up with the Embankment, or be elevated to the same height as the existing railway, so as to line up conveniently with The Strand?
No other question in the various proposals was to prove more vexed to the planners, and to the vocal architects who seemed as polarised as Marmite eaters on the topic.
The official scheme would eventually opt for the Strand route, and in turn seem to doom itself by the fact that half the people wanted the other scheme.
None of these plans evidently came to pass. An offer by the government to cover 75% of the estimated £12.5 million cost was withdrawn in 1931 due to the controversy over the eventually submitted plans.
Most of the plans wouldn’t have even been given a second glance today, preoccupied as they were less with improving transport within London than in developing a pretty riverside frontage with the “correct” sorts of buildings and decoration.
Today we almost shudder to think that Charing Cross station wouldn’t be where it is today, with its convenient link to the centre of town. How much worse would road traffic in the area be if there were no railway, and just more roads funneling motorists into the heart of London?
However grand the riverside buildings and bridges might have been, the plans totally ignored the needs of the common person.
All images from Charing Cross Bridge, by Arthur Keen FRIBA, published in 1930.