Buried underneath part of the Regent’s Park lies one of London rail heritage’s stranger stories, an entire railway terminus that once rivaled Euston station, but now is empty, abandoned, and largely forgotten.

Of the nearly 200 years of London’s varied railway history, to open an entire terminus and abandon it shortly afterwards seems careless, but that’s exactly what happened.

This is the story of the lost Regents Park Station, which opened 180 years ago today, and closed a mere 20 years later.

The railway terminus stood near to the modern day Euston station, and it was the opening of that station and the rivalry between two railway magnates which was to doom the Regents Park Station.

What was known as the London and Coventry Railway (LCR) was granted permission to build a line in the early 1830s, with a line running down to London and terminating at a station to be built in a cutting underneath part of the Regent’s Park.

OS map from 1836

The announcement that a slice of the park was to be sold to a railway company sparks furious comments in the serious press of the time, but it was the need to dig a deep cutting and some tunnels across North London which caused the greatest concern among ordinary folk.

Remembering that at the time, much of North London was still farmland, it was objections by farmers to the new railway which held up development, until the Coventry railway signed a deal with a rival company which was to initially save, but later doom their own railway.

The Chairman of the Coventry line, Mr John Rennie signed an agreement with the Chairman of another railway, Mr Francis Giles which was also seeking permission to build a terminus in London, the London and Birmingham Railway (LBR).

The LBR had their eyes on a plot of land near Euston Grove, but objections from farmers in North London meant that the original permission for the line would have seen the terminus at Chalk Farm, to the north of Euston.

The two railways though joined forces, and in 1835, secured permission to run a single cutting past Chalk Farm, where it would split to the two separate stations.

One headed towards Euston, and the other to the Regent’s Park, where a large cutting was now being been dug along one side to house the new station. One of the conditions of permitting the sale of a slice of Regent’s Park was that apart from the main entrance, no buildings should be visible above the ground.

As this was the era of steam, it was still necessary for ventilation, so large holes were permitted along the line of the railway, but other exhalations of steam aside, there was to be no indication that gentle folk were walking above a rude railway.

The Proposed Regent’s Park Terminus Railway

Uniquely among railways of the time, the Regent’s Park Station was for passengers only — freight was to be handled at a northern depot built in conjunction with the Euston station line at Chalk Farm. This restriction against freight deliveries was due to the narrowness of the Regent’s Park site, which constrained their ability to handle cargo, and could hold just four passenger platforms.

The Regent’s Park Station opened on 1st April 1837, just about beating the rival Euston, which opened a few weeks later on 20th July 1837.

A technical, and expensive marvel, and although not considered the first underground railway, it does hold the title for being the world’s first underground railway station.

View of the tracks approaching the station

Unfortunately, the railway was ahead of its times, and this was to prove a fatal mistake.

The key mistake, as alluded to above is that due to the size of the site, it was to be a passenger only station — and this was at a time when more than half of railway traffic was for cargo.

The London and Coventry Railway (LCR) had taken the bold decision to focus on passengers, rather than cargo, judging that people would flock to the new railway services, which it promoted as not being shared with dirty warehouses.

Today it seems odd for railway stations to be warehouses, but until the 1950s, most central London railway stations were much larger than they are today, thanks to vast amounts of space for cargo deliveries.

For example, the land currently occupied by the British Library was once the St Pancras station goods warehouse.

Although the Regent’s Park Station did have some shared space at Chalk Farm for cargo deliveries, this added at least half an hour to deliveries by road, and at a time when perishable foods lacked refrigeration facilities this was a serious handicap.

As it happened, the railway was indeed popular with passengers, but not popular enough, and the lack of non-human deliveries meant that the railway was running at a loss from the day it opened.

As the big selling message of the railway line had been its cleaner services, it was difficult for the company to come up with a cargo based way of raising revenues. It was also hampered by the subterranean nature of the Regent’s Park Station, which made manhandling boxes of food and goods up the stairs a laborious task.

In March 1840, they came up with the idea of overnight deliveries into Regent’s Park Station, and a small steam powered conveyor belt was constructed on the eastern platform to the Outer Circle road which runs around the park itself.

Although that helped the railway, protests from residents in the posh houses running around the Regents Park, who complained of that “disturbance nightly from the hundreds of porters with their crude language, and din of wagons that regularly disturbed the sleep”, saw the scheme killed off just a year later.

Its seems that the railways, with extensive powers to sweep aside the poor and slum dwellings to construct their stations, couldn’t sweep away the chances of the Dowager Countess of Grantham getting a decent nights sleep.

The railway and its central London terminus limped on for a number more years with little to report, while the directors of the company tried to build up demand for passenger services.

First day at the new station – The Graphical Newspaper

The Great Exhibition of 1851 certainly helped, with the railway company seeing a surge in traffic. Unfortunately for them, by then King’s Cross had also opened its initial station building (at Maiden Lane), and was busy building its current station, while the Midland Railway was planning its own railway cathedral at St Pancras.

It was also a noted fact that these stations were huge and visible enterprises at a time when people still felt a little wary of the railways. They were seen as financially dubious and not entirely safe, so the railway companies built grand impressive stations to show off how, well, grand and impressive the railways could be.

Compared to this, the Regent’s Park Station was barely a few two-storey buildings, at least, above ground that is. Hardly an impressive sight to reassure wary travellers of the stability of this new fangled transport service.

Further problems beset the station due to the often fractious relationship between the Chairmen of the Euston and the Regents Park railway companies. Although they agreed to share the cutting from Chalk Farm, and some goods yards, there were regular disputes between the two companies over how much should be paid for the facilities.

Due to its ailing finances, the London and Coventry Railway had sold some its its shares in the joint section of railway to its then partner, but the agreement for access costs was never fully ratified by either side.

With both men of somewhat intemperate natures, disputes often flared up, leading on one occasion to the Euston railway company blocking access to the Regent’s Park station until an overdue invoice was paid.

The station seemed destined to a slow decline as both fortunes and good manners were increasingly hard to come by.

However, hope seemed around the corner. A plan that could have saved the railway!

When the London Underground was planning its initial line from Paddington to Farringdon, there was some talk that this could save the ailing Regent’s Park Station.

The London Underground started planning in 1854, and was lobbied strongly by the Regent’s Park Station to open an underground station in front of its buildings. They even offered to cover the costs of the connecting tunnels, but the Metropolitan railway was not particularly interested.

From their perspective, it was too close to the planned Baker Street station, and frankly, with the mainline terminus in seemingly terminal decline, an underground station at the busier shopping and residential area of Great Portland Street seemed the more sensible location.

There is one of the great what-ifs of history. Would the tube station have saved the mainline railway terminus? Almost certainly not. It was barely functioning by the late 1850s, and its doom seemed certain.

The Regent’s Park Station finally closed its doors on the 1st April 1857 — twenty years to the day after it opened.

The station buildings were torn down, and the land sold to the Crown Estate Paving Commission which manages the built environment around Regent’s Park. The large gravel square outside the station, which had been used for waiting carriages was turned into one of London’s largest private gardens, the Park Square West.

The station building prior to demolition

Although nothing remains above ground of the old station, hints of its existence can be seen.

The edge of the railway station site is still marked by a long straight pathway, with the avenue of tress, the Broad Walk, marks the central section between the two sets of platform tunnels where there was enough depth left for trees to be planted.

Also, what is erroneously known as the Nursemaid’s Tunnel still exists, linking the garden with the old station. It’s occasionally open for public tours, often during Open Garden Squares Weekend.

The abandoned underground station served some utility after it closed though, as it proved a useful location for construction materials and spoil to be removed from the Bakerloo line when it was being constructed in the early 1900s. The Bakerloo line runs under one corner of the old railway terminus, so a deep shaft was dug down to the tube tunnels for construction access.

The shaft remains, as part of the Bakerloo line ventilation system, although it apparently simply recycles air from within the empty vaults of the railway station above.

Although the station was now closed, the line from Coventry to London remained open as it was taken over by its erstwhile rival, the Euston line, and for them it was a convenient back-up. The post-war decline of cargo traffic though saw the line fall into disuse, and it was finally closed as part of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

One of the odder developments in it’s history is how many bombs hit the old railway station, even though on maps it was shown as being a park. It’s speculated that the Germans suspected that the old station would have been brought back in to use by the government, even though it was pretty much useless by then.

It’s likely that the station might have been used for storage, but as it was quite shallow, a direct hit would have gone right through the brick roof and destroyed anything within. It’s use would have probably been limited to just basic warehousing, not secure storage as at some deep level tunnels.

The station even showed up as an active line on the famous maps drawn up by the Soviet Union in case they invaded the UK.

Apart from those oddities, it seems that this foolish venture to compete with the other railways was to remain a little known remnant of London’s railway history. Overlooked, forgotten, of no interest to anyone.

It got a very rude awakening in 1987 though, when disaster struck as the park’s boating lake burst through into the abandoned station and flooded it.

This lead to the incredible sight of the Regent’s Park lake being totally empty for several months while the hole was plugged with concrete and the lake later refilled.

The drained Regent’s Park lake

The southern section of the park is noted for being more verdant than the north, and this is thought to be due to the waterlogged state of the station below following the 1987 flood.

More recently, there were suggestions (section 3.2.8) that the old railway tunnels and the remains of the station could be reused for the HS2 terminus in London rather than rebuilding Euston station.

However, the old station is not really suitable anymore for modern use, so there are plans to back fill the entire site, probably from the rubble left over from the HS2 development.

Then finally, the old station will cease to exist, barely an echo in the long and ever curious history of London’s railways.


April Fool

OK, in case you didn’t guess, this foolish venture was an April Fool.

The two rival chairman were in fact partners, in the railway that built Euston Station. The story of their rivalry is based in truth though, as the Chairmen of the Metropolitan and District lines on the Underground both hated each other.

Although HS2 did look at burying a station under the Royal Parks, they ruled it out immediately, which personally I think was a shame, as while politics would have been considerable, the benefits were equally so.

The drained lake incident was actually the semi-regular draining of St James Park.

The photo is of a railway station, in East London — that is East London, South Africa, back when it was the Cape Colony Railway.

I’m sure many of you recognised the Dowager Countess of Grantham, of Downton Abbey fame.

The illustration of the proposed station is actually a mirror’d image of Baker Street station, as is the opened station, with slightly amended station sign.

The illustration of the railway tracks is actually the opening the Metropolitan Main Drainage Works.

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24 comments
  1. Jon says:

    They should open it up and use it as a church.

  2. Ian says:

    April 1st

  3. Mike says:

    What a good idea they had using one rail of the standard gauge and putting another a little way off to provide a narrow gauge railway as well, all clearly visible in the station picture. Where did thw narrow gauge railway go and what was it used for? Did the Post Office Mail Rail use any of it?

    • Leytonstoner says:

      The Post Office didn’t exist in 1837! The rails you can see are most probably for Standard gauge and Broad gauge trains, like the Metropolitan line when it first opened in 1863.

    • Mark says:

      The Post Office existed, but Mail Rail didn’t at that time. The Royal Mail Travelling Post Office (TPO) commenced in 1838 but Regents Park station was not a part of its operations.

    • Leytonstoner says:

      Doh!

  4. Ewan says:

    I believe that idea was discounted because of the seam of pyrite deposits found on the site after the station closed.

  5. Jason says:

    Nice try!

  6. Joe Kerr says:

    Is that how one was “sent to Coventry”?

  7. David Jackson says:

    It seems terrible that this vital part of our transport heritage is not going to be preserved for future generations. Perhaps we could apply for an E.U. grant. Oh…..

  8. Tekkin Veepis says:

    You must’ve spent hours on that piece!

  9. Dk says:

    and believed by so many

  10. ley stow says:

    excellent article, wonder why I’ve never read about this before!

  11. Helen Kerr says:

    Well done, all the way to the end.

  12. Alan Hetherington says:

    Had me all the way because Regent’s Park tube station IS in a silly place and this made sense of it, ahaa. A very well written piece of work it is too(and I’m from/in Camden).

  13. Gordon says:

    Your piece was linked to on our local forum, and took in one of our local historians… 🙂

  14. Gio says:

    You had me until the photo of St James’s Park!

  15. almost witty says:

    Dang it, totally and utterly fell for it.

    But then today is April 2nd.

  16. Melvyn says:

    Best send a copy of this to STOPHS2 with dates in the future and they may start protest at destroying Regents Park !

  17. Nic Maennling says:

    Good one ! You had me until the Countess of Grantham popped up ! Thank you.

  18. Rodney Maennling says:

    I have long legs, and you managed to pull both. I’m glad I putted around on The Lake in 1949 – when everything was real!

  19. Marcus says:

    A very good bit of foolery.. I grew up at No.5 Park Square West in the 1960s and the sound of the Bakerloo line trains was very audible in the basement.

    Everyone should visit the gardens, the biggest private ones in central London, during Open Gardens weekend in the summer.

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