From Brunel to British Rail: The Railway Heritage of the Crossrail Route

One of Crossrail’s legacies is going to be the history of the railways that came before it — in the form of a new book about the railway heritage of the Crossrail route.

Although most of the Crossrail route under London is deep below the streets, where it rises above ground to join up with the existing mainline tracks it has often run through areas of former railway sites.

Depots, sidings, turntables, all once vital land absorbing requirements of the railways in the days of steam and cargo, but today often lost beneath buildings and roads.

The bulk of the heritage uncovered by Crossrail and its archeologists has been to the West, where the tunnels rise up through the massive Paddington station site, which was once much larger than it is today.

The area is also of particular note for being one of Brunel’s projects, and hints of his doomed experiments with Broad Guage railways have been uncovered.

The latest in a series of 10 books about the archeology of Crossrail., From Brunel to British Rail looks at what’s been discovered, or rediscovered.

As a book, it’s a collection of reports about patches of London as opposed to a singular narrative, unsurprisingly focusing on those patches affected by the Crossrail project.

As such it can be a bit disjointed in places, but drops nuggets of delight into the history. Such as learning that bits of old heritage lie hidden in plain sight, such as the furniture shop in Westbourne Park that was once a GWR coffee shop, or that the otherwise unremarkable corridor between lines at Whitechapel station was the former ticket hall.

Lots of lost history was uncovered, such as the lift shaft that linked the Central line to the demolished Broad Street station, and WW2 shelters at Plumstead.

Steam trains being of the era when social divides were at their strongest, issues such as how the facilities varied depending on status within the railways. Even within the working class there were hierarchies, and gods forefend that a lowly worker would dare to mix with an engineer, or a driver.

Not forgetting the ladies, of whom more turned up during the war years and needed facilities of their own to avoid mingling with the men.

One of the facilities to be adapted were the toilets, that had a 10 inch wide hole in the door so that the foreman could check that staff weren’t wasting time in the loo reading the newspaper. This had to change for the ladies.

Facilities for ladies didn’t last though, as around three-quarters of a million women were made redundant in 1918, when the men returned from the war. Even by the 1980s, less than 10% of the railway workforce were female.

The book is as noted lumped into areas where Crossrail has carried out works, and is a mix of slightly soporifically detailed reporting on sizes of things and types of things, but also as above, drops interesting insights into the human side of the railways that is so often overlooked by railway history books.

Most readers are bound to be putting little markers in the pages for later research.

The book takes the history reporting up to 1974, when a report was written suggesting an east-west railway under London. That was to become Crossrail.

The book, From Brunel to British Rail: The Railway Heritage of the Crossrail Route is available here.

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