For a few months in 1952, railway tracks could be found running through the middle of Westminster Abbey.

It’s autumn, and the Abbey is being prepared for Coronation of a Queen the following June, and a lot of steel and wood needs to be delivered to build the massive seating stands to hold all the nobles and important people who were invited to attend.

What better to carry all that material than a railway?

OK, it can be technically argued that a railway with humans as the “locomotive” isn’t a railway, but there’s a locomotive, and carriages, and track – it’s a railway.

A railway inside an ancient abbey.

The railway ran through the side entrance of the Abbey — where tourists arrive today and ran to the lorries outside delivering goods. Although there are photos of the conversion works, there are sadly few written records of the railway itself.

What’s fascinating is how most of the interior of Westminster Abbey is covered in plywood, so that hardly anything of the ancient original can be seen. The Westminster Abbey we see on television is largely a fantasy created for the Coronation to make the Abbey look grander than it really is. Even the raised dais where the Queen is crowned is just a wooden stage covered in carpet.

It was also packed — literally — to the rafters.

With some 8,200 guests in an Abbey that can normally seat around 2,000 they needed to add more seats. A lot more seats.

Several floors of seating were squashed in along the sides, and there were seats quite appropriately for the Abbey “in the gods”, where it must have been impossible to see anything at all. But to be in the Abbey on the day, when with hardly anything to look at must have still been an amazing experience.

To think, all those important bums sitting on cheap wooden seats on a steel scaffold covered in fabric to hide the construction.

It’s the monarchy at it’s best, all smoke and mirrors, but what a glorious sight they deliver.

And delivered, one year, by a railway inside Westminster Abbey.

Photos from the National Archives – references WORK 21/297 and WORK 21/301. Most of the photos are a bit warped, as they’re hand-copied from the originals in the archive photo albums, and are showing their age a bit.

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5 comments
  1. Maurice Reed says:

    Fascinating story.

    Thanks 👍

  2. John Fletcher says:

    At the time of the coronation my father worked for the Ministry of Works and was responsible for the lighting in the abbey for the ceremony. He and my mother were both present on the day and he had the job of telling people when to turn the lights up bright for the colour film cameras. Seats and stools from the abbey were sold afterwards and I have a chair in my house to this day.

  3. Michael Theobald says:

    After all the efforts for the coronation, HM Queen Elizabeth did not, and has not, let us down.

  4. Alex Phillips says:

    Another brilliant find. Thanks Ian.

  5. David Cantrell says:

    What no signals? Or did they operate on a “one engine in steam” principle?

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