Steam power and the railroad to suburbia

PUBLISHED: 10:11 20 October 2010 | UPDATED: 10:27 25 October 2010

A locomotive at Sevenoaks in 1932

A locomotive at Sevenoaks in 1932


Author considers the social impact the Victorian railway tycoons had on south London’s village life

Grumbling commuters who spend their mornings reluctantly crammed into London-bound train carriages should try to remember that they ride on the rails of engineering history.

For it was a mere 150 years ago that people were jumping at the chance to live as close as possible to a station and ride one of the state-of-the-art locomotives taking the region by storm.

As Orpington writer David Staines reveals in Kent Railways: The Age of Steam, if it wasn’t for London’s pioneering railways, Bromley suburbia wouldn’t exist at all.

He said: “The line through Deptford to Greenwich was the first intercity railway in the world. The railways fuelled suburban development and as soon as they hit the outskirt villages like Sidcup and Bromley, immediately all the land was taken up for building development.

“People suddenly had the opportunity to live in a nice house away from the dust and grime of London yet still work there.”

Staines’ book has 126 pages charting the rise and fall of the chuffing, hissing hulks that underpinned an expansionist zeal we have never forgotten.

However the work, which contains many excellent pictures of gruff, bearded station masters, Victorian architecture and a host of trains, is not simply for the anorak.

“There have been plenty of books written about steam trains in this region. What’s new is that I look at it from a more social aspect. There’s less content about the types of railway engine – it’s not a rivet-counter’s book,” said Staines, who spend six months researching Kentish railways.

“It explains why and how the railways were built and how that has affected people living in south London and Kent.

“As late as 1857, Charles Dickens was describing open countryside in New Cross – within a few decades all of the villages along the railway lines converged into a conglomeration.”

As well as considering the impact of the railways on the social fabric – Bromley’s 1851 population of 4,100 quadrupled within 30 years – Staines is careful to include some much-desired human interest.

For those who have wondered why Charing Cross and Cannon Street lines are annoyingly separated from Victoria and Blackfriars, Staines has an answer.

He said: “Throughout the Victorian period there were two railway companies operating in the region. Sir Edward Watkin ran Southeastern Railways – they built Charing Cross and Cannon Street. James Forbes ran London, Chatham and Dover Railway and had Victoria and Blackfriars.

“They were constantly trying toout do each other and consequently there was a lot of duplication of lines, not for any particular reason other than to take the other’s trade. It didn’t make much sense and consequently many villages never got a railway and have never evolved like their neighbours.”

Staines’ book reports a widespread enthusiasm for the steam revolution that has been well documented, not least in plays like The Titfield Thunderbolt, performed at Erith Playhouse theatre in May.

“When they came they were the cutting-edge of technology. Before the arrival of steam trains, no one could have gone any faster than a horse,” said Staines. “Some physicians predicted that the human body could not cope with the speed – they said the body would be asphyxiated if one travelled at more than 30mph.”

Clearly it was hardly in the Victorian psyche of striving and seeking to pay heed to such spoil-sports or Luddites. There was an Empire to run after all, and it was this global interest that drove the project forward in Kent – to link London to Dover.

Yet in spite of the enthusiasm of the era and the modern passion of ‘spotters’, Staines notes that the succession of steam trains by electric carriages instigated little regret in the 1960s.

“Steam locomotives were very inefficient and caused a lot of pollution, and drivers were happier to be in a seal cab than in an open one shovelling coal in all conditions.

“There was nothing romantic about their decline and no one really mourned their loss.”

The wistful reaction to modernisation seen in Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire came only at the beginning of the steam age, it seems, whereas now we are happy to replace one set of metal machinery for another.

Kent Railways: The Age of Steam by David Staines is published by Countryside Books for £9.99.

For more information visit or call 01635 43816.

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