Sunday, 10 April 2011

“The Railways of Beckenham”, Andrew Hajducki


Railways and London are inextricably linked. London Transport’s iconic font and signage, set in Johnston, come as close as anything to being a definitive brand for London, and the default means of navigating around the city for any recent arrival is to fall back on the tube map. This of course is a source of long running mild irritation to those of us living south of the river. To the average tourist London sprawls northwards, and the wilds of Cockfosters or Amersham are somehow more accessible than the South London towns of Surbiton, Sutton, Croydon, or Bromley.

This of course is a misrepresentation. South London had its period of explosive growth in the 19th century, as the Victorian network of overground railways spread through Surrey and Kent, thus when the underground appeared, there was no sense in expensive new tunnelling technology trying to compete with a well-established and functioning network in the south – resulting in the 20th century focus on the north, the creation of ‘Metroland’ in the 1930s, and in 1931 the arrival of Harry Beck’s schematic diagram, which somehow forever shifted the balance of attention tubewards, and condemned South London to relative obscurity.

Jurist Andrew Hajducki contributes to maybe restoring the balance of understanding with his study of the extensive railway network in what was the Borough of Beckenham – making the point that the railway network built in the 19th century transformed sleepy countryside hamlets into prosperous Victorian suburbs and that the railway network used by commuters today is more or less identical to that put in place 150 years ago.

The point that social development and railway technology are linked is never lost through the book, from the quaint absurdity of the Cator family insisting that the original railway charter did not allow for cheap weekend tickets to Beckenham, lest there be an unwelcome influx of ‘excursionists’ who would lower the tone and value of the estate, through to a much more modernist approach when The Times in 1923 comments that “Beckenham is a convenient and pleasant suburb with the advantage of late trains and fast services to the City and West End”. In short, Beckenham was democratised and to a large extent created by the railways.

To most who use railways in London there is of course a level of scepticism about how effective the system really is, with autumn and winter seeming being impossible for trains to cope with, and the reality of overcrowding at peak times meaning the train is often a less than idyllic mode of transport. The point is made that this is nothing particularly new. In 1873 the railway authorities are described as treating passengers “more like cattle than Christians” and in the 1970s a British Rail local manager in the Beckenham area was forced to concede that “actually getting commuters to London is a daily miracle”. Somehow one feels much as the network in the area looks the same, the complaints haven’t moved on a tremendous amount either.

It would be very easy to recoil from a book like this in fear of being tarred by the ‘train spotter’ brush, but in overall presentation (it is lavishly illustrated throughout) and avoiding the trap of being over captivated by detail, instead punctuating the narrative with entertaining vignettes, Hajducki provides an engaging and easy read. Wry observations, such as Beckenham’s first casualty of World War Two being a man who, confused by the blackout at Shortlands station, alighted on the wrong side of the train and plummeted to his death on the road below, transform what could be a dry account of train timetables into something a lot richer.

Commercially one suspects that “The Railways of Beckenham” will never be a great deal more than of niche interest to railway enthusiasts or local historians, but for those constituencies it does a fine job. It’s also encouraging to see the author and his publishers make an attempt to directly engage with the target audience. The book was launched last week at Beckenham library with an illustrated talk by the author, highlighting how the stations in the borough can essentially trace the communities’ evolution, and how they serve to mark the course of history over the last 150 years. It’s worth doing, and something that helps build identity in what could otherwise be faceless suburbia.

Beckenham Library hosts launch of "The Railways of Beckenham",  7 April 2011

 
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