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The London, Brighton, & South Coast

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The Brighton Railway was projected by Sir John Rennie, and it took him nine years to get the scheme adopted. The airy reference to it in his autobiography lets in a flood of light on the way in which many of our railways came about. "I will now," says he, "revert to 1826, the time when I was asked my opinion as to the value of railways, and I said in the most decided terms to Lord Lowther that. I thought very highly of them, that they must succeed and eventually supersede every other mode of transport for passengers and goods. Being quite convinced of this, with which opinion my brother George cordially agreed, I set about projecting lines to those places where I thought they were most applicable."

There were engineer's lines and contractor's lines, and the Brighton was an engineer's line. "Another important line," says Rennie, "which I proposed at this time was one between London and Brighton." With his assistants, Grantham and Jago, he surveyed the route, placed his terminus at Kennington Park, ran to Croydon through Clapham and Streatham, and then went straight away much as the line goes now to the upper end of Brighton. Further, he started Vignoles on a survey from Nine Elms through Dorking, Horsham, and Shoreham, and to this added a western branch along the coast to Portsmouth with a view to continuing to Southampton and Bristol; and when ready with his plans he got together his board, who issued the prospectus of The Surrey, Sussex, Hants, Wilts & Somerset Railway Company, which failed to make headway until it cut off its extremities and changed its name.

Vignoles - afterwards Professor of Civil Engineering at University College, the first professorship of the subject founded in England - was much engaged in railway work for years, and was the inventor of the flat-based rail that found such favour on the Continent. He is distinguished as being one of the youngest of our soldiers, for when a baby he was made a prisoner of war by the French, and, to obtain his release, Sir Charles Grey gave him a commission as an ensign in the 43rd when he was eighteen months old, placing him immediately on half-pay. Thus Vignoles being an officer could be exchanged, and the exchange was effected without delay. Nineteen years afterwards, when in his twenty-first year, he returned to full pay, and served in the Peninsula and elsewhere, until he returned to half-pay in 1816, when he took to surveying, his first work in Europe being this under Rennie, which was during 1825 and not 1826 as Rennie incorrectly states.

Brighton in those days was growing fast, and a railway to it was an obvious project, but this ambitious proposal of Rennie's did nothing beyond provoking opposition schemes, which were mutually destructive year after year, until in 1836 there were more than half a dozen routes for Parliament to decide upon. These were Rennie's, which had been slightly modified and considerably curtailed; Palmer's, which went through Woldingham, Oxted, and Lindfield, because he proposed to go on to Dover; that, or rather those, by Joseph Gibbs, which went from London Bridge through Croydon, southwards; that by Vignoles, which went from the Elephant through Croydon, Merstham, and West Grinstead; Cundy's, which went from St. George's Fields through Mitcham and West Grinstead; and Robert Stephenson's, which went from the Wimbledon Station on the London & Southampton Railway through Epsom, Mickleham, Dorking, Horsham, and Shoreham, that is Sboreham-by-Sea.

These were soon reduced to two. Gibbs did not comply with standing orders, and his Bill came to early grief; Cundy's board engaged in disputes about the chairmanship until it was too late to proceed; the Vignoles route fell out ostensibly for want of funds; and Palmer's was laughed out owing to its five miles of tunnels and enormous cuttings, some of them 120 ft. deep. Thus the contest remained between Rennie and Stephenson. Rennie's, being the first in the field, took the shortest road. Stephenson's line was eight miles longer, but it was by far the easier, its gradients varying from 1 in 1221 to 1 in 327, and it was practically the same line that now goes from Epsom to Shoreham. Rennie, who never lost an opportunity of sneering at the Stephensons, was much disturbed about this line, and in his evidence complained that his plans - which had been passing about for years - had been submitted "without my consent to Mr. Robert Stephenson, whom I do not consider a proper judge of such plans!"

Fortunately Rennie had, after much effort, secured the support of the Brighton people, and Stephenson's line went through properties between Epsom and Box Hill owned by persons of influence who resisted it to the utmost, while the Gibbs lines were so placed that an arrangement could be made with their projectors if necessary. And these projectors were the London & Croydon Company.

The Croydon Canal, dating from 1801, branched off from the Grand Surrey near what is now Southwark Park, and ran south for about nine miles through New Cross to its basin on which West Croydon Station now stands. It had twenty-eight locks on it, and was unsatisfactory from the first owing to the difficulty of keeping an adequate supply of water at its summit level on Forest Hill. It is still traceable by strips of towing-path and small ponds here and there, the largest pool being at Anerley; and so useless was it that in 1835 the London & Croydon Railway was incorporated by Act of Parliament, which bought it up, and, branching from the London & Greenwich at Corbett's Lane Junction, ran along its bed wherever possible, whence the New Cross bank up which the line now rises for over two miles to the old canal summit at Forest Hill. Next year it obtained an Act by which it had a station of its own alongside that of the London & Greenwich at London Bridge, but it used the Greenwich metals until 1842.

The first engineer was William Cubitt, who seeing that Rennie would secure a share in the Croydon traffic promptly encouraged a rival scheme. Here was a line in the making - it was not opened until 1839 - and Parliament not unkindly objected to damage its prospects, though its Bill had fallen out on account of a technicality.

The Brighton battle created much stir, but the end of it all was that nothing was done in 1836, Stephenson's Bill being passed by the Commons but thrown out by the Lords, and in 1837 Captain Alderson was appointed by the Parliamentary Committee to inquire into these Brighton matters generally; and he reported in favour of Rennie's route with alterations not at all agreeable to Rennie. Thus it came about that in 1837 the Act was passed by which the Surrey, Sussex and so on Railway, with exactly the same directorate as at first, became the London & Brighton, with branches to Lewes, Newhaven, and Shoreham, and instead of beginning at Kennington Common, that is the present Park, it had to start from Jolly Sailor on the London & Croydon. Further, it had to buy up that extension of the old Surrey Iron Railway known as the Croydon, Merstham, & Godstone, which ran south from Croydon along Smitham Bottom, a few of the stone sleepers of which may still be found among the local curbstones.

There was yet another and much more serious complication, due to the South Eastern Company having obtained their Act in 1836 empowering them to lay their line from Redstone Hill, that is Redhill, through the Weald by Tonbridge to Dover. To give them communication with London the Brighton Company had to make the whole of the line, 12 miles 5 chains, from Jolly Sailor to Redhill, and then hand over the southern half of it to the South Eastern, who were to pay for that half with an addition of 5 per cent., the sum eventually paid being 340,000. And so, when the Brighton opened throughout on the 21st of September 1841, the train started from London Bridge on London & Greenwich metals; at Corbett's Lane it ran on to London & Croydon metals; at Jolly Sailor it got on to its own line; six miles south of that, at Coulsdon, it ran on to South Eastern metals, and it was not until it left the junction at Redhill that it had any chance of going as it pleased.

To add to the trouble there were gauge difficulties. George Stephenson in planning the Liverpool & Manchester had arranged for a 4 ft. 8½ in. gauge in the Bill that did not pass. To get the next year's Bill through, John Rennie was made engineer in his place. While Rennie was in command, actuated by his dislike of Stephenson, he started a gauge of his own, and just as Brunei found plausible reasons for his width of 7 ft., so Rennie proved to the satisfaction of all who believed in him that the right width was 5 ft. 6 in.; and he began to lay the Liverpool & Manchester to that gauge. Rennie's reign did not last long, and George Stephenson resumed his original position and promptly abolished Rennie's gauge. Robert Stephenson in planning his proposed line to Brighton of course adopted the 4 ft. 8½ in. gauge, and again Rennie, notwithstanding that the trains were to run on the London & Greenwich and the London & Croydon, adopted a little gauge of his own in order to differ from the colliery lines. It was something different from the Stephenson size and that was his comfort, but it was only half an inch different! Instead of 4 ft. 8| in. it was to be 4 ft. 9 in., and John Urpeth Rastrick, who really did the work, had to make it so. Now the South Eastern did not approve of that extra half-inch, and their part had to be of the Stephenson gauge. So the Brighton trains, which were of the ordinary gauge, ran easy from the Jolly Sailor to Coulsdon, and ran easy again from Redhill to the south. This nonsense lasted until the amalgamation, when Jolly Sailor was moved on a bit to become Norwood Junction; but before that took place there is another story to tell.

In 1810 George Medhurst, a most ingenious man of whom few have heard, though to him all are indebted as being the inventor of the weights and scales used in every retail shop, issued A New Method of Conveying Letters and Goods with Great Certainty and Rapidity by Air, in which he proposed to convey goods, large or small, through tunnels by means of compressed air; and later on he published two more pamphlets on the same subject. Really he covered all the ground of the subsequent patents on the matter, though he does not seem to have put any of his suggestions into practice. He describes an airtight tunnel with carriages on rails within it, either driven by compressed air or sucked by a vacuum, as patented by Vallance, and also a smaller tunnel with a piston-carriage attached by a rod passing through a longitudinal valve to a full-sized carriage running over it or alongside it in the open air, as patented by Pinkus, which may be taken as types of the two systems. Vallance was simply ridiculed for his "suffocation scheme"; Pinkus's Pneumatic Railway was tried near the Kensington Canal and then ceased to be heard of.

In 1840 Samuel Clegg, the gas engineer, and Joseph Samuda, the shipbuilder, brought out their Atmospheric Railway project. Clegg invented the valve, and Samuda built the plant and found the money. In June of that year they obtained the temporary use of a portion of the then unfinished West London Railway near Wormwood Scrubbs, where they laid a tube of 9 in. in diameter. "The track," says F. S. Williams, "was of old contractor's rails, very badly laid - which, it is curious to observe, had formed part of the metals of the Liverpool & Manchester line - where on an incline of about one in a hundred and twenty a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour was obtained with a load of more than five tons, and of twenty-two miles with a load of eleven tons. So successful were the results obtained during the course of the experiments that were here made, that the directors of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway determined on the adoption of the atmospheric principle on an extension then projected from Kingstown to Dalkey, the gradients and curves of which rendered it unsuitable for locomotives."

In this the tube was laid between the rails, firmly secured to sleepers embedded in the road. On the top of the tube was a continuous opening, with vertical cheeks along it forming a trough for the valve, which was made of thick leather enclosed between thin iron plates and protected by a hinged iron lid in 5 ft. lengths. The interior of the tube was lined with a composition to keep the piston air-tight, and the valve was kept air-tight by a mixture of tallow and wax. To the piston was attached a rod carrying rollers by which the valve was lifted so as to give room for the passage of the connecting rod that drew the carriage. In front of the piston the tube was closed so that the air might be pumped out by the stationary engine at one end of the line, while behind the piston the tube was left open to admit the air by the pressure of which on the piston the train was driven. Such was the contrivance that was to render the locomotive obsolete on our railways. Nothing could be simpler; but it all depended on the valve.

The system worked very well for a time on the Kingstown & Dalkey, while the valve was new. Brunei went over to Ireland to see the thing at work, and was so well satisfied that he started the South Devon with it; and in 1845 the London & Croydon adopted it between Forest Hill and West Croydon. They laid it with 15-in. pipes on the eastern side of the line, although the Brighton went off to the east and had to be crossed by a curious viaduct at an oblique angle the slopes up to which were 1 in 50, a flying leap, as it was called, which the atmospherics took without lessening speed; and they went certainly 30 miles an hour, some said 60. But the time of tribulation came next year, when the sun was so hot that it melted the tallow and wax that kept the valve airtight, and, try all the inventors could, no suitable composition could be hit upon; and the valve began to wear out and the air escape from it even in cool weather; and, as on the South Devon, nothing could be done. And there is nothing left of it but a few pipes discoverable now and then; while Medhurst's other plan, tried in the Pneumatic Despatch, survives in the tubes used by the Post Office telegraphs, the carriers of the British Museum library, and many of our factories and shops.

In July 1846, the year the atmospheric experiment was abandoned, the London & Croydon and the London & Brighton were amalgamated and became The London, Brighton, & South Coast, the south coast lines having then been extended to Hastings in one direction and to Chichester in the other. In the following year the western line was opened to Portsmouth, and the three extremities of the system had been reached. In December the New-haven branch was opened, and the Brighton started its cross-channel work, London to Paris in twelve hours, a journey it now does in less than nine.

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