THE ANGERSTEIN RAILWAY
This article dates from 1998 at a time when the Dome was still being planned – and some transport enthusiasts were lobbying for the Angerstein Line to be used for access by the public.
Local people and transport buffs have been trying to persuade the millennium exhibition organisers that the best way to get visitors into the site would be via the heavy rail link which still goes part way there. The Angerstein railway has never been for passenger traffic and is hardly known outside Greenwich and railway enthusiast circles. An appeal for someone who has studied the line has gone unanswered. I am nevertheless aware that for me to try and write a history of a railway line is probably near suicidal.
‘Angerstein’ is a name, which keeps cropping up in the East Greenwich area. It originates with the romantic figure of John Julius Angerstein – a Russian financier with mysterious, possibly, illustrious origins. He may well have been the son of the Empress Ann of Russia and a British banker. He spent a long working life in the City of London, regularised Lloyds of London and leaving his pictures to the nation, thus founding the national gallery.
In 1774 he had bought land in Blackheath and built the house which is now Woodlands, once Greenwich’s Local History Library. Angerstein had numerous connections within the City of London and political circles. Greenwich Marsh was a small item in their enormous world of influence. However, Angerstein, is one of the group of influential people who can be said to have shaped the marsh and its industries. His country home was built to overlook the area of the marsh itself.
Angerstein first acquired the area, which roughly covers today’s Westcombe Park. Part of Westcombe Park road may have been his carriage drive. He, and his family, went on to acquire, by 1856, the whole stretch of land between the river and the Dover Road. Combe Farm covered much of the lower part of this area with its farmhouse on the site of the new houses slightly north of Westcombe Park Station.
John Julius had one son, John, born in 1773 who lived much of the time in Greenwich. He had a large family – the most important members in the context of this story are a younger John Julius (born 1801) and William (born 1812. John Julius himself died in 1823.
In 1850 John Angerstein must have seen this stretch of land between Blackheath and the river as full of potential. The North Kent railway line was being built through a tunnel, which ran from Blackheath to a point adjacent to his land. On the other side of the river the new Victoria Dock would have an entrance almost opposite. All that would be needed was a wharf and a connecting railway and good business would be guaranteed.
The railway was planned in 1851 to run on Angerstein’s land from the North Kent Railway as it emerges from the tunnel into a chalk pit. The Angerstein line would then go to a riverside wharf. Built on private land there was no need for an act of Parliament except for the bridge needed to cross the Lower Turnpike Road between Greenwich and Woolwich. This Act was applied for a passed in May 1851.
The line opened in 1852 but had already been leased to the southeastern railway for operation. It has been said that the spoil removed from the Blackheath/Charlton railway tunnel was used to build the embankment on which the railway goes on its way to the river. It runs parallel with Lombard Wall – the Tudor flood defence and property marker.
It has been said that it was originally intended that the railway should be connected by ferry to Blackwall and perhaps also to Greenwich pier. It would thus effect the elusive connection out of Greenwich, which was prevented by the Park and the Royal observatory. Despite these hopes the line was, and has remained, entirely a goods line.
As industry grew in East Greenwich and Charlton so the line grew and was extended. In the 1890s the line was extended right across the peninsula to enter the gas works via a bridge across Riverway. A connection was made with lines from the LCC tram depot built alongside the line in Woolwich Road and at some stage connections were made with other local factories. Branches from the main Angerstein Line seem to have gone into Harvey’s and the United Bottle works to the east in Charlton.
Angerstein Wharf itself is shown on successive maps with up to fourteen branches fanning out to the riverside. An article of 1925 gave the tonnage handled as £58,000 in 1859 rising to tenfold that in the 1920s. The wharf then handled ‘manure, steel rails, fertiliser, coal, coke, stone, sand, flour, slates and timber. By 1951 however it was said that the 755-foot river frontage with an upper dock ‘too small’ for ‘present day craft’ was mainly taking petroleum spirit and oil – together with Fullers Earth from Redhill, … timber flour, manure, iron and steel, waste paper.
Today (1998) the wharf is a busy handling aggregate much of which comes down the old railway line,
Ten years ago the line was so under used that it was possible to walk the length of it without any interference from security men, There was much to see including the remains of much railway equipment – including a number of trucks. That is not so any more. I hesitate to try and describe the line today because I am sure that every rail buff in the land will say I am wrong. I doubt however that in its 158 years of existence that it has changed very much,
Anyone who wants to see it close up is advised to go to the down side of Westcombe Park Station. There they will see a bridge arching out across the 102M motorway. Walk across this bridge and you will find yourself on a little pathway, which crosses the line to disappear into a passage between the houses to emerge in Fairthorn Road. It is is a scene from then 1920s, at the latest.
Just south of the foot crossing the line has left the main North Kent line in then old chalk pit. A siding also goes south into the derelict Angerstein works – alongside which recently a young girl’s body lay for many weeks. The railway continues south to cross the Woolwich Road – is this still the original bridge from the 1850s? and goes alongside what was locally known as the ‘Airfix’ works but was in fact the LCC Tram Depot. From the railway embankment you could see a turntable and lines down in the works – are they still there?
In the 1980s two massive bridges were built to take the line across the newly built Bugsby’s Way and the link into the gas work was cut with the opening of the river end of Horn Lane.
Most of the line into the gasworks remained. It continued from Horn Lane to near the site of the new Jubilee Line station on an embankment. This embankment has been destroyed in early 1998 by contractors working on the Millennium Exhibition site. The bridge across Riverway, removed in the 1980s, was rebuilt in order to get lorries into the Dome site but has now been removed together with its 1890s abutments.
By any standards the Angerstein railway was a big success. Very few purpose built goods lines are still at work today, so unchanged. It has the potential to bring thousands to the Millennium Dome by rail from anywhere in the country – and, the world via Eurostar. More importantly to locals it could link the Jubilee line to British Rail and transform public transport in south London. John Angerstein was more of a visionary than he knew!
Angerstein Railway enabling Act