The London and Birmingham Railway

At first, the Regent's Canal made very little difference to the locality. Camden Town was a new town laid out in the fields on the road to Hampstead. Hampstead had been well known as a health resort for many years, but Camden Town was just one of a number of new towns being created round London. Camden Town, Agar Town, Somers Town, there were any number of hopeful landlords poised around London, waiting eagerly for the builders to arrive and make their fortunes. Canal barges passed by to the north of them all but at first few stopped, except perhaps to unload some bricks, or timber.

The Gas Works, the tile kilns and two dust scavenging yards in Maiden Lane were not far away to the east, but at Camden Town there was no real industry. People living in the new town enjoyed their green suburb and looked towards the City of London for work. To canal bargees, Camden Town was a place of anonymous fields somewhere on the way to the docks. Only when the railway arrived and Camden Town became the natural exchange point for canal and rail, did the situation change. Suddenly Camden had an industrial future.

When the London & Birmingham Railway set up offices at 69 Cornhill EC3, in 1830, the Company announced that the railway was to terminate at Camden Town. Rails would pass either under or above existing roads and never be at the same level, so that road traffic would not be inconvenienced. In fact, the London & Birmingham was built on an embankment at Camden Town and had no railway arches or viaducts except over the canal. Later, Primrose Hill was linked to the London Docks and the North London Line via Camden Road Station. Since Primrose Hill was so high, the new railway had to be built on arches and these arches were to play a large part in the industrial development of the area.

The original announcement by the company said that railway lines would be carefully fenced everywhere and opposite 'gentlemen's residences' the fencing would be ornamental. It claimed that carriages made little noise, while the engines were so clean and silent that nobody would notice they were there. The Act specified that trains must not make smoke. Therefore coke, which burns cleanly, was used. Only later, when engines were invented which could consume their own smoke within the length of the boiler flue, was coal used as a fuel. Thus there was some substance in the claim about cleanliness. Railway engines at this period were no larger than a good-sized lorry and capable of drawing 600 tons at twelve miles an hour.

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Britton, Bartlett & Davies' map of the [Parliamentary} Borough of St Marylebone, 1834

The Britton, Bartlett & Davies Map

The 1834 map shows the triangle of land bought by the Railway Company, with the proposed London & Birmingham line marked in. It was then to terminate north of the canal. Only a year later, in 1835, an Amending Act was passed authorising the Company to extend its line 'to a certain place called Euston Grove on the North side of Drummond Street, near Euston Square'. Trains would have to cross the Canal at a height which allowed boats to pass below. Height was no problem to civil engineers, who were used to carrying canals and viaducts across great gorges, but the ground between Camden Town and Euston already dropped sharply. The fact that the railway had to be raised at Camden Town and lowered to go under the roadway at Hampstead Road, increased the slope considerably. The engineers would finish with a gradient of 1 in 69. This was very steep indeed for a locomotive of that period, so the Company decided to detach the locomotives at Camden Town and allow the carriages to free-wheel down to Euston under the control of a brakeman, or 'Bankrider'. On the journey out of Euston the carriages would be man-handled as far as the bridge just outside Euston Station and there be attached to a 7 inch circumference continuous rope 12,240 feet long, to pull them up to Camden Town. There were two ropes, one up and one down, driven by two stationary condensing engines, built into great vaults at Camden.

The Stationary Engine House under construction, April 1837

Lithograph by J.C.Bourne

Camden History Archive

This Bourne drawing shows the Stationary Engine House being built, with huge wooden centring frames for the brick vaults and massive retaining walls. The engines were in the underground vaults, with two huge chimneys which were to dominate the scene for years. Behind is the Locomotive Engine House.

Robert Stephenson, the company's chief engineer, designed both of these, but he did not design the Roundhouse, which was not erected until 1846-7.




Plan of the Stationary Engine House1

"The Public Works of Great Britain"
by John Weale, London, 1838

B Four boilers Down
C Two chimneys
D Two driving wheels
E Two engines
P Four pulley wheels. The pulley wheels were unequally sized, with the inner ones 12 ft in diameter and the outer ones 20 ft
T Tightening sheave mounted on a truck
W Well for Counterbalance Weight

These engines hauled the continuous ropes which raised and lowered the trains from Camden to Euston. The engines were stationary: only the ropes moved. They were completely different from the locomotive engines which normally pulled the trains.

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The Problems of the Incline

Keeping the Incline ropes tight

The continuous loops of rope which raised and lowered the trains had to be kept taut at all times if they were to work properly, yet they expanded as soon as strain was put on them. They also contracted and expanded according to the weather. Robert Stephenson's solution to this problem is shown here. Each loop ran round a sheave mounted on a moveable trolley and the rope was pulled tight by a heavy weight which was free to rise and fall in a deep shaft.

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Diagram of the Euston to Camden Town haulage system

There were two of the above rope systems, to opposite hand, on opposite pairs of tracks
From a drawing kindly made by Mr M.T.Tucker October 1999,

The Incline from Camden Town to Euston was not straight so (to accommodate the curve) the rope ran through both vertical and sloping sheaves. These were fixed in cast-iron cases bedded in the ballasting. The winding engine remained in service until 1844 when more powerful locomotives were able to take the trains into and out of Euston and the rope winding system could be abandoned.

The San Francisco Cable Cars

The cables have long gone from Camden Town but American visitors will know of a system like it which is still in operation. Andrew Smith Hallidie was born in London in 1836 and as a young lad he probably watched the railway carriages being hauled up the slope from Euston. His father, Andrew Smith, was an engineer and inventor who held a patent for making wire rope. Hallidie later took this name in honour of his godfather and uncle, Sir Andrew Hallidie, who had been physician to King William IV and to Queen Victoria.

Hallidie trained as a mechanic, moving in 1852 to San Francisco, where he tried his luck in the goldfields, did blacksmithing work, built various cable systems for transporting ore, and cable suspension bridges over a number of rivers, including the Sacremento. In the end he devoted his time solely to the manufacture of wire rope.

In 1873 he tested the first of the famous San Francisco Cable Cars which are pulled up the steep hills by cables. A continuous cable runs underground in a narrow channel, where it can be heard grinding away all day. A 'grip' below the car holds it on to the cable. Where the route curves, the cables pass round a pulley and the Gripman up above has to release the grip, allow the momentum of the car to carry it beyond the pulley and then re-grip the cable. This calls for such great strength and alertness that most applicants for the job fail the test.

As motor cars developed, the cable cars became obsolete. However, public protest kept them running, partly as a tourist attraction, and in the Cable Car Barn in Washington Street, visitors can still see the same system of keeping the cables taut, with a pulley on a moving wagon, as Hallidie probably watched and remembered in Camden in the eighteen-forties.

The Highgate Cable Tramway, 1884

In 1873, the year Hallidie tested his first cable car in San Francisco, horse-drawn trams linked the City of London with Highgate Archway, but Highgate Hill was far too steep for horse trams. Encouraged by the success in San Francisco, the Highgate Cable Tramway was opened in 1884, the first in Europe. Thus the cable system, which had become obsolete on the railway between Camden and Euston, was repatriated from the other side of the world. As in San Francisco, the cables were below the ground, under a third rail and for some years the line worked well. However, after a horrific accident in which a cable snapped, the line was suspended and only reopened in 1909 after electrification2.

After this digression, let us return to the early days of the London and Birmingham Railway.

The First Railway Engine House

The First Engine House can be seen in the background of the engraving of 'The Stationary Engine House under construction', which was shown on page 29. The two buildings were completely different, with different jobs to do. One hauled the engines up the slope from Euston, while the other was an engine storage house. The Original Engine House was close to the top of the incline to Euston.  Designed by Robert Stephenson and built by William and Lewis Cubitt in 1836-7, it is the subject of three lithographs by John C. Bourne. The building, with access through two large archways, was about 180 feet square and could hold up to 30 engines.

The First Railway Engine House seen from the north, in 1838.

Sketch made from the J. C. Bourne lithograph

In the distance are the twin chimneys of the Stationary Engine House, with the Loco-motive Engine Shed to the left. The main line curves round to the right between the two chimneys, while the line to the Locomotive Engine House branches off it and then branches again towards the two arched entrances to the shed.. This area is now covered by the Gilbey's Yard and Juniper Crescent housing, and Safeway's super-market.

The London & Birmingham Railway Incline under Park Street (now Parkway) 1836, by J. C. Bourne. Note the curved cast-iron roof girders of the cut-and-cover tunnel.

The London & Birmingham Railway Bridge at Camden Town under construction.

By J.C.Bourne, pub. September 1838 (Drawn from the vicinity of the later Oval Road)

Camden History Archive



J.C.Bourne, who was called 'the Piranesi of the railways', made a most impressive lithograph of the Fitzroy Railway Bridge being built across the Canal. Today it is just one bridge lost among a long succession of bridges. Then, the meadows still came down to the edge of the water. This bridge was a foreign, industrial structure invading an almost rural landscape. To build it, men worked from barges, or in the open fields.

By 1837, Southampton Bridge, the road bridge at the end of Oval Road had been built, but it has been rebuilt since. On the other side of the railway, the bridge intended for Gloucester Avenue, and called Fitzroy Bridge, had also been built. Hampstead Road Bridge had been there from the opening of the canal, but the Roving Bridge (Diagonal Bridge) had not yet been built. The horses towing the barges still had to pass via Commercial Place (now Camden Lock Place) and Hampstead Road to get from one bank to the other.

Artesian Wells

To obtain water for their engines the Company sunk an artesian well at Camden, 10 feet in diameter and 140 feet deep. The water obtained was pumped by a 27 horse power, high pressure steam engine into two large cisterns 110 feet above the level of the rails at Euston, to supply all Euston Station, all the Company houses and two hotels at Euston with 'the most beautiful water.' The only things which could not stomach the water were the boilers of the locomotives, which became thickly encrusted with the soda contained in the artesian well water. As a result the Company had to obtain purer water from The West Middlesex Water Works Company at great expense. Ordinary water for the engines was also taken from the canal.

There appear to have been two generations of wells. Bourne (1839) describes a well and tank at the original locomotive house. Another was sunk at the Passenger Engine house in 1846-7. This was at Camden Town, opposite the Roundhouse. Hence the high elevation quoted for the roof-top cisterns above Euston.

The East End of Primrose Hill Tunnel, October 1837

Camden Local History Archive

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Soon the railways were undercutting the canal in both price and time. Large haulage firms such as Pickford's, who were still important canal users, threatened to transfer their business to the railways. As a result, Canal freight charges fell by 40 per cent and the hey-day of the canals was over.

Pickfords at Camden Town, 1841

Pickfords were established as important carriers in the Canal Age so that when the railways appeared, it was natural for them to carry goods by rail as well. Transport by canal was reliable, but slow. By using four horses and travelling at a trot, Pickfords could take a fly-boat from London to Birmingham in two and a half days. Most canal boats were considerably slower than this. Railways could offer much higher speeds, at up to twelve miles an hour, so the use of rail was bound to increase.

Pickford's London headquarters were then at City Road Basin, but this was not suitable for future goods carriage, as it did not connect with any railway line. A completely new centre was required. Baxendale, the new manager who had come into Pickford's and was regenerating it, bought a plot of land on the south side of the Regent's Canal, at the top of Oval Road. He asked William Cubitt (1791-1863) to create a special building which could transfer goods efficiently between road, water and rail.3

Thomas Cubitt (1788-1885) was the famous master-builder who developed enormous areas of Clapham Common and Clapham Park, Bloomsbury, and Belgravia, while William split off from him in 1828 and developed particular expertise as a contractor for industrial buildings. His firm's name is frequently mentioned in connection with Pickford developments at this period. To add to the complication of Cubitt names, Lewis Cubitt (1799-1883) worked with both of his brothers. He had architectural training and became noted as a railway architect. There was also the other (Sir) William Cubitt, (1785-1861) a distant kinsman who was a noted civil engineer and worked alongside Lewis Cubitt. William and Lewis were the contractors for Euston Station and took over the work on the Camden depot when the previous contractor failed. Today, the more fashionable Thomas Cubitt is best known and may often be credited with work done by the whole family.

A portion of the upper works of Pickford's Depot, Camden Town4

Lithograph by Thomas Allom

The Construction

Pickford's building was erected on open ground adjacent to the railway line from Euston and on the southern edge of the canal. On the one acre site, William Cubitt created a building with hoists on the canal edge to load and unload from barges below. There was a private railway across the canal to the rear of the Railway's Goods Sheds. Originally erected in 1841-2, and extended in 1847, it had a main floor at railway level, with stables for the cartage horses at canal wharf level, beneath a vaulted floor. (See the illustration and also the map on the next page).

Inside the building were railway lines with turntables, so that wagons could be manoeuvred in all directions. Outside, the railway lines continued across the canal to the northern bank on two private bridges. One of these bridges ran shoulder to shoulder with the railway bridge, while the other stood on the site of the Pirate's Castle footbridge at the end of Oval Road. When Pickford's bridges reached the northern bank they joined the London North Western railway lines at two turntables. One of these turntables and a length of rail are now embedded in the cobbles in front of the modern Gilbey's Yard houses. The name 'Gilbey's Yard' is not quite correct as this was always railway land, not Gilbey's.

The idea of connecting road, rail and canal traffic in one building appears to have been originated by Pickfords and copied by many others. Indeed, Pickfords were so quick off the mark that the directors were able to celebrate the opening of their new building with an elaborate meal in 1841,12 only six years after the railway opened.

As a carrier, the firm was responsible by law for goods for the whole journey, door to door. The Company had its own wagons, horses, and barges and warehouses. It also hired railway wagons and paid tolls by weight to each railway whose lines they used. Pickfords depended heavily on the London to Birmingham line and by 1846 was handling 1,600 tons a week, or 85,000 tons a year, about one tenth of all the goods the line handled.

Pickford's shed burnt down in a dramatic fire in 1857 and was rebuilt, but the horses, which were rescued from the fire only in the nick of time, were rehoused in new stables in Gloucester Avenue, behind the Engineer public house. The Goad map of 1891 (four pages ahead) shows the horse tunnel which ran from the stables, under the road and the railway tracks to the horse slope on the north bank of the canal. It was a completely integrated system centred round the Railway Bridge and Oval Road. The Pickford building was the largest purpose-built warehouse on the railway at that date and cost about £40,000.


Changes at Camden

At the start of any new industry there is rapid change.  Many designs quickly become obsolete; invention races ahead and everything is in a state of flux.  Camden Town Station was built in 1837, just before Paddington (1838),  well before King’s Cross in 1850, and far earlier than St Pancras in 1868.  As a result, the Camden Town site has had to be adapted  for different reasons time and again.

Early engines were small and could be manoeuvred separately from their lightly-built tenders.  At first the four-wheel engine was enough, but soon the heavier six-wheeled ones, with more friction and weight, and thus more traction, became necessary.  This and other technical developments caused changes at Camden Town which other stations, built later, did not have to face.

The map below shows the positions of a number of buildings which are discussed later and may help the reader to keep track of events.

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A composite map of Camden Town Based on Tompson's Parish map of 1804,
with later developments marked in.

Camden Town at the height of its industrial power.

At this time it conveyed goods by rail and water to the whole world.

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The site of the Pickfords building, but in 1913, after they had left.

This 1913 Ordnance Survey map shows the situation long after Pickfords had left the building and when Gilbeys owned the site. By 1913 it is very different from the early layout and has changed dramatically since, but explains some of the varied history of the site. including the two private bridges across the canal, which Gilbeys used to great advantage.

Key to the 1913 OS map

1 Site of Pickford's building but when it had been rebuilt by Gilbey's and called 'A' Shed. The Pickfords building covered 1 acre and was enlarged in 1847. Enlarged again to 1½ acres when it was rebuilt in 1857 to fill the whole plot (as shown on this OS map).

2 London & North Western Goods Shed. Built in 1864 to replace several smaller goods sheds built in the 1840s, it had a plan area of 100,000 sq. ft. It was then the largest in the country and was further enlarged in the 1930s.

3 Interchange Warehouse. Present building was erected circa 1901-1905, over the top of the canal dock. 3 floors of warehousing above a railway goods shed with communication through trap doors to the canal dock below. It is discussed later in the text. The present building replaced a two-storey transport shed erected circa 1854-56 when the dock was enlarged. Before that, in the 1840s a railway line had been carried on a ramp down to cranes at the dockside.



  1. 'The Public Works of Great Britain' by John Weale, London, 1838

  2. Highgate and Muswell Hill, by Joan Schwitzer and Ken Gay, 1995

  3. Traffic and Transport: an economic history of Pickford's, by Gerald L. Turnbull, Allen & Unwin, 1979

  4. Railway Times, Dec. 1841


Park Village East and
Cumberland Basin

Robert B. Dockray, and
The Roundhouse