Everyone knows the history of the Metropolitan Railway as the world’s first underground line on 10th January 1863 between Bishops Road and Farringdon – but that was not even how the line was going to be built. Long before they had even started building the line to Farringdon, extensions to the system were under consideration, with some already approved by Act of Parliament. The Hammersmith & City Railway opened to fanfare on 13th June 1864 – 160 years ago, with through trains running between Hammersmith and Farringdon. Yet this line should have been opened at the same time as the Metropolitan Railway. The later opening was however due to a forgotten disaster.

Viaduct alongside Bartle Road in Notting Hill. Author photo.

The entire length of the railway alongside Bartle Road in Notting Hill, London W11, was the scene of a major disaster that befell the Capital’s burgeoning underground network.

A calamity that was so large….

That calamity was so large and yet so under-reported perhaps because it was overshadowed by the new Metropolitan Railway to Farringdon. The world’s eyes descended upon the Farringdon line because it was a total novelty – and when things went very wrong as they did (on the Metropolitan Railway), the media dutifully reported it. There are numerous photographs, drawings, and sketches of the Metropolitan’s construction, thus historians have a rich trove of information on the world’s first underground railway.

The section to Hammersmith has received scarce attention even in modern history (Londonist gave a brief mention of the viaduct however). Much of the line was built on a viaduct from a point west of Notting Hill station (Ladbroke Grove) to a point north of Hammersmith. And what happened is the first section of that viaduct collapsed entirely .

It was the first major accident to hit London’s nascent underground railway system. And it took the best part of two years for the Hammersmith & City’s construction to get back on track.

Broad & narrow (standard) gauge track at Hammersmith. Locomotive, Railway Carriage and Wagon Review, 1923.

Only the ‘narrow gauge’ was operating by the time this picture was taken in the mid 1860s. Hammersmith station had not yet been built thus trains stopped at a temporary station (where a train is seen out of view to the left) at what would later be Grove Road station on the Kensington and Richmond line.

Origin of the Hammersmith and City Railway…

The Building News and Engineering Journal.

The line was originally to be known as the Hammersmith, Paddington and City Junction Railway. The bill was passed on 22nd July 1861 and there was every intention that it would be built and opened concurrently with the Metropolitan Railway. The new line soon became known as the Hammersmith and City Railway, and later bills were made under that title.

The mixed gauge Hammersmith & City Railway opened from a junction with the Great Western Railway (GWR) at what is now Westbourne Park station, to Hammersmith on 13 June 1864. Built by the GWR and Metropolitan Railway, it was set up as a separate company and was worked by the GWR on the broad gauge until April 1865. In that month, the Metropolitan Railway took over working, and the GWR broad gauge trains just worked to and from Kensington, Addison Road until 1869, when the broad gauge rails were lifted. The line had become the joint property of the Great Western and Metropolitan companies on 1 July 1867.

A History of the Great Western Railway by Colin C. Maggs, 2013.

The first trains on the new railway were operated by the Great Western every half an hour, and that soon increased. By the time the Met’s stock took over from the GWR, the H&C frequency had become every ten minutes, then every five minutes. This combined with the Metropolitan Railway to operate 16 trains an hour – eight each way, or every 7.5 mins – for the main route to Farringdon and Moorgate Street.

This huge volume of train services forced the early construction of a dive under at Royal Oak to avoid services having to cross the GWR main line on the level between Bishops Road station and Green Lane junction. All trains, no matter whether the GWR’s or the Metropolitan’s, worked right through to Farringdon & Moorgate Street thus fulfilling the original aspirations of the railway which was to form a transport link between Hammersmith and the City of London.

Ladbroke Grove Station’s all steel bridge in 1938

Construction of the Hammersmith and City at first progressed well from Green Lane junction (Westbourne Park) to Notting Hill station – and it did look as if the route would be completed well ahead of expectations.

Notting Hill H&C Railway segment in 1868

In this map, practically the entire H&C route from Green Lane junction that was constructed by November 1861 is shown. It’s interesting that the cartographer of the time used a pink which closely resembles the H&C’s present pink/salmon line colour.

By the winter of 1861 the route had been built from Green Lane to the site of Latimer Road station, whilst the new connection from Kensington Junction (aka Latimer Road Junction) to the West London Railway was also under construction. However disaster struck this rapid progress…

An entire viaduct on the Hammersmith & City line collapses…

On the night of November 6th 1861 practically the entire viaduct towards Latimer Road collapsed. Six construction workers were killed. What happened is still open to debate, but one thing is known, the ground wasn’t stable. A long spell of extremely wet weather exacerbated the problem. This was all but completely unknown to the line’s overseers who had deemed the lengthy viaduct section complete and could even be used by construction trains.

The Hammersmith line viaduct collapse news. The Dublin Builder 1862.

The engineers of the line were Messers Fowler and Wilson, and this was in fact Sir John Fowler’s company. Fowler was of course the engineer responsible for designing the world famous Forth rail bridge. John Fowler (as he was at the time) was engineer for both the Metropolitan Railway and its extension to Hammersmith. The building contractors for the line were Rummins – however the viaduct was actually built by subcontractors John Holden. William Wilson was the resident engineer and the one who directed the viaduct be shored up urgently.

Arches 12 to 14 (right to left). Which of the original arches had been the culprit? Author photo.

As has been mentioned, at the time it was thought the viaduct was finished and ready for use. But no sooner than the timbers supporting the viaduct and its arches were removed on or about 1st November 1861, something began to go wrong. All was fine for about a week, until the morning of 6th November 1861 when a crack appeared in one of the arches (either number 12, 13, or 14 about where the old ditch was). The arch in question soon took on a quite distorted appearance and alarm bells were set ringing among the site’s workers and supervisors.

The London Underground system consists of a considerable amount of lengthy viaduct in some cases stretching a number of miles. Whether it was the Hammersmith & City in the 1860s or the Piccadilly line extension viaduct arches under construction near Southgate in the early 1930s, as shown early in this link, the technique for construction remained basically the same (as would be for arched brick doorways, windows, or any other arch design), which is to use timbers to form the structure that is desired. Once the timbers are removed it is at that point a viaduct is considered to have been completed.

The line’s resident engineer William Wilson decided the problem arch, plus the three either side, should be shored up urgently. By nightfall things had gone from bad to worse and an army of frantic workers began shoring up more of the viaduct. Efforts to quell the distortion was to no avail. First the piers supporting the problematic arch collapsed, followed by four arches on the Hammersmith side. Three on the City side subsequently went down and so on until fourteen arches in all had fallen.

Location of the viaduct on the Hammersmith & City Railway, probably mid 1860s. National Library of Scotland.

Note the lack of buildings around the site at the time, which was quite fortuitous. Notting Hill (the present Ladbroke Grove) station can be seen at the top.

As has been reported six workmen were killed. It has been said one of the workmen’s wife and daughter arrived with his supper just at that moment and it was claimed that they too were buried by the viaduct’s collapse. Since the inquiry does not mention extra fatalities, it can be assumed the wife and daughter were later found quite safe.

The Hammersmith line viaduct collapse. The Annual Register, Or a View of the History and Politics of the Year 1862

The ages of the workers who died ranged from 19 years upwards, and the last of the bodies was not recovered until several days later. It must certainly have taken the railway’s contractors several months to clear the collapsed viaduct from the area, then ensure the ground was drained properly and fully solid before a second new viaduct could commence construction. No doubt the inquiry which followed took precedence and construction work on the railway was largely slowed down until the court’s investigations were concluded and a decision made on how the disaster unfurled.

S7 stock on the rebuilt section of H&C viaduct. Author photo.

On the right can be seen the signal sited just west of Bartle Road, and on the left can be seen the signal by St Marks Road. Two sets of colour light signals can be seen but these signals are no longer in use because the line now runs on CBTC. However these mark the beginning and the end of the viaduct section which collapsed in 1861. The entire viaduct is on a gentle curve that turns the railway from an initial western alignment to a south western direction. Part of the parapet belonging to St Marks Road bridge can be seen – that is roughly 425m (or 1395 feet) from Latimer Road where this picture was taken.

How long is fourteen arches exactly? Author photo.

Each section of the line’s viaducts are built in the same style and the section by the Westfield Centre has fourteen arches visible, which indicates the total length of viaduct that collapsed. Fourteen arches equates the full eight cars of a S8 stock train, however the H&C and Circle lines’ S7 stock equates twelve arches. It must be remembered there were nineteen arches in total and fourteen of those collapsed.

Outcome of the disaster

One outcome was a long delay in the line’s construction. Previously, good progress had been made on Section One of the contract as far as the site of Latimer Road. Work did not fully recommence until November 1862 and by April 1863, 69 arches had been completed to a point just west of Kensington Junction where Section Two of the contract commenced. By August 1863 construction had seen the viaduct completed as far as arch number 92 at Wood Lane.

There’s no doubt part of the collapsed viaduct had to be left intact for the ensuing enquiry which took more than a year. Also the time in lieu for the directors, contractors and workers to attend the inquiry and John Fowler himself had to attend it too. He gave a fair amount of evidence detailing that the viaduct had been built well and at no time was construction suspected to be below standard.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the length of 175 meters (575 feet) of brand new railway viaduct had collapsed. It is quite fortuitous that the present viaduct, the second such structure to be built along this section, was previously quite hidden but can be easily seen today – and one can walk alongside and imagine the scale of the disaster that befell the first viaduct built.

Church on Lancaster Road. Library Time Machine. 

In this photo the large church still exists. A transport depot can be seen next to the railway. The site of this is now Bartle Road. To the rear of the depot (and out of sight) was the notorious Rillington Place where the mass murderer John Christie lived.

Same viaduct location in May 2024. Author photo.

All the area’s former industrial buildings have gone and the viaduct is more visible. Its full length can be walked from here to St Marks Road.

The inquiry and subsequent fallout

When construction initially commenced in August 1861 on that very section, it had been a dry summer and it was therefore not possible to ascertain that the ground was essentially unsuited for the purpose it was being put to. The course of the old ditch wasn’t actually built upon as the piers stood either side of it. As the year drew on and autumn arrived things began to change and the ground became very waterlogged. No-one noticed however because the entire viaduct was kept rigid by the use of construction timbers which were of course essential in order to enable this (or any other viaduct) to retain its shape and form. Once the work had been deemed completed, these timbers were removed and contractors’ trains were even allowed to pass upon the viaduct. It was alleged at the inquiry the use of these trains had caused the viaduct to weaken.

The rebuilt viaduct stood up well in spite of this and there’s no doubt viaducts are very strong structures, when built on solid ground. As an example, see this photo of the Wood Lane viaduct from the LT Museum.

One would perhaps wonder why there’s little on the matter especially given the scale of the collapse. Evidently the world was focused upon the Metropolitan Railway’s Farringdon line, so the Hammersmith disaster was passed by. It wasn’t just that. The courts found no laws had been broken, thus no blame was ascribed for the calamity. The deaths of the workers were deemed to have arisen from accidental causes. There was outrage over that of course but since no culpability could be attributed, the fallout was dampened.

Once this open verdict had been given, there was no doubt a considerable amount of opinion and criticism upon the disaster – and some were in no doubt the lines’ engineers, contractors or the companies supplying materials had all been complicit in one way or another.

The Building News published a list of factors they suspected had contributed to the viaduct’s collapse in its publication on November 28th 1862. They had believed that with the correct materials and mixtures, the viaduct should have had no reason to collapse. ‘It is not right that human life should be endangered and sacrificed through buildings of this character being reared in a weak material…’ As the Building News cited, their concerns were because it had been noted other railways had been employing a false economy of using inferior or suspect materials.

The jury themselves cited their suspicions that the concrete used in the foundations near the said ditch was ‘not of a sound and proper kind.’ John Fowler basically proved the jury wrong. Besides the concrete, the quality of the mortar and lime was also blamed, as were the bricks used in construction. Companies suspected of having involvement of some sort like supplying inferior materials were anxious. One such company, Greaves and Kershaw of Paddington, went so far as to put out a statement citing that none of their lime had been used in the viaduct’s construction to clear their name of any hint of reputational damage:

Greaves and Kershaw’s statement in November 1862 issue of Building News and Architectural Review.

The Jury’s Verdict in November 1862:

That the deceased persons were suffocated and bruised to death by the falling of certain arches of the viaduct on the Hammersmith and City Railway, and the jury say that the said arches fell on account of the slipping of one of the piers of the said viaduct; and the jury further say that the said deaths arose from accidental causes. The jury wish to add that they believe that sufficient attention was not paid to the character of the soil on which the foundations of the piers were laid, and that the concrete at the base of the pier was not of a sound and proper kind.

The disaster was ultimately ascribed to what was largely a series of unknown factors. Thus it seems blame couldn’t really be attributed no matter how hard the inquiry sought evidence of any negligence in the viaduct’s construction. John Fowler for example refuted the jury’s suspicion of inferior concrete being used by demonstrating the concrete samples brought over from the accident site and which the jury were looking at had in fact been disintegrated by the lateral movement of the piers.

Every engineer and every contractor that was examined were found to not be at fault, and where less than ideal materials had been suspected of being used in the viaduct’s construction, samples were brought to the inquiry and analysed and shown to be essentially without fault. Thus there was no option really other than to conclude there simply wasn’t anyone who could be blamed for the calamity. It didn’t end the rumours as to how or who was responsible for the disaster.

The matter no doubt faded into obscurity and has been almost totally overlooked by historians of both railways and the Underground.

Summary

This calamity delayed construction of the H&C for a year. Two disasters befell the Metropolitan Railway, where direct and attributable causes were found (and could be easily and directly observed – the River Fleet sewer bursting and flash flooding. Nevertheless, both the Metropolitan and the Hammersmith & City railways overcame their construction challenges and initiated the urban railway revolution.

Guest Author Rog writes the London Rail Blog, which covers London railway and underground history, intertwined with the history of London itself. His site also features a series on the Morden-Edgware Line, as well as a number of foreign railway systems including those in Switzerland, the Milwaukee Road, the Alfred County Railway, and a lengthy series on the Tokaido Shinkansen. We have linked to some of his posts over the years in our Monday/Friday Reads.

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