Presenter: John Cartledge – former Head of Policy and Research at London TravelWatch
Our booked speaker was unable to attend so John stepped in to tell us about his home station of Elstree & Borehamwood (E&B) from its inception until the present day and beyond. Having introduced himself he briefly outlined his own railway experience starting with training at the BR staff college in Woking over 40 years ago. John explained that as a student his speciality had been geography, an interest he still retains. The presentation was based on material put together for an exhibition covering the history of E&B station rather than rolling stock, timetabling or any other of the many aspects of the railways.
With a selected history of both the Midland Railway and its rival GNR, John explained briefly how the line through E&B came to be. The routes into London were proving lucrative for the railway companies and as the Midland did not have its own route into London initially, it had to use the GNR lines. This became more of a problem as GNR would prioritise their own business which led to the Midland building its own route to London passing through Elstree and Borehamwood along the way. What is in a name? Elstree can trace its history back to being a settlement in Saxon times while Borehamwood largely grew with the advent of the railway line passing through between the two. The name of the station itself has had a number of versions being named after one or both settlements at different times and is currently known as Elstree & Borehamwood to acknowledge the importance of both.
When the station first opened to traffic in July 1868 there were 6 trains a day and John used some interesting sections of the 1868 OS map to show the very limited extent of the settlement and how the railway was placed in the landscape. There was little more than a handful of cottages with open fields around. A large scale map of 1872 showed the original lines with two tracks, the layout of the station, the station master’s house. The goods station shows up on the Eastern side with a passing loop to the West. There was plenty of allowance for goods traffic with two sidings to the North, a coal yard, and cattle pens amongst other facilities. The nearby Tilehouse Farm still exists but at the start of construction the company had to build a bridge as part of the development because the railway line bisected the farmland. The Midland also built one of the first mixed developments consisting of a row of shops with flats above – it was speculative then but it worked. They had the foresight too to build an extra span on the bridge to allow for future expansion. Clay materials excavated from tunnelling etc were used together with a local spring water supply to produce bricks for the railway building works leading to the set-up of a brickworks in an area that quickly became known as Brick Field.
A later map dated 1896 showed further development with more buildings and additional housing including six tied railway cottages, a school, a Baptist chapel and a gas works with its own sidings. On the railway itself extra lines can be seen including a relief line, and by this time an additional bore to the tunnel had been added and there is now a signal box. A 1912 map shows more houses, more railway cottages, a second signal box, a church, and an extension to the brickworks. There was also another railway track going up and over the mainline to facilitate access to the goods yard which continued in operation for nearly 100 years before finally closing.
The first of the Elstree film studios was built in 1914 on part of the area originally occupied by the goods yard. As the town grew and the nascent film industry thrived, other things were changing and the brickworks was closed down in 1915. Moving nearer to the present day, by 1960 the large post war housing estates were largely complete and the town had reached approximately its current footprint. The goods station closed in 1967, other businesses moved in and the brickworks site became an informal open space. The loading dock next to the station master’s house survived until the 1980s while the original tied railway cottages were not demolished until the 1990s to make way for new development. By now the goods sidings had been lifted, the old coal yard had become a car park and there was a new footbridge replacing the long gone Victorian one. Today the town has a population of around 40,000, approximately one eighth of whom commute to work by train now served by 6 trains an hour rather than the original 6 a day. Quite a contrast with the original small settlement surrounded by open fields, and rail traffic that was largely freight now almost exclusively passenger services.
John’s carefully researched maps and before and after photographs illustrated the enormous changes over time from a small cluster of cottages to a fair-sized town, the original wooden station buildings to later more substantial ones, removal of the main station buildings in the 1960s, changes to the platform numbering and a photograph from the 1980s showing overhead electric wiring – strangely enough with a diesel running through. Facilities for passengers, and transport access to the station were pretty poor but local lobbying prevailed to clear the old yard and put in a purpose built transport hub with good bus links. Soon after this a new prefabricated station building was erected – currently undergoing enlargement to improve passenger facilities including a café and some retail. The official 2011 opening of the remodelled forecourt and interchange was attended by a number of film characters including Darth Vader of Star Wars fame, with some memorable artwork on display as a more permanent celebration of local heritage. At least part of the success of the recent changes has to be attributed to the collaboration between rail operators, local authorities, film heritage and local people. With a fully accessible footbridge, extended platforms, enlarged and improved station facilities for passengers and staff alike, Elstree & Borehamwood station should be fit for the 21st century once all the current building works are complete.
It is nearly 100 years since the Midland Railway was subsumed by grouping and there is not much of the original left although the sharp eyed observer may still find a few original items in situ in forgotten and hidden corners. A fascinating illustrated history and It will be interesting to see what the next 150 years brings.