Michael Portillo finds out about a funeral service running coffins from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery and explores the changing fortunes of London's docks.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw. And his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I am making a series of journeys
across the length and breadth of the country
to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
Today, my ancient Bradshaw's guide is going to steer me across London
as I continue my journey from Brighton to north Norfolk.
I am astonished that by the 1860s, trains were already fast enough
to enable people to do even long-distance commuting.
So, city workers could live in rural or suburban greenery and then, each morning,
they would arrive in the capital, the only city I have ever lived in.
On this journey, I'm travelling along lines which were built to allow Britain's middle-classes
to shuttle from the suburbs to the city and to travel beyond.
Each day, I will cover another stretch,
searching for the people and places written about in my guide.
On today's leg of the route,
I'll be finding out how even the dead benefited from the railways.
It was also the terminus of what was rather
irreverently known as the Stiffs Express.
Understanding how London became a great shopping destination...
Part of what's changing is coming about through the railways.
Suddenly, you are getting suburbanites
coming into the centre of London to walk the streets, to shop.
..and I'll be trying my hand at one of the oldest trades on the river.
Would you like to have a little drive, Michael?
I would love to.
-Left hand down a bit?
-Left goes left. Right goes right.
It's not like tyres on the road,
it is more like tyres on treacle.
Having covered the first 56 miles from Brighton to Crystal Palace,
I am now heading into London
before following a major commuter line north into Cambridgeshire.
From there, I will explore the Fens as I aim for King's Lynn.
Then travel on through Norwich, on the way to my final stop, Cromer.
Today, I'm starting in Waterloo before weaving my way
to Liverpool Street and onto the docks at Canary Wharf.
I'm travelling into London from the south, on a line used by thousands
of Victorians on their way to work,
to shop or just enjoy the glories of the capital.
Bradshaw says of this approach to London,
"The line passes over viaduct or arches through a part of the densely populated parish of Lambeth,
"over the tops of houses, past the grounds of Lambeth Palace
"and across the river may be seen the splendid towers of the new houses of parliament."
When I was a kid, we used to take our annual holiday in the Isle of Wight
and I remember coming back to Waterloo, generally late at night,
and we would look across the river and would see the beaming face of the clock tower.
Maybe that is when my infatuation with that building,
with that palace, began.
Waterloo station opened in 1848 and was designed to bring travellers
close to the heart of London's West End.
What I remember from coming here as a child is the vastness of Waterloo.
This was the biggest building in which I had ever set foot and,
even as a child, I learned that it is the biggest station
in the United Kingdom with its 19 platforms.
So that is not counting Waterloo East, or the four underground lines beneath us,
it is not counting the now disused Eurostar terminal,
Waterloo is simply the big daddy of British railway stations.
My guide says, "Omnibuses convey passengers to and from all parts of town.
"The terminus is a spacious building."
Today, Waterloo sees almost 90 million passengers pass through each year.
That is more than any other station in Britain.
I am using my 19th century guidebook to go round on the railways and I think, in days gone by,
there would be many more people dressed as beautifully as you
and not many dressed as scruffily as I am.
Well, I remember my uncle saying, the trouble is the trains encourage the common people to travel.
Which probably is very politically incorrect but...
-Have a wonderful trip. Are you travelling first class?
No, no, no! I do it cheaply.
Have a wonderful journey.
I haven't come to Waterloo primarily to spot elegant ladies.
I am here to find out about one of the station's lesser-known services from writer Andrew Martin.
Here you are, Andrew, beautifully positioned under the clock.
-Nice to meet you.
-Very good to see you.
My Bradshaw's guide tells me that Waterloo had many railway offices and departments,
and I think you're going to tell me about a rather unusual one?
Yes. It was also the terminus of what was rather
irreverently known as the Stiffs Express,
the line that carried dead bodies to the largest cemetery in the British Empire at Brookwood in Surrey.
And you could have a whole funeral service based around this railway line.
The service could be conducted at this end or at the end of the cemetery.
Either way, you put your relative onto the train
and they had a one-way ride to Brookwood.
You, yourself, as the mourner, had a return ticket.
The all-inclusive service was run by the London Necropolis Company
which was set up in the 1850s.
They had discreet offices and even their own funeral platform,
just next door to the station.
Waterloo would have been a very railway haunted area,
the constant rattle and clatter of the trains coming in and going out
every minute over the viaducts, over the high level.
And even in death, they were trying to fit you into a railway timetable.
So this splendid facade is the Necropolis station, is it?
This is what survives of the whole Necropolis complex.
Why were the sending all these bodies out of London?
Well, they thought it was a good business proposition
but it was also a response to a genuine crisis -
the shortage of burial space.
In the first half of the 19th century, the population of London about doubled
and there were bits of skeletons lying about in churchyards,
so they needed space to bury bodies.
It would be discussed since the 1840s that there ought to be a big cemetery
safely far away from London so that cholera would not be an issue
and the bodies would be transported there on this new-fangled invention - the train.
At its busiest, each train carried up to 48 bodies,
along with the various funeral parties.
At the cemetery, there were two purpose-built stations,
one for Anglicans and one for other denominations.
So you have brought me up quite a long staircase,
to the level of the railway viaduct.
We are now behind the office part of the Necropolis complex.
And the hearses would come sweeping in through this archway
and then the bodies would be lifted by an electrical lift
up to the actual Necropolis station on the viaduct there.
What sort of carriages did they travel in?
The carriages were funeral carriages and passenger carriages.
Both were divided into first, second and third class.
Sorry, I have to stop you. Are you telling me the bodies went first, second or third class?
You might think why would you send your maiden aunt first class,
you could easily save a bit of money sending her third,
she would not know the difference,
but I think they took more care with your coffin if you went first.
Whether you bought a first, second or third class ticket for the corpse,
it would correspond to the type of funeral that you bought.
So if you bought one of the fancier funeral packages, a first class ticket would go with that.
Before long, it was not just the dead who were taking advantage of the third class fares.
A lot of people would kind of sneak onto the funeral service.
Even if they weren't burying anyone, especially golfers,
because there was a good golf course near Brookwood Cemetery.
Now I have an idea in my mind of golfers dressed in black, pretending to be mourners.
I am assuming the golfers did not wear garish yellow checked jumpers in those days.
If so, I don't think they could have masqueraded as being in mourning.
And what they did with the golf clubs, I do not know.
The business ran successfully for almost a century.
But today, just hints of the line remain.
And so, when did the last Stiff Express puff out of here?
And then later in that month, there was a big bombing raid
and not only was most of the Necropolis complex here destroyed,
but the funeral train was blown up into the bargain.
And that was, really, curtains.
It is time for me to make my way from Waterloo across town
to my next destination, Piccadilly, using London's famous Underground.
It was in embryonic form when Bradshaw published my guide.
The first line opened in 1863 and was eventually followed by 10 more.
The Bakerloo Line was one of the first of the new generation of deep railway lines - tubes -
because before that it had been cut and cover, close to the surface,
and you could hardly use steam engines
with all the smoke deep underground.
This railway had been first planned in the 1850s, but at last in 1906,
powered by electricity, the Bakerloo Line opened.
In the 19th century,
the tubes and railways made it much easier to travel around the city.
The middle classes flocked into town and London's famous cultural and commercial centre began to grow.
I'm only going three stops, getting out at Piccadilly Circus, the gateway to London's West End.
Bradshaw's has pages about the West End.
So I am following it on my tour, aware that many of the Victorians' favourite haunts are mine too.
We're now at my place where, on the left, I buy my swimming trunks,
and on the right, I buy my macaroons and this is Burlington Arcade.
Bradshaw's says, "The prettiest gallery in London.
"It is a facsimile of a portion of the Palais Royale
"but the tradesmen who occupy these shops are of a less wealthy class
"and the place is considered as the fashionable gentlemen's lounge."
I had never thought of it that way,
but in that spirit, I'm going to revisit it today.
Built by Lord Cavendish in 1819, this was Britain's first modern
shopping arcade, complete with its own security force.
They still patrol the 200 yard strip of shops today.
You are what is known as the head Beadle?
I am, I am the head Beadle of the Burlington Arcade.
-And you are on your patrol?
-I am on patrol, making sure that everything's
OK with the arcade, everybody who walks through is happy and safe.
And here to enjoy the environment, really.
This is pretty unusual, isn't it, to have a kind of police force in a way?
Well, the Beadles in the arcade predate the Metropolitan Police by 10 years.
Because before you had police forces,
you would have had Beadles patrolling certain parishes.
A Beadle would probably have been in charge of about 10 constables,
they would have been night watchman,
they would have collected little fines that were imposed by people.
-Any special rules?
-You mustn't sell smelly produce within the arcade.
You must also not whistle within the arcade because in 1809,
you could no longer be hung for pickpocketing.
So therefore they had a big, big increase in pickpocketing in London at that time.
And pickpockets would have whistled signals to one another.
Lord Cavendish originally designed the arcade as an exclusive retreat where his wife could shop.
By the 1860s, it had become a popular destination for a new generation
of bourgeois shoppers arriving by train to enjoy a taste of the good life.
When the arcade was built, Lord Cavendish made sure that
where we are now, there is a slight incline, it is about 10 feet higher
at Burlington Gardens than Piccadilly.
He wanted his wife to be able to walk with her friends up and down
and to shop in peace, without an interruption of having to walk up any steps.
I have walked up here and I've noticed the slope but I've never thought about that,
that you don't actually climb steps.
It is one of the reasons why, when people come in from Piccadilly or Burlington Gardens,
they just escape the hurly burly of London. It would have been the same in Regency or Victorian London.
Next, I am heading for Regent Street - an elegant sweep of terraced architecture
which Bradshaw's describes as "one of the greatest thoroughfares in London.
"On each side are a collection of brilliant shops filled with the most costly articles,
"attesting at once to the wealth, luxury and refinement of the land."
The description resonates, even today.
I am meeting urban historian Professor David Gilbert to find out how Regent Street became
one of the greater shopping enclaves in the world.
Very good to see you. Who were there early shoppers and how did they change over time?
Well, when it started in the 1820s, 1830s,
this was very much for the elite.
They would come up in their carriages, they would get out,
be shown into the shops and shown the wares.
It is very much in that kind of way but by the time of your guide book,
this street is changing and part of what is changing
is coming about through the railways.
Suddenly, you're getting suburbanites coming into the centre of London to walk the streets, to shop.
Completed in the 1820s, architect John Nash, laid out Regent Street
as a series of colonnades.
Like the Burlington Arcade, these covered walkways were
designed to provide a safe haven to linger and shop out of the rain.
-Was Regent Street safe?
-It was safe during the day, that's part of it.
You had public space that was safe during the shopping hours.
After dark, Regent Street became a very different kind of place.
One of the reasons for that is if we think about where it is in the geography of London.
It's a great fault line, a dividing line between, to the west,
you have the big aristocratic estates,
to the east, you've got Soho which is going rapidly downmarket,
has a reputation for vice, a reputation for violence.
Here's the place where those two worlds meet.
At night, crime and prostitution sheltered in their shadows of the colonnades.
In 1848, they were torn down and gradually replaced by a new kind
of shop, with large glass windows facing directly onto the street.
Plate glass itself was quite new.
Plate glass was very new.
This area we were in, there were tensions between the architects who
wanted fine, architectural colonnades along there, and the shopkeepers
who wanted to display their wares.
Increasingly, as the century goes on, they want people to window shop,
to shop in what's identifiably a modern kind of way.
We think of this as one of the great triumphs of town planning in London
and it's also about profit, about making the most out of the way the street works.
Since Bradshaw's day,
the West End has been geared to accommodate thousands of shoppers.
Regent Street, cutting through its centre, remains globally recognised
as an outstanding location for retail therapy.
Now, I'm travelling from the West End to the East End,
using the Central Line which travels due west-east
along the lines of Oxford Street and Holborn.
This line was opened in 1900 and it had a flat fare of two old pence per mile.
Because of the shape of the tunnels,
it became known as the Tupenny Tube.
The flat fare went long ago,
but the word, tube, that's stuck with us to the present day.
I'm travelling a couple of miles towards the city, to one of my favourite London stations.
I do like Liverpool Street.
When I was Minister of Transport, they completed a modernisation project here which involved bringing
some of the lines that used to stop short, right up to the terminus.
The result is very successful because it has the space of an air terminal inside Victorian cathedral
windows and beneath a roof, suspended on beautiful columns.
Just outside the station is the former Great Eastern Hotel, where I'll be spending the night.
This Victorian landmark was built in 1884 by the Great Eastern Railway,
which ran lines from East Anglia.
A nightly goods train brought coal for the hotel
and took away its rubbish.
Over the years, the hotel gradually declined, but in 1996,
it was given an extensive makeover during which the builders discovered
a secret room behind a false wall.
After checking in, I'm heading deeper inside to find out more.
Nigel, thank you for coming, I know you've come to explain this to me.
-Nigel Brown is the grand secretary of the Freemasons.
I know it's a Masonic Temple but what on earth was the origin of such a splendid place?
The key reason that this was built was because the railways were doing
so well at that time and the Great Eastern Railways Company,
chaired by a chap called Lord Claude Hamilton,
who was also a mason,
wanted to show to the world how successful they were.
Therefore, he produced an almost over the top opulent room.
With 12 different types of Italian marble,
the room cost the equivalent of £4 million to build.
It was closed off in the 1990s when it became too expensive to maintain.
After redevelopment, the magnificent room was open for hire to the public to earn its keep.
The room was designed as a meeting room.
It's extremely over the top in the sense that
you won't find this as a typical Masonic meeting room,
I can assure you of that.
But here you'd have regular meetings and a lodge would meet
three or four times a year.
Purely the business of the lodge would be conducted
before they went on to have a jolly good dinner.
That sounds like a fine idea for me before I turn in for the night.
Next morning, my Bradshaw's leads me into the throng of London's rush-hour.
Never having worked in the City and now having to discarded the suit and tie of my previous employment,
there's quite a satisfaction seeing all these commuters streaming by
with deadlines to meet, while I have none.
Whilst they head for their offices, I'm on my way to Tower Gateway Station,
to meet railway expert, Alex Werner.
Today, Alex is taking me out of the City on the Docklands Light Railway built in the 1980s.
It follows the route of the old London and Blackwall railway, which dates from early Victorian times.
Back then, the easiest place to build the line was up above the city streets.
This railway is built on viaducts over arches, isn't it?
Bradshaw's celebrates the fact that these arches soar above the houses.
It must have had a huge impact on London.
The viaducts cut their way through the city.
It was already a very densely-inhabited place
and the viaduct was the solution to linking the railways in the inner-city area.
If you had a causeway that you had to cut, there would be so much property that you'd need to acquire.
So it was relatively cheap to build the viaduct in conjunction with
the station building along the line.
The trains travelling along these viaducts were part of an integrated transport system.
Ships brought their cargo and passengers
up the Thames to the docks,
to be whisked by train all around the country.
Bradshaw was impressed by the sheer scale of the docks writing,
"Situated at the east end of London,
"they're the store houses of the widest commerce of the world".
We've come to West India Dock, now part of Canary Wharf,
to understand what so captivated Bradshaw.
Bradshaw's guide talks about this place in the 1860s, 204 acres of water, 600 ships can berth here,
with cargoes of 200, 300 tons each.
-It must have been quite a scene.
-It was an incredibly busy dock.
Ships coming from all over the world by the 1850s and '60s.
Traditionally it was the West India trade, so carrying sugar and rum from the Caribbean.
But by the mid-19th century, goods were coming from all over the world.
Each of the docks specialised in particular cargoes.
St Katharine's Dock took in marble, sugar and brandy,
while the Surrey Dock dealt in timber.
This was where all the cargoes of the world were being stored.
This was London as the port of empire. Incredibly active space.
Where we're standing here, there would have been a transit shed, where
the ships would moor, they would unload their cargo into transit,
and they would be taken off into the warehouses.
As well as describing each dock, Bradshaw writes about the people, too.
"A busy army of 20,000 workmen are employed here, in loading, unloading and storing.".
He was talking about watermen,
who rowed passengers ashore
and lightermen, who took cargo.
There are no watermen left but the descendants of some
of the lightermen remain, men like Cornelius Andrews and his grandson.
Do you remember the docks that were behind you?
I've had a boat in every dock. In their heyday...marvellous.
Full up with ships and barges.
It was like Piccadilly Circus.
It was fantastic.
Was there a lot of comradeship on the river?
Especially in the pub.
Cornelius, I'm going to go out with your grandson now on the river.
You'll love him, he's a good kid.
-Very good to see you. You're going to take me on the river?
-Yes, certainly am.
James Andrews has been a lighterman for 17 years and today hauls cargo
with a tug boat, rather than with oars.
The lightermen had a reputation of being aristocracy of the river.
Is that true now?
Up until maybe the '90s,
I think the London watermen or lightermen was world renowned.
A long time ago, Nelson himself insisted that every ship in the line
had a London waterman on board.
I've been following a 19th century guidebook and it talks about
20,000 people working in the docks.
Have you any idea how many people are working on the river?
I think at the last count, it was between 400 and 500 licence holders.
When you're coming down from 20,000 men, it's a big drop.
Although there aren't many lightermen on the river,
they still play a vital role, not least removing London's refuse on barges.
Today, we're carrying rubbish.
Where is it going to?
It's going ultimately to a place in Essex called Mucking.
-Mucking, yes, rather appropriately named.
Would you like to have a little drive, Michael?
I'd love to.
-Left hand down a bit?
-Left goes left and right goes right.
It's not like tyres on the road.
It's more like tyres on treacle.
It's definitely the longest vehicle I've ever steered and it's all delayed reaction.
You push the wheel and nothing seems to happen and after about 30 seconds, a lot happens.
Holding the wheel is one thing but I think I'll leave parking this 80ft convoy to the expert.
That was the niftiest bit of steering I've ever seen.
I think I might have to practise for quite a long time before I'm able to do that.
This part of the river is no longer the busy thoroughfare it once was.
In the 1970s, new docks were built further downstream to handle large container ships.
East London docks lay unused for years until they were transformed
into a new, financial district, called Canary Wharf,
housing the tallest building in Britain.
The key to Canary Wharf's success was, of course, a railway,
the Jubilee Line extension, for which as a minister, I fought tooth and nail.
George Bradshaw would enjoy this statistic.
The station is so vast that the box underground, underwater, in which it sits, will be big enough
to accommodate the Canary Wharf Tower lying on its side.
In Bradshaw's day, London was revitalised by the railways and that story continues today.
The old tracks are constantly reused and extended as the city reinvents itself.
The age of railway building began before the Victorian era, but it hasn't ceased yet.
London is all business and bustle.
From department stores in the west, to investment banks in the east.
Now, shopping is all the rage and shipping has ceased.
But before the railways came to town, the river was the permanent way
and the speed of travel was limited to how fast a man could row.
On the next leg of the journey,
I'll be seeing how the trains changed the fortunes of Newmarket.
It's a sign of a smart town to have one station for people in the north,
one for people in the south and another one for the horses.
-Looking back on my student days...
That's where my all-important cocktail bar was.
I probably had a desk as well but I don't remember.
..and finding out that Cambridge has a surprising claim to fame.
One could say it was the birthplace of the modern game of football.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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In a journey taking him coast to coast from Brighton to Cromer, Michael finds out about the Stiffs' Express, a funeral service running coffins from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery. He discovers how London's West End became a great 19th-century shopping destination and explores the changing fortunes of London's docks.