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Originally called the Commercial Railway, the London & Blackwall Railway was a railway line that originally ran from the Minoriesmarker to Blackwallmarker via Stepneymarker, in east Londonmarker, Englandmarker.


It was authorised by an Act of Parliament entitled "An Act for making a Railway from the Minories to Blackwall, with Branches, to be called "The Commercial Railway" dated 28 July 1836 in the reign of William IV.

The engineer of the line was intended to be John Rennie, but the project’s Citymarker financiers favoured Robert Stephenson, believing that they would also benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of his respected father George. Although, because of the Act, Robert Stephenson had to follow Rennie’s route, and use the obscure track gauge of , he was free to choose his own method of propulsion. Drawing on his experience with the Camden Incline on the London and Birmingham Railway he decided upon cable-haulage from stationary steam engines.

The line opened on July 6 1840, and the company changed its name to the London & Blackwall Railway on completion of an extension to Fenchurch Street railway stationmarker, just within the City boundary, in 1841. A line from Stepney (now called Limehousemarker) linking it with the Eastern Counties Railway at Bowmarker was opened in 1849, at which time the line was converted to steam locomotive operation, and the track converted to . This was joined to the new London, Tilbury and Southend Railway in 1858, allowing that company’s trains to run more directly into Fenchurch Street.

In 1852 the North London Railway had linked up with the L&BR at Poplar, and Fenchurch Street also became the terminus for that line until Broad Streetmarker opened in 1865. In 1871 another branch line, the Millwall Extension Railway, opened from Millwall Junction to Millwall Docksmarker to serve the West India Docksmarker better. A year later the line was extended further to North Greenwichmarker, subsequently the site of the original Island Gardens DLR stationmarker.

In 1893 the Fenchurch Street-Stepney line was widened to four tracks, but by the turn of the century traffic to Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs was dropping. Passenger services east of Stepney to North Greenwich and Blackwall were stopped on May 3 1926, and the minor stations at Leman Street and Shadwell were closed in 1941. The junction at Stepney was disconnected in 1951, restricting access to the curve via Limehouse, but this itself was abandoned in 1963. Access for occasional goods services from the North London Railway via Poplar continued into the 1970s, but with the closure of the docks the line was completely abandoned, leaving only the Fenchurch Street–Stepney section still in use, by the LT&SR.

When the Docklands Light Railway opened in 1987, it reused much of the L&BR line between Minories and Westferry Road. Additionally, part of the viaduct at North Greenwich for the line to the original terminus between Mudchute DLR stationmarker and Island Gardens survived and was used, though this section was demolished when the extension to Lewisham was constructed and those stations replaced with ones nearby but below ground.

Cable haulage

originally built the line was 3½ miles long, with double track. These were bi-directional and were operated independently of each other. Indeed, on the opening of the line only one track was complete and the other was not brought into use until one month later. Each track was provided with a double length of hemp rope: as an engine was winding in from one end an equivalent length of rope was being paid out at the other. Fourteen miles of rope (with metal swivels inserted at intervals to resist entanglements) were therefore required in all. On journeys from the terminus cars were despatched in two groups: the first group of four cars for the three most distant stations (the terminus stations, as the most important, received two cars per trip) and the second group destined for the three nearest. Each rearmost car was released (“slipped”) as the convoy passed through its destination station. When the extension to Fenchurch Street was brought into use the pair of cars for that station was slipped from the rope at Minories as before, but the brakes were not applied. If all went well, momentum carried them up the slight slope to the new platforms. “Slipping” and “pinning” (attaching) was controlled from whichever end of a car was leading, using a lever mounted on an open platform at each end.

It was obviously dangerous to use the reverse method to pick up cars on journeys to the terminus, so all the cars were “pinned” to the cable at their respective stations and started simultaneously with the convoy departing from the terminus (the timing co-ordinated by an early example of the Cooke-Wheatstone electric telegraph). They arrived in the end station at intervals and a new train gradually assembled itself, with the pair of cars from the far terminus becoming the lead pair for the return trip. The timetable was very simple: a train every fifteen minutes.

Power was provided by eight marine steam engines from Maudslay, Sons and Field, providing for four in use and four in maintenance. The Minories winding house had four at 110 h.p. but the engines at Blackwall were only at 75 h.p. as the overall gradient of the line fell from the west, where it was built on brick arches, to the east.

The line was converted to use steam locomotives in 1848, partly because wear on the rope proved greater than anticipated (a steel-wire replacement had been tried but this twisted and kinked ferociously) and partly in consequence of the intended 1849 extensions. A light roof over the tracks was provided where they passed near to timber stores or shipping, because of the anticipated fire risk from locomotive sparks. It then became possible to travel directly between intermediate stations, without a detour by way of a terminus!


The stations on the line were:

Station Opened Closed Notes
Fenchurch Streetmarker 1854
Minoriesmarker (resited) 1841 1853
Minoriesmarker (original) 1840 1841 Site used for Tower Gatewaymarker in 1987
Leman Streetmarker 1877 1941
Cannon Street Roadmarker 1842 1848
Shadwellmarker 1840 1941
Stepneymarker 1840 1923 renamed Stepney East, 1987 renamed Limehouse
Limehousemarker 1840 1926 not to be confused with the above
West India Docksmarker 1840 1926
Millwall Junctionmarker 1871 1926
Poplarmarker 1840 1926 not to be confused with Poplar DLR stationmarker
Blackwallmarker 1840 1926 not to be confused with Blackwall DLR stationmarker

† = still open, served by c2c

Branch to Bow from Stepney, called the London and Blackwall Extension Railway (opened 1849, joint-operated with the Eastern Counties Railway):

Branch to North Greenwich from Millwall Junction, called the Millwall Extension Railway:


  • Gordon, W.J. (1910): Our Home Railways (volume two). Frederick Warne & Co, London, England.
  • Jackson, Alan A. (1978): London’s Local Railways. David & Charles, Jackson, Vermont, U.S.A. ISBN 0-7153-7479-6

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