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History of the Great Eastern Railway's Constituent Companies

The GER was formed by a gradual amalgamation of smaller lines, the most important and earliest of which was the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR). The ECR prospectus was issued in 1834, two year later it received Royal Assent and construction commenced shortly after. The plan was to build a mainline from London to Norwich via Colchester and Ipswich.

The engineer involved was John Braithwaite. The first section between Mile End and Romford opened in 1839. It was laid to a five foot gauge. The London clay was found to be unstable, thus adding to costs and at this early stage, the railway encountered severe financial problems and the shareholders were induced to pay another 3 per share. Eventually, the construction reached Colchester with the London terminus at Shoreditch. At this point the money ran out and the line was not extended beyond Colchester for many years, although a branch from Stratford to the London docks was built about this time, which was a sound investment.

In 1840, the London and Blackwall Railway (L&BR) was opened, with a five foot and half inch gauge. The following year, the L&BR terminus at Fenchurch Street was opened. Later, in 1849, a branch was built between Stepney and Bow to a junction with the ECR; the L&BR was converted to standard gauge at this time. Much later, the GER took out a 999 year lease on the L&BR thus acquiring a second London terminus.

Another line sanctioned shortly after the ECR was the Northern and Eastern Railway (N&ER). Their aim was to build a line from London to York via Cambridge, with a branch from Cambridge heading east towards Norwich and Yarmouth, this branch was not sanctioned. Agreement was reached with the ECR for the N&ER to use the Shoreditch terminus and another Bill had to be passed to clear the amended route. Like the ECR, finance was a problem. The first section of the N&ER to open was between Shoreditch and Broxbourne in 1840. Construction continued reaching Newport in 1843 and in the same year a branch to Ware and Hertford opened. The following year, the ECR took over the operation of the N&ER but the N&ER was not fully acquired until 1902 (by the GER). Like the ECR, the N&ER had been built to the five foot gauge and it was decided to re-gauge to what had become the standard 4' 81/2". Robert Stephenson was engaged to plan the operation which was carried out in just over a month with no interruption to services. In the same year, 1844, the ECR was given consent to extend the N&ER from Newport through Cambridge to Ely and Brandon with another branch from Ely to March and Peterborough. The construction contract was given to Grissell and Peto under the direction of Robert Stephenson. Building was rapid with all lines opening in July 1845. The opening also coincided with the Norfolk Railway's (NR) line from Norwich to Brandon thus the first through route between London and Norfolk was via Cambridge.

In 1841, a group of Norwich businessmen, who were upset by the lack of progress by the ECR beyond Colchester, proposed a Bill to build a line of their own, including a Norwich Yarmouth branch. A plan was proposed by George and Robert Stephenson. The Bill was opposed by the ECR, but agreement was reached that the ECR would resume construction from Colchester (they did not fulfill this undertaking) but a separate Norwich Yarmouth line was unopposed. So a company, the Norwich and Yarmouth Railway (N&YR) was set up with George Stephenson as Chairman and Robert as engineer. Grissell and Peto were awarded the construction contract. Building started in 1843 and was completed in a year. At this point, the nearest railhead to Norwich was Brandon, forty miles away as opposed to Colchester's 63 miles. So the Norwich group proposed a bill to build a line to Brandon which received assent in 1844, thus the Norwich and Brandon Railway (N&BR) came into being. Again Grissell and Peto were the contractors and made their customary early start and rapid progress. As mentioned before, the opening of the line in 1845 coincided with the ECR line from Cambridge. At first, the terminus was at Trowse on the outskirts of Norwich because a swing bridge was still under construction to give full access to the city; this bridge was opened in December of that year. In 1845, the interests of the N&BR and the N&YR were merged and the new concern was called the Norfolk Railway. Over the next two years, the NR opened branches to Lowestoft and Dereham.

In similar circumstances to those of Norwich, businessmen in Ipswich were upset by the ECR's inability to extend beyond Colchester and they managed to successfully launch a Bill to build a line from Ipswich to Colchester, where an end on junction with the original ECR line would be formed. This line took the name of the Eastern Union Railway (EUR). It was necessary to have heavy engineering along the route - bridges, cuttings and embankments, but it was successfully completed and opened in 1846. Meanwhile, the Ipswich businessmen looked towards further rail links and a Bill for the creation of a line to Bury St Edmunds was passed; the Ipswich and Bury Railway (I&BR) opened in 1846. Many of the directors of the two Ipswich based railways were the same and in 1847 the I&BR was merged with the EUR. That same year, construction of an extension to Norwich was started and completed in 1849. A couple of years later, a link was completed in Norwich to enable EUR trains to use the NR terminus at Norwich Thorpe. In 1848, the ECR took over the operation of the NR; there was now open hostility between the ECR and the EUR leading to operating difficulties at both Norwich and Colchester. The EUR's finances were in a poor state and, later, in 1854, the ECR absorbed the EUR.

In 1845 George Hudson became Chairman of the board of the ECR, various other board members resigned at this time. A condition of Hudson's contract was that he took over control and management of the ECR. Before the end of 1845, he declared a dividend for the year of nine shillings per share. This was most unethical because the books had not been audited, they had not even been closed for the year! A more realistic dividend would have been 4/10d. Hudson proposed many new Bills for expansion of the system.

In 1847, the Shoreditch terminus was enlarged together with quadrupling of the line to Stratford; Shoreditch station changed its name about this time and became Bishopsgate.

That same year, two small lines were opened, the Stratford and Thames Junction Railway and the North Woolwich and Pier Company Railway, these were both absorbed by the ECR some years later.

In 1848, the old ECR workshops at Romford were moved to Stratford. The ECR built over three hundred houses for its employees at Stratford.

In 1849, the ECR opened its line to March via St Ives. The same year, the ECR took over the operation of the NR.

The next system to consider was the East Anglian Railway (EAR). This was formed in 1847 by an amalgamation of three lines which had recently opened - the Lynn and Ely, the Lynn and Dereham and the Ely and Huntingdon. The EAR was soon in financial difficulties and was in Receivership in 1850. In 1851, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) took over the operation of the EAR but this was strongly opposed by the ECR. The ECR successfully wrested control from the GNR in 1851.

In 1846, the Act for the Newmarket Railway (NmR) was passed and under the direction of Robert Stephenson, the first section of the mainline was opened in 1848. Operation was by the ECR; the company quickly became bankrupt and the mainline was closed. The ECR rescued the concern and took over building the branch to Cambridge, the old mainline was not necessary for ECR operations and was lifted, a very early example of a line closure.

In 1852, the ECR bought out the NR and by 1854 had control over all railways in East Anglia. In 1862, an Act of Parliament formalised the amalgamation of the ECR, EAR, NR, EUR and NmR and thus the Great Eastern Railway came into being.

One further, rather strange development was the joint promotion by the ECR and the L&BR of a line from London to Tilbury and thence Southend. This line was opened in stages between 1854 and 1856, initially using the Bishopsgate terminus and a little later transferring to Fenchurch Street. However, somehow, the line became independent and was know as the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway (LT&SR ) and although operating from ECR termini, was in competition with the ECR, and later, the GER for the Southend and dock traffic.

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Richard Barron for the above information.



 
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