The North London Railway

In June 1846 a Royal Commission decided that no more railway termini should be built in London as there were already enough lines radiating from the centre. Instead, what was needed were some circular lines joining the various main-line routes.

On 26 August 1846 an Act was passed permitting the construction of an eight mile long railway from the West India Docks at Blackwall to Camden Town to carry goods. Passenger traffic was not even considered. Building made such slow progress that it took until September 1850 for the stretch from Islington to Bow Junction to open and then a 15 minute passenger service from Fenchurch Street to Islington proved very popular. By December the line had reached Camden Town and was extended to Hampstead Road by June 1851. By the time that the stretch from Bow to the West India Docks was opened on I January 1852, the North London Line had built up a valuable passenger traffic almost by accident. (This was not the Underground Northern Line, which was built much later).

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The connection from London Docks to Primrose Hill which became a suburban passenger route

With the through line from Camden, goods could be moved directly to and from the London docks and the railway was a real rival to the Regent's Canal at last.

New Coal Yards

A Plan of Camden Depot of 1848, too black and fragile to be reproduced here, shows a Cattle Landing area and cattle pens near to the Roundhouse. These were for live cattle which would then have been driven to Smithfield Cattle Market. In 1854, these pens were relocated to Maiden Lane on the North London Line, in good time for the opening of the Caledonian Cattle Market the following year. This made space for the re-planning of the Camden Town Goods Yard. When the North London Railway was first built, in 1850-51, it ran south of these cattle pens, but in 1854 the line was moved northwards, closer to the Roundhouse, as it is today.

The land up to Chalk Farm Road east and west of the Roundhouse was raised to railway level behind a new retaining wall, to provide space for much needed coal sidings. This redevelopment is shown on a large scale site plan of 1856, not reproduced here.1 The sideways movement of the line obliterated the cattle pens and increased the area of the marshalling yards near the Goods Station. By the 1870s Camden Town lay in a sea of railway lines. The North Western Railway and the North London Line crossed the district, belching smoke and coal dust day and night.

The Great Wall of Camden

Creating the new marshalling yards involved building one of the most notable features of the area, the Yellow Brick Wall. When this was built, about 1846, it stretched along Chalk Farm Road from the railway bridge to the Roundhouse. Today half of it has been demolished to create the garage and the new access road to Safeway's.

A short length of the wall which still remains has been cleaned, so that it appears attractive, a very Judy Garland of a wall, yet it was not always like that. For well over a century it was dark, forbidding, blackened with the coal dust and soot which filled the air. David Thompson, in his book, 'In Camden Town', describes his intense dislike of this 'prison wall'. In the nineteen-sixties it still gloomed interminably along Chalk Farm Road, casting a shadow on the brightest day, driving him to walk on the other side of the road, away from its baleful influence. He describes the Camden Town Riots of 1848, where gangs of Irish and Cockney labourers forced the gate and fought each other so fiercely that the police from three local police stations were overwhelmed. Eventually the military had to be brought from the Albany Road Barracks. 1848 was the year of revolutions throughout Europe, so there were probably other conflicts and aspirations in the air besides racial abuse, but this wall and gate seems to recall the brutality of the scene. One would hardly guess at this darker industrial history today, when for most Camden Town is a place for relaxation and enjoyment.

It was this industrial history which created such an extraordinary wall ­­- The Great Wall of Camden. From Chalk Farm Road the wall appears to be uniform, but in fact it changes dramatically along its length, as one can see from inside the Stables Market. At the Market entrance it is a normal vertical wall, eighteen inches thick, with a heavier pier at the end (see Fig.1). At the Horse Hospital the wall changes slowly into a massive buttress wall up to 6 ft 9 ins thick (see Fig.2) with a stepped parapet wall above. This heavy, buttress wall is needed to support the steeply sloping road which used to lead to the Goods Yard above. The cobbled slope is lined with heavy blocks of Millstone Grit, now worn and smashed by the rims of hundreds of iron-shod cartwheels. In 1991, when the new road to Safeway's supermarket was cut through and the length from the present garage to the Roundhouse was demolished, Malcolm Tucker made a sketch. It is redrawn here as Fig.3.

The wall leans back at a slope of 1 in 15, or about 4o, to take the thrust of the raised road and then the new marshalling yards. As the sloping road starts, it becomes six bricks thick at its thinnest part and the Millstone Grit kerbs continue right to the top. Above the kerb, the parapet wall is vertical. Below the cobbles of the roadway are 3 feet of hard-core and then London Clay. At the back of the wall is a layer of broken blue and white 19th century pottery and oyster shells, clearly all sieved from household rubbish and set aside to be sold as drainage material. It is shown in Fig. 3. When, in the 1990s, the wall was turned at right angles along the new Safeway's road, it was built in massive concrete faced with yellow brick.

It is possible to experience the size of this wall. Step up from the roadway, over the huge kerb, and stand on top of the buttress wall with the parapet wall on one side. The parapet wall is substantial, but nothing to the thickness and sheer bulk of the wall below your feet.

In 1998 the top end of the old roadway has become a quiet viewing platform. The land as far as the Roundhouse has been scooped out, back to the level of the old 'Clay Field' which is shown on the 1804 Parish Map. For over a century this was a level stretch of marshalling yards, raised above Chalk Farm Road and held in place by the buttress wall. Horses and carts toiled up the slope with goods to be loaded on to the railway trucks, or slid down again with heavy loads, held back only by the screaming steel skid under the wheel. These stones have suffered far more damage than similar ones elsewhere. Most are merely polished by wear, while these granite setts have been ground away by a century of laden wagons.

Fig 1
A wooden cart wheel with a steel drag under the wheel to act as a brake. These skids created sparks as they slid down the hill and wore away the granite setts to the state we see today.

Fig.1. The yellow brick wall near the Stables Market entrance. (Point A on 1891 Goad map shown later).

Fig.2. The Buttress Wall near the lower end of the sloping road-way, near the Horse Hospital. The blocks of Millstone Grit, now used as kerbstones, were once railway sleepers in a period before creosote was available. They were laid diagonally in this fashion. (Point B on Goad map).

Fig.3. The massive wall at the top of the slope, now overlooking the garage. (Point C).

Diagonal rebate for rail chair 11" x 5", with 2 holes approx.
2" diameter to fasten the chair. There were probably iron ties between the rails.

Sections through the yellow brick wall at different places

New Stables, 1854-56

The building of the North London Railway line also affected the redesign of Camden Goods Yard. When the line cut through the site of the old goods station in 1851, it left a triangular space to the north, between the line and Chalk Farm Road. Here, as part of the remodelling of the goods yard, the stables with semicircular windows were built between 1854 and 1856. The stables were in four blocks, 1½ storeys high, but most have been raised in height since then. At that time they stabled 148 horses and today are used as part of the market.

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The Goad Fire Insurance map, 1891

This shows the new stables, 1854-56; the vaults with Gilbey's Bonded warehouses and the North London Line above them; and the curved creep of the Horse Hospital at the top of the map. Commercial Place is called Grange Road, with Gilbey's Bottle Store, which was later burnt down, at the end.

++The artist's impression of the 1998 planned redevelopment which is printed at the end of this book, would have been drawn from about point X, in the top left.


The New London North Western Goods Shed

Built in 1864 to replace several sheds, the building had a plan area of 100,000 square feet. This was still its area in 1891 when the Goad map was drawn, but it was enlarged in the 1930s. It was built on brick arches, had 8 platforms with ridge and furrow roofs above, and there was a narrow row of offices on the second floor. At the time of this drawing, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, the brewers, stored their beers in the vaults below. Later Gilbey's occupied them.

The railway lines from Gilbey's A Shed, on the other side of the canal, ran past one end of the goods shed and directly to No 6 platform. From here a special Gilbey's train to towns and ports, departed every evening for many decades.

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The Goad Fire Insurance map of 1891

It shows the mass of tracks and turntables. ++One goods train being assembled
on the tracks has been added to illustrate the method.


Shunting Yard

A length of the railway line and a turntable have been retained in Gilbey's Yard (the new prize-winning housing development by the Pirates' Bridge). This turntable was used to turn a railway wagon through a right-angle and shows how small the early railway wagons were and continued to be until the 1960s.

The Goad Fire Insurance map of 1891 shows no fewer than thirty-two turntables immediately north of the Goods Shed and there are two similar arrays only a few yards further on. These were used to move filled trucks into position, ready to form complete trains. The trucks were juggled by complicated, zig-zag routes so that when the time came, each would be in its position at the rear of the line of trucks, ready for dropping off at the correct station. One set of trucks has been added on the drawing in this book to show the process of assembly. The three rows of turntables allowed the shunters to move a particular truck to the front, or back, of any group on any particular line, so that they were each in the correct final position. Only when each truck was in its place was the whole line linked up to form a complete train.

Much of this work would have been done by horses and, with so many trucks being moved, different gangs of shunters working side by side at different tasks, the work going on twenty-four hours a day, it was a complicated, noisy affair. On the site where people now quietly sleep, there was noise and clatter day and night. The noise is not entirely finished. About the year AD 2000 high speed trains would once again disturb the neighbourhood


The Effects of the Clean Air Act

It is difficult now to think back to before diesel trains, the electrification of the railways, and the Clean Air Act, to the smog and pollution of that time. One typical young man was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. His family had died of it and he was infected. The Second World War probably saved his life, taking him abroad to the dry atmosphere of Egypt where he appeared to be cured. A year after returning to live in Camden Town, the pollution had brought back the disease.

This is not the place for a serious study of railways in general, but the effect of the railways on Camden Town was dramatic, influencing its whole future. The London and Birmingham Railway, which ran through Camden Town to Euston, split the area in two, physically and socially. The creation of the deep cutting to form the Incline from Camden Town to Euston, created a yawing valley which can be seen from the Hampstead Road. Park Village, which had been linked to Mornington Crescent and the Hampstead Road, was suddenly cut off. This division became a social division - 'within the pale' and 'outside the pale' of Regent's Park.

In the 1960s, the railway goods traffic disappeared and the development of the redundant land was to change the face of Camden Town.

Gilbey's Yard, Chalk Farm, London NW1, 1997

Award winning development by Community Housing Association

This is the north bank of the canal today, opposite the site of William Cubitt's building, which burnt down, and of its replacement which became Gilbey's 'A' Shed, which has also been demolished and replaced by the Pirate's Castle. The picture was taken from the present Pirate's Bridge, looking west. One railway line and a turntable are still in place at the top of the wall. Although the present houses are called Gilbey's Yard, Gilbeys never had a direct connection with this particular site. It was, in fact, the site of the large goods shed built by the LNWR in 1864.


  1. LNWR Plan of Camden Station, 1856, 40 ft to 1inch.PRO; Rail 410/2072



Robert B. Dockray, and
The Roundhouse

The Camden Ice Wells