All Change for Waterloo – Living with the Railway in Cobham

Contributed by Cobham Remembers

All Change for Waterloo

By Stephen Spark

Can you help? The author of this article grew up beside the railway in Stoke and has been researching its history for over 40 years. Official records are incomplete, however, and pre-1970s photographs of Cobham station are scarce. There seem to be no views of the goods yard or of Station Road beyond the Plough before the 1950s. If you have any memories or scraps of information about the railway, or any pictures of trains, stations, staff or structures, the author would love to hear from you. Thank you. You can contact Stephen Spark at [email protected]

Imagine a July afternoon in 1916. After enjoying some welcome refreshment in the Plough at Stoke D’Abernon, you walk past the forge and a few cottages and see before you the long, low outline of the railway station. It still looks a little brash, its red brick only just beginning to mellow after three decades of weathering. On either side of Station Road lies placid farmland, with a footpath branching off through orchards towards the Tilt. Beyond the coal and corn merchants’ huts in the dusty goods yard, meadows stretch down to the river, and if you cross the line by the covered footbridge and walk through the wicket gate on the down platform you will reach the grounds of Stoke Manor.

The train service is irregular, so for much of the day the up platform is a peaceful spot where summer birdsong is disturbed only by the ting-ting of the signalman’s bell code that warns of a train entering his section of line, the clatter of levers being pulled and the lazy clunk of a descending signal arm. So intense is the background silence that from his home in Water Lane the young Conway Walker (who later will take on the role of local historian) can hear the steam trains start off from Effingham Junction and after some minutes rumble over Downside Railway Bridge.

In the booking office, the clerk attends courteously to the trickle of passengers heading towards town. This is still a country branch line and Stoke D’Abernon a rural hamlet, so apart from a handful of season ticket-holders who have business in the City, most journeys by train are local or occasional, leaving the ticket clerk plenty of time to fill out the sheaves of paperwork that are as essential to the running of the early 20th-century railway as coal and steel rails.

The real business gets done in the goods yard, for everything bulky, heavy or travelling any distance arrives or departs by rail. From coal for the gasworks to hops for Cobham Brewery, from horses for Cobham Stud to ‘fancy goods’ for local shops, it all has to be transferred from rail to road in the goods shed, at the coal pens or the carriage dock (a special platform for unloading wheeled vehicles and animals). After the goods train has made its morning delivery of wagons, the yard is animated with railway staff and traders loading and unloading, checking and form-filling, as a succession of horse carts, steam lorries and motor trucks come to deliver and collect.

In the back office, beyond the wooden racks filled with card tickets of different colours, you might catch sight of James Alfred Jerome writing a letter to one of the railway’s customers. He is the station master, but the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) prefers the title ‘agent’. He is the company’s local manager, who oversees the whole operation of its Cobham outpost. Jerome is expected to drum up new business, maintain cordial relations with customers, attend to complaints, manage his staff, ensure that safety rules are obeyed and check that accounts are kept correctly. Last year a clerk, Mr Blanchard, had to resign after £2 18s.7d. went missing; the amount has been deducted from his pension fund.

Five years ago the census recorded James Jerome’s son, Horace, then 21, as employed by the LSWR, as a clerk. Horace was living with his parents at Station House, but may not necessarily have been working at Cobham station. No fewer than four railway clerks were living and presumably working locally. Henry Drake, 34, William Martin, 40, and William Wicks, 38, were all staying in Station Road, but shortage of staff accommodation close to the station meant that Devonshire man Reginald Toze, 25, was lodging in the Tilt. Curiously, no one was listed as a signalman or porter, though at least one must have been living nearby.

Jerome is 60 years old (20 years later his widow was still in the area, living at Old Cottages on the Tilt), and as the year progresses it becomes obvious that there are fewer men in LSWR uniform than before the war. As the younger railway workers ‘join the colours’ only the older men are left. The staffing crisis is so acute that the railway has been recruiting women to clean the carriages, which is such a novelty that they are photographed for the national newspapers.

In total, 27% of the LSWR’s employees join up, of whom 585 never return alive. One casualty is former Cobham station porter F. Fellows, killed in the closing months of the conflict while serving with the 4th East Surrey Regiment. Oxshott porter E. Cathrine is more fortunate, as he only joined in 1918 and soon is back among the pinewoods and heather.

It is not long before the new recruits taste the brutality of the Great War. On 1 July the hellish carnage of the Somme begins, and for the next four months the only sounds the former railwaymen hear are the zip of bullets, the chatter of machine-guns, cries of men and animals, the earth-shaking thunder of mines and mortars, and the whistle and crump of ‘whizz bangs’ (light artillery shells). It may be 200 miles away, but at times the bombardment is so intense that it can be heard and felt in Cobham.

All Britain’s railway companies play a vital role in the war, but the LSWR more than most, as it serves the Channel ports of Southampton and Portsmouth as well as military camps in Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. From 1914 to 1918, it carries over 20 million men and runs 58,859 special trains for the troops, some of which pass along the Cobham line. Around 1.5 million horses are transported, including many to (appropriately enough) Horsley, where they are assessed for their fitness for duty on the Western Front. The Army has commandeered William Elijah Benton’s Littleheath Brickworks next to Cook’s Crossing as an ammunition dump. As hostilities come to an end, unused (live!) shells are stored in open zinc boxes in corrugated iron sheds before being taken away by road to be dismantled in Banbury. Making up for the loss of brick traffic, Oxshott goods yard is kept busy throughout 1917 loading timber from Oxshott Heath and Esher Common felled by lumberjacks of 114 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps.

And then there is the sad sight of the ambulance train, “crawling through Cobham station with patients sitting below those on stretchers above”, as Conway Walker was to recall decades later. Many of the night-time ambulance trains are heading for Clandon Park, which Lord Onslow offered to the government as a military hospital as soon as war broke out. Other soldiers come by train to Cobham to recuperate at the Schiff Home of Recovery. More happily, soldiers on leave and Londoners escaping the crowds are among those alighting at the station, which has become a popular destination for picnickers and ramblers. The ‘must-see’ is Stoke D’Abernon’s historic St Mary’s Church, with its famous brasses, and the local countryside, threaded by pretty lanes and footpaths, attracts the guidebook-writers’ praise too.

Amongst all the disruption of war, the LSWR is struggling to keep two huge projects on track: the rebuilding of Waterloo station and electrification. For years, the company’s London terminus has been a byword for confusion, inefficiency and shabbiness, so in 1906 the board agreed to begin the massive task of reconstruction while keeping the trains running, of course. That is a hard enough task at the best of times, but now, in 1916, both men and materials are scarce and costs have escalated, so the rebuilding has taken on Herculean dimensions. To the great relief of passengers and staff alike the bulk of the work has been done now, but it will be another six years before Queen Mary can formally open the new station.

No one travelling from Cobham can fail to spot that all the way to the terminus the railway is in a state of upheaval. The most visible work is the long brick viaduct taking shape near Surbiton, with a great steel bowstring span taking the down Hampton Court line across the main lines, right next to the junction for the Cobham line. And in Wimbledon a tall chimney rises like the spire of an industrial cathedral over a new power station.

This is the LSWR’s answer to the menace on its doorstep. Electric trams have spread as far as Kingston and Surbiton and are seducing a million passengers a year away from the railway. Underground lines are eager to eat into the LSWR’s territory too. The company is fighting back by electrifying its lines on the third rail system. This is cutting-edge technology based on American practice that is cheaper and quicker to install than overhead wiring, though critics say it is vulnerable to ice and snow. The stylishly bullet-fronted trains, nicknamed ‘nutcrackers’, are rather a cheat, though, as they are simply old steam-hauled carriages given a new front end and electric motors. Nevertheless, they are proving faster and more reliable than the steam trains they replaced.

The company originally planned to introduce electric trains all the way to Guildford via Cobham, but money and materials must be saved somehow – and besides, no one is likely to build a tramline or Tube to Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon. So, on 20 November 1916, just two days after the Battle of the Somme ends, two electric trains an hour start running from Waterloo to Claygate in 29 minutes. Passengers for Cobham and beyond must change into a train of elderly carriages pulled or pushed by a steam engine. The hourly service is not ideal, but for the first time Cobham passengers are getting a regular-interval train service. The 21 trains a day each way represents a big improvement on 1909’s weekday service of just 12 trains.

Amid the rapid changes, some things remain the same. The railway still issues permits to landowners and their staff to walk along the line between the station and Downside Bridge – useful when the meadows are flooded. Those who have been given the privilege recently include Major Richard Mortlock and W. Allison of Cobham Stud, and Arthur Lazarus, of Broom Hall, Oxshott.

Petty crime is a constant, too, and even in wartime some travellers still try their luck. A favourite trick is to use a cheap-rate workmen’s ticket between Waterloo and Surbiton and then buy a Cobham-Oxshott single for the return journey. Mr Jerome points to a report in the August 1916 number of the LSWR’s staff publication, the South Western Magazine, concerning three men who were caught in a sting operation: “Mr Wrightson, the booking clerk at Cobham, became curious and suspicious, and had them watched.” Tower Bridge magistrates found the culprits guilty, fining two of them 20 shillings (£1) each, but imposing on John Every, “who was then in the uniform of the Royal Flying Corps” and had pleaded not guilty, a 30s. fine with 42s. costs.

The fitting of a telephone in the booking office has proved a wonderful boon, but passengers keep asking to use it too, so a separate telephone cabinet has been provided in the booking hall. The queues to use it continue to grow, however, so the device has to be moved outside. In the 1920s the General Post Office puts up one of its charmingly ornate wooden K1 boxes for those essential “I’m at the station, can you pick me up?” calls.

When the war ends, neither the railway nor the villages revert to the old order. The telephone removes the need for numerous postal collections and deliveries every day. War surplus motor trucks and an abundance of ex-servicemen able to drive them lay the foundations for a road haulage industry able to undercut the railway’s goods services for everything except heavy bulk goods such as coal. In 1923, the LSWR merges with other companies to form the Southern Railway, which immediately sets about completing the electrification to Guildford via Cobham. The green electric trains running to town every 20 minutes make commuting easy. Following them down the line are the speculative developers who buy up the estates of the old foxhunting squires and build tasteful avenues of mock-Tudor and pebble-dash homes in their place.

At some indeterminate point, Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon cease to be self-sufficient country villages and become enmeshed in the great suburban web of the metropolis.

Truly, the war has changed everything.

Can you help? The author of this article grew up beside the railway in Stoke and has been researching its history for over 40 years. Official records are incomplete, however, and pre-1970s photographs of Cobham station are scarce. There seem to be no views of the goods yard or of Station Road beyond the Plough before the 1950s. If you have any memories or scraps of information about the railway, or any pictures of trains, stations, staff or structures, the author would love to hear from you. Thank you. You can contact Stephen Spark at [email protected]


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One Response to “All Change for Waterloo – Living with the Railway in Cobham”

  1. Michael Kelland

    James Jerome was my great grandfather, and although he died before I was born, I do remember his widow as a very elderly lady living with my great aunt in old cottage on the tilt. I also remember his son Horace who finished up at Guildford Station, and Horace’s daughter Patricia who died last year at the age of 94. There is a box of photos which we have yet to sort from her effects and if I find any of the area around the station I will let you know

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