On its way to Sunderland station – easily in the top 10 worst stations in Britain – the Tyne and Wear Metro almost, but not quite, serves this very impressive pile of a station…
It’s Monkwearmouth station, near Sunderland. We are reaching deeply back into railway history with this one. It opened in 1848, just 18 years after Manchester Liverpool Road station, the first inter-city railway terminus in the world, threw open its doors. It was a time before railway stations were recognisably so. The railways were new, still a source of wonder and fear, and had already seen some catastrophic fatal accidents. The way railway infrastructure looked was at this point primarily designed to counteract this by imparting a sense of familiarity and reassurance.
There were two main approaches to tackling this need for reassurance when it came to railway stations. The first, as Liverpool Road station exemplifies, was to lean on the stylings of domestic architecture. The second, as Monkwearmouth station (and others, such as Huddersfield for instance) embodies, was to go for magnificence. Using the language of Classical architecture, such stations spoke of the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, rock-solid pedigrees that imparted history, stability, and reliability. They also drew on imagery relating to the highly stratified class structure of Victorian Britain. Monkwearmouth station looks for all the world like the natural habitat of the ruling aristocracy, a grand country mansion. What could be more reassuring to the general populace than that? I like to think that if Downton Abbey came with its own railway station at the bottom of the garden, Monkwearmouth station is what it would look like.
Designed by local architect Thomas Moore, its central portico is pure country mansion, here in giant Ionic tetrastyle (says statutory heritage body Historic England). Two wings end in projecting pavilions with quadrant (curved) end bays. The pavilions feature Tuscan pilasters and Doric columns. It’s not actually a terribly large building, but the Classical architecture makes it look bigger, and a long wall extending out from the station building and screening the adjacent platform, adds to the illusion.
Monkwearmouth station’s grandiose appearance makes it all the more ironic therefore, that it celebrates someone about as far removed from the traditional English aristocracy as it is possible to imagine: George Hudson, the Railway King. He’s an infamous character in the creation of the British railway network.
Hudson was chairman of the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway, which built Monkwearmouth as the terminus of its Brandling Junction Railway. He was also MP for Sunderland, and had been since 1845. Born a commoner near York in 1800, he rose to prominence as one of the investors in, and the treasurer of, the nascent York and North Midlands Railway; New Money, in other words. The Y&NM opened in 1840, although Hudson had started paying out dividends on shares long before that. Before, in fact, the railway could have had any serious chance of turning a profit. The dividends were in fact paid out of capital, rather than revenue. It was to be a pattern that would be repeated for years. Hudson acquired interests in many other railways, and promoted new schemes, often paying dividends out of capital raised for the next project.
He was elected MP for Sunderland in 1845, a chief advantage of which was that he was able to promote his own business interests, new railways needing an Act of Parliament to authorise them. He also set up a company to build a new dock at Sunderland, allowing the town to compete with other rapidly developing towns in the north-east of England. Linked to the Durham and Sunderland Railway (another of Hudson’s) the town shared in the riches of the coal trade.
No surprise then, that Monkwearmouth station should be so grand. However, it was not physical safety that should have concerned the Victorian public in 1845. It was the financial safety of the rapidly developing railway industry. The bubble was about to burst spectacularly, and Hudson was right in the middle. He had been borrowing money at high interest rates to pay dividends on new railways, and had been selling shares to his own company at vastly inflated prices, benefitting personally in the process. The Railways Act of 1844 attempted to put some controls on what had become a railway mania, believed to be soaking up around a half of all capital investment in the country, to the detriment of other necessary projects. Suddenly it was harder for Hudson to continue his practice of paying dividends for recently opened railways out of capital raised for new ones.
Inquiries were set up, Hudson was forced to resign from his various railway companies, and most disastrously of all for Hudson, his investors wanted their money back. He accumulated huge debts, which he somehow managed to settle, but by the early 1850s he was broke.
Unfortunately, Hudson was so associated with the development of the railways that his downfall led to a nationwide panic over railway schemes and investment. It was fine if you could get your money out early, but once various railway companies collapsed before their projected railways could even open and start earning a return on investment, many people lost a lot of money.
Hudson, diminished, remained as MP for Sunderland until 1859 although he wasn’t always able to do a very good job. He sometimes had to skip the country to avoid arrest for bankruptcy. The town remained grateful to him for securing its share of the coal trade though, and later renamed the new dock he’d had built the Hudson Dock.
Monkwearmouth station closed in 1967 although the Brandling Junction line on which it sits remained open, and the station was later converted into a museum showcasing its original role as a station and explaining its role in Monkwearmouth’s development. The railway through Monkwearmouth was later converted to allow mainline trains to share tracks with an extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro. The Metro opened a new station, a short distance south, at St Peter’s.
It’s an intriguing building, looking for all the world as though it is built of glass blocks. It’s an appropriate style, because the station is just a short distance from the National Glass Centre.
Monkwearmouth is a great The Beauty of Transport location. Not only does it have an amazing old station which is a monument to Hudson, and a striking modern Metro station, but it also has two rather fabulous bridges.
Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge opened in 1879 over the River Wear, connecting the Brandling Junction line and the Durham and Sunderland line, and providing a direct rail connection between Sunderland and Newcastle. It’s a bowstring bridge, with the main elements trussed not by the more common triangular elements, but instead by a Vierendeel truss, creating enormously attractive elliptical openings in the bridge’s side. It is Grade II listed. Famous architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “dull” though. Mind you, he also gave a somewhat equivocal critique of Monkwearmouth station, suggesting that, “If one does not mind a railway station looking like a Literary and Scientific Institution or provincial Athenaeum, then Monkwearmouth is one of the most handsome stations in existence.” Let’s take the latter part from that commentary to heart, and ignore the first bit, shall we?.
Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge was joined in 1929 by Wearmouth Bridge, which itself replaced an earlier iron bridge carrying the road between Sunderland and Monkwearmouth. It’s a through-arch bridge, listed at Grade II. It’s also a rather attractive structure, with an interesting narrowing of the upper part of the bridge’s arch right at the top. I happened to mention to a long-time Newcastle resident I visited Monkwearmouth with (my sister, actually), that I thought it was quite nice. This was a mistake, as it turned out. It’s not necessarily apparent to outsiders the depth of rivalry / animosity between Newcastle/Gateshead and Sunderland (or indeed between Newcastle and Gateshead when they’re not ganging up on Sunderland), but I got a pretty good taste. The upshot of it was that the Tyne Bridge, a through-arch bridge which connects Newcastle and Gateshead over the River Tyne, was a far better bridge, partly because it opened a year earlier, but mostly because it is much bigger.
And that told me.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Parissien, Steven (2014): The English Railway Station. English Heritage: Swindon
Lloyd, David and Insall, Donald (1978): Railway Station Architecture. David & Charles: Newton Abbot
Historic England’s listing record for Monkwearmouth station, here
Historic England’s listing record for Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge, here
Historic England’s listing record for Wearmouth Bridge, here
Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums blog entry on George Hudson, here
Monkwearmouth Station Museum’s website, here