Not Just Any Old Iron (Great Malvern station, Worcestershire, UK)

“The best ironwork detailing, from an architectural standpoint, anywhere on a station is at Great Malvern.” That’s a big boast, and for a change it’s not just my opinion but that of railway authors and architectural experts David Lloyd and Donald Insall. So let’s go and see what all the fuss is about.

Great Malvern station opened in 1860. The station buildings, footbridge and next-door railway hotel opened over a couple of years, to the designs of architect was E. W. Elmslie. It’s a neat little station with rubble stone walls, and an array of rather attractive chimneys. The slate roofs feature cast iron cresting and wrought iron finials. You’ll note, however, that just 12 years on from the opening of Monkwearmouth station, and 30 years from Liverpool Road station in Manchester, neither of which looked much like a railway station, Great Malvern is exactly what you’d expect a railway station to look like. Britain’s railways had developed so quickly that there was no longer any need to dress railway stations up to look like Classical temples or respectable dwellings to instill confidence in the technology. The railways had been accepted.

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Great Malvern station. Photo by Whatlep [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The station buildings are overshadowed somewhat by Elmslie’s railway hotel, the Imperial, a little to the north-east of the station. Finished in red brick, with its round-headed arches and three storey oriel with candle-snuffer roof (I don’t make this stuff up, that’s what Historic England calls it) there’s something vaguely French château about it. It was a spa hotel, and according to Historic England the first building lit by incandescent gas, although I think that might mean first in the locality rather than the entire country. The hotel imported the briny water used in its baths from nearby Droitwich, famous for its naturally occurring salty spa waters. And if all that isn’t enough fun, the gate pillars to the hotel feature two delinquent dumpy little dragons apiece. Elmslie must have had an absolute field day. The hotel became Malvern Girls’ College in the early 20th Century, and is now called Malvern St James.

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The one-time Imperial Hotel, now Malvern St James school. Photo by Philip Halling [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The station has another surprise. It’s called “The Worm”. It’s a covered walkway directly linking Great Malvern’s eastern platform to the basement of the Imperial Hotel, passing underneath a road bridge and then tunneling through the railway embankment to get there. No longer in regular use, and blocked at the hotel/school end, it has no steps and was a very early example of catering for passengers with mobility impairments. In other words, it was a Victorian “Access for All” scheme. The whole point of a spa hotel was to attract guests with medical conditions who might benefit from the briny water baths (I don’t think the treatments were peer-reviewed in the BMJ or anything but it was probably worth a go in the primitive wold of late 19th Century healthcare). Passengers alighting at Great Malvern station for the hotel were able to reach the hotel under cover and with no danger of exposure to the elements.

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The Worm, Great Malvern Station. Photo by Tim Crump [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m reliably informed by local sources that once the hotel became a girls’ school, The Worm was used as an escape route, for the purposes of fraternising with – gasp – Members of the Opposite Sex. That’s why it was blocked up.

However, it’s not Elmslie’s work that Great Malvern station is most famous for. The ironwork detailing mentioned at the beginning of this article was by William Forsyth, and it’s from this that Great Malvern station gets its status as one of the great pieces of early railway station architecture.

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Great Malvern station amazing ironwork. Photo by Bryan Conlon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If Elmslie had enjoyed himself with his château-style hotel and dinky dragons, Forsyth went absolutely mad, decorating Great Malvern with a forest of iron foliage.

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Decorated capital at Great Malvern station. Photo by BazzaDaRambler [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Atop the cast iron columns supporting the platform canopies are capitals decorated with an astonishing variety of wrought iron leaves and flowers, springing up from coronets which circle the columns. Highly decorative cast iron spandrels connect the canopy girders to the columns. You don’t need hanging baskets at Great Malvern station; it has a permanent display of local fauna on its columns. The whole display is painted too, in a riot of colour unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere on a British railway station.

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Decorated capital at Great Malvern station. I’m pretty sure these are the leaves of the pennywort plant. Photo by BazzaDaRambler [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Forsyth didn’t stop there. He also sculpted capitals for columns on either side of the station building doorways. Most of them feature foliage, but he included people in some of them. In fact, Historic England doesn’t credit anyone with the tubby dragons on the gateposts of the Imperial Hotel, and I’m beginning to wonder if Forsyth wasn’t responsible for these too.

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Carved stone capital for doorway at Great Malvern station. Photo by Bob Embleton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The inclusion of wrought iron decoration on cast iron structural elements is not only very pretty, but also illustrates one of the early engineering problems of the Victorian railway. The difference between the two types of iron is crucial. In an attempt to read up on exactly what the difference is, I’ve realised that I’m no metallurgist and it’s a bit late to change career now. But if I’ve got this all straight, then the chief difference between the two is that cast iron is melted and poured into a mould to form the shape that is wanted. Wrought iron is heated until soft and then mechanically shaped, originally by hand over a blacksmith’s anvil or similar, but it can also be done by machine for industrial purposes. So far so simple, but the differences don’t end there. Cast iron and wrought iron have slightly different compositions. Cast iron contains small amounts of carbon, and this alloy makes for a hard metal. Wrought iron, meanwhile, contains small amounts of slag (an iron ore smelting by-product) which makes it softer and more malleable, and thus able to be worked. You can melt and cast wrought iron, but there’s not much point because the melting process undoes the process that makes it malleable, and it’s more expensive than cast iron so it would be a bit of a waste of money. That means the flowers and leaves on Great Malvern station must have been beaten into shape individually, which is quite something to get your head around.

The difference between the two types of metal is crucial, but was not well understood in the early days of railway development. Cast iron is enormously strong under compression, but it is brittle and doesn’t have any flexibility, shattering rather than bending. Wrought iron, being softer, has less compressive strength, but is much more forgiving of stress, deforming rather than breaking.

Armed with this knowledge, if you were building an iron railway bridge you’d make sure that the uprights were made of cast iron, but that the lengthwise girders, which bend under the passage of trains, were made of wrought iron.

Unfortunately, Robert Stephenson was not fully armed with that knowledge when the Dee Bridge opened in 1846. The engineer, who had found fame on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, had designed the Dee Bridge for the Chester and Holyhead Railway using cast iron girders to span the river. Less than a year later, one of the girders shattered as a train passed over. Part of the train fell through the bridge and five passengers were killed. Stephenson claimed that the train had derailed for some other reason, and in doing so shattered the girder, but eyewitnesses countered this claim by confirming the girder had shattered first. We now know this was almost an inevitability, and it’s quite possible Stephenson knew that cast iron wasn’t an ideal material – he had added wrought iron ties to strengthen the cast iron girders, but they hadn’t worked as Stephenson hoped, and indeed in their design it seems highly unlikely the ties could ever have properly strengthened the cast iron components. Cast iron became an absolute villain for railway bridges, when it was used in ways that put it under tension rather than compression, and in those pioneering days it wasn’t always easy to predict when that might be the case. Perhaps most famously, the Tay Bridge collapsed in 1878, after cast iron components were unexpectedly put into tension.

Stephenson is now remembered as a railway hero. The Dee Bridge could have been his undoing, but successful bridges at Newcastle, over the Menai Straits and at Conwy, restored his reputation. At Newcastle, Stephenson’s High Level Bridge was made with cast iron arches that were compressed by the passage of trains, and wrought iron girders that tied the ends of the arches together. The Britannia Bridge, over the Menai Straits, and Conwy Railway Bridge, were both made with wrought iron tubes capable of flexing with the passage of trains.

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The platforms of Great Malvern station. Photo by muffinn from Worcester, UK (Great Malvern station) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

So next time you find yourself on the platforms of Great Malvern, admiring the technicolour flora, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s also a beautiful illustration of the terrors of early railway metallurgy, and the consequences of what happens when you use the wrong kind of iron.

Bibliography and further reading

Cruickshank, Dan (2010): Bridges. Collins: London (for the details about Stephenson’s misdaventures with cast iron on the Dee Bridge, especially)

Lloyd, David and Insall, Donald (1978): Railway Station Architecture. David & Charles: Newton Abbot

Parissien, Steven (2014): The English Railway Station. English Heritage: Swindon

Historic England’s listing record for Great Malvern station, here

Historic England’s listing record for The Worm, here

Historic England’s listing record for the Imperial Hotel/Malvern Girls’ College, here

Historic England’s listing record for the wall and gates to Malvern Girls’ College, here

The website of the Reliance Foundry of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, for its helpful primer on the difference between cast and wrought iron, here

How to find Great Malvern station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map

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