Why there's no Bristol Central Station: the failed Victorian schemes to replace Temple Meads


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In a previous video I mentioned that Bristol suffers somewhat from its main railway station, Temple Meads, being in a not-exactly-central location. In this video I'm going to dig a little bit further into this subject, including a look at various schemes to create a more centrally located station - all of which failed, obviously.

The answer to why Temple Meads station was built where it was is pretty straightforward. The clue is in the name, in fact. Meads is simply an archaic variant of the word meadows. On this 16th century map you can even see the sheep grazing.

Temple Meads, as they were next to Temple Gate, from which Temple Street led to Temple Church. Temple Church, because the original church here was built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar. But that's a story for another video.

The salient point about Temple Meads as far as this video is concerned is that they were empty fields. Even by the early 19th century this was still undeveloped land, but immediately outside the built-up extent of the city. So when intercity railways took off and a location was needed for the Great Western Railway's terminus, this was the obvious choice, so this was where they set about building the station in 1839.

You can't really criticise the GWR for stopping here rather than attempting to push on to the absolute epicentre of the city. That would have meant buying, and destroying, swathes of the city's prime residential and commercial real estate - incredibly expensive and unpopular at the best of times, and surely an impossible sell when railways were still so new and railway companies such financial gambles in general.

You could, perhaps, criticise Brunel for making any future extension into the city proper all the more difficult by building the railway company's offices across the end of the tracks, conclusively positioning it as a terminal rather than a through station.

Services to Bath began on 31 August 1840, and the full line through to London opened 30 June 1841. Two weeks earlier, on 14 June 1841, a track south west to Bridgwater had opened, which was soon linked to the London bound lines with a curve, and which would get as far south as Taunton by 1842 and Exeter by 1844.

The Bristol & Exeter Railway was notionally a separate company, and insisted in having a separate station, but without getting too into the details of railway company politics, it was pretty much in the GWR sphere of influence. They also had Brunel as chief engineer; the GWR actually ran the trains for the first few years of operation; and bought them out entirely in 1876.

The next line to enter Bristol was in 1844, the Bristol & Gloucester Railway. This, too, was a sort of de facto part of the GWR empire, building their line to Brunel's broad gauge, but in 1845 they were bought out by the Midland Railway, whose network was standard-gauge and who were keen to prevent broad gauge from breaking into Birmingham and the Midlands. Until the gauge wars were resolved this forced all passengers (and goods) travelling between Bristol and Birmingham to change trains at Gloucester.

Correction: The line to Gloucester is drawn in the wrong place - see here for details

The next 15 years saw no meaningful change in Bristol's railway landscape, but in the early 1860s there came a flurry of proposals to build new lines with new, more central stations. There were two main driving forces behind this.

Firstly was to provide railway access to the docks. Because I'm using a modern map as a background, you can see bits of the Bristol Harbour Railway on it, but this is anachronistic - that didn't open until the 1870s. In 1860 there was absolutely no railway connectivity to the docks at all, which was a hopelessly outdated state of affairs.

Secondly, they wanted a more conveniently located station for people. Temple Meads was a reasonable stroll away from even the city centre, and still further for the prosperous merchants and middle classes living up in suburbs like Clifton. Once again, my modern map accidentally misleads you, because it shows Victoria Street running directly from Bristol Bridge to Temple Meads, but Victoria Street didn't come along until the 1870s either.

In 1860 the would-be rail passenger crossing Bristol Bridge would have to turn down Bath Street and then Temple Street, both of which were narrow, muddy, poor quality roads lined with poor quality buildings and fraught, in the view of our wealthy Cliftonians, with criminal dangers from poor quality people.

In 1862 the first concrete plan to remedy all this emerged. The Bristol & Clifton Railway proposed to branch off the mainlines just east of Temple Meads; cut across Redcliffe on a viaduct; over the river; slice through the bottom of Queen Square, where there would be a station; across the harbour to Canon's Marsh, where it would serve the docks; then run along roughly the route of today's Anchor Road, terminating at the bottom of Brandon Hill near Jacob's Wells Road.

This was a very serious proposal, backed by both the GWR and powerful Bristolian bodies like the Merchant Venturers and the Chamber of Commerce, which I emphasise because you might be forgiven for assuming it must have been a half-baked suggestion with no real substance behind it, on account of it being honestly kind of daft.

With all due respect to anyone living near this roundabout, the bottom of Brandon Hill is not and was not the epicentre of anything much, so is a rather odd place for a grand central terminus.

Correction: There was more there than I gave it credit for, in particular the possibility for passengers to connect onto ferries etc at the harbour - see here for details

Queen Square is a fair bit more central than Temple Meads, true, and the proposal did a reasonable job of serving the docks, with the potential for a big goods yard at Canon’s Marsh. But the railway’s interaction with the docks was also the main reason I describe it as kind of daft. The two bridges across the harbour would have blocked shipping from two of the busiest stretches of docks, so would have both needed to be swing bridges or lift bridges - adding huge expense, complexity and unreliability. Even allowing for the bridges being movable, the Parliament Select Committee knocked back this scheme on the basis they would be too dangerous for shipping, and concerns were also raised about the risk of fire from sparking locomotives.

The next proposal was the Bristol Central Railway Station Bill. This also branched off the main lines just east of Temple Meads, swinging up through the land between the river and Midland Road, before curving around the general area of what is today Cabot Circus and Broadmead - the exact route proposed was not very, well, exact. It would pick up the alignment of Rupert Street before terminating on a station above the River Frome, somewhere near where the Cenotaph is now.

This would have been a pretty good bullseye on 'The Centre'. To say a station should be central invites the question of where the centre is, anyway, which I covered at probably rather too much length in a previous video. In summary, although this location is outside the historic city walls, it honestly has a strong claim to being considered a very central spot ever since the Frome was re-routed in the 13th century. So 10/10 for this proposal on that score, but it hardly managed to serve the docks at all, and it also shared a big weakness with the prior scheme. Any train heading to this new Central Station, or the hypothetical Brandon Hill terminus, would either have bypass Temple Meads entirely, or awkwardly reverse.

Probably this contributed to the GWR's lack of enthusiasm for the proposal, so despite having the backing of some Bristol MPs and the Midland railway, it was withdrawn.

In 1863 it reappeared in modified form, but before looking at that, let's briefly look at the rival scheme also proposed in 1863.

The Bristol Port Extension Railway branched off to the east of Temple Meads, yet again, but this time planned to run directly above the river as far as Castle Park (not that it was a park in those days, of course). It would then swing round to pick up the line of Lewin's Mead, with a station at the bottom of Christmas Steps. From here it would curve around the base of Brandon Hill, and proceed via some not-entirely-explained route, but possibly involving a tunnel, through Cliftonwood to Hotwells. Here, it would meet the southern end of the Bristol Port Railway, another 1862 proposal that was intended to run up via Shirehampton to Avonmouth.

The line from Hotwells to Avonmouth was in fact built, opening in 1865, but the Port Extension via Christmas Steps never got any traction, despite being backed by all the railway companies in Bristol at the time. It seems likely that it failed due to the huge cost of purchasing property - estimated at nearly a quarter of a million pounds, when the entire budget for the scheme was only 450 thousand - and the opposition stirred up by this prospect - bearing in mind Castle Park at that time was one of the most densely built-up areas in the city.

Perhaps the best chance Bristol ever had for a central station was the revised Bristol Central Station proposal of 1863. This began as before, but instead of terminating in the Centre, the tracks continued to Canon's Marsh, and dived under the Harbour and New Cut in tunnel, resurfacing in Bedminster where it would rejoin the line to Exeter.

The brilliant part here is that it put Bristol's shiny new central station on a through line, not as a terminus dangling on an awkward branch line. Trains between Exeter and Birmingham or London would naturally pass through, without any silly reversing dance.

Unfortunately, this was simultaneously one of the scheme's fatal flaws, because it left Temple Meads completely redundant, so the GWR and Bristol & Exeter both opposed it. Additionally, some were sceptical if the tunnel under the harbour was really feasible. On the one hand, the Thames Tunnel had been completed in 1843, proving that tunnels under rivers were possible, but on the other hand, the Thames Tunnel had taken twenty years, half a million pounds and the loss of numerous lives to actually finish, proving that tunnels under rivers were not straightforward or cheap. Other railway tunnels like those under the rivers Mersey or Severn, had not yet been attempted at this point.

I'm no railway engineer, but the distance from the Centre to Canon's Marsh doesn't seem very far, so it does seem to me like the gradient would have had to have been very steep. And if we're nitpicking based on the luxury of hindsight, a Bristol Central Station here would have found itself rather cramped. Temple Meads currently has 13 platforms in use - I can't imagine squeezing more than four in this area, without demolishing neighbouring streets, which contain a fair bit of historic architecture.

Still, it's all moot, because as you know, none of these schemes made it off the drawing board.

Instead, 1865 saw the invention of two schemes to paper over the worst of the issues on the cheap whilst completely failing to deliver the truly transformative step change in transport provision that the city really needed.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, 1865.

Firstly, the two Temple Meads stations were to be rebuilt as an integrated Joint Station, which is more or less the station we use today. Secondly, Victoria Street was to be carved through Redcliffe's medieval street pattern to provide a direct and modern route between the station and Bristol Bridge.

This pacified passenger grumbles, while in 1866 the Bristol Harbour Railway Act addressed the needs of the docks, coming up with the idea of the route through a Redcliffe tunnel to Wapping Wharf and beyond.

And with that, the moment passed - by the end of the century trams were filling in the gaps well enough, so there were no more serious proposals to bring railways to the very heart of Bristol.

Correction: Unfortunately this is also factually incorrect, there was at least one further serious proposal in 1882 - see here for details

Thankfully, nobody did anything moronically stupid like rip out the tram network and demolish half the city to build motorways; nor anything breathtakingly shortsighted like building naff little suburban car parks on top of the remnants of the Harbour Railway instead of reusing it as a segregated tram or light rail corridor; nor anything as jaw-droppingly braindead as letting EU funding go begging because they were busy throwing their toys out of the tram about some tinpot local squabble; nor anything as frustratingly cretinous as ripping up an operational railway track to build a bus lane, and then letting it fall in the river.

OK, sarcasm aside, I do have one more serious point to make.

You often hear urbanist and transport pundits enthuse over how centrally located railway stations are in European cities - preferring High Speed Rail over flying, for example, on the basis that you can walk out of the station and be surrounded by shops and hotels and offices. But it's worth remembering, in historical terms, the station often wasn't built in the centre of town - rather, the centre of town shifted to the area around the station.

In Bristol, this never really happened, and I suppose I'd point the finger at the geography of the river, floating harbour, and feeder canal. These penned Temple Meads into something of an isolated little corner, and encouraged industry, rather than residential and commercial development into neighbouring areas like St Philips Marsh.

With the relatively recent, and indeed still ongoing, office development around Temple Quay, the shortly forthcoming development of the university's new campus on the wasteland beside the station, and the regeneration of the whole St Philips Marsh on the more medium-term agenda, there is evidence that Bristol's centre of gravity is rather belatedly shifting in this direction.

Perhaps come 2040 Temple Meads will feel rather central - 200 years on, but better late than never.

Well, that's all for this video. As always, there's a full list of sources and credits on the website, thanks for watching, if you enjoyed it then please like and subscribe, and all of that usual outro stuff. Cheers.