Jonn Elledge: How did London’s main line stations get their names?

Jonn Elledge: How did London’s main line stations get their names?

London has, depending on how generous a definition you want to employ, around 14 main line rail terminals. This is quite a high number: Britain’s rail network was largely built by private companies, each of which wanted their own station, resulting in such absurdities as three huge terminal stations lined up practically next to one another along the Euston Road.

Many cities use boring names like Union Station, Grand Central or Hauptbahnhof for their major rail terminals. London, however, is not most cities, and the names of our stations, like the names of the Underground lines, help provide colour to the city. 

But where did all those names come from? Let’s fire up the internet, pull our copy of Brewer’s off the shelf, and find the hell out.

Blackfriars: An easy one to start off with. Named for the district, which took its name from a Dominican priory in the southwestern corner of the City. Its inhabitants dressed in black robes.

Cannon Street: Named after the street, which first appears in the records as Candelwrichstrete – Candlewright Street – in the 1190s, presumably reflecting the kind of businesses to be found there. Its name mutated through Candlewick Street, Canwick Street, Cannik Street and Cannin Street, before finally settling on Cannon Street by the 17th century. Nothing whatsoever to do with cannons.

Charing Cross: The word Charing, an ancient name for the area, is derived from cierring, the Old English word for a turn, though authorities are divided as to whether the turn was the one in the Thames or the one in the road alongside it. The cross refers to one of the Eleanor Crosses, a series of 12 erected by King Edward I to memorialise the journey the body of his wife took from Harby, Nottinghamshire, where she died, to her final resting place in Westminster Abbey. 

That cross was pulled down in 1647 on the orders of Parliament, which was not, in the middle of the Civil War, wild about royal memorials. The one that stands today is a Victorian replacement, and is anyway on the wrong site: the original cross stood where the statue of Charles I now stands.

Euston: While there is a place called Euston, it isn’t in London, but in north west Suffolk: Euston Hall was the home of the Dukes of Grafton, who owned much of the land the station is built on. This is a perfectly normal country.

Fenchurch Street: The “fen” bit may have referred to an actual fen; then again, it might be derived from the word faenum, the Latin for hay, and referred to a nearby grassmarket. The church in question was St Gabriel Fenchurch, which burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 and was never rebuilt.

King’s Cross: Named for a cheap and much-derided monument to the not-especially-monument-worthy King George IV. That stood at the junction of Pentonville, Grays Inn and New (or, since 1857, Euston) roads, where the Lighthouse Building stands today, from 1830 until 1845; the “cross” seemingly refers to road junction, not crucifix.

Fifteen years really isn’t very long as monuments to dead kings go, even unpopular ones, and the name might have been forgotten were it not for the fact that, in 1852, the Great Northern Railway decided to name its new London terminal at the same junction London King’s Cross. Thus it is that today Londoners have attached the name to an entire stretch of north central London; its original name of Battlebridge has been all but forgotten.

Liverpool Street: Named after Robert Jenkinson, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Tory Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827. Liverpool Street itself is tiny, of course, and it would make much more sense if the station was called Bishopsgate. The reason it isn’t is that it was a replacement for the earlier Bishopsgate station, which was on the site now partly occupied by Shoreditch High Street station (and indeed had briefly been known as Shoreditch station): the powers that be wanted a new name to highlight the fact this was a new, more convenient station.

London Bridge: It’s tempting not to dignify this one with an answer, since the answer is so bloody obvious. Instead I will settle for noting that: 

  1. Until Westminster Bridge opened in 1750 – that is, for for the vast majority of London’s history – London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames in the city; and
  2. London Bridge is the city’s oldest rail terminal, but only its second oldest extant station. At the point it opened in December 1836, the London & Greenwich Railway had been operating trains between the still open Deptford and the now defunct Spa Road in Bermondsey for ten months.

Marylebone: The ancient parish of St Marylebone Church. The “lebone” bit probably means “by the bourne” (small river). Most properly pronounced “Marrylebn”, and not, as certain railway companies would have us believe, “Marley-bone”.

Paddington: An ancient Middlesex village that might have taken its name from an ancient lord, or a meadow either holding a horse or belonging to a padre. Scholars have been arguing about this one for a long time, and don’t seem likely soon to stop.

St Pancras International: Another one named after an area named after a church. Who was St Pancras? Unexpectedly – I mean, it’s a less common name than “Mary”, isn’t it – there were actually two. One was an early bishop, who got stoned to death in Sicily in 40CE; the other was a 4th century teenager, who got his head cut off for refusing to honour the old gods in Rome around 304CE. It’s probably the latter who the church/area/station are named after.

As for “international”, you’d think it’s self-explanatory. But since Stratford International has never seen an international train, perhaps we shouldn’t take that for granted. 

Victoria: Not named directly after the queen, but named after the street, which had been completed a few years earlier and was named after the queen, so yes this obviously was named after the queen after all. While she was still alive, too. The British Empire was a creepy sort of place, wasn’t it? Lucky London would never do anything like that now.

At one point, incidentally, the station was expected to be known as Grosvenor Terminus because it sat on the site of the Grosvenor Basin, a dock at the end of the Grosvenor Canal, built on land that had been owned by Sir Richard Grosvenor. This is not necessarily any better than naming it after the queen.

Waterloo: Named for a medium sized town in the province of Walloon Brabant, Belgium. That town was the site of the 1815 battle which saw Napoleon finally defeated; London’s latest bridge, officially opened on the second anniversary of the battle, was named Waterloo Bridge in its honour. The station which opened on its south side in 1848 was then named after that bridge. In other words, the Waterloo district was named after a station named after a bridge named for a battle named for a town. In Belgium.

Waterloo East isn’t a terminal, and the source of its name is pretty obvious, but for the record: it was originally opened as Waterloo Junction, and spent a few decades as simply Waterloo, before settling on its current name in 1977.

And lastly, while we’re on stations, that don’t really count, Moorgate is named for a gate in the ancient walls of the City of London. That gate was so named because it led to the Moorfields, an open area to the immediate north of the City where the land had become damp and mashy, probably because the Walbrook and its tributaries struggled to reach the Thames thanks to the barrier presented by the, er, ancient walls of the City of London.  

Whether Moorgate is really a proper London rail terminal, or whether the Northern City route is just a Tube line with ideas above its station, is a theological question, of course. But it’s one that is, tragically, outside the scope of this piece.

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