The best books on the history of London’s railways

Christian Wolmar Author Of Cathedrals of Steam: How London's Great Stations Were Built - And How They Transformed the City
By Christian Wolmar

Who am I?

I have written four books on London and its railway network. As well as Cathedrals of Steam, there is The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London Underground, and more recently, The Crossrail Story, which sets out the background to London’s newest and best railway that is due to open in 2022, and also, Down The Tube, the story of the way the London Underground was part-privatised and then taken back into state ownership. I have written a dozen other books on railways which are not technical tomes, nor aimed at trainspotters, but rather try to explain how railways were the catalyst for creating the modern world. The books on London combine my passion for the capital where I have lived all my life and my passion for the railways which has been a lifelong interest.


I wrote...

Cathedrals of Steam: How London's Great Stations Were Built - And How They Transformed the City

By Christian Wolmar,

Book cover of Cathedrals of Steam: How London's Great Stations Were Built - And How They Transformed the City

What is my book about?

London has 12 terminus stations, more than any other city in the world. Cathedrals of Steam explains how this came about through fierce rivalry between different Victorian railway companies and how they were all built – with one exception – between 1836 and 1874, a series of megaprojects that transformed London and made it accessible to all the rest of Great Britain. Miraculously, all but one of these stations have survived and most have been greatly improved in recent years. This book is aimed at Londoners as well as anyone who has visited the capital and who has wondered about the history of these awesome gateways to the biggest city in Europe.

The books I picked & why

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History of London Transport: The Twentieth Century to 1970

By T.C. Barker, Michael Robbins,

Book cover of History of London Transport: The Twentieth Century to 1970

Why this book?

This is one of the only comprehensive books on the history of London’s transport system and though long out of print and written in the 1960s, it is still the best explanation of how the network developed. It is the starting point for anyone seeking to research this field.


The Spread of London's Underground

By Tim Demuth,

Book cover of The Spread of London's Underground

Why this book?

Capital Transport is a boutique publisher that has produced many books on various aspects of London’s transport system and this one is particularly good as it sets out the growth of the network in a series of maps based on Beck’s iconic design. There is a spread for each decade, illustrating the development of the network including sections that have now been lost. 


St Pancras Station (Wonders of the World)

By Simon Bradley,

Book cover of St Pancras Station (Wonders of the World)

Why this book?

There are many books on individual London stations but this is by far the best. It explains the architectural background to the station as well as the story of why two major and rival railway stations were built next door to each other.


London’s Historic Railway Stations

By John Betjeman,

Book cover of London’s Historic Railway Stations

Why this book?

Another out of print effort, but very significant in both the authorship and the moment in time it captures. This was written as a memorial to the stations which Betjeman expected would be demolished following the fate in the early 1960s of Euston Staton. Betjeman tours round all the stations celebrating their architecture but bemoaning their fate and he helped create the movement which resisted further demolitions and eventually resulted in a lot of the stations being radically and successfully improved.


The Romance of Metro-Land

By Dennis Edwards, Ron Pigram,

Book cover of The Romance of Metro-Land

Why this book?

So many railway books concentrate on the networks that have been created, rather than their impact. London’s ‘Metroland’ grew up thanks to the Metropolitan Railway’s ability to develop land alongside the railway, the only company to be given that dispensation. The result was the creation of numerous suburbs which were sold on the basis that they were easily accessible via the railway to central London. This book is a powerful illustration of how railways change the landscapes in which they are sited.


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