Norwich railway station provides the scene for the opening of a ‘Swallows and Amazons‘ novel, and features in Joseph Losey‘s 1971 film version of LP Hartley‘s ‘The Go-Between‘. The station, which sees about two-and-a-half million passengers pass through it every year, has managed to retain its essential Victorian character, and is the only remaining one of the three which once served the city. Standing close to the River Wensum, across the Foundry Bridge from the city, it is a Grade II listed building, and acts as a terminus for trains from London Liverpool Street, as well as Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Sheringham, Ely and the city of Liverpool.
The present building opened in 1886, built to a design by John Wilson. It is constructed of red brick and stucco, in a classic style, with an ironwork and glass concourse. The spacious porte-cochère would originally have sheltered passengers arriving and leaving by horse and carriage. The foyer, through the twentieth-century glass doors, has pilasters, a decorated frieze cornice and a plasterwork ceiling. The paired sash windows have semi-elliptical pediments with classical decoration. It is topped by an imposing dome, covered in zinc tiles, seventy six feet high at its tallest point.
A contemporary report of the opening in May 1886 reported ‘The new station erected by the Great Eastern Railway Company at Thorpe, Norwich, was opened for inspection, and on the 3rd was used by the public for the first time. It was built by Messrs Youngs and Son, of Norwich, from designs by Mr J Wilson, the company‘s engineer, at the cost of £60,000, and replaced the old station, which had been in use since the opening of the line.‘ The new station was built in the grounds of a private mansion adjacent to the former premises (now part of the Riverside Car Park) built in the 1840s when the railway first arrived in Norwich.
It was in May 1844 that the first railway in Norfolk opened, with a line from Great Yarmouth to Norwich. The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 led to increasing enthusiasm for this new form of transport and every town and city wanted its railway. The Yarmouth and Norwich Railway company came into being in 1842, and George Stephenson was elected chairman at the first directors‘ meeting. Yarmouth was a logical choice for the first route in Norfolk, being the port for the city of Norwich, and an increasingly fashionable resort.
The line was to be single track, standard gauge, with no tunnels required, and following the course of the river Yare. The line was also to be provided with Cooke and Wheatstone‘s electric telegraph. Work began on laying the line in April 1843, at Postwick Hall Farm, near Thorpe Asylum, and a total of 1,500 men were employed in its construction. The contractors were Grissell and Peto, Samuel Morton Peto being the resident engineer, with offices at St Michael-at-Plea, Norwich. A bust of Sir Samuel Morton Peto was placed in the station in 1989 to commemorate his role. The bust, sculpted by John Pooler, can be seen just under the clock on the main concourse, with his dates, 1809-1889, and the description "Baptist Contractor Politician and Philanthropist".
The following year 1844, a notice announced: ‘The Yarmouth and Norwich Railway will be opened to the public on Wednesday, 1st of May next. Trains will leave Norwich at 9 and 11 o‘clock in the morning, and 4 and 7 o‘clock in the afternoon. And from Yarmouth at 8 and 10 o‘clock in the morning and 3 and 8 o‘clock in the afternoon. Fares:- First class: 3s 6d; second class 2s 6d; third class 1s 3d.Tickets to and from Norwich and Yarmouth on the same day: First class 5s; second class 4s; third class 2s.‘ Before this a special train with a government inspector and the Bishop of Norwich aboard ran on 12th April 1844.
On 27th April the Norwich Mercury printed a description of the station and railway buildings at Norwich ‘These are situated on the meadow about 60 yards from the Foundry Bridge. They consist of a terminus 360ft long, in two compartments, 50ft wide, each roof covering two lines of rail. To the north is the booking office, with a room for ladies... At each end of this side is a large door for third class passengers to enter and retire, the first and second passing through the booking offices...The south side is open, the roof being supported by iron pillars and on arches, forming a very light and elegant appearance.‘ Beyond the terminus were engine houses, including an engineers‘ workshop, blacksmiths‘ forges, and a printing office which supplied tickets.
The 30th April 1844 saw the formal opening of the Yarmouth and Norwich line. The 200 guests travelled in the first train which left Norwich at 10.30am. There were fourteen six-wheeled carriages on the train - the third class being open to the elements and without seats. The train was given the all clear by telegraph, and the brass band on the carriage next to the engine struck up "See the Conquering Hero Comes" as the train set off on the journey which took 50 minutes, returning in 44 minutes. Later that day, there were festivities in the Assembly Rooms, where the banquet menu included spring chickens, green geese, tongues, pickled salmon, plovers‘ eggs, ornamental jellies, peaches, strawberries and ices.
The new railway was not just for the convenience of passengers; in August 1844 about sixty hundredweight of tea and coffee was brought to Norwich by rail for Messrs Wolton and Co, of London Street. The Norfolk Annals reported: ‘We should not be surprised if that practice became more general in busy weeks, particularly when the wind is contrary for the favourable transit of the wherries‘.
By September 1845, the service had increased to seven trains daily each way, and in December that year the Trowse swing bridge over the River Wensum was completed making possible a journey from Yarmouth to London, with no changes. The route went via Norwich, Brandon, Ely and Cambridge, arriving at Shoreditch in London. The roundabout journey of 146 miles took about six-and-a-quarter hours.
The new railway had an immediate impact on the stage coaches that ran between Norwich and London. The journey time was halved and by 1846, the historic coaching trade to London was finished. The increasing popularity of the railway for carrying freight of all kinds, and its impact on traditional small businesses, is illustrated in an article in the Norfolk Chronicle from April 1845: ‘During the droving season last year 9,300 beasts were housed at the Bird in Hand public house at Tasburgh... but so great is the diminution of traffic occasioned by the Norfolk Railway, that during the present season only 12 beasts have been taken in.‘
The station was renamed Norwich Thorpe to distinguish it from the new Victoria Station, and it was enlarged to cope with increasing traffic. A new line to London via Ipswich was opened in 1849 by the Eastern Union Railway which built its own station, Norwich Victoria, out of an old circus building in a pleasure ground off Queen‘s Road. Victoria was used less once the line was linked to Thorpe station in 1851, but was used for freight until the 1980s.
The third station in Norwich was City Station, opened in 1882, off what is now Barker Street. It was the terminus of the line from Melton Constable, and later became part of the Midland and Great Northern Railway Company. The station closed to passengers in 1959, and to freight ten years later.
Thorpe station suffered war damage. In one of the first major air raids of the war on 9th July 1940 the city was bombed, the Station and the locomotive sheds were hit. Just under the bust of Morton Peto in the station concourse is a brass plaque in memory of the 12 men who died at the station during the Second World War.
The railways were nationalised at the start of 1948, and steam was replaced by diesel by 1958. Platform number 6 at Norwich station was added in 1954, and the following year a new booking hall opened, the most modern in Britain at the time, with glass-panelled ticket and inquiry offices. Norwich station was closed for a few days in March 1986 when British Rail carried out a £15million modernisation, with electrification and resignalling, aiming to cut the journey to London to one hour forty minutes.
Children‘s author Arthur Ransome was inspired by a visit to the Broads in the early 1930s, and set the opening paragraph of Coot Club (1934) at Norwich station.