Peter Waszak M Sc.

At one time Peterborough had two (and for several years three railway stations) serving its needs.  The present main line station to the west of the city centre is still an important junction on the East Coast Main Line and was opened by the Great Northern Railway in 1850.  However, the city’s first station was south of the river to the east of the Town Bridge and north of the present Peterborough United football ground, essentially the Fletton Quays redevelopment area.  It opened in 1845 and was at the end of a 47 mile branch line from the London & Birmingham Railway via Northampton, Thrapston, Oundle and Wansford (a portion survives today as part of the Nene Valley Railway).

The station was on the site of some farm buildings owned by Earl Fitzwilliam.  It was located as near to the city as was possible without crossing the river and through being close to the Nene was convenient for the transhipment of goods.  The actual station was built by the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) whose line from Ely and March did not open until 1847.  This provided a rival route to the Capital.

Following the opening of the Great Northern station in 1850 the original station became its poor relation lacking the GN’s main line glamour.  After 1862 it was known as Peterboro (GE) while the former became Peterboro (GN) of at times Peterborough (Cowgate).  After the Grouping of the railways in 1923 the stations became simply Peterborough North and Peterborough East.  This lasted until closure of the East station to passengers in 1966. The Network Rail station is now simply Peterborough.


By 1849 a complex of buildings had developed around the ECR station.  According to a local Directory published that year: At this station the trains run on one or the other of half a dozen sidings, and under a spacious iron roofing, supported by iron pillars, which form six avenues.  The roofing is walled at each side; is of great height, 410 feet long, and 228 feet wide.  On both sides there are large stone platforms.  There is a range of large brick buildings on the right, comprising refreshment and waiting rooms, booking offices, warehouses, engine houses, porters’ lodges etc.  The Eastern Counties Company enlarged it very much, built new warehouses, engine-houses, and a large wharf close to the river, from which there are tramways to the main line, to facilitate the loading and unloading of goods.  Close to the Station, ranges of houses, some three stories high, have been built for clerks and others.  There is a handsome entrance to the Station, with stone pillars and iron gates; a constables’ lodge is erected near it.  

Peterborough was in fact a rural version of the original London Euston station, an impressive train shed of cast iron and glass.  The covered area was actually wider than Euston!  It had two platforms under the arcade with sidings in between.  It is believed that the platform arrangements that existed in 1914 of a main platform by the original station buildings (No 1) and an adjacent island platform (outer face No 2) unusually separated by a single line (so passengers could join a train from either side) dated from the 1860s.

The exact purpose of the various parts of the main station buildings are not entirely clear and would in any case have changed over time.  Most old railway plans that survive show the track layout, but not the internal arrangement of buildings.

The main station range consisted of three blocks. At the west end of the covered way at the start of the main platform was a two storey building that also dated from around 1846 and consisted of the Refreshment Rooms.  According to an undated LNER plan (1930s?) giving the use of the various rooms, when viewed from the platform side, from left to right, were the Refreshment Room, Tea Room and the General Waiting Room.  On the left was a staircase leading to an upper floor that was originally accommodation for Refreshment Room staff.  (In 1916 it is believed that this is how the troops accessed their Rest Home).  To the right of the block were several rooms including the station’s male conveniences.

Before the central block was a gap, probably a trolley run between the approach road and the platform used for Mails etc.? During the Great War it may have been used for the transfer of stretcher cases on wheels between platform and road.  To its right in the 1930s was a telegraph office.

Originally the main platform was split by a turntable in the centre creating essentially two short platforms one for trains from the west (Northampton or Leicester direction) and the other from the east (March and Ely direction).  It is unclear if the platform at the south end of the covered way was used for passengers (it also was split by a turntable) as there was no obvious access other than over the tracks.  It was also possible to turn rolling stock at each end of the platforms and these connected sidings under covered way.  Although this arrangement provided flexibility, over time as traffic increased and train lengths grew operating the station must have become increasingly challenging and awkward.  South of the covered way were additional tracks for goods trains that avoided the platform lines. Further south were sidings that over the years became extensive.

The island platform was in existence at some point during the 1860s, but was always very basic and narrow and with no buildings, cold and draughty.  A narrow footbridge linked the platforms.  During the Great War it must have become very congested when a full troop train arrived, worse if two were in at the same time! All goods to/from the island platform had to be manhandled over barrow crossings.  It is known that in 1877 part of the cast iron arcading was destroyed in a shunting accident and the surviving portion may have been removed soon afterwards. At some point between 1897 and 1901 the station was partly rebuilt and the main platforms lengthened and re-roofed.  At the east end of the main platform a short bay platform (not numbered) was built, but it is not clear if intended for passenger use.  In front of the station were several goods sidings that may have been used during the war for additional troop trains starting/terminating in Peterborough to free up the main platforms.  In the years before 1914 there were proposals to build a large central station around the GN station and to divert all passenger traffic through it.

River side and to the east of the Eastern Counties passenger station was various Goods Sheds a riverside wharf and Engine Sheds, loco yard turntables etc.  To the south east of the site various private companies had wagon works and were involved both in wagon building and wagon maintenance.  The area would have been a hive of activity!

With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the private companies continued to operate the rail network, but now under the Government Railway Executive that was tasked with an overseeing role for the complex and vital system.  Soon after the declaration of war, troop trains ran from both the GN and GE stations conveying local regiments such as the Hunts Cyclists and Werner’s Own Regiment to the Channel Ports.  Trains of young volunteers some still in civilian clothes were sent to army training camps across the country.  Throughout the conflict Peterborough was a major troop concentration point receiving and dispatching an endless series of troop trains both day and night.  To facilitate the troop trains in 1916 an additional connection was laid north of Spital Junction Signal box between the Midland and GNR lines.

At first the railways attempted to preserve as far as possible peacetime passenger services.  However, in the face of the dire national emergency and the expanding needs of the war effort, as time passed there were drastic changes to normal passenger services with decelerations, reduction in frequencies, withdrawal of on-train facilities and to considerable overcrowding and unpunctuality.  What is today the Nene Valley Railway was part of a key secondary cross-country route between the industrial Midlands and the North West, and the East Anglian ports via Rugby and Peterborough.

Prisoners of War, East Station, Peterborough

Prisoners of War, East Station, Peterborough

Due to the increasing demands of the war effort military traffic grew enormously as the war progressed.  Peak movements of troops and materials to the embarkation ports occurred in the months before major offensives on the Western Front and after the battles had commenced in the return direction came a sad procession Red Cross Ambulance trains with the wounded and dying.  Many of the Ambulance trains appear to have run at night perhaps because the tracks were so congested during the day.  At the end of the war thousands of German Prisoners of War passed through Peterborough from or to Boston which was a port for the repatriation of British prisoners and return of German POWs.

Very little is known about how the GE station actually coped with wartime conditions.  Given the vital role of the railways and the stringent Defence of the Realm (DORA) regulations much that went on would have gone unrecorded.  Anyone seen hanging around, perhaps taking notes or worse taking photographs, would rapidly have come under suspicion as a possible enemy agent and have been arrested and interrogated.  Newspaper editors were restricted by what could be reported.  The war years were also a period of full employment when citizens in addition to normal daily work were expected in any spare time to regard it as their patriotic duty to become involved in voluntary work in support of the war effort.

Reproduced with kind permission from the Great Eastern Railway Society (

Image of Miss Mays and Mrs Stanford (women carriage washers). Reproduced with kind permission from the Great Eastern Railway Society (

Railway enthusiasts who might have made a record of the extraordinary circumstances were otherwise occupied!  Nevertheless there is a unique account on the impact of war on the Northampton and Peterborough line and in particular on the town of Oundle.  The published diary of John Coleman Binder, a well-respected local business man, Councillor and regular traveller is a rare account of the war years.  What happened in Oundle would have been experienced in Peterborough.  It is known that with the enlistment of railway employees by 1917 there were staff acute shortages.  In an attempt to reduce unnecessary duplication of facilities discussion of a central station remerged and of closing the GE station.  LNWR trains would reach the central station via the GN Fletton branch through Woodston. Once again no action was taken.

During the Second World War the station again played its part.  The post-war years saw the growth in road competition.  In 1963 following the Beeching Report which recommended the closure of both the East Station and the Northampton and Rugby lines the stations days were numbered.  On 2nd May 1964 passenger services on the Northampton line ceased to be followed by services to Rugby in June 1966.  For several years the station was used for mail and parcels traffic before its final closure in 1970 with demolition in 1972.


Rail Centres Peterborough, Peter Waszak, Ian Allan Ltd 1984

Peterborough’s First Railway Yarwell to Peterborough Peter Waszak and John Ginns, Nene Valley Railway 1995.

The Nene Valley A Landscape of Peace or Conflict? Peter Waszak in Nene Steam No 115 Autumn 2014

Life in a Northamptonshire Market Town During the Great War 1914-1918: The Diary of John Coleman Binder, Grocer, Baker and Town Councillor in Oundle, Oundle Museum Trust 2013. Also review in Nene Steam No 117, Spring 2015.