Edinburgh Waverley and the North British Railway

Try as one might, it is impossible to escape the vast quantities of railway related material in the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record. With commissions from the North British, Caledonian and London & North Western Railways, to name but a few, Bartholomew were certainly kept busy by the needs of the railways. In fact, for those interested in Bartholomew statistics, in the twenty years between 1877 and 1897, Bartholomew printed no fewer than 711 individual railway related items. In real terms, if we assume each order was for a modest 1000 copies, it becomes clear that this really was an important part of Bartholomew’s output at this time.

Be it brochures, maps, or eye-catching posters, the appetite of the railway companies was voracious. In a system which more closely resembles the railway we have today, private companies ran discrete services and as such, competed ardently for supremacy. And not without good cause, from a business perspective at least, as there was an awful lot of money to be made. With motorways and inexpensive flights a generation or two away, rail travel dominated as the only way to move goods and people around the country at speed.

There is therefore little surprise that this sense of speed, progress and unassailable success spilled over into ambitious engineering projects. The Forth Bridge is of course a prime example. Yet, even superficially mundane buildings were built in the spirit of these ambitious times.

Waverley Station sits at the heart of Edinburgh. It remains as important to the city as it probably ever did. From here it is possible to get to almost every nook and cranny of the British mainland with the major advantage of the sheer convenience of its location. And it is to the North British Railway (N.B.R.) that we can offer our thanks.

The above plan was printed on the 2 October, 1890 and shows the N.B.R’s proposed plans for what they called New Waverley Station. Although city centre stations were not new to Edinburgh, the wealthy N.B.R. were able to buy up the disparately scattered stations of their rivals and consolidate them into one central hub.

The plan almost casually refers to the gas works which are to be removed, the market to be demolished and the entirely new roads that are to be built. It was an ambitious plan perhaps, but nevertheless, it was adopted and begun. Indeed, not only was the plan adopted but by the very next year, it was being enlarged and improved upon.

More platforms, more demolition and more building led to a Waverley that would be entirely recognisable to the modern traveller. Albeit with one minor detail, the iconic hotel known today as the Balmoral was, at this time, just a random collection of buildings.

In the interests of balance though, it is worth remembering that it hasn’t transpired to be such as plain a sail for all railway companies. The equally wealthy Caledonian Railway had an idea for a grand station, a monument to rail, at the opposite end of Princes Street.

The submitted plan was printed by Bartholomew on 8 October, 1890, more or less the same time as that for Waverley. The building work commenced and was crowned by a magnificent hotel sat atop the platforms below. But by 1960, the need for both stations was hard to justify and the ultimate looser was the Caledonian. Deemed as less convenient in numerous ways, all that now remains is the hotel.

Princes Street is currently undergoing major changes and will emerge as something very different to what it recently was. But of course this has always been the case, change is ongoing. Through material in the Bartholomew Archive it is possible to piece together the story of some of these changes and to learn more about buildings which, because of their utilitarian nature, are all too easy to take for granted.