Brunel’s Temple Meads Old Station is truly remarkable; it’s said by many to be the oldest surviving railway terminus in the world and is Grade I listed. It was the first time anyone had come up with a truly integrated transport system. Everything was under the one roof: railway company offices, booking offices, stabling for coaches and horses, engine shed, engineering shop, platforms, everything. We might take it for granted today, but we have to remember that at the time Brunel designed it, nothing like this had ever been done before.
So what was opening day like? Bristol is extremely good at throwing parties on occasions of great importance, and the new station’s opening day, 31 August 1840, was one of those days. People flocked to witness the event, filling every vantage point in Totterdown, the Dings, Barton Hill and St Philips.
The very first service, going as far as Bath, was hauled by the locomotive Fireball. It left – unfortunately! – several minutes late because the track was not yet completely laid! Over 5,000 passengers were carried that day, earning the company almost £500 in revenue (around £51,000 today). Crowds turned out to witness the sight: flags were flying, church bells were ringing, and the Bristol Mercury reported: “The Fireball was decorated with flags, and as it passed along the line was greeted with the most enthusiastic cheering of the spectators and workmen, the passengers responding by a waving of hats and handkerchiefs from the windows of the train.” The paper also commented that that the crowds – by and large – behaved themselves despite their excitement. It reports that “so excellent were the arrangements, that no accident or irregularity occurred to damp the pleasurable excitement created by the occasion” apart from an incident at Bath: “At twelve and one o’clock there was a positive scramble for tickets, and hats, coats, and other articles of wearing apparel became damaged and broken in the encounter.”
Bristol made a real day of it, as the Mercury relates: “booths were erected in the Marshes, on either side of the river, whilst bands of itinerant musicians, and vendors of cakes, apples, and sweet-meats, whom the congregated masses had attracted, gave to the whole the appearance of a fair. Indeed, the holiday throughout the city was tolerably general; many of the shops were closed, and the streets leading towards the railway were thronged from morning to night.”
What of Brunel’s original station? As passenger numbers increased it was not large enough to cope and a new station, the one in use today, was opened in 1878 and further expanded in the early 1930s. It was closed as an active station in 1965 and is now used as a conference and entertainment venue, along with office space. Its extension, long used as a car park, was to be brought back into use for the London services when the station was electrified, but that work is now in abeyance.
Image credit: GWR sketchbook showing Bristol depot front (DM162/8/1/3/GWR Sketchbook 7/folio 33; probably September 1839) (SS Great Britain Trust, Brunel Institute)
Author: Maggie Aherne, Volunteer