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During the early 1880s people were writing to the local papers complaining about the shabby condition of Forest Hill Station; the grubby appearance and poor accessibility of the station underpass; trains that were untidy, over-crowded and often late - issues still causing anxiety and annoyance to Forest Hill residents.
There was also an East London Railway, connecting Liverpool Street station with East Croydon. It used Marc Brunel's pioneering Thames Tunnel, a pedestrian tunnel opened in 1843, and still used by the ELL between Shadwell and Wapping. The tunnel was converted to rail use, and by 1876 a service was in operation, connecting Croydon with Liverpool Street via New Cross Gate. This service continued until 1913.
The present uninspiring station is Forest Hill's fourth. The second was built to the south of the present subway, in 1854. By the 1870s letters were appearing in the local press vigorously criticising the station's inadequacies. It was too small, uncomfortable and often over-crowded. In bad weather, passengers waiting on the platforms for the frequently delayed or cancelled trains were offered little protection from the elements and, when the trains did arrive, they were often over-crowded and dirty. In 1879 the local newspaper, The Sydenham, Forest Hill and Penge Gazette, described the station as "a scandal to the locality". So began a campaign led by local businessmen, residents and the press, and supported by the local authority, to persuade the operator, the London Brighton & South Coast Railway, to improve matters.
Work on a new station began in early 1882 and was completed by March 1883. However, the campaigners kept up the pressure with a barrage of complaints about how long the project was taking. By today's standards, a mere four years from the time these grievances were first aired at a public meeting to the opening of the new station (including road widening and rebuilding the underpass) seems expeditious.
The new station was indeed impressive. Older readers may remember the unusual Romanesque building, with its imposing clock tower. A worthy centrepiece to Forest Hill, it came about largely in response to the vociferous campaigning of local residents, supported by the local press.
The original subway, built in the early 1840s, was sloped rather than stepped. Although described as dirtier than a pigsty, it was easily accessible. From its opening in 1883 the rebuilt subway attracted criticism for its inaccessibility, principally for the "27 steps … a piece of positive cruelty". There are still 27 steps, and they are still causing difficulty for many users.
The station was severely damaged by a flying bomb in 1944 and demolished in 1972 to be replaced by what is the smallest, meanest and least attractive of all the stations that have served Forest Hill.
It is a sad irony that local people are still voicing the same concerns about the station, about the underpass and about over-crowded and unreliable trains as they were 120 years ago.