Southern Railway (Great Britain)

Southern Railway (Great Britain)

The Southern Railway (SR), was a British railway company established in the 1923 Grouping. It contained notable examples of civil engineering, linking London with the Channel ports, South West England and Kent. The railway was formed by the amalgamation of several smaller railway companies, the largest of which were the London & South Western Railway, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway.Bonavia, 26] The construction of what was to become the Southern Railway began in 1838 with the opening of the London and Southampton Railway, which was renamed the London & South Western Railway.

The railway was noted for its astute use of public relations material and a coherent management structure headed by Sir Herbert Walker.Bonavia, 28] At 2,186 miles (3,518 km), the Southern was the smallest of the "Big Four" railway companies, which was conducive to a concerted electrification scheme on London's suburban railway network. The Southern played a vital role in the Second World War during the Dunkirk operations, as well as supplying Operation Overlord in 1944. Throughout its existence, the railway was primarily a passenger line, hauling holidaymakers and commuters throughout the network. In an effort to maintain these services, the two Chief Mechanical Engineers, Richard Maunsell and Oliver Bulleid designed new locomotives and rolling stock to replace those inherited in 1923.

The Southern operated a number of famous named trains, including the Brighton Belle, the Bournemouth Belle, the Golden Arrow, and the Night Ferry (London - Paris and Brussels). The West Country services were dominated by lucrative summer holiday traffic and included named trains such as the Atlantic Coast Express and the Devon Belle. The company's best-known livery was highly distinctive: locomotives and carriages were painted in a bright Malachite green above plain black frames, with bold, bright yellow lettering. The Southern Railway was nationalised in 1948, becoming the Southern Region of British Railways.


Constituent companies and formation in 1923

:"See also: List of constituent companies of the Southern Railway"The three major companies that operated along the south coast of England – the London & South Western Railway (LSWR), the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR), and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) – were amalgamated to form the Southern Railway in 1923, which operated 2186 route miles (3518 km) of railway.Bonavia, p. 26] The key progenitor of the Southern was the London and Southampton Railway, which was renamed the LSWR in 1838 when the railway branched out to destinations including Portsmouth and Salisbury.Wolmar, pp. 72-74] It was the traditions developed by the LSWR that set the standard for the operations in the rest of the Southern after 1923.Whitehouse & Thomas, p. 11] The LBSCR was a much smaller concern when compared to its neighbour, though served many holiday resorts on the South Coast and operated much of the south London suburban network. This ensured that services were well run, to the extent that electrification was begun in order to increase efficiency.Whitehouse, & Thomas, pp. 11-12] Finally, the SECR was a managing committee of two cash-strapped railways; the South Eastern and the London, Chatham and Dover.Wolmar, p. 223] The organisation suffered from poor, over-abundant infrastructure and internal conflicts of interest, and was ripe for amalgamation in 1923.Whitehouse & Thomas, p. 13]

The formation of the Southern Railway was rooted in the outbreak of the First World War, when all British railway companies were taken into government control. Many members of staff joined the armed forces and it was not possible to build and maintain equipment as easily as in peacetime. After the war the government considered permanent nationalisation but instead decided on a compulsory amalgamation of the railways into four large groups through the 1921 Railways Act, known as the Grouping.Wolmar, p. 228] The resultant amalgamation of the three south coast railways to form the Southern meant that several duplicate routes and management structures were inherited. Rationalisation had to take place, leading to the downgrading of some routes in favour of more direct lines to the channel ports, and the creation of a coordinated, but not necessarily centralised form of management based at the former LSWR headquarters in Waterloo station.Whitehouse & Thomas, p. 15]

Along with the railway, the Southern inherited harbours along the south coast, including Southampton, Portsmouth and Dover. These had come into being for handling ocean-going intercontinental, as well as cross-channel passenger traffic, and the size of the railway-owned installations reflected the prosperity that the industry generated. This traffic source ensured that the Southern would be a predominantly passenger-orientated railway, with the ports generating vast numbers of passenger journeys.


In 1929 the third-rail electrification of the London suburban network was completed. The introduction of electric multiple units (EMUs) on principal suburban routes ensured fast, efficient commuter services into London, and increased the volume of commuter traffic. The Southern's commitment to electrification made the railway far more innovative in its approach to handling traffic that its rivals - compare the Southern's legacy with the absence from the Great Western Railway of even a single electrified route.

The already intensively-used commuter system in a relatively small geographical area made the Southern a natural candidate for electrification - the LSWR and the LBSCR had already introduced it for some of their lines in the London area before the Grouping. However, the two schemes were incompatible, with the LBSCR adopting a 6600 V AC overhead system (similar to that used by the Midland Railway for their Lancaster to Morecambe trial section), and the LSWR a 660 V DC third rail standard. After the Grouping a comparison of the two systems was made and the LSWR standard was adopted for the whole system, with the added advantage that it was cheaper to install, with no catenary equipment required.

Most of the area immediately south of London was converted, together with the long-distance lines to Brighton, Eastbourne and Portsmouth. Starting in 1931, this was one of the world's first modern mainline electrification schemes. Only the suburban part of the former SECR routes was electrified by the Southern, although the long-distance Kent routes were next in line for electrification, and would have been followed by the electrification of the Southampton/Bournemouth route. The Second World War interrupted these plans, and these lines were electrified in the late 1950s and late 1960s respectively.

Economic crisis of the 1930s

The post-Wall Street Crash era halted further development of the electrification project, but the investment the company had already made in modernising the commuter network ensured that the Southern remained in relatively good financial health despite the Depression. However, this marked the end of the first period under Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) Richard Maunsell when the Southern Railway led the field in steam locomotive design, as the lack of funds affected the development of new, standardised motive power. It would take until the Second World War for the Southern to take the initiative in steam locomotive design once again.

Second World War

The holiday makers that used the lines to the channel ports and the West Country were replaced with troops, especially with the threat of a German invasion on the South Coast in 1940. Hendry, p. 21 ] Before hostilities, 75% of its traffic was passenger, 25% freight; during the war roughly the same number of passengers was carried, but freight grew to 60% of total traffic. A desperate shortage of freight locomotives was remedied by CME Oliver Bulleid, whilst the volume of military freight and soldiers moved by a primarily commuter and holidaymaker carrying railway was a breathtaking feat.

When the threat of invasion receded, the region served by the Southern became the marshalling area for troops preparing to invade Normandy in Operation Overlord, and once again the railway played its part in providing an efficient link in the logistics chain.Hendry, p. 21] This came at a cost, as the Southern's location around London and the Channel Ports meant that it was subjected to heavy bombing, whilst permanent way, locomotive, carriage and wagon maintenance was deferred until the end of the conflict.Hendry, p. 23]


After a period of slow recovery in the late 1940s, the war-devastated company was nationalised along with the rest of the British railway network in 1948 and incorporated into the British Railways.Hendry, p. 50] The Southern retained a separate identity as the Southern Region of British Railways. Many of its lines in London and Kent had been damaged during the war and much of the rolling stock was either damaged or badly in need of replacement. At the time of nationalisation the Southern had started a vigorous programme of rebuilding and renewal, and this was continued throughout the early 1950s.Hendry, p. 58]

Revival in the privatised network

:"See: Southern (train operating company)"The name Southern has been revived as a rebranding of "South Central", which operates the former LBSCR routes to South London, Surrey and Sussex from Victoria and London Bridge. Southern is owned by Govia — a joint venture between transport groups Go-Ahead Group and Keolis — which also owns the neighbouring "Southeastern". Officially named "New Southern Railway Ltd", it was branded "Southern" on 30 May 2004 in a deliberate recall of the pre-nationalisation Southern Railway, with a green roundel logo with "Southern" written in yellow in a green bar.


The vast majority of territory that the railway served was centred on the south west main lines between London, Southampton, Weymouth, Plymouth, Salisbury and Exeter, some subject to competition from the Great Western Railway (GWR). East of the capital the Southern held a monopoly over services to Dover and Brighton. Generally confined to the area south of the River Thames, the Southern owned no track north of London. In addition to these was a network of secondary routes intertwining mainlines and providing inter-company services, an example being the line from the GWR at Reading to Guildford.

Unlike the three other railways established by the Grouping (the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway and the Great Western Railway), the Southern was predominantly a passenger railway. Despite its small size it carried more than a quarter of the UK's passenger traffic because its area included many of the dense commuter lines around London, serving some of the most densely populated parts of the country. In addition, because South London's geology (unlike that of the rest of the capital city) was largely unsuitable for underground railways the Southern Railway faced little competition from underground lines, encouraging a denser railway network.

Key locations

The headquarters of the Southern was in the former LSWR offices at Waterloo station. Locomotives were constructed and maintained at works inherited from its constituent companies at Eastleigh, Ashford and Brighton. Carriage and wagon works were also inherited at these locations, with both locomotives and rolling stock constructed and maintained on the same site. A concrete works was created at Exmouth Junction, responsible for platform seat fittings, pre-cast concrete fencing and station lamp posts.


The South Western Main Line of the former LSWR between London and Southampton was completed by Joseph Locke with easy gradients, leading to several cuttings, tunnels and embankments across the Loddon, Test and Itchen Valleys, with brick arches constructed across South London to the site of Waterloo station. Such was the emphasis placed upon minimising gradients that the stretch between Micheldever and Winchester has the longest constant gradient of any British main line. Tunnels and viaducts were also common features in the south-east, with several examples to be found on the former LBSCR and SECR netwroks, the most famous being the Shakespeare Cliff and Clayton tunnels.


The running of the Southern was undertaken by the Board of Directors, the first Chairman of which was Sir Hugh Drummond, who was appointed in 1923. There were originally three general managers: Sir Herbert Walker, Percy Tempest and William Forbes, although Walker was the sole occupant in the post within a year.Bonavia, 28] The position of Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway was given to a former employee of the SECR, Richard Maunsell. For ease of administration, the lines inherited in 1923 were divided into three geographical sections with a Traffic Department for each, loosely based upon the areas covered by the amalgamated companies:

* The Western Section (former LSWR routes) included the South Western Main Line(the oldest part of the Southern network, having been constructed in 1838), the West Coastway Line, and the West of England Main Line, both serving destinations popular with holidaymakers. It stretched into Devon and Cornwall, and this circuitous route was known derisively as the Southern's "Withered Arm" because the GWR had a greater presence in this region.
* The Central Section (former LB&SCR routes) included the Brighton Main Line and the Portsmouth Direct Line.
* The Eastern Section (former SECR routes) included the Chatham Main Line, the Hastings Line, the Kent Coast Line and the North Downs Line. Bonavia, 26]

Both operational and Commercial aspects of the railway were brought under the Traffic Managers, which relieved the General Manager of many tasks, allowing him the opportunity to make policy decisions. Bonavia, pp. 27-28] Specialised Superintendents served under the Traffic Manager, breaking down the tasks of operating their respective sections. Bonavia, 28] As such , the Southern operated a hybrid system of both centralised and decentralised operation.

Passenger operations

:"See also "The Southern operated a number of famous named trains, including the Brighton Belle, the Bournemouth Belle, the Golden Arrow (London-Paris, Flèche d'Or for the French part of its route), and the Night Ferry (London - Paris and Brussels). The West Country services were dominated by lucrative summer holiday traffic including named trains such as the Atlantic Coast Express and the Devon Belle. With a large variety of holiday destinations, including Ilfracombe, Padstow and Plymouth, the "ACE", as the Atlantic Coast Express became known, was the most multi-portioned train in the UK. This was due to sections of the train splitting at selected junctions for onward journey to their final destinations in the West Country. Total carriages numbered 10,800.

Freight operations

Passenger traffic was the main source of revenue for the Southern Railway throughout its existence, although goods were also carried in separate trains. Goods such as milk and cattle from the agricultural areas of the West Country provided a regular source of freight traffic, whilst imports from the south coast ports also required carriage by rail to freight terminals. From these terminals, the freight could be sorted for onward travel to their final destinations.

As locomotives increased in size so did the length of goods trains from 40 to as many as 100 four-wheeled wagons, although the gradient of the line often limited this. The vacuum brake, which was standard equipment on passenger trains, was gradually fitted to a number of ordinary goods wagons, allowing a number of vacuum "fitted" trains to faster than 40 mph (64 km/h). While typical goods wagons could carry 8, 10 or (later) 12 tons, the load placed into a wagon could be as little as 1 ton, as the railway was designated as a common carrier that could not choose what goods it could carry.

Ancillary operations

The Southern inherited a range of related activities from its constituent companies, including hotels, bus companies and a number of docks. These were most notably at Southampton, Newhaven, Plymouth, Folkestone, Dover, Littlehampton, Whitstable, Strood, Rye, Queenborough, Port Victoria and Padstow. The Southern continued to invest heavily in these facilities, and Southampton overtook Liverpool as the country's main port for Trans-Atlantic liners. The Southern inherited 38 large turbine or other steamers and a number of other vessels branded under Channel Packet, the maritime arm of the railway. Ten large hotels were owned by the company, mainly at the London termini.

Traction and rolling stock


For most of its existence the Southern painted its 2390 locomotives an olive green colour, with plain black frames and wheels. Name and number plates were generally of polished brass with a red background. In later years, the basic livery was changed to Malachite green with bright yellow lettering. Most locomotives were inherited from its constituent companies, but from 1924 a programme of standardisation was begun by Maunsell.


The first locomotives constructed for the Southern were to designs inherited from the pre-Grouping railway companies, such as the N15 class and H15 class, both modified by Maunsell from the original design. Clarke: "Steam World" (April 2008), p. 50] These were intended to be interim solutions to motive power problems, since several designs in operation on the Southern were obsolescent. The 1920s also proved to be the era of standardisation, with ease of maintenance and repair key considerations in a successful locomotive design. Swift, p. 9]

In 1926, the first of a new generation of Southern designed and built locomotives emerged from Eastleigh works, the Maunsell Lord Nelson class, reputedly the most powerful 4-6-0 in Britain at the time.Whitehouse, & Thomas, p. 47] So successful was the Lord Nelson class that the Royal Scot class had its origins in the Maunsell design. [ Southern E-Group (2004) [] , Retrieved 10 September 2008. For information on influence.] However, the onset of the Depression precluded further strides in Southern locomotive technology, apart from the V "Schools" class 4-4-0 and the various electric designs.Herring, pp. 124-125] Maunsell also designed freight locomotives for use in freight yards such as that at Feltham in south west London, the final example of which was the Q class. The design of the Q class coincided with Maunsell's ill health, which resulted in a conservative approach to design. The first examples were released in 1937, the year in which Maunsell retired from the CME's position.


Maunsell was succeeded in 1937 by Oliver Vaughan Snell Bulleid, who brought with him experience gained under Sir Nigel Gresley at the LNER. He designed the Bulleid chain-driven valve gear that was compact enough to fit within the restrictions of his "Pacific" designs, the Merchant Navy class of 1941, and the "Light Pacific" design of 1945. Ever the innovator, Bulleid introduced welded steel boilers and steel fireboxes which were easier to repair than the predominant copper varieties, whilst a new emphasis on cab ergonomics was followed."Bulleids in Retrospect"] Established locomotive design practices were radically altered in his designs, with the wheels changed from spoked to the boxpok design, which gave better all-round support to the tyre. Creer & Morrison, p. 21 ]

Visually, the most unusual of his designs was a small, heavy freight locomotive, the most powerful 0-6-0 ever to operate in Britain. This Q1 class was designed to eliminate anything that might be considered unnecessary in locomotive design including such traditional items as wheel splashers. Herring, p. 150-151] With innovative lagging material that dictated the form of the boiler cladding, the Q1 was regarded by many as the ugliest locomotive ever to appear. Morgan, pp. 17-19] The forty engines produced required only the same amount of materials that would be needed for just thirty-eight more conventional machines, justifying the economies and design. Morgan, p. 19]

Bulleid's innovation stemmed from a belief in the continued development potential of steam traction, and culminated in the Leader class of 1946, an 0-6-6-0 design that had two cabs, negating the use of a turntable. Bulleid, Section "Leader class"] The entire locomotive was placed on two bogies, enabling negotiation around tight curves, whilst the slab-sided body could use a labour-saving carriage washer.Haresnape, Section 4]

Despite the successes of the "Pacifics" and the unusual 0-6-0 Q1 freight locomotive, the "Pacifics" were difficult to maintain and harboured enough eccentricities to justify their rebuilding in the mid-1950s. Bulleid also designed several electric and diesel-electric locomotives, continuing to push back the boundaries of contemporary locomotive design and established practice. The innovations ensured that the Southern was once again leading the field in locomotive design, and earned Bulleid the title "last giant of steam". Day-Lewis, p. 7]


The Southern inherited many wooden-bodied carriage designs from its constituent companies. However, once again there was an emphasis on standardisation of the coaching stock, which led to Maunsell designing new carriages. These were classified between 0 and 4, so that an 8' 0¾" wide carriage was "Restriction 0". These restrictions related to the Southern's composite loading gauge, so that some more restricted routes could be catered for. The new carriages comprised First and Third Class compartments, each of which contained a corridor and doors for each compartment, enabling quick egress on commuter services. Similar design principles were also applied to the electric train sets, whereby quick passenger egress ensured a punctual service.

The Southern Railway was one of the few railways to marshal its carriages in fixed numbered sets. This made maintenance easier, as the location of a particular train set would always be known through its number, which was painted on the ends of the set. A pool of individual "loose" carriages was also kept for train strengthening on summer Saturdays and to replace faulty stock.The second phase of carriage construction began towards the end of the Southern's existence. Bulleid had vast experience in carriage design from his time with the LNER, and he applied this acquired knowledge to a new fleet of carriages (see picture). Some of his more unusual projects were his "Tavern Car" designs; these were carriages that were to represent a typical country tavern, with a bar and seating space provided within the carriage. The outside of the "Tavern Cars" were partially painted in a mock-Tudor style of architecture, and were given typical public house names. Poor ventilation from small windows made the "Tavern Cars" unpopular amongst the travelling public, with several being converted to ordinary use during the 1950s.

Another unusual project was to address the issue of overcrowding on suburban services. The answer to this problem was Britain's first double-deck carriages. Two sets were completed and saw use until the 1970s, but further orders were not placed due to the cramped conditions inside the carriages that were dictated by the restrictions of the loading gauge.


Throughout the existence of the Southern its wagons were painted a dark brown colour. Most wagons were four-wheeled with "SR" in white, although six-wheeled milk tankers were frequently seen on the South Western Main Line to and from United Dairies in London. As the railway was primarily passenger relatively little in the way of investment in freight wagons was made except for general utility vans, which could be used for both freight and luggage, especially on boat trains. These consisted of bogie and four wheel designs. At its peak, the Southern owned 37,500 freight wagons, a small number when one considers 500,000 private owner wagons from collieries were brought under the control of the Railway Executive Committee during the Second World War.

Cultural impact

The Southern was particularly successful at promoting itself to the public. The downgrading of the Mid-Sussex line via Horsham that served Portsmouth was met with hostility by the general public, causing a public relations disaster.Whitehouse, & Thomas, p. 18] This episode stimulated the creation of the first "modern" public relations department with the appointment of John Elliot (later Sir John Elliot) in 1925. Elliot was instrumental in creating the positive image that the Southern enjoyed prior to the Second World War, building a publicity campign for its modernisation programmes, especially as regards the electrification project, marketed as the "World's Greatest Suburban Electric".


The positive image of progress was enhanced by the promotion of the south and south-west as holiday destinations. "Sunny South Sam" became a character fixed firmly in the public mind as embodying the service of the railway, whilst slogans such as "Live in Kent and be content" encouraged commuters to move out from London and patronise the Southern's services.Whitehouse, & Thomas, p. 114] Posters were also introduced to advertise ocean services from Ocean Terminal in Southampton and the docks at Dover. These posters also incorporated the corresponding rail connections with London, such as "The Cunarder" and the "Golden Arrow".Whitehouse, & Thomas, p. 115]


The Southern's memory lives on at several preserved railways, including the Watercress Line, Swanage Railway, Spa Valley Railway, and Bluebell Railway. Other remnants of the railway include Eastleigh works and the London termini, including Waterloo (the largest London railway station), Victoria, Charing Cross, Cannon Street and London Bridge (the oldest London terminus).

Other assets

* Locomotives: 2390; coaching vehicles: 10,800; freight vehicles: 37,500; electric vehicles: 460; rail motor cars: 14

Notable people

O. V. S. Bulleid CME (1937 to nationalisation). Bulleid moved to the Southern from the LNER, bringing several ideas for improving the efficiency of steam locomotives. Such innovations were used on the Merchant Navy class, West Country and Battle of Britain classes ("Bulleid Light Pacifics"), Q1 and experimental Leader designs. He also developed a host of innovative electric units and locomotives.

Sir John Elliot Assistant Genreal Manager (1933 to nationalisation); Public Relations Assistant (1925 until 1933). Noted for being Britain's first expert in public relations, Elliot was brought in by Sir Herbert Walker after the bad press received after service delays and consolidation of the newly created company. It was at the suggestion of Elliot that the Southern's express passenger locomotives should be named, representing positive publicity for the railway, whilst distinctive locomotive liveries and well-known posters were created under his direction. He continued to serve the railways after nationalisation in 1948, and was created Chairman of London Transport in 1953.

R. E. L. Maunsell, the Southern's first CME (1922 to 1937). Maunsell was responsible for initial attempts at locomotive standardisation on the Southern, as well as overseeing the introduction of electric traction. Among his many achievements was the introduction of the 4-6-0 SR Lord Nelson Class locomotives and also the SR Class V or "Schools" class, which were the ultimate and very successful development of the British 4-4-0 express passenger type. He also introduced new, standardised rolling stock for use on the Southern network, which were based upon the railway's composite loading gauge.

Sir Herbert Ashcombe Walker General Manager (1923-1937). Walker was an astute administrator of railways, having gained experience as General Manager of the LSWR from 1912. After retiring in 1937 he was a director of the Southern until the end of its existence in 1947. Three significant events occurred under Walker's tenure as General Manager: the rebuilding of Waterloo station, completed in 1922; electrification in mid-1920s; and the appointment of Bulleid as CME in 1937.



ee also

* Locomotives of the Southern Railway
* SR locomotive numbering and classification
* SR multiple unit numbering and classification
* Southern Railway routes west of Salisbury

External links

* [ Southern E-mail Group] - extensive source of information concerning the Southern Railway, its predecessors and successors
* [ Southern Posters] - collection of Southern Railway promotional material
*worldcat id|id=lccn-n50-57628

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