A case of mistaken identity?

Whilst researching the history of Culham station we kept coming across copies of a particular print which supposedly illustrated Abingdon Road Station, Oxfordshire, 1844. Whilst it has proved difficult to find an example of the original print, copies of it in both colour and black & white are referenced in a number of picture libraries. None give any indication as to the original source print, but they all have roughly the same description attached.

Abingdon Road station in 1844
Taken from My Picture Book of Railways published by Ward, Lock & Co., Author's collection

A copy of this mysterious print is included in My Picture Book of Railways published by Ward, Lock & Co., a copy of which is in the author's collection. There is no publication date given in the book, but it is inscribed To Eric from Uncle Vic, Xmas 1924. The book must have been available for some time as other copies have been seen with dedications dated two decades later. The image is captioned 'A locomotive drawing private coaches at Abingdon Road station (1844)'. What makes it more intriguing is that the image in the book is attributed thus Print supplied by Great Western Railway. You would have thought they at least would have known where it was.

In the early years of railways, flat wagons were provided to convey private coaches complete with their passengers in relative comfort. Facilities would also have been provided for the conveyance of the horses, or horses could be hired at the destination station so journeys could be continued at the far end. However, there appears to be a stage coach with many outside passengers on the leading wagon, a very exposed and precarious place to be. Artistic licence has gone a bit too far as stage coaches were probably never carried and passengers would have travelled inside so as to enjoy the comparative luxury of their private carriage. Some early First Class carriage bodies, such as those on the Liverpool and Manchester railway, were designed to look like their road going counterparts - possibly explaining the origin of the term 'railway carriage'.

A colour version of the print can be seen on the Getty Images website, and one is also held in the National Railway Museum Collection which may be viewed via the Science & Society Picture Library website.

The image is particulary intriguing for a number of reasons. It shows a toll house and the road crossing the railway on the level before disappearing into the distance. When the branch line between Didcot and Oxford was built an overbridge was provided to carry the main road across the railway at Abingdon Road station as Culham station was originally called. Also, the presence of a toll house is puzzling. There were certainly toll houses on the river bridges at Culham and Clifton Hampden, and whilst the Abingdon to Dorchester turnpike road ran past the station the toll house was located close to its junction with Thame Lane which is some way distant. The year quoted as being 1844 could have been correct, and most copies of this print describe it as being in Oxfordshire which also would have been correct. However nothing shown on the print looks like Culham and there is no sign of the station buildings, so where is it? A possible clue lies in an unusual episode which took place before the railway was completed.

Abingdon Road in about 1836
View of Oxford from the Abingdon road dated 1st July 1836
Engraving by John Le Keux, drawning by F.Mackenzie from 'Memorials of Oxford - volume 3' by James Ingram
Author's collection

Just north of Kennington, the roads from Kennington and Abingdon joined and continued towards Oxford as 'Abingdon Road'. A toll house had been built at the start of Abingdon Road in 1827 in order to collect tolls which were intended to help recoup the cost (over £19,000) of rebuilding Folly Bridge which was carried out between 1825 and 1827. (Folly Bridge still carries Abingdon Road across the river and into the city.) At the southern end of the Abingdon Road it was intended to build a bridge to carry the road over the new railway, later to become known as Redbridge. However, the building of this bridge was delayed by a man called John Towle, who erected a paper house on the line of the proposed bridge embankment. His motivation is unclear, perhaps it was to get greater compensation for the loss of land, or simply to make life difficult for the railway company. It seems that he was something of an eccentric, regularly challenging authority.

Whatever the motivation, he did succeed in delaying the building of the bridge sufficiently for its erection to be somewhat rushed in an attempt to open the line on time. On his inspection before the line was opened the railway inspector, Major-General Paisley, found that one arch of the bridge carrying the Abingdon Road over the railway was insecure and would not pass it for use until it had been made good. In order to allow the line to open on time it was agreed that the Abingdon Road could cross it on the level until remedial work had been completed.

Is it possible therefore that the mystery print is not of Abingdon Road Station, but rather of the short lived Abingdon Road Crossing? All the clues seem to fit.

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Following the opening of the railway in 1844 the toll house was removed to be replaced by one built on the north-west side of Folly Bridge itself. The toll house was designed by the architect James Gardiner, and cost £320 to build. By such careful repositioning, tolls could be extracted from passengers and goods traffic using the new railway, as they would have had to cross the bridge when going between the city and the station. It has been suggested that a temporary toll house was built close to the end of Western Road whilst the new stone one on Folly Bridge was being built. By September 1850 the debt incurred in rebuilding the bridge had been paid off, and early one morning the gate was ceremonially fastened back for the last time. The gate disappeared, but the toll house still survives, having been put to many uses in the following years.

Believe it or not, the paper house survived until 1996 when a tree fell on it. Becoming Grade II listed it was occupied until 1988. Read more about John Towle and his unusual house on the South Oxford History website.