The Hackney campaign to bring the North London line back from the brink in the 80s
- Credit: Hackney Society
Richard Gee tells Emma Bartholomew about a campaign in the 1980s to persuade politicians and bureaucrats to re-open a train line that had been closed to passengers for 35 years – and which most people had forgotten about.
If it weren't for Richard Gee and his fellow campaigners on the Hackney Public Transport Action Committee (HPTAC) in the 1980s, transport in Hackney today could be a very different prospect.
The small group "of about eight or 12" pressed the Greater London Council and Hackney Council to re-open Hackney Wick, Hackney Central and Dalston stations on the North London line, which had stopped picking up passengers more than three decades before.
It was a vital step towards the Overground as we know it today.
Richard, a civil servant, got involved as he was fed up of taking the bus from Lower Clapton to Victoria every day.
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"It was very slow, as you might imagine," he told the Gazette. "I used to work with people who lived out in the sticks, 30 miles outside London and they could get to work much more easily than I could. Hackney was extremely cut off as far as public transport was concerned, and you were wholly dependent on buses."
While the North London line railway tracks still existed from Richmond to Stratford, by the 1980s the section from Highbury to Stratford was only used for freight.
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The line remained popular with commuters, however, as it dived down from Highbury and through Dalston Junction on a viaduct to get to Broad Street - a separate station next to Liverpool Street. But in 1986 it was announced that section would be closed.
"We wanted the line to stay open, as did a lot of people who lived in Camden and had a nice railway route down to the city," said Richard, though he added: "We didn't get anywhere with that little campaign."
Sections of the viaduct were removed in Shoreditch - replaced in 2012 for the Overground - and Broadgate financial development now stands where the old station once was.
Another campaign that ran for years in support of plans to run a Tube line from Chelsea to Hackney also led nowhere. But their proposals to reinstate Hackney Wick, Homerton and Hackney Central were a lot more fruitful.
Richard, a Hackney councillor who was also chair of the planning committee, worked with his neighbour Roger Lansdown, a railway enthusiast, who took over from him as secretary of the HPTAC.
Roger was supposed to write the 1980 chapter of the Hackney Society's 50th anniversary book Portrait of a Community - to mark the year Hackney Central station reopened - but sadly died before he could complete it.
"Roger was very persistent character, and if you are running a campaign and you want to get anywhere, you do have to be extremely persistent," said Richard. "But he was also very knowledgeable about train operations. He understood exactly what we were asking for and what needed to be delivered. We were able to inform Hackney planning department we weren't asking for the moon. There was already a rail there, and they just needed some stations and to roster some drivers."
They went leafleting, wrote letters to the council, the GLC and London Transport and the Gazette, and put up fly posters on lamp posts everywhere aroung Hackney.
"I suppose there was an element of fun about it but it was hard work sometimes and you wondered if you were ever going to get anywhere," said Richard.
But they realised they'd had a breakthrough when their proposals to reopen the stations were included in the Greater London Council's London Rail Study, considering transport links that could be reopened for not too much money. At the time Homerton station was a ruin, there was nothing at Hackney Wick, and Hackney Central was used for retail.
"When it became clear they were going to do the work, that was quite exciting, and we felt we'd actually got somewhere and it justified our efforts," said Richard. "British Rail was persuaded to provide a service. It was a very poor service - half-hourly, and as I recall often the trains were cancelled."
But he added: "It was a start.
Would today's Overground in Hackney exist were it not for them?
"Ultimately it may well have happened anyway," says Richard modestly.
But he concedes: "It was the precursor for what's a very successful line, and we can claim a little bit of credit for that.
"I think it's made an enormous difference across Hackney and probably contributed to pushing up the house prices no doubt. It means that people can actually work in other parts of London."