Where was first Helensburgh station?

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TRAINS move, stations are stationary — except in Helensburgh, perhaps?

For decades Helensburgh Central Station has been on East Princes Street beside the Municipal Buildings. But was that its only site?

Local history enthusiasts have debated for some time whether it might have been at George Street until 1863.

The topic fascinated Helensburgh Heritage Trust treasurer and past chairman Stewart Noble, author in 2010 of ‘The Vanished Railways of Old Western Dunbartonshire’. Now he is sure he has the answer . . . here he sets out why.

Shortly after the publication of "200 Years of Helensburgh" in 2002 I began to doubt the accuracy of this suggestion, despite having repeated it myself in the chapter on Transport. Looking at the buildings and the location at George Street, it just did not seem correct.

In addition a meeting with railway historian and photographer Robert D Campbell put further doubts into my mind. So here I hope is conclusive proof that, although there was for a period railway involvement at George Street, Helensburgh's first railway station was never there.

Early railway history

In 1845 the Caledonian and Dumbartonshire (sic) Junction Railway (sometimes known just simply as the Dumbartonshire Railway) was proposed and then authorised the following year. A branch to Helensburgh was included in the plans. Five years later the Caledonian and Dumbartonshire Junction Railway opened, but because of financial problems only between Bowling and Balloch, and no branch to Helensburgh was built. Passengers travelled from Glasgow to Bowling by ship.

In 1855 the Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway Company was authorised by Parliament, in two parts. The first section was to run from a junction near Cowlairs with the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway (which started at what is now Queen Street high-level station) via Maryhill to join the Caledonian and Dumbartonshire Railway at its terminus at Bowling. The second section was to run from a junction with the Caledonian and Dumbartonshire Railway at Dalreoch to Helensburgh.

In 1857 the line was built to Helensburgh; it was single track only from Dalreoch, although sufficient land was bought for a double track.

Advertisements in both the Glasgow Herald and the Glasgow Courier show that it did open for goods traffic on 28th or 29th May, and then for passengers on 31st May.

Over the years sections of the track were doubled and, when a second tunnel was built at Dalreoch in 1896, this meant that there was no longer any single track section on the route to Helensburgh.

1860 Map

The National Library of Scotland holds a very detailed map (25 inches to the mile) of central Helensburgh which was based on a survey of 1860 and published two years later. This clearly shows the station at its present location. The adjoining map to the east of the town centre (below) shows a bit of vacant land to the south side of the railway between Lomond Street and George Street. Crucially there is no mention of a station in the vicinity of George Street.

This map is backed up by a contemporary newspaper report which talks about the problems caused by children playing in the vicinity of the Grant Street railway bridge!

Helensburgh Town Council minutes

As might be imagined, Helensburgh's town councillors took a considerable interest in this new railway line, both before and after it opened, even opposing its construction at one point.

Unfortunately the Town Council minute books prior to 1902 are no longer held in Helensburgh Library, but are kept in the archives of LiveArgyll (formerly the Argyll & Bute Council archives) at Lochgilphead. However Helensburgh Library does hold an index to the minutes and this gives clues as to what was going on. Needless to say however a visit to the archives is necessary to see the full picture.

Thus in 1860 and 1861 the Council is complaining to the railway company about the state of the bridges over the line at Grant Street, Charlotte Street and Henry Bell Street. There are two crucial aspects to these complaints. Firstly, Grant Street and Charlotte Street are both of course to the west of George Street, where it has been suggested that the first railway station was sited. Secondly, these complaints were made prior to 1863 which is the date suggested for the move of the station from George Street to its present location. This confirms that the first station was not actually in George Street.

However in 1866 the town council is discussing the "railway landing" in George Street – more about this later!

The arrival of the railway made it possible for wealthy Glasgow businessmen to escape the dirt and smoke of the city by commuting to the clean air of Helensburgh, and so a major spurt took place in the growth of the town's population. Likewise, daytrippers would be visiting the town in increasing numbers, and the volume of goods traffic coming by train to the town station would also be increasing.

Meantime, Helensburgh railway station had been designed to deal with the traffic coming down a single track line from Dalreoch and by about 1890 the Council minutes record increasing complaints about the adequacy of the station. The Council eventually decided to address their complaints direct to the Board of Trade.

Consequently in 1892 the Board of Trade sent its inspecting officer, Major Francis Marindin, to Helensburgh station. He of course might have met people who remembered the opening of the line 34 years earlier.

Major Marindin was an interesting character. He had served in the Royal Engineers in the Army and saw active service in the Crimean War. He was also a keen footballer and played in the first FA Cup final in 1872 for the Royal Engineers' team. He became president of the Football Association in 1874, retiring in 1890, and as a referee he took charge of eight FA Cup finals. In 1897 he was knighted for his work on public services.

Major Marindin sent his report on the station to Helensburgh Town Council on 16 May 1892 and the full report is included in the Town Council minute book – see Appendix 1. In it he points out that the station was built in 1856 – two years before the opening of the railway line, and therefore in the same location as today's railway station.

He went on to point out that, because the line had originally been singletrack, there was only one platform for both arrivals and departures. Not only did this cause operational difficulties, but the platform could become extremely crowded and thus potentially dangerous. When a train arrived in Helensburgh, the passengers could disembark but, before the departing passengers could board the train, it often had to reverse out of the station to reach a section of double track where the steam locomotive could move from one end of the train to the other.

In addition a “dock line” had been added at some point since the opening of the station. This was a much shorter platform than the original one and could only accommodate trains of half the length. It was located to the east of today’s parking area and to the south of today’s platforms; consequently it was not under cover. It was filled in, possibly around 1960 when the line was electrified.

Major Marindin wrote "in conclusion I must report that, in my opinion, the station is not a fit and proper one for the terminal station of a double line for such a station should always have two platforms, at least even if these are used indiscriminately for arrival and departure. The accommodation is certainly poor, in the view of modern requirements but there are in the country other places of equal importance with Helensburgh which are no better off in this respect."

He went on that "it would therefore be better to remodel the station altogether, and I recommend that the [North British Railway] Company should be urged to do so."

A photo below) taken sometime before the opening of the new Municipal Buildings (or Town Hall) at the corner of Sinclair Street and East Princes Street in 1878 also shows the original railway station just to the east of the municipal buildings.

1899 saw the opening of the passenger station which we see today and which is largely unaltered since the opening date. Presumably the new building was constructed largely as a result of Major Marindin's report. The substantial goods station was closed around 1960, and other sidings and the engine shed disappeared in stages over the years. The Co-op supermarket was built on the site in 1985 and the Medical Centre in 1996.

So what was at George Street?

The Lennox Herald of 30 November 1865 carried the headline “Additional Station Accommodation”, and went on to say “We hear that it is proposed to extend the railway ticket collecting platform, and to give an outlet from it for the convenience of people residing in the East.” Unfortunately no location was given.

The Helensburgh Town Council minutes once again appear to give the answer to this. On 3 February 1866 they report that "the Superintendent of Police suggested that a Cab stand should be fixed by the Magistrates at the new Railway landing at George Street."

A railway landing (also known as a ticket platform) was a place where trains stopped shortly before arriving at a terminus station such as Helensburgh. Ticket collectors would then board the train there, and it would only proceed to the terminus once all tickets had been collected.

Needless to say, railway landings could easily develop into a kind of unofficial station where passengers living nearby could get off the train, rather than remain in it until it reached the terminus, and then have to walk or take a cab back home past the railway landing. It appears that this is exactly what happened in Helensburgh, and that this is why the Superintendent of Police was suggesting that a cab stand – the equivalent of a taxi rank in the days of horse-drawn carriages – might be set up at George Street.

It should also be remembered that in 1866 the next station to the east of Helensburgh was at Cardross, as Craigendoran station and pier only opened in 1882.

It is also interesting to note that the Town Council minutes referred to the "new railway Landing at George Street", the use of the word "new" implying that it had only been used by passengers for a short period, perhaps just a few months. If this is correct, the Superintendent of Police was discussing a situation arising in 1865-66, seven years after the railway had opened in 1858.

A very detailed map dated 7 November 1890 (eighteen months before Major Marindin’s report) showing Helensburgh station and its approaches is held in the National Records of Scotland. This shows a ticket platform on the south side of the railway. This ticket platform starts immediately to the west of the George Street footbridge where there is a flight of steps leading down from it, and it continues to the west under the Lomond Street footbridge, but it ends before the Charlotte Street road bridge is reached.

Nothing more is heard of the railway landing (or ticket platform) in Council minutes, but then on 23 February 1898 the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times reported that "the east-end daily travellers are up in arms over the announcement that on and after 1st March the ticket platform will be dispensed with, and that tickets will be collected at Craigendoran." It is believed that a petition to prevent the closure of the ticket platform may also have been sent to the North British Railway Company.

The newspaper goes on to report that "this new regulation is insisted upon by the Board of Trade, unless the ticket platform is constituted and staffed as a station. While this is probably more than the railway company are fairly entitled to do, this change will be a very great inconvenience to many." In addition the new Helensburgh station (today’s Helensburgh Central) was quite possibly already planned and under construction by this time, as it opened for business in 1899.

Thus trains ceased stopping at the "unofficial" railway station at George Street and so it was no longer used.

A large old warehouse still stands at 19 George Street and it has been suggested that this might also have been a railway building. This seems very unlikely and the evidence for reaching this conclusion can be seen in Appendix 2.

List of Appendices

  1. Major Marindin’s Report.
  2. !9 George Street.
  3. Time Line.
  4. Sources of Information.
  5. Email from National Records of Scotland

Appendix 1: Major Marindin’s Report

Railway Department,
Board of Trade
8, Richmond Terrace,
London SW
16 May 1892


I have the honour to report for the information of the Board of Trade, that in compliance with the instructions contained in your minute of 4th ultimo, I have made an inspection of the North British Railway Company's station at Helensburgh, with reference to the complaint made by the Provost, on behalf of the Magistrates and Police Commissioners of that burgh, as to the want of proper platform and other accommodation.

At my visit to Helensburgh on the 14th ultimo, I was accompanied by the Engineer and the Superintendent of the line for the North British Railway Company, and I was met by the Provost, the Town Clerk, and Councillor Malcolm, who explained to me that the following were the principal matters complained of:

  1. That there was only one platform for both arrival and departure.
  2. That on Saturdays, and still more on public holidays, there was serious overcrowding.
  3. That, owing to trains being timed to arrive and others to depart at very nearly the same time, down trains were frequently kept standing outside the station, unable to run up to the platform.
  4. That the waiting room accommodation was insufficient.
  5. That the platform was alone and dangerously narrow.
  6. That the cab stand was not under cover.

The station was built in the year 1856, as the terminus of the Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway, a single line which, some time after the Railway was incorporated with the North British Railway, was doubled as far as the entrance to the station. When this was done the station was not made a double sided station, but the platform has been at some time lengthened, and a dock line at the down side has been added.

There is a roof covering the old station for a length of 210 feet from the buffer stops, and under this roof there are two lines of rails, one of which only is a passenger platform line, the other being a carriage siding. The platform is from 14 to 15 feet wide, and is on the downside, and the waiting rooms, of which there are only two, are at the inner end of the platform. Outside the roof the platform is continued for a length of 406 feet, and the outer end of it for a distance of 256 feet is an island platform between the main platform and the dock line.

For about 150 feet outside the station roof there is a greater width of platform, alongside the cab stand than there is inside, but the platform between the mainline and the dock line, which is 19 feet wide at the inner end, narrows gradually to a width of only 5 feet at the outer end, being for several feet less than 6 feet wide.

The dock line, which is used principally for the Edinburgh trains, and short distance trains from Craigendoran, will hold only 7 carriages, but the main platform line will hold a train of 14 carriages which is the extreme length of the Glasgow trains.

I attach a plan of the station [not included in the minute book], and also a return furnished to me by the company, giving the bookings from all stations to Helensburgh upon the Glasgow Fair Saturday in 1890 and 1891, from which it appears that the total number of passengers (exclusive of season-ticket holders) on those days were as follows:

1890 adults 4897, children 536, total 5433; 1891 adults 4825, children 520, total 5345, which numbers are a good deal less than the numbers estimated by the Town Authorities.

The population of Helensburgh is stated to be 11,094.

Owing to the times at which trains are booked to arrive and depart from the station it appears that it frequently happens that when a train arrives, the platform is crowded by people waiting to go away, and these people are unable at once to get into the train, even when the incoming passengers have alighted, because the train often has to be backed out so that the engine may get round it to take it away again.

On such occasions it is stated, and can well be understood, that crowding becomes dangerous, but it is not alleged that an accident has ever occurred owing to a passenger being pushed off the platform on to the line, although about 4 years ago a woman was knocked down on the platform.

The luggage vans being, on all trains but one at the rear of the train, the luggage is usually deposited at the narrowest part of the island platform, and I can quite believe that at this point there is considerable risk of accident.

In conclusion I must report that, in my opinion, the station is not a fit and proper one for the terminal station of a double line, such a station should always have two platforms, at least, even if these are used indiscriminately for arrival and departure.

The accommodation is certainly poor, in the view of modern requirements, but there are in the country other places of equal importance with Helensburgh which are no better off in this respect.

No doubt it would be better if the cab stand were under cover, but this is a trifling grievance.

The narrowness of the platform between the main platform line and the dock line is distinctly a danger, and such a platform would not be passed for passenger traffic at the present time. The crowding on this platform, and also inside the station roof, when streams of incoming passengers and outgoing passengers meet each other, must be very inconvenient and unpleasant, although as the station is open at the side for some distance, and on the level of the street, I can hardly consider the station a dangerous one, except at the narrow part of the platform which I have alluded to.

There would not be much difficulty in providing an additional platform line at the north side of the existing station shed, but there is no room for a second platform inside and it would be necessary to remove a goods shed.

It would therefore be better to remodel the station altogether, and I recommend the Company should be urged to do so, and be informed that in the opinion of the Board of Trade the improvement of the platform between the dock and the mainline is absolutely essential for the safety of the public.

I do not think that the construction of the new station at this place, on the West Highland Line will very much affect the traffic to and from the old station. 

I have etc

(sgd) F A Marindin

Appendix 2: 19 George Street

A large old warehouse still stands at 19 George Street in the block of land to the south of the railway between Lomond Street and George Street. At one point an ambitious plan was proposed to convert this into a Helensburgh Heroes Centre, and it has been suggested that this property had at one time been a railway building – but was it?

The earliest record for the title deeds and ownership of this land appears in the Register of Sasines in 1872 – six years after the Superintendent of Police referred to the "new railway landing". Unfortunately in those days the land was not as clearly delineated in the title deeds as it is now, and so this record may possibly refer to the whole block, rather than just to the warehouse at 19 George Street.

The records show that in 1881 veterinary surgeon Duncan Gardner had a livery stable there and later also a grain store. Helensburgh Directories confirm that this business was continued by his family until 1935-39. There also appears to have been housing at 19 George Street, occupied at times by a shoemaker, a railway ticket collector, a school board officer and a couple of women.

In 1935 a member of the Gardner family was also trading as a potato merchant, and in the same year 19 George Street is recorded as stores for TH Kerr, house furnisher; Andrew Mackenzie, a joiner, also had premises there. Five years later, James Simpson, an upholsterer, was also using these premises.

The final Helensburgh Directory for 1956-57 records 19 George Street as being works for James Simpson (Helensburgh) Ltd, cabinet makers and upholsterers. My memory is that the same company also undertook removals and continued to use the building as a furniture store for many years.

Neither the Register of Sasines nor the Helensburgh Directories give any indication that the warehouse at 19 George Street was ever a railway property. However it is worth pointing out that, while this does not prove that it was not a railway property, it appears extremely unlikely that there was railway involvement with that building.

Appendix 3: Time Line

1855 - Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway Company authorised by Parliament.

1856 - Construction of Helensburgh station – date given in Major Marindin’s report (Appendix 1).

1858 – Opening of  Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway.

1860 – Detailed survey undertaken for production of map – station shown at present site.

1862 – Map published.

1862 -  Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway Company taken over by Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway Company.

1865 – Proposal “to extend the railway ticket collecting platform, and to give an outlet from it for the convenience of people residing in the East.”

1865 -  Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway Company taken over by North British Railway Company.

1866 – First mention in Town Council minutes of “new railway landing” [or ticket platform] at George Street.

1882 – Opening of Craigendoran station and pier.

1892 – Major Marindin’s report.

1894 – Opening of West Highland Railway.

1898 – Closure of railway ticket platform at George Street.

1899 – Original station replaced on the same site by the new building which is still in use today.

Appendix 4: Sources of Information

  1. 1860 Helensburgh maps. Ordnance Survey, 25 inch to the mile, 1st edition, 1855-1882, Dumbartonshire XVII.5 (Row) and Dumbartonshire XVII.6 (with inset XVII.3) (Row). These maps show respectively Helensburgh town centre and the adjoining area to the east of the town centre. They can be seen online on the National Library of Scotland website at https://maps.nls.uk/view/74942120 and https://maps.nls.uk/view/74966277
  2. Helensburgh Town Council minutes. For the relevant period an index is held in Helensburgh Library, but the actual minutes themselves are held in the LiveArgyll archives (formerly Argyll & Bute Council archives) in Lochgilphead.
  3. Newspapers. Backnumbers of the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times are held in Helensburgh Library, and of the Lennox Herald in Dumbarton Library.
  4. National Records of Scotland holds minute books et cetera of the three railway companies involved in Helensburgh station during this period. For fuller information, see the email which constitutes appendix 5.
  5. Helensburgh Directories. Used in researching 19 George Street – held in Helensburgh Library.
  6. Registers of Scotland. These give details on the ownership of land and buildings, which were used in researching 19 George Street.

Appendix 5: Email from National Records of Scotland.

Dear Mr Noble,

Thank you for your enquiry to the National Records of Scotland (NRS) regarding Helensburgh Station.

The NRS holds the records of Glasgow Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway (BR/GDH), a list of which you can view on the NRS Catalogue at the following link: http://catalogue.nrscotland.gov.uk/nrsonlinecatalogue/overview.aspx?st=1&tc=y&tl=n&tn=n&tp=n&k=&ko=a&r=BR%2fGDH&ro=s&df=&dt=&di=y

There is also the 1855 Railway Act (ref. BR/AP/S/180) and the 1862 Amalgamation Act with Edinburgh & Glasgow (ref. BR/AP/S/26).

Unfortunately I have been unable to identify any records specific to Helensburgh Station, though there are a number of plans of sections of the line from 1854, namely RHP39926, RHP40069, + RHP47534.

You can conduct your own search of our catalogue online: NRS Catalogue. If you identify anything you would like to view, you would be welcome to visit the Historical Search Room. Please note that many of our records are stored off site and we require at least 1 working day’s notice by phone (0131 535 1334) or two working days’ notice by replying to this email in order to produce material for you.

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