Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Hole in the Wall - Victoria Station's Signalbox and Dickens

In the 1860s there was an outcry over railway safety and the fact that while technologies were available to improve it, the railway companies were reluctant, for reasons of cost, to introduce them. Having been involved in the Staplehurst accident on 9 June 1865, Charles Dickens thereafter took an active interest in the promotion of railway safety. Therefore, in 1866 his magazine, All the year Round, featured an article on 'The Hole in the Wall', an advanced signal box at Victoria Station. This used advance interlocking signals and points, so the control of both was controlled by one mechanical action, thus eliminating a degree of human error. The description inside the box was as follows:

"Bells ring, whistles shriek, hands move, and huge iron bars creak and groan apparently of their own accord, and certainly by agencies which are invisible. On the right-hand wall of the box, and on a level with the eye, are fastened four cases, which communicate telegraphically with the platforms of the station, with Battersea Park, and with Stewart's-lane junction; and the movable faces of these are full of mysterious eloquence. The furthest one strikes what seems to be a gong twice, and then, without waiting for a reply, bangs the gong four times; the needle hands of the others tick away with spasmodic vigour.... To the left of the window, and facing the entrance door, is an apparatus which I can only describe as terrifying. Composed of strong and massive cranks so connected as to form a consistent whole, and resembling a tangled agricultural harrow, or one of the weird instruments of torture which racked the limbs of schismatics in bad old times, it has secret springs, and bells, and joints, which creak, and act, and tingle with a sudden directness highly discomposing to a stranger. You look mildly at one of its joints, and have a question concerning its use on the tip of your tongue, when, presto! it gives a cumbrous flap, and becomes a staring red signboard, with "Crystal Palace up waiting," or "Brighton down waiting," staring you in the face."

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