Chapter 05 The Railway Office
England's railroads grew at such a phenomenal rate that the city of London was overwhelmed, and never managed to build a central station. Instead, each of the lines, built by private firms, ran their tracks as far into London as they could manage, and then erected a terminus. But in the mid-century this pattern was coming under attack. The dislocation of poor people, whose dwellings were demolished to make way for the incoming lines, was one argument; another focused on the inconvenience to travelers forced to cross London by coach to make connections from one station to another in order to continue their journey.
In 1846, Charles Pearson proposed, and drew plans for, an enormous Central Railway Terminus to be located at Ludgate Hill, but the idea was never adopted. Instead, after the construction of several stations--- the most recent being Victoria Station and King's Cross, in 1851--- there was a moratorium on further construction because of the fury of public debate.
Eventually, the concept of a central London terminus was completely abandoned, and new outlying stations were built. When the last, Marylebone Station, was finished in 1899, London had fifteen railroad terminals, more than twice that of any other major city in Europe; and the bewildering array of lines and schedules was apparently never mastered by any Londoner except Sherlock Holmes, who knew it all by heart.
The mid-century halt in construction left several of the new lines at a disadvantage, and one of these was the South Eastern Railway, which ran from London to the coastal town of Folkestone, some eighty miles away. The South Eastern had no access to central London until 1851, when the London Bridge Terminus was rebuilt.
Located on the south shore of the Thames River near its namesake, London Bridge was the oldest railway station in the city. It was originally constructed in 1836 by the London & Greenwich Railway. Never popular, the station was attacked as "inferior in design and conception" to such later stations as Paddington and King's Cross. Yet when the station was rebuilt in 1851, the Illustrated London News recalled that the old station had been "remarkable for the neatness, artistic character, and reality of its facade. We regret, therefore, that this has disappeared, to make room, apparently, for one of less merit."
This is precisely the kind of critical turnabout that has always frustrated and infuriated architects. No less a figure than Sir Christopher Wren, writing two hundred years earlier, complained that "the peoples of London may despise some eyesore until it is demolished, whereupon by magick the replacement is deemed inferior to the former edifice, now eulogized in high and glowing reference."
Yet one must admit that the new London Bridge Terminus was most unsatisfactory. Victorians regarded the train stations as the "cathedrals of the age"; they expected them to blend the highest principles of aesthetics and technological achievement, and many stations fulfill that expectation with their high, arching, elegant glass vaults. But the new London Bridge Station was depressing in every way. An L-shaped two-story structure, it had a flat and utilitarian appearance, with a row of dreary shops under an arcade to the left, and the main station straight ahead, unadorned except for a clock mounted on the roof. Most serious, its interior floor plan--- the focus of most earlier criticism--- remained wholly unaltered.
It was during the reconstruction of the station that the South Eastern Railway arranged to use the London Bridge Terminus as the starting point for its routes to the coast This was done on a leasing arrangement; South Eastern leased tracks, platforms, and office space from the London & Greenwich line, whose owners were not disposed to give South Eastern any better facilities than necessary.
The traffic supervisor's offices consisted of four rooms in a remote section of the terminal--- two rooms for clerks, one storage area for valuable checked items, and a larger office for the supervisor himself. All the rooms had glass frontings. The whole suite was located on the second floor of the terminus and accessible only by an ironwork staircase leading up from the station platform. Anyone climbing or descending the stairs would be in plain view of the office workers, as well as all the passengers, porters, and guards on the platforms'below.
The traffic supervisor was named McPherson. He was an elderly Scotsman who kept a close eye on his clerks, seeing to it that they did no daydreaming out the window. Thus no one in the office noticed when, in early July, 1854, two travelers took up a position on a bench on the platform, and remained there the entire day, frequently consulting their watches, as if impatient for their journey to begin. Nor did anyone notice when the same two gentlemen returned the following week, and again spent a day on the same bench, watching the activity in the station while they awaited their train, and frequently checking their pocketwatches.
In fact, Pierce and Agar were not employing pocketwatches, but rather stopwatches. Pierce had an elegant one, a chronograph with two stopwatch faces, with a case of 18-karat gold. It was considered a marvel of the latest engineering, sold for racing and other purposes. But he held it cupped in his hand, and it attracted no notice.
After the second day of watching the routine of the office clerks, the changes of the railway guards, the arrival and departure of visitors to the office, and other matters of importance to them, Agar finally looked up the iron staircase to the office and announced, "It's bloody murder. She's too wide open. What's your pogue up there, anyway?"
"What two keys is that?"
"Two keys I happen to want," Pierce said.
Agar squinted up at the offices. If he was disappointed in Pierces answer he gave no indication. "Well," he said, in a professional tone, "if it's two bettys you want, I reckon they are in that storage room"--- he nodded, not daring to point a finger--- "just past the space for the clerks. You see the cupboard?"
Pierce nodded. Through the glass fronting, he could see all the office. In the storage area was a shallow, wall-mounted lime green cupboard. It looked like the sort of place keys might be stored. "I see it."
"There's my money, on that cupboard. Now you'll cool she has a lock on her, but that will give us no great trouble. Cheap lock."
"What about the front door?" Pierce said, shifting his gaze. Not only was the cupboard inside locked, but the door to the suite of offices--- a frosted door, with SER stenciled on it, and underneath, TRAFFIC SUPERVISOR DIVISION--- had a large brass lock above the knob.
"Appearances," Agar snorted. "She'll crack open with any cheap twirl to tickle her innards. I could open her with a ragged fingernail. We've no problems there. The problem is the bloody crowds."
Pierce nodded, but said nothing. This was essentially Agar's operation, and he would have to figure it out. "The pogue is two keys, you say?"
"Yes," Pierce said. "Two keys."
"Two keys is four waxes. Four waxes is nigh on a minute, to do it proper. But that doesn't count cracking the outside, or the inside cabinet. That's more time again." Agar looked around at the crowded platform, and the clerks in the office. "Bloody flummet to try and crack her by day," he said "Too many people about."
"Aye, at night, when she's empty, and a proper deadlurk. I think the night is best."
"At night, the crushers make rounds," Pierce reminded him. They had already learned that during the evening, when the station was deserted, the policemen patrolled it at four- or five-minute intervals throughout the night. "Will you have time?"
Agar frowned, and squinted up at the office. "No," he said finally. "Unless..."
"Unless the offices were already open. Then I can make my entrance neat as you please, and I do the waxes quicklike, and I'm gone in less than two minutes flat."
"But the offices will be locked," Pierce said.
"I'm thinking of a snakesman," Agar said, and he nodded to the supervisor's office.
Pierce looked up. The supervisor's office had a broad glass window; through it, he could see Mr. McPherson, in his shirtsleeves, with white hair and a green shade over his forehead. And behind McPherson was a window for ventilation, a window approximately a foot square. "I see it," Pierce said. And he added, "Damn small."
"A proper snakesman can make it through," Agar said. A snakesman was a child adept at wriggling through small spaces. Usually he was a former chimney sweep's apprentice. "And once he's in the office, he unlocks the cupboard, and he unlocks the door from the inside, and he sets it all up proper for me. That will make this job a bone lay, and no mistake," he said, nodding in satisfaction.
"If there's a snakesman."
"And he must be the devil's own," Pierce said, looking again at the window, "if we are to break that drum. Who's the best?"
"The best?" Agar said, looking surprised. "The best is Clean Willy, but he's in."
"Where's he in?"
"Newgate Prison, and there's no escaping that. He'll do his days on the cockchafer, and be a good lad, and wait for his ticket-of-leave if it comes. But there's no escape. Not from Newgate."
"Perhaps Clean Willy can find a way."
"Nobody can find a way," Agar said heavily. "It's been tried before."
"I'll get a word to Willy," Pierce said, "and we shall see."
Agar nodded. "I'll hope," he said, "but not too excessive."
The two men resumed watching the offices. Pierce stared at the storage room of the offices, at the little cupboard mounted on the wall It occurred to him that he had never seen it opened. He had a thought: what if there were more keys--- perhaps dozens of keys--- in that little closet? How would Agar know which ones to copy?
"Here comes the escop," Agar said.
Pierce looked, and saw that the police constable was making his rounds. He flicked his chronometer: seven minutes forty-seven seconds since the last circuit. But the constable's routine would be more rapid at night.
"You see a lurk?" Pierce said.
Agar nodded to a baggage stand in a corner, not more than a dozen paces from the staircase. "There'd do."
"Well enough," Pierce said.
The two men remained seated until seven o'clock, when the clerks left the office to return home. At seven-twenty, the supervisor departed, locking the outside door after him. Agar had a look at the key, from a distance.
"What kind of a key?" Pierce asked.
"Cheap twirl will manage," Agar said.
The two men remained another hour, until it became inconvenient for them to stay in the station. The last train had departed, and they were now too conspicuous. They remained just long enough to clock the constable on night duty as he made his rounds of the station. The constable passed the traffic manager's office once every five minutes and three seconds.
Pierce snapped the button on his chronometer and glanced at the second hand. "Five and three," he said.
"Dub lay," Agar said.
"Can you do it?"
"Of course I can do it," Agar said. "I can get a judy preggers in less--- a dub lay is all I said. Five and three?"
"I can light a cigar faster," Pierce reminded him.
"I can do it," Agar said firmly, "if I have a snakesman such like Clean Willy."
The two men left the railway station. As they stepped into the fading twilight, Pierce signaled his cab. The cabby with a scar across his forehead whipped up his horse and clattered toward the station entrance.
"When do we knock it over?" Agar said.
Pierce gave him a gold guinea. "When I inform you," he said. And then he got into the cab and rode off into the deepening night darkness.