Changes at Culham station, 1844 to 1993 - the first 150 years

Here we will try to document the significant changes that have (or have not) affected the station during the 150 years from when it first opened. As photographs or drawings become available they will either feature on these pages or be included in the 'Station through time' page under the 'IMAGES' menu tab.

During its life as a working ticket office many alterations were made to the inside to accommodate changing needs. Some of these changes have left visible reminders around the office which are highlighted in the 'Tour of the station' page under the 'IMAGES' menu tab.

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1844 - Opening of the Oxford branch

The Didcot to Oxford branch opened on June 12th 1844 with Culham, initially called 'Abingdon Road', being for many years the only intermediate station. There was initially also a small station at Appleford, but this closed after only a few years, not being replaced until 1933 when 'Appleford Halt' was opened. This broad gauge line was engineered by Brunel who designed many of the structures associated with it including Thame Lane bridge, the original road bridge on Abingdon Road and of course the station itself. Further up the line another Brunel designed bridge still stands at Appleford.

See also the detailed press report from June 15th 1844 and additional notes on the 'Culham in the news' page under the 'ABOUT' menu tab.

Interestingly, Abingdon had hoped that it would be served by the line. The very first idea was for the Didcot to Oxford branch to leave the main line near Steventon and pass to the east of Abingdon town centre before heading towards Oxford. This was supported by many people who undertook to subscribe to the line. Sadly this proposal never really got very far due to the objections of a Captain Pechells(RN) regarding his lands at Culham. Brunel himself visited Culham in November 1837 to see what could be done, staying at the 'Crown' in Abingdon. The upshot of it all was that the line was rerouted from Didcot with Abingdon to be served by a short branch. Many in Abingdon believed that the GWR had gone against previous understandings and sought to withdraw their support and financial backing whilst lodging objections to the amended route. A speculator had actually built a substantial hotel in Spring Road in Abingdon in readiness for the coming of the railway which would have passed close by. This venture was of course doomed, but the building still stands having been divided into dwellings. Although Abingdon missed out when the Didcot to Oxford branch was built, it did eventually get a rail connection when a short branch was built by the private Abingdon Railway Company in 1856. The eventual line of this branch closely followed that originally proposed almost twenty years previously.
Documents are held in the archives of the Houses of Parliament relating to the Oxford and Great Western Union Railway - with a branch to Abingdon'. The oldest date from as early as 1837 being signed by Brunel himself and show the line to Oxford going through Iffley village close to the river. Other variations involved the final destination in Oxford and the type of junction between the Abingdon branch and the main Oxford branch.

Detail from 1844 plan
Detail from 1844 plan
© Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/3/plan1845/03

1846 - The Railway Hotel is built

Being some distance from the villages of Culham and Clifton Hampden the station at Culham would have been quite isolated with only a few cottages and scattered farms nearby. The hotel building nestles against the embankment of the original road bridge with the access road to the Goods Shed and Platform 1 passing in front. Little is known of the history of the Hotel but it must have been thought worthwhile to build it just two years after the opening of the adjacent station. Could the GWR have had an interest in the hotel? A plan of the line dated November 1844 held in the Parliamentary Archives appears to show the ticket office, down platform building and the goods shed together with what looks like the Railway Hotel immediately adjacent to the road overbridge. Station House, which was not built until 1898, is of course absent.

The landlords of the hotel have figured several times in the history of the station as might be expected, and the premises have on occasion been used to hold inquests including one on Friday 21st February 1873 for the unfortunate landlord at the time, Arthur Robert Smith, who was found dead after falling down the stairs. Originally opening as the 'Railway Hotel' it has undergone several name changes including a period as 'The Jolly Porter' but has reverted to what seems to be the more popular 'Railway Inn'.

It is pleasing to note that since opening in 1846 it has been in continuous use as a licensed premises, the purpose for which it was originally intended.

1856 - Change of name

Upon the opening of the branch line to Abingdon 'Abingdon Road' station was renamed 'Culham' to save confusion with the interchange station where the branch connected with the main line which was given the name 'Abingdon Junction'. This new station really was in the middle of nowhere with no proper road access. The branch was later extended by just under a mile running alongside the main line to join it at Radley station which opened on 8th September 1873. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Didcot to Oxford branch line, though not of Radley station itself, Radley village held Radley Rail Gala on 12th June 1994.

The only other connection (other than sidings) to the line between Didcot and Oxford was made in 1864 when the Wycombe Railway extended its line from Thame to Kennington Junction just south of Oxford. This completed their line from the junction at Princes Risborough through to Oxford. The GWR took over the Wycombe Railway company in 1867. A portion of this line survives between Kennington Junction and the BMW factory in Cowley being used for regular car transport trains with Chiltern Rail proposing its possible reopening to passengers.

The name 'Abingdon Road' was reused for a halt built to serve the village of South Hinksey. Opening on 1st February 1908, it closed on 22nd March 1915.

1872 - Change of gauge

Starting in 1869 work was started to convert the whole of the Great Western broad gauge track to what they called the 'narrow gauge', but what was in reality the standard gauge of other companies. During the November of 1872 work was completed to convert the line from Didcot to Oxford and the Abingdon branch. The Abingdon branch was closed for a day on 26th November with a rail replacement omnibus service running from Culham.

1874 - Signal box opened

When first built, safe operation of the railway was overseen by Railway Police who monitored safety and controlled traffic on a local basis. Together with Switchmen (or Pointsmen) who operated the points (or switches) they may have been provided with a small box for shelter from the elements, but there was no centralised collection of control equipment in them. Signal boxes as we would now recognise them only started to appear when the fixed block method of controlling the flow of rail traffic was adopted and technology became available to allow for the remote control of signals and telegraphic communication was developed.

The following extract from a report in the Reading Mercury of Saturday 12th June 1915 gives us an insight into these early days and a date when the signal box was first opened at Culham.
'At the G.W.R. Station, Reading, on June 3rd, a pleasant gathering of railway officials took place ..... advantage was taken of the occasion to hand a suitable gift to ex-District Relief Signalman Mr. C. Tarrant who retired from the company’s service last February, after serving 42 years. Mr. Tarrant, joined the G.W.R. Company’s service in February, 1873, at Steventon, as a policeman (as signalmen were at that time termed). From there he went to Culham in July of the same year, thence he was removed to Kirtlington (now called Bletchington), and in November, 1874, he was sent back to Culham to open the new signal-box, which at that time was an undertaking of considerable importance. After being at Culham nearly four years, Mr. Tarrant was removed to Didcot as a district relief switchman. He remained 17 years. He was subsequently removed to Reading district as relief signalman in 1895, which position he held until his retirement.'

Whilst also sharing the same initial as the television personality Chris Tarrant, Charles Tarrant in the above report is in fact his great grandfather.

1898 - Station House built

It is understood that 'Station House', which is often referred to as the 'Station Master's house' on plans, was built in 1898. Some believe it was designed by Brunel but we have found no evidence to support this theory.

1908 - Changes to track layout

The track layout was changed fairly substantially sometime during 1908. Comparison between the 1897 and 1910 revisions of the 25inch O.S. maps and the 1908 plan show that the cross over between the two main running lines opposite the goods shed was modified with a single slip added to give a new connection to the goods shed from both running lines. The original connection to the goods shed which started outside the ticket office and crossed the other line by means of a diamond crossing was completely removed. With this change of access, the track emerging from the goods shed at the station end was greatly shortened and the connection at the Oxford end of the goods siding was moved along leaving a shorter shunting neck at each end. It is inferred that platform 1 was extended towards Oxford at the same time meeting up with the end of the foreshortened goods shed siding. A large area to the north of the goods shed seems to have been cleared and levelled for the length of the goods loop, possibly to provide coal storage facilities. This area was reduced in size at some point, together with a simplification and shortening of the northern end of the goods loop, as seen on the 1950 plan. On the other side of the station much remained the same with the siding serving the cattle pens apparently untouched.

The amendments to the track layout necessitated changes within the Culham signal box, and the original lever frame was replaced with a new one possessing 19 levers.

Footbridge under construction sometime around 1909/10
Footbridge under construction
Courtesy of the Great Western Trust

1909/10 - Footbridge installed

We are very grateful to Laurence Waters for making available the original image held in the Great Western Trust archive from which this detail is taken. The full photograph is featured in his book Oxfordshire Railways in Old Photographs - a Second Selection, and is also shown on the 'Station through time' page under the 'IMAGES' menu tab.

This detail is included here as it shows workmen constructing what would be the very first footbridge connecting the two platforms. This helps to date the photograph, as we know the bridge didn't exist in 1908 but it is seen on a photograph from 1919. As noted elsewhere, another clue can be obtained from examining old 25inch to the mile O.S. maps. The bridge is absent from the map revised in 1897 and published in 1899, but clearly shown (along with the relatively new Station House) on the 1910 revision published in 1912. So 1909/10 is an educated guess until we find out different.

Close examination of the photograph reveals that the footbridge has yet to have its stair treads installed, and the canopy roof is clearly a work in progress. Health and safety would not have been a requirement at the time, as evidenced by the workman posing casually on a ladder leant against one of the smoke deflectors. We hope a train was not due soon! One workman is standing and another is kneeling on a temporary planked platform with what appears to be a large paint tin beside him.

Contractor's advert showing the new Appleford Bridge
Appleford Bridge
Great Western Railway magazine, June 1931

Late 1920s - Thames river bridges replaced

The Didcot to Oxford line crosses the Thames between Appleford and Culham (Appleford Bridge, or Appleford Viaduct) and again between Culham and Radley (Nuneham Bridge). These bridges were both originally wooden structures which were soon replaced by iron girder ones between 1856 and 1880. In about 1929 these were themselves replaced by the steel bow arch bridges which are still in use today. The shorter Appleford bridge is a single bow arch structure with the longer one at Nuneham being a double bow arch.

The Great Western Railway magazine of June 1931 carried an advertisement for A.Jackaman & Son Limited of Slough who were the contractors responsible for these new bridges. It features a photograph of the newly completed bridge at Appleford and its short approach viaduct on either side.

The iron girder version of Nuneham railway bridge is often referred to as 'Black Bridge', and a photograph of it can be seen with the report of the inquest into the accidental drowning of a workman who fell from it in 1907.

1942 - RNAS Culham (HMS Hornbill) opens

On 1st November, The Royal Navy opened an air station next to Culham station called RNAS Culham, or HMS Hornbill. This air station is reputed to have been the Navy's most remote facility from the sea. Its siting may have been influenced by the easy rail connection and relatively flat terrain with little local population, or maybe its proximity to the many other neighbouring RAF air bases in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. It was originally an aircraft reciept and dispatch unit and closed on 30th September 1953.

A rail conection was laid into the airbase and ran from the siding which served the cattle dock. The connection appears to have been lifted when the air base was closed, and certainly by late 1954.

1946 - Proposed new Parcels Office

Parcels traffic after the war must have been sufficient for consideration to be given to upgrading the parcel facilities at the station. These were dealt with in a seperate pagoda roofed building and it was proposed to replace this with a substantial brick extension on the end of the ticket office. This would have meant that the overall canopy would have been removed completely at that end of the building. A plan dated November 1946 is held in the Network Rail archives which details these changes, together with plans to fully enclose and upgrade the outside gents' toilets. Nothing came of these proposals however.

This plan is useful as it shows the Station Master's Office as occupying the whole of one end of the building without the partition shown on the station plan from the 1950s and which was subsequently removed in 1984. Somewhat confusingly it shows the track layout prior to the changes made in the 1920s, also the waiting shelter on platform 2 has the wrong footprint. It would appear that an old existing drawing may have been used as a starting point with only the proposed changes being added, thus saving a site visit.

1952 - New signal box

During 1952 the original signal box from 1874 was replaced by a new larger one which was opened in the November. This bigger box contained a 29 lever frame. The old signal box which can be seen in the 1904 postcard of the station was demolished and no trace remains. The platform was extended slightly at some time to pass in front of the new box with the different paving and edging still in evidence. Plans for this new box are held in the National Records Office in Kew.

The replacement of the signal box may well have coincided with the slight re-arrangement of the track layout as a result of the closure of RNAS Hornbill.

1961 - Signal box closure

The new signal box was closed on 15th February 1961. It is not known when it was demolished, but it probably happened some years later when other buildings at the station were taken down.

1963 - Proposal for Culham Prison

Whilst not directly relating to Culham station there was a proposal which, if it had gone ahead, would have had a marked affect on it and the surrounding area.

The Times newspaper of 2nd May 1963 carried a short article which said that on the previous day the Home Office had informed Oxfordshire County Council that it would like to build a maximum-security prison for 500 men on part of the former Royal Naval Air Station at Culham. This was to occupy 320 acres of the former air station and relace the existing prison in Oxford city centre. Reasons cited for the proposal included the fact that the Oxford prison was not only unsuitable for 'modern methods of penal treatment', but that it occupied a site urgently needed by the council for redevelopment. It also states that efforts to close the existing prison 'had been going on since the end of the last war'.

On 21st September of that same year the Times carried news of the announcement in The London Gazette of a public enquiry which was to be held in Abingdon on October 30th. Various papers are held in the National Records Office at Kew relating to the proposed development. The earliest referenced are 'Bullingdon Rural District, Oxfordshire: proposed prison at Culham Airfield; assessment of application by the Home Office, Inspector's Report and case papers'. Other papers are held as being dated 1970-74 and relate to 'Lockwood (formerly Culham) Prison'.

Plans would appear to have progressed to a fairly advanced stage when South Oxfordshire District Council undertook a project in June 1974 to consider the future of Berinsfield. The report produced identified land which the Home Office had purchased to build 82 homes for Prison Officers who were to be based at the new Lockwood Prison.

The idea of a prison at Culham was not finally abandoned until 1982 as the Guardian newspaper reported in its edition of 4th November in that year - 'PRISON SCHEME THROWN OUT - A scheme for a new prison on green belt land at Culham, Oxfordshire, has been thrown out by the Department of the Environment. The Environment Secretary, Mr Michael Heseltine, said that the Lockwood prison proposals were open to serious planning objections. He said the plan would have a substantial impact on the surrounding landscape, but it might still be possible to find an alternative site within the wider area.' The reference to the development being on green belt land is interesting as it hints that the prison was intended to be placed to the north of the actual airfield site, but still on Ministry land. The UKAEA had taken over the original airfield in 1960.

1965 - End of goods services

Goods services to and from Culham were withdrawn on 19th July 1965.

Abingdon road and bridge in 1964
Before the new bridge
R. Crickmay, courtesy of Oxfordshire History Centre

1967 - New road bridge

By now the narrow road bridge must have been a bottleneck to the increasing volume of traffic using the A415 which is a main artery from Abingdon. Planning approval for the 'Culham Railway Bridge Scheme' was obtained in mid 1967. This involved a section of new carriageway either side of the railway and a new bridge a few metres to the South of the existing one. Much of the old road is still visible in satellite views as a farm track and storage area. That which does remain open forms a service road to the properties on either side of the railway with the original bridge still open for use with a weight restriction.

This photograph attributed to Robert Crickmay shows a quiet Abingdon Road just a few years before the new bridge was built. Looking southwards, the lighter gable end of the Railway Hotel can be seen with the roofs of cottages and the few other buildings nearby just appearing in the distance. The road rises slightly before crossing the railway after the road to Platform 1 and the goods shed diverges to the left. The lone car parked on the verge opposite probably belongs to the photographer.

1970 - A near miss!

An application was lodged on 10th June 1970 for the development of a ready mixed concrete plant on the land immediately behind and to the side of Station House. Approval was granted with a provision for the protection or replacement of trees existing on the site. Such a development would have radically changed the semi rural nature of the area with the building of silos, industrial buildings and hard standings, together with the dust and volume of associated lorry movements. Luckily this development did not go ahead and the area remained much as it was.

1972 - Demolition

Sometime during 1972 the waiting shelter on platform 1 and the goods shed were demolished. It is possible that the signal box was removed at this time too. Apparently British Rail were going to demolish the ticket office also but local objections managed to prevent this happening. As it was, a unique group of original Brunel designed broad gauge buildings had been lost forever.

1975 - Listing

Having been saved from demolition a few years earlier, the ticket office was given Grade II* listing by English Heritage on 20th May 1975.

1977 - Restoration proposal then closure

Possibly as a result of the listing, British Rail submitted an application on 27th January 1977 for the restoration of the ticket office. Approval was given subject to the submission of a schedule of works for approval. This was done in September 1978 and confirmation of approval sent back in the October.

It is not known what was specifically proposed, however there is a drawing held in the Network Rail archives which is dated October 1978 and entitled Culham station improvements. This plan shows quite detailed and extensive alterations including new concrete and tiled floors, the complete removal of the outside toilets (with bricks and stone being retained for re-use), internal toilet facilities and new seating in the waiting room. The valance boards were to be removed, replacement aluminium rain water goods installed and new lighting fitted under the platform canopy. It would seem that quite serious consideration was being given to ensuring the building continued in daily use as a working ticket office. In the event none of this was started and the building was withdrawn from public use. Judging from contemporary photographs work was limited to a general tidying up and a coat of paint perhaps to make it slightly more attractive to any future tenant.

1981 - Book store

January 1981 saw a proposal to use the ticket office for 'the storage, display and sale of old, rare and out of print books'. From the plans submitted it looks as if it was proposed to completely remove the outside gents' toilet and wooden screen and provide a new wooden fence either side of the building with access to the platform 1, which was still in use at the time, and the footbridge via an ungated opening to the left. Internally there were a number of alterations proposed. The old waiting room and ladies' cloakroom were to have a new tiled concrete floor laid. It looks like the old wall dividing the cloakroom was to be removed with a new partition wall installed instead. The partition wall between the waiting room and office was to have several panels removed to open access, presumably to act as access to the retail counter. The original doors from the waiting room to platform 2 and from the parcels office to the forecourt were to be replaced and sealed up. The parcels office was to have a new concrete floor laid and be divided into a lobby and store room by a new partition.

That this seems very similar to the 1978 improvements planned by British Rail detailed above is no coincidence as the self same drawings were used for this planning application.

Despite approval being given in the March these quite substantial alterations did not take place and the building remained intact.

1982 - Architect's office

Quickly following on from the proposed occupation by a booksellers, an application was lodged in March 1982 for the conversion to an architects office. This application specified major alterations, but approval was granted in the May.

The Ladies' cloakroom was to be opened up by the removal of the internal wall and refurbished as an office. The Waiting Room door was to be replaced with two new side hung doors - this is the one thing for which approval was not given, the original door was to be retained and maintained. The door to the platform was to be sealed and the partition between the Waiting room and Office was to have panels removed to open it up. Also missing from the drawings are the two original counters. It seems that these were to be removed to make more floor space, however retaining the panelling which divides the Office from the Waiting Room and the Parcels Office. The Parcels Office was to be divided into a lobby and staff room with the main entrance door sealed shut and the door to the platform retained as an emergency exit. The old Gents' was to be incorperated into the building by opening a doorway in the wall from the staff lobby area and bricking up the old outside entrance. Two toilet cubicles and a shared hand basin were to be installed under a new overall roof. Close examintion of the submitted plans suggest that the wooden flooring was to be taken up and replaced with a tiled solid concrete floor.

This development which would have significantly changed the character of the building did not take place.

1983 - Hobby room

December 1983 saw a proposal from the occupant of Station House to develop the ticket office as a hobby room and for storage. This gained approval in February of 1984 subject to the submission and acceptance of details of a proposed gate. This is one proposal which did come to fruition.

The plan was to remove the derelict wooden screen and defunct gentlemen's toilet, and to install a wrought iron gate across its entrance. Remove 6'6" asbestos board partition in the Station Master's Office. (It is not known when this partition was first erected but it is shown on the 1950's station plan.) The Ladies' Waiting Room appeared to be devoid of any facilities and was to be used for storage.

All the proposed changes were completed and the gate remains in use to date. Whilst the toilet and all water supplies were removed from the Gents', the original urinal stalls remain in situ, although out of commission.

Culham footbridge sometime after removal
The footbridge after removal
Unknown photographer

1990s - Replacement footbridge

Following the wholesale demolition of most of the original buildings at the station the lattice footbridge managed to survive for a quite a few years more, albeit without its roof, at least until the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was hoped that it could be saved, but was eventually declared unsafe and taken down, possibly as part of the changes brought about when the new Platform 2 was built. The cast iron pillars were however left in situ, and with short extensions they now support the replacement bridge. The old bridge was lifted intact and for some years it could be seen lying on land adjacent to platform 1. Its present whereabouts and indeed whether it survived is unknown, although it had been suggested that it was taken to the Didcot Railway Centre. This was not the case however, as they have confirmed that the footbridge at the centre came from Radley station.

1993 - New Platform 2

September saw some changes to the operation of the station as the new Platform 2 was built and the original one closed to the public. The original platform was deemed as being unsafe as the bay window of the ticket office reduced the clearance to the platform edge below minimum standards. In addition, the listed Ticket Office prevented the platform level from being raised to the required height.