The surprising history of the Suffragette line

Last week, rail fans were blindsided by the news that TfL is officially renaming all six branches of the Overground and giving them brand new colours. But as we all battle to adjust to these new monikers, let’s not forget that these lines have stories stretching back to before the Overground began its life in 2007. What is now called the Mildmay Line was once called the North London Line, and then the Silverlink. Other branches have picked up nicknames along the way: once, the new Suffragette Line, stretching from Gospel Oak to Barking Riverside, was affectionately known as The Goblin. 

Before being added to the Overground network, this unsung hero of local transit was in a desperate state. There was the inconsistent half-hour schedule, sometimes breaking down to hourly, with passengers cramming themselves into a single diesel powered unit when the usual rolling stock failed. There was a severe lack of ticket machines, ticket barriers, station staff and ticket inspectors, and the announcement ‘There is no service on the Gospel Oak to Barking line’ was comically frequent. 

But things weren’t always so grim. The oldest section of the Goblin is the western end, which is thought to have been built around 1868. A split venture by the prominent London, Tilbury & Southend Railway (founders of the District Railway) and the Midland Railway, it was constructed not just as a standalone route but also a way for the companies to share each other’s existing networks via a few curves of tracks.

Inevitably, this flexibility means that the Goblin line has seen some dramatic changes throughout its long history, calling in at different terminals over time. You can still see the tunnel that used to take the train into St Pancras if you’re in the Hampstead Junction area. Where now there stands a curving street called Shakespeare Road, there was a link to East Ham Station, and until as recently as the late 1950s, one could catch a steam train there onto what is now a ghost platform. It’s a romantic vision: a graceful steam-powered locomotive pulling into a station emblazoned with LTSR ironwork, making a smooth cross platform interchange with the modern District line. Dreamlike. 

It has eased crowding on the tube, opened up new connections, brought communities and people together

Less romantically, the 1950s also saw the construction of a giant, concrete, zig-zagged ‘flyover and under’ just west of Barking station to facilitate freight traffic. Ugly to behold, this mighty feat of civil engineering might just have saved our Goblin branch. Without its dual purpose as a freight and passenger line, it could have been abandoned in the ’80s, turned into a park, or redeveloped into housing and forever blocked off. Instead of closure, in 2022 it received a £327 million extension to Barking Riverside, a housing development of around 10,000 new homes. 

Aside from some platforms that show the original location of Leyton Midland Road and Leytonstone High Road, and a goods crane at Crouch Hill, there are very few echoes of its interesting past: no old signs, fetching tile-work or period lighting fixtures to enjoy. But design flourishes can be overrated. For the plucky Goblin, it’s far better to have had a bare bones aesthetic, decorated with mosaics, opposed to a modern redesign resulting in mouldy, smashed awnings and broken LED screens. More sustainable. There are even separate recycling bins.

Speaking of sustainability, the Class 710 trains that came onto the tracks in 2019 are still the newest trains on the entirety of the TFL system. Newer even than the longer Elizabeth line 345 stock that look identical on the exterior. The 710s have improved energy efficiency, onboard wifi and usb charging points, but have no transverse seating like the 345s, as that train is designed for longer journey times and those seats take up valuable standing space.

All in all, the Goblin line has had an amazing transformation from an obscure service unfit for use, to modern mass transit that people wouldn’t think twice about paying for. Once upon a time they said it would be too difficult to electrify the line with all the bridges and tunnels in the way. Now it’s a shining example of how to improve and enhance an existing urban rail network without bankruptcy.

With Parliament Hill Lido and Hampstead Heath at one end, spooky Crouch End and Haringey in the middle, and the historic Wanstead Park at the other, it can furnish some great days out. There’s top drinking to be done in the now-fashionable Walthamstow and Leytonstone and many taprooms hidden under the arches of the very railway you’ve arrived on. That’s not to mention breathtaking views of the city from the viaducts snaking above east London, especially at sunset. 

The Goblin may be the sole vestige of a long-forgotten, pie-in-the-sky plan to create a second full orbital overground via Thamesmead, but one ride and you’ll see how successful it’s become. It has eased crowding on the tube, opened up new connections, brought communities and people together: all managed without destroying nature or anyone’s homes. It might have had the fantasy stripped from its name, but there’s still something pretty magic about that.