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.

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.

Stewart says: “The opening of the railway line in 1858 was a major step in the development of Helensburgh – but where was the first station?

“Some sources suggest that it was at George Street until 1863, but shortly after I wrote that in the Trust book ‘200 Years of Helensburgh’ in 2002 I began to doubt it.

“Looking at the buildings and the location at George Street, it just did not seem correct. A meeting with railway historian and photographer Robert D. Campbell brought further doubts.

“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.”

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In 1845 the Caledonian and Dumbartonshire Junction Railway was proposed, and it was 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 it only ran between Bowling, where passengers boarded ships for Glasgow, and Balloch. No branch to Helensburgh was built.

In 1855 the Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh Railway Company was authorised by Parliament, in two parts.

The first section was 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 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, although land was bought for a double track.

Advertisements in the Glasgow Herald and the Glasgow Courier show it opened for goods traffic on May 28 or 29, 1858, and for passengers on May 31. Over the years sections of the track were doubled.

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The National Library of Scotland has a map of central Helensburgh, based on an 1860 survey, and it shows the station at its present location.

The map to the east of the town centre shows some vacant land to the south side of the railway between Lomond Street and George Street, but crucially there is no mention of a station at George Street.

Helensburgh Town Council members took a great interest in the railway line, both before and after it opened, and even opposed its construction at one point.

In 1860 and 1861 the Council complained 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 — Grant Street and Charlotte Street are both to the west of George Street, where it has been suggested the first railway station was sited.

Secondly, these complaints were made prior to 1863, 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.

The railway made it possible for wealthy Glasgow businessmen to escape the dirt and smoke of the city and day-trippers to visit the town in increasing numbers, and goods traffic to the town station also grew.

Helensburgh station was designed to deal with 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.

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Councillors eventually decided to address their complaints to the Board of Trade, and in 1892 the Board sent its inspecting officer, Major Francis Marindin, to Helensburgh station.

Major Marindin was an interesting character who had served in the Royal Engineers and saw active service in the Crimean War. He was 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.

He sent his report on the station to the Council on May 16, 1892, and he pointed out that the station was built in 1856 – two years before the opening of the railway line, in the same location as today’s railway station.

Because the line had originally been single track, there was only one platform for both arrivals and departures. Not only did this cause operational difficulties, but the platform could become crowded and dangerous.

When a train arrived in Helensburgh, the passengers could disembark but, before the departing passengers could board, 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.

A ‘dock line’ was added at some point. 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, and it was not under cover. It was eventually filled in, possibly around 1960, when the line was electrified.

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Major Marindin wrote: “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.

“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.

“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 taken before the opening of the new Municipal Buildings, 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 present passenger station which has remained largely unaltered since then. Presumably it was constructed as a result of Major Marindin’s report.

Returning to the suggestion that the original station was at George Street, the Lennox Herald of November 30 1865 carried the headline ‘Additional Station Accommodation’, and stated: “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, but the Council minutes again appear to give the answer.

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On February 3 1866 they reported: “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 board, and it would only proceed to the terminus once all tickets had been collected.

Railway landings could develop into an unofficial station where passengers living nearby could get off the train, rather than remain on it until it reached the terminus and then have to walk or take a cab back home past the landing.

It appears that this is exactly what happened in Helensburgh, and this is why the Superintendent of Police was suggesting that a cab stand – the equivalent of a taxi rank – might be set up at George Street.

It should 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.

A very detailed map, dated November 7, 1890, showing Helensburgh station and its approaches, is held in the National Records of Scotland. It 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.

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On February 23, 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 have been sent to the North British Railway Company.

But the Times recorded 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.”

The new Helensburgh station, today’s Helensburgh Central, was already planned and under construction by this time, as it opened for business in 1899.

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