A Short History of Tom Thumb’s Arch

Many of us who live in Bow north of the main east-west railway rush through Tom Thumb’s Arch on our way to the Underground. If you’ve ever wondered why Tom Thumb’s Arch is so tiny, it’s because it was built so long ago that it was for a footpath across the fields.

Tom Thumb's Arch, Mostyn Grove, Bow
Tom Thumb’s Arch, Mostyn Grove, Bow

This railway line was built by the Eastern Counties Railway, which in 1839 was up and running from Romford to a temporary terminus at Devonshire Street, which used to be at the northern end of Bancroft Road. In 1840 they’d got it to their main London terminus at Shoreditch, later renamed Bishopsgate. By 1843 there were trains running across Coborn Road, Tom Thumb’s Arch and Fairfield Road all the way to Colchester.

The people who built our local railways were ambitious. In 1854 they’d reached Harwich – a port. In 1862 the Great Eastern Railway was formed by bolting on a lot of smaller railways to the Eastern Counties. That year they won permission to run steamships. The Great Eastern Railway built a total of 42 steamships over the years, and was running services to Antwerp, Hook of Holland and Rotterdam. With connecting railways the other side it was possible to travel on to a wide range of destinations, even as far as St Petersburg. I read that in 1900 a 2nd class return from Liverpool Street (opened 1874) to Hamburg was 38 shillings. Amazingly today it is still possible to make that journey.

Captain Fryatt Memorial, Dovercourt
Captain Fryatt Memorial, Dovercourt

A 100 years ago, on 27th July 1916, Captain Fryatt was executed by the Germans for trying to ram a U-Boat with his Great Eastern Railway ferry SS Brussels. In 1915 U33 had surfaced alongside and ordered him to stop. He’d turned the ferry head-on to the U-Boat reducing the chance of being hit by torpedoes and went full steam a ahead forcing it to crash dive. He was awarded an inscribed watch. Fifteen months later his ship was surrounded by German destroyers and they read the inscription. He was executed as a civilian engaged in hostile military activity.

Captain Fryatt memorial, All Saints, Dovercourt
Captain Fryatt memorial, All Saints, Dovercourt

Yesterday I took a train out to Harwich, travelling over Tom Thumb’s Arch to see a brilliant commemorative exhibition to Captain Fryatt. I also visited All Saints, Dovercourt to photograph his memorial. There’s another one on Liverpool Street Station near McDonald’s.

Captain Fryatt memorial, Liverpool Street Station 29th July 2016
Captain Fryatt memorial, Liverpool Street Station 29th July 2016

After Liverpool Street opened the station at Bishopsgate was converted to a 3-storey goods station able to handle imports and exports to mainland Europe. It was this railway that brought potatoes from East Anglia and fish from Lowestoft, enabling Eastenders to have fish and chips.

The Great Eastern Railway Stratford Works, situated about where John Lewis is today, built 1,702 locomotives, and  5,500 carriages. 33,000 goods wagons were built at either this works or Temple Mills.