For more of all things London history, sign up for our new (free) newsletter and community: Londonist: Time Machine.
Eurostar mightn't have opened until 1994, but almost 60 years before then, you could still get from London to Paris on a direct train.
By 1850, wealthy travellers were already shuttling between Britain and France on special express trains — the catch was they had to transfer on a ferry for the watery bit of the voyage, then catch another train on the other side. Even when the first-class only Golden Arrow/Flèche d'Or services — which boasted wood panelling, armchairs, and a ritzy cocktail bar — began running in 1926, passengers had to disembark from the train at Dover/Calais, and pay around £700 in today's money for the privilege.
Long before the Channel Tunnel, whole trains crossed La Manche. But on ships. https://t.co/UWDwhyubWl— Tim Dunn (@MrTimDunn) October 14, 2018
This all changed on 14 October 1936, when the first ever Night Ferry service ran. Operated by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the train, which included sleeping carriages, left London Victoria at 9pm each night, arriving at Dover before being split up, and boarded onto the boat (with passenger onboard the sleeping cars, not having to break their slumber). The train was then offloaded/reassembled on the other side, before continuing on towards Paris via Dunkirk.
Though the London to Paris leg took a not insignificant 11 hours to complete, for the first time in history, you could get on a train in England, and only get off it again on the continent. If you wanted, you could stay onboard at Paris, and continue on to Brussels. It was the Eurostar, long before Eurostar existed. With rhetoric similar to that used with the opening of the Channel Tunnel decades later, at the opening ceremony, the French ambassador André Charles Corbin hailed "a link to strengthen the bonds between two great nations."
In 1936, a dining carriage was added, making the journey more comfortable. Ran an ad in the London Illustrated News:
Urgent appointments in Paris can be made most easily and restfully by sleeping your way over on the Night Ferry. There is no changing. Breakfast on the train and, just after, you are in the heart of the French capital.
Though the sleeper carriages were the spendier option, those on a budget could always catch a second-class carriage (which you'd have to get out of for the ocean-going part of the journey).
The Night Ferry proved popular — the Duke and Duchess of Windsor liked to use it, as they weren't great flyers — and it appears to have encountered few major hiccups. One of its biggest controversies occurred in 1953, when a Night Ferry attendant was jailed for a year, for smuggling £125k worth of gold and platinum to Paris.
The service ceased to run during the second world war, before starting up again in 1947, and later being taken over by British Railways. Still, a sword of Damocles had always hung over it in the form of an underwater tunnel crossing — a project that had been seriously discussed since the early 1800s. The Night Ferry's days were always numbered.
Ironically, it wasn't the Channel Tunnel that saw off the Night Ferry in the end, but the fact that its sleeper cars were tired and old, and that as few as 65 passengers were using the service for each voyage. It finally gave up the ghost on Halloween 1980, eight years before construction on the Channel Tunnel even began. The next train wouldn't cross the Channel until 1994, and this time it'd be under — not over — the water.