Hidden London’s evocative photos of dereliction will fascinate commuters and tourists alike
When riding the Tube, passengers sometimes get flashing glimpses of lit side tunnels or abandoned stations. Before they fully register them, the sights are gone and passengers are left with a short-lived curiosity about the hidden life of their primary means of travel about London. The long complex history of the London Underground network has generated a legacy of disused stations, defunct lines and disregarded buildings. Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground (published by London Transport Museum in association with Yale University Press) presents some of those in pictorial format with extensive explanatory commentary.
Parts of this story will be familiar to anyone who has disappeared down those rabbit holes of Wikipedia that beckon us when we are killing time. Closed stations, merged stations, tracks abandoned and service tunnels not open to the public are the inevitable by-product of a system that emerged piecemeal under multiple companies since 1863 and has had to serve a vast and changing city. Amateur historians of LU have long applied formidable scrutiny to plentiful available documentation, so there is little in this book that will be unknown to dedicated fans of LU trivia, but for general readers this is an ideal companion to lost elements of London’s underground rail system.
There is a strange power to encountering these images of lost ages, at once melancholy and sinister. These are time capsules, albeit with modern lighting and cable trunking. Tiled walls and floor and enamelled signs remain, all displaying the exact period of construction, with marks visible where valuable and moveable fittings (such as clocks) had been. Blueprints are reproduced, allowing us to see the extent of the lost stations. Old route maps show former line networks and also planned routes never completed.
Sections focus on particular places not open to the public. Number 55 Broadway (over St James’s Park underground station) was built as the offices of LU management. It is a grand modernist building, complete with a statue by Jacob Epstein. Clapham South’s tunnels under the Common were recently used for archival storage and hydroponic plant cultivation. Highgate station, near Archway, never opened. On the verge of completion in 1939, it was delayed by the outbreak of war before post-war austerity led to the scrapping of the Northern Heights extension to the Northern Line. Its raison d’etre to serve as an interchange for the Northern Heights gone, it was mothballed. It is now home to colonies of rare bats.
The story is told of King William Street, which opened in the City in 1890. It was built with the niceties that Victorian conventions stipulated, such as a ladies waiting room. In 1900 it closed, made redundant by the nascent Circle/District line running along the Embankment. In 1939 it was converted into a bomb shelter, visitors found Victorian posters peeling but still legible on walls. Around London, disused tunnels and stations were opened as air-raid shelters during the Second World War for local residents. Aldwych station in the heart of London’s West End became the most famous of these – very necessary for attendees of nearby theatres.
Those familiar with Henry Moore’s drawings and press photographs of the underground-station shelters can be forgiven for thinking these to have been snug and comradely places. This book quotes a London resident who attests to the crowding, discomfort, bad smell and unsanitary conditions in the underground-station shelters. So bad were these that many people preferred to take their chances sleeping at home. Protection was not assured underground. Balham Tube received a direct hit that killed 60 people. In 1943 173 people were killed in a crush attempting to enter Bethnal Green station during an air raid.
Down Street station was converted to a headquarters for national railways, keeping the railways going despite damage and disruption of wartime bombing. Churchill ordered a bunker there opened for his personal use, though it seems the records of this were purged after the war. Today the entrance to station – with its standard brick arches and glazed maroon tiles – is visible on street level, part of it converted into a shop. The most intriguing station is North End on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Never opened to the public, the site was used as a military bunker during the Second World War and into the Cold War.
In other cases, parts of active stations are inaccessible. The addition of new lines or installation of escalators has meant that tunnels have been blocked up or repurposed as ventilation shafts. Many people recall the Jubilee platforms of Charing Cross, now disused as the redirected line bypasses that station since the line’s recent extension. Likewise, some Buckinghamshire readers will remember the Ongar and Quainton Road stations, two rural stations at the end of the Metropolitan Line, which were finally closed in 1994, after years of making a loss. They are now connected by a heritage line run by volunteers, preserved with care the way many “working” stations cannot be. They appear in filmed period dramas. Long-closed Verney Junction is no longer accessible and Brill station has disappeared into the rural landscape. LU had little interest in maintaining these legacy stations inherited from the Metropolitan Railway’s Victorian network and were glad to have these little-used peripheral concerns closed.
A mixture of new, archive and vintage photographs makes visible to us those overlooked buildings and vents that Londoners pass daily without noticing. Expert authors explain why areas dropped from usage and fit these changes into the evolution of the Tube. Current-day photographs show what is only visible to the public on guided tours. There are no revelations about top secret installations or underground command centres – but then there wouldn’t be, would there? Hidden London’s evocative photographs of dereliction and the stories behind them will fascinate commuters, casual Tube users and tourists alike.
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