Ghosts Beneath Our Feet
The Mayfair Times 00-11-1988
Some secrets of London's underground railways... by Christopher Long.
Tucked away in a dim side street off Shepherd Market in Mayfair is a little-known, ruby-red entrance to a subterranean and ghost-filled vault.
Across Hyde Park corner a similar, blood-red entrance lurks beside St George's Hospital, though this time with a bright neon-lit face beguiling enough to tempt thousands of tourists inside to eat Pizzas On The Park just yards above yet another deep-level haunt of spectres.
Further away, between Knightsbridge and South Kensington a third identical entrance sits mysteriously beside The Brompton Oratory.
You would need to be in your sixties or seventies today to recognise these for what they really are and only a senile ninety year-old might still direct lost tourists in Mayfair to the tube at Down Street.
In fact it's over fifty years since the famous names of Mayfair tube stations vanished from the street and tube maps. Dover Street station changed its name to Green Park in 1933 when its own ruby-red, terracotta-tiled entrance was removed and the station was re-sited. Down Street station near Piccadilly at the bottom of Down Street still stands, though closed for business since 1932. Brompton Road station, opposite the east side of Brompton Oratory, closed in 1934.
The most intriguing aspect of these stations is that they represent time capsules beneath the pavements of London which could and perhaps should be used for something.
Those who have visited the Brompton Road Station, for example, say that the winding stairs lead down onto time-warp platforms which would make a superb mini-museum of enormous interest. The same could be said of Hyde Park, Down Street and, if there's anything left of it, Dover Street.
If so, it would not be the first time that new and unusual uses were found for them. While Londoners packed the platforms and tunnels of other deep-level London tube stations during the Blitz [in World War ll], Winston Churchill and his war cabinet are said to have held secret meetings on the bomb-proof platforms of Down Street station until the vast warren of purpose-built War Cabinet Rooms were completed in Whitehall. Similarly, at Brompton Road, London's air defence command set up shop for the duration below ground establishing a link which survives to this day since both the RAF Escaping Society and the University of London Air Squadron still have offices and training rooms above the old ticket hall at 206 Brompton Road.
Despite the inadequate, shabby and dubiously managed service provided by London Regional Transport, London's Underground and deep-level tube systems deserve a better memorial than the legacy we see today. The Piccadilly Line was, along with the Northern Line and the Bakerloo Line, an awe-inspiring feat of engineering, quite as remarkable as today's Channel Tunnel, when it was completed in 1906. The narrow 11 ft. 8.25 in. diameter tunnels, interspersed with 350 ft long platforms, were the result of mind-boggling and cut-throat entrepreneurial gymnastics on the part of development and financing companies whose long-term vision, enterprise and daring could teach Mrs Thatcher's Britain a lot today.
Like the great and glamorous independent steam railway companies, businessmen like the American Charles Yerkes, and his accomplice Sir Robert Perks, poured millions into the creation and exploitation of a lavish, comfortable and efficient method of transport to rival those of competing, privately operated lines.
Yerkes' Brompton & Piccadilly Co. stations, stretching from King's Cross to Hammersmith, introduced the standard ruby-red, terracotta station entrances at each stop. The ticket offices were smothered in brass, mahogany and elegant decorative furnishings.
The revered station designer Leslie W. Green was only twenty-nine when he designed these opulent entrances to his sumptuously appointed deep-level platforms. One hundred and seventy brass and mahogany Otis Elevator Co. lifts entranced his passengers as they plunged sedately to platforms furnished with hundreds of comfortable mahogany garden seats, punctiliously accurate station clocks and distinctively different decorative tiles at each station so that passengers would sub-consciously recognise their required station from the train without even having to read the name for the benefit of the poor-sighted or illiterate.
Each platform had at least one uniformed attendant and no effort was spared in maintaining clean, attractive, comfortable stations and trains. Also paramount was the regularity, frequency and speed of the train service provided and this was to cause the demise of both Brompton Road and Down Street stations. To achieve a journey time of twenty-eight minutes from Finsbury Park to Hammersmith (faster than today's service), these two stations were regarded as surplus to requirements.
London's underground and tubes (strictly speaking the former refers to shallow cut-and-cover type railways like the Metropolitan and District Lines while the latter are deep-level, narrow-bore lines like the Central) provide numerous little-known quirks.
All over London there are buildings which look real but which are really just disguised ventilation shafts. Similar ventilation shafts sprout up as ornamental pavilions in public parks and gardens.
And in Leinster Terrace there is the now-famous Victorian terrace frontage which looks just like a house with windows, a door and a convincing appearance of solidity but which is in fact a brilliant piece of trompe l'oeil just 18 inches thick, disguising a huge air-vent void behind it. So convincing is it that a famous hoax in the 1930s netted a fortune for someone who sold 10 guinea charity ball tickets to hundreds of party-goers who turned up in evening dress and got no reply at the door.
Ghosts, they say, are the spirits of those who are themselves haunted unable to leave one world or enter the next. In my view, London's ghost tube stations should be brought back into this world as fascinating recreations of a more civilised and elegant era of London's transport history. And as reminder to those who run the system today that many men made many millions by providing well-manned, well-designed, efficient, regular, rapid and comfortable transport eighty years ago from whom a lot could be learned.
© (1988) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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