Sunday 6 May 2018

The Aldwych Tube, Bomber's Moon and Negley Farson

Negley Farson (Wikipedia)

Blitz aficionados will be aware of the name of James Negley Farson, the American author, adventurer and fisherman, who wrote one of the best accounts of the London Blitz, Bomber's Moon, published in 1941 and which apart from Farson's vivid descriptions of life in London during 1940, contains some beautiful pencil illustrations from his friend and commercial artist Tom Purvis.

Almost an entire chapter of the book is devoted to shelter life, more specifically to the experiences of those sheltering in the London Underground. The small branch line station at Aldwych - actually located in the Strand - features prominently in this chapter and was the subject of some of the most famous photographs taken of Tube shelterers. This station has been closed to the public since 1994, when the little-used Aldwych branch was finally discontinued. This was partially due to the prohibitive cost of replacing the original 1907 lifts, which although still in perfectly good working order at the time, could not continue to be used for Health & Safety reasons owing to the exposed moving parts in the lift machinery. The station is still in situ and although different schemes have been floated over the years for its re-opening and incorporation into various Tube extensions, it remains as a mute reminder of London's wartime past. The site is occasionally opened to the public in conjunction with the London Transport Museum's Hidden London initiative but tickets are expensive and sell out quickly, so I have never actually been able to visit the station since closure 24 years ago. My memories of the place were those of a vague air of decay but also of a station that would have been instantly recognisable to a wartime shelterer.

Setting the scene outside Aldwych Station (Tom Day)

In addition to these rare public openings, the station is often used for filming and is also utilised by TfL and various Government Departments for training purposes. It was in connection with this latter use that I was recently able to pay a visit, as part of my guiding duties for a British Army group's Battlefield Study tour looking at the London Blitz, amongst other subjects. 

Mother & Baby drawn by Tom Purvis (author's collection - from 'Bomber's Moon')

To try and give the reader some background to the notion of spending the night in an Underground Station whilst bombs are falling "up top", I can do no better than quote directly from Farson himself:

"One night, about six o'clock, I stood in the Strand with the long line of shelterers waiting to go down the famous Aldwych Tube. It was very much in the newspapers at the time. Nearly everyone (except those who were occupying it) believed it had just been opened as a public shelter. The Press, unwittingly, was giving the impression that great things were being done.

As a matter of fact, when the Authorities were complacently accepting all the ballyhoo about throwing it open as a shelter, it had been packed to capacity for over three weeks.

The first person in line was a girl, twenty years old, holding an eighteen-months-old baby in her arms. She told me later, that she was "expecting" again in January. She had been standing there and hour and a half. The next seventy people in line had, of course, been standing there for slightly shorter periods. And there were more people piling up behind them while I was waiting to go down with them. She bared her gums and laughed saying:

'Maybe I'll faint. I did yesterday. Then there was an air raid and they had to let us all down.'

The collapsible steel gates of the tube were locked. They were not supposed to be open until 6:15. But this evening an Underground worker came along and let the crowd down shortly before six. We descended 132 steps. 

The people scampered about the deserted tube platform below to find their favourite places. This girl carried her baby to the far end, spread out a blanket. Then, from somewhere, she produced two sheets of corrugated cardboard - the thick packing case stuff. She placed her baby on top of it:

'So that he won't get damp,' she said simply."

At this stage of the war, there were no facilities at the station and as Negley Farson alluded to in his narrative, it had only been available as a shelter for around three weeks at the time he wrote his piece. He goes on to confirm the lack of basic facilities thus:

"Well, it was quite a scene for a dark, damp, smelly tube - with an open "Gent's" latrine staring you straight in the face. Lest I be accused of painting the picture, this was the Aldwych Tube; the position of the bucket latrine, used by the men, was some ten feet from the stone steps at the end of the platform - and I'll take a chance on it that there will be plenty of witnesses to come forward and swear that the only veil that covered it from public view at that date were two torn strips of burlap - with a jagged unclosable gap between them of at least eighteen inches from top to bottom.  

As one woman put it:

'We have a free public view - stalls. Ha ha!'"

An elderly lady shelterer drawn by Tom Purvis (author's collection from 'Bomber's Moon')

On the outbreak of war, the Chamberlain government had decreed that unlike the 1914-18 War, the London Underground would not be made available for Air Raid Shelter purposes. The vaguely ridiculous reasoning behind this was that allowing the public to shelter in the Tubes would "encourage a troglodyte mentality" - in other words, they were afraid that people would enter the Tubes, never to emerge again, with the resulting catastrophic effect on war production, followed by a general collapse of society. 

When the bombs did start to fall on London, the population used their common sense, ignored the Government's edicts and simply invaded the Tube Stations, invariably by simply buying a ticket to the next station and then refusing to board a train. The Authorities quickly relented and allowed the Tube stations to be used but as Farson mentions in his book, the complacent attitude that had previously been demonstrated took some time to put right and it took some time, running into months, before steel bunk beds, chemical toilets and first aid posts, amongst other facilities began to appear on those stations selected for use as shelters.

Recreated station signage (author's photo)

Aldwych Station had opened in 1907 as part of the Great Northern & Strand Railway and was originally named Strand. It was intended to be the terminus of a line running from Wood Green (now Alexandra Palace) via Finsbury Park and Kings Cross. Whilst under construction, the line was taken over by the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (the modern day Piccadilly Line) and permission was granted to link the two lines via a new tunnel running between Piccadilly Circus and Holborn to connect the two routes. This left the line running down to the Strand as a somewhat superfluous spur that eventually became the Aldwych Branch. The station was renamed Aldwych in 1915 to avoid confusion with the station of the same name (now Charing Cross) owned by the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (now the Charing Cross Branch of the Northern Line).

The Aldwych Branch settled down to life as basically a shuttle service that ran to-and-fro between Aldwych and Holborn Kingsway Stations. It is possible to walk between these two points in less than ten minutes, so it was never a particularly well used service. Probably because of this relative lack of use, the entire branch was selected for use as a shelter and closed to the public on 22 September 1940, shortly after the beginning of the London Blitz. The station had originally been named consisted of two platforms serving a double track line in two tunnels to Holborn but one platform had been closed in 1917, as just one platform and a single track was more than sufficient to cater for the shuttle service. For shelter purposes, the disused platform was also opened up to the public and the train running tunnels (including the disused tunnel) were used by the British Museum to store some of their collection, including the Elgin Marbles. The electric current was switched off and eventually, the platform was built out over the tracks so as to create a much wider area for the shelterers than was normally found on a working station but initially, some of the shelterers had to sleep on the tracks, as the accompanying photo shows.

Aldwych Station - then and now (author's photograph)

My entry into the station was through similar "collapsible steel gates", perhaps the very same that Negley Farson and his fellow shelterers had used nearly 78 years previously. I then walked through one of the original 1907 Otis lifts - both of which are now held statically by large steel beams beneath them - into the Booking Office area, part of which is original and the remainder an elaborate film set which has been retained in situ. Following a safety briefing, our group descended the spiral staircase towards platform level. It was whilst walking down the stairs that my memories of this station began to be rekindled; a somewhat musty, damp smell pervaded the staircase and the passageways leading to the platform. There was also a strange, unaccountable feeling of melancholy - as if the old station was trying to tell us that it was lonely and missed the sound of commuters footsteps.

The beginning of the 132 steps (author's photo)

Walking through the original 1907 Otis elevator (author's photo)

A now lonely passageway echoes to the sound of footsteps once again (author's photo)

Once on platform level, I explained a little of the station's wartime history as well as hearing a interesting briefing as to the history of tunnels and tunnellers in warfare through the ages, a fascination which continues to this day. Whilst listening to this talk, we were disturbed by various distant rumbling sounds and periodical bursts of cool breezes, all of which reminded us that not far away, up the line at Holborn, the Underground network was still operating. The area we had been visiting was Platform "A" which had been the working platform when the line closed to the public in 1994 and which, we had been warned at the Safety Briefing, still contained energised live rails and which was still frequently used for filming. The station has featured in numerous movies, ranging from Battle of Britain, Patriot Games, V for Vendetta and Atonement, to pop videos, perhaps most famously The Prodigy's "Firestarter" in 1996.

Looking south towards the buffers (author's photo)

Looking north towards Holborn (author's photo)

We then moved across to the other platform, disused since 1917, which although bricked off from the main running tunnels, still contained a stretch of the original one hundred year old track, which lay flat on ballast as with surface railway lines and did not contain the now familiar "Anti-Suicide Pit" which we see today at Tube stations. Unfortunately, the sensitive nature of some of the equipment being demonstrated in this area meant that it was not possible to take photographs here on this occasion but the platform presented a strange mixture of old and new, due to the fact that London Underground sometimes use this area to trial new systems of lighting, tunnel panels and other equipment.

The footbridge leading across to the 1917 platform (author's photo)

"Way Out" sign, together with the 'A N' from STRAND which was the station's original name (author's photo)

After about 90 minutes below ground, it was now time to return to the surface and it was at some point during the ascent of the 132 steps that I became painfully aware of how much we took lifts and escalators for granted. Some of my Army colleagues sprinted up the steps, leaving the oldest man in the group to bring up the rear somewhat wearily!

The Leslie Green designed Ticket Hall (author's photo)

Back at surface level, I made a brief inspection of the original Leslie Green designed Ticket Hall, with an elaborate "BOOK HERE" sign, as well as discovering an original 1930s direction sign pointing would-be interchange passengers in the direction of the nearby Temple Station.

1930s signage still extant (author's photo)

The way out to Surrey Street (author's photo)

As mentioned earlier, many proposals have been mooted to incorporate the Aldwych Branch into various other underground extensions and new lines but personally, I rather hope that the line remains preserved as a time capsule looking back into Underground history.

Blinking as we emerged back out into the bright spring sunshine, it was time for me to start earning my keep again as a guide but thanks are due to Major Christopher Garrard of 29 EOD & Search Group HQ for arranging the visit and for allowing me to add an unusual extra dimension to our Battlefield Study Tour.

Printed Source:

Bomber's Moon by Negley Farson, illustrated by Tom Purvis - Victor Gollanz Ltd, 1941