Monthly Archives: November 2015

Down Street Station

This year has been a good year for exploring disused underground tunnels. The London Transport Museum and the British Postal Museum have arranged a number of tours throughout the year, and last Thursday I took my last tour of the year, to the disused London Underground Station at Down Street.

You could argue that once you have seen one old underground tunnel, you have seen them all, however each location is unique and they have their own story to tell of London’s development and recent history. Down Street is no exception and held a critical role in the running of the country’s transport network during the last war.

Down Street station is, as the name suggests, in Down Street which runs from Piccadilly to Hertford Street.

The station opened on the 15th March 1907 on the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (part of today’s Piccadilly line), between the stations at Green Park (or as it was called Dover Street) and Hyde Park Corner.

The station however did not meet expectations on passenger numbers for a number of reasons. Green Park and Hyde Park stations were very close by, the station was in a side street rather than on Piccadilly, and the residents of this affluent area tended to have their own private transport rather than use the Underground.

As a result of the station’s limited use, it closed on the 21st May 1932.

The street level station in Down Street as it is today:

Down Street 28

The exterior design of the station was by Leslie Green who was responsible for a number of other stations on the underground. The design and tiling were used on many other stations and clearly marks out the previous function of the building.

Entrance to the platform level today is via the emergency stairs. An original World War 2 sign at the top of the stairs hints at the use of the station during the last war.

Down Street 1

Looking down the stairs:

Down Street 26

Prior to the start of the last war, committees were formed to coordinate key elements of the country’s war effort. One of these was the Railway Executive Committee (REC) and they were in need of a location which would protect the staff and their telephone communication systems.

The role of the REC was to coordinate and manage the wartime operation of the railway companies and the London transport system.

The REC had representatives from each of the rail companies and the London Passenger Transport Board along with telephone communications with each of these organisations. The REC would coordinate the essential movement of troop trains, ammunitions and equipment, raw materials and other goods critical to the war effort, and manage the impact of enemy bombing on the rail network

At the bottom of the stairs, more signs hinting at the previous use of the station.

Down Street 2

Looking back at the bottom of the stairs. The sign on the wall indicates the depth below ground, with the height of the shaft being 22.22 meters.

Down Street 3

The tunnels were converted to provide accommodation for the REC by both London Transport and the London Midland & Scottish Railway.

London Transport were responsible for structural changes and the Railway Company fitted out the tunnels so they were suitable to provide office and living accommodation for the staff of the REC.

Many of the tunnels were plastered or boarded over, partition walls installed and furnished using stock from both the above ground office of the REC and from Railway Hotels, so the quality of furnishing was reasonably high.

This is the tunnel that held the committee room of the Railway Executive Committee. Originally the tunnel walls were boarded and partition walls installed with doors providing entry and exit to the rest of the tunnels. The white tape on the floor marks the position of the board room table.

Down Street 9

One of the side tunnels was converted to provide bathroom facilities for those who would work a shift of several days below ground. The remains of these still exist, although the decay of the past 70 years is clearly evident. These facilities are in individual alcoves along the side of one of the tunnels. It was fascinating to peer into these as they are in almost total darkness. I had to use flash for these photos.

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Bath in the photo above and sink in the photo below.

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Double sink unit. Really good that the historic value of these facilities has been recognised with signs warning not to remove or damage these objects.

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An original water heater.

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Photo showing how the tunnels were partitioned to provide a narrow walkway past the facilities installed in the tunnel on the right.

Down Street 8

As well as the Railway Executive Committee, Down Street also provided accommodation for Winston Churchill at the height of the Blitz.

The original facilities in Whitehall and the Cabinet War Rooms were not considered strong enough to withstand a direct hit by high explosive bombs and whilst new facilities were being constructed, Churchill needed a secure central London location and Down Street provided this service from October to December 1940.

Despite the amount of change needed to accommodate the REC for the duration of the war, much of the original station signage remains:

Down Street 10

To support the work of the REC, communications were needed with the rest of the country’s railway systems. For the time, an advanced telephone system was installed for this purpose and some of this switching equipment still remains:

Down Street 11

Another view of one of the tunnels showing how they were partitioned with narrow walkways providing access across the complex:

Down Street 12

As well as washing and sleeping facilities, the occupants of Down Street also needed to be fed. The station had a kitchen capable of feeding the 40 staff based on site plus any visitors.

Down Street 13

The Piccadilly line still passes through the station. As part of the construction work to make the station suitable for the REC, a wall was built along the length of the platform edge. This still remains with occasional entrances through to the section of the tunnel with the train tracks.

The noise of passing underground trains echoed throughout much of the station. It must have been difficult to work, and to sleep for those off shift during the time when trains would still be running.

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Stairs up to the tunnels which connect with the lifts bringing passengers to and from ground level.

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Some of the original station signage remains behind later paint, plaster and the accumulated dirt of many decades. Later signage helps with orientation in the tunnels.

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An alcove built during the war to accommodate additional communications equipment:

Down Street 17

Station tunnel:Down Street 18

More original signage:

Down Street 21

Curving tunnels always fascinate. What is around the corner?

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Here is the original lift shaft. Lifts were installed during the original station construction. As part of the work to ready the station for occupancy by the REC, a thick concrete cap was installed to ensure that the impact of any surface bombing could not reach the platform levels through the lift shaft.

Down Street 19

The REC continued to use Down Street until the end of 1947. Since then, there have been no other occupants of the station. Many of the partitions were removed to allow various elements of underground signalling and communications to be installed, but the rest of the REC facilities have been left in slow decay.

The main use of Down Street has been to provide ventilation to the Piccadilly Line which is the role the lift shaft provides today.

Looking up the lift shaft:

Down Street 20

These holes in the wall at the bottom of the lift shaft provided the entrance from the platforms tunnels to the lifts.

Down Street 23

The facilities in Down Street were designed not only to provide protection from explosive bombing, but could also be sealed against gas attack with air filtration equipment providing breathable air for the REC staff. An original wartime door.

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Back up to the surface and heading towards the street:

Down Street 27

Down Street is a fascinating station. It only served the Piccadilly Line for a short period of time, but then played a key role in the war, maintaining the efficient coordination and running of the country’s railways.

The London Transport Museum is performing an excellent service in opening up these old stations with well run tours and very knowledgeable guides.  The tour of Down Street is highly recommended to see the remains of the station’s wartime use.

If you do visit Down Street, near by is Shepherd Market. Also well worth a visit which I covered here.

St Clement Eastcheap

When the 19th century London Bridge was built to replace the original medieval bridge, the new bridge was built slight further west along the river allowing the old bridge to continue in use until the new bridge was completed.

The construction of the 19th century bridge had quite a dramatic impact on the streets on the north bank of the river. I have already covered some examples in my post on the Ticket Porter in Arthur Street which you can find here, and there were more street changes further north.

Today’s post on the church of St Clement Eastcheap provides us with another example.

St Clement Eastcheap is a modest church in Clements Lane almost at the corner with Cannon Street. The church does not have a spire and the church tower is at the same level as the surrounding buildings so unlike many other City churches, you will not find a spire to help locate the church.

The church does though have a fascinating piece of early 18th century graffiti in one of the most unusual locations, more on this later.

So, to start, here is St Clement Eastcheap in Clements Lane taken from Cannon Street.

St Clement Eastcheap 1

St Clement Eastcheap, located in Candlewick Ward, dates from at least the 12th Century, probably earlier and was originally adjacent to the street Great Eastcheap.

The church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Wren between 1683 and 1687. The church suffered very little damage during the 2nd World War which is surprising given the central City location, so the church we see today is much the same as the original Wren construction.

The following map is from the 1940 Bartholomew London Street Atlas. The street plan is also much the same today. St Clement Eastcheap can be seen to the lower right, just above Monument Station.

Clements Lane today, runs between Lombard Street and King William Street which runs on to London Bridge.

St Clement Eastcheap 12

Much of this street plan was created to provide an efficient route onto the new London Bridge with King William Street providing direct access from the major road junction at the Bank.

The extract below from  John Rocque’s map of 1746 shows the street plan when the original London Bridge was still in place.

Here, Gracechurch Street runs to Fish Street Hill then on to London Bridge. Compare this with the above map where Gracechurch Street now curves past Monument Station to King William Street and the approach to London Bridge, highlighting the slight westward move of the bridge.

Just above and to the right of the number 3 in the map below can be seen St Clement. Here, St Clements Lane runs down to Great Eastcheap. Note also how Eastcheap is split into Great and Little Eastcheap, with Little Eastcheap remaining to this day, but now called simply Eastcheap.

Stowe states in his 1603 Survey of London that:

“The street of Great Eastcheape is so called of the Market kept, in the east part of the City, as West Cheape is a market so called of being in the West.

This Eastcheape is now a flesh Market of Butchers there dwelling, on both sides of the street, it had sometime also Cookes mixed amongst the Butchers, and such other as solde victuals readie dressed of all sorts.”

Great Eastcheap was lost when King William Street was built, with Great Eastcheap being included in the end of Cannon Street, King William Street and the Gracechurch Street, Eastcheap section by Monument Station.

St Clement Eastcheap 10

When I visited the church, there was an interesting reminder of the geology of the City. When I entered the church, there was a clear blue sky, however on leaving there was a very heavy rain shower and water was streaming down the narrow Clements Lane, carrying various bits of rubbish in the flow. Whilst today, the water disappeared down the nearest drain, this was a graphical reminder of how much of this side of the City slopes down towards the Thames and how in the past the water and rubbish running down these streets would have been carried straight down towards the river.

On entering the church from the street we look straight at the gilded reredos behind the altar.

St Clement Eastcheap 6

There was some redesign of the interior of the church during the Victorian period and much of the ceiling was renewed in 1925.

The interior of the church has always been relatively simple, Stowe summed up the church as “This is a small church, void of any monuments”, and today the church performs a function which would have surprised Stowe. The pews have been removed and half of the floor space is now office space for charities. A good use and which helps the continued occupation of the church.

Looking back towards the entrance with the charity office space to the left. The original oak casing surrounding the organ appears to have a look of surprise, perhaps because of the current use of the church.

St Clement Eastcheap 5

One of the most unique features of the church can be found in the toilets. Modern toilets have been built up against the original wooden wall panelling as can be seen in the photo below. It cannot be seen in the photo due to the lighting and dark panelling, but on the panelling, just to the left of the small wooden table is some very early 18th century graffiti.

St Clement Eastcheap 8

A close up of the graffiti, dating from the year 1703, carved 15 years after the church was completed. A remarkable survival and very surprising to find this in such a location.

St Clement Eastcheap 9

The church also retains some original Bread Shelves, used to store bread ready for charitable distribution.

St Clement Eastcheap 7

To the side of the church is St Clement’s Court, a narrow lane leading to the small churchyard at the rear of the church.

The plaque on the building on the left reads:

Here lived in 1784

Dositey Obradovich

1742 – 1811

Eminent Serbian man of letters

First Minister of Education

in Serbia

The lane also provides access to some of the office buildings that back onto the rear of the church.

St Clement Eastcheap 13

The remaining churchyard is very small with only a couple of in-situ graves. In 1910, Sir Walter Besant wrote of the churchyard:

“In Church Court we come to the ancient graveyard of St Clement, a minute space with one great shapeless tomb in the centre of the asphalt and a few small erect tombstones on the little border running inside the railings”

Not much has changed in the 105 years since that was written.

St Clement Eastcheap 4

And a couple of gravestones which have been relocated up against the wall of adjoining buildings.

St Clement Eastcheap 3

The church of St Clement, Eastcheap is easy to miss when walking in the area, but well worth a visit, including an essential trip to the toilet to see graffiti from 1703.

Autumn In The City

Whilst the majority of my father’s photos came to me as negatives, a number were printed, and of these some had the location written on the back. As well as the location, a few are also specific about the time of year as the photo reflects how London appears as the seasons change.

For this week’s post, I bring you two photos on which my father had written the simple title “Autumn in Finsbury Circus”.

Both were taken early in the morning and show autumnal light shining through the trees, with the first autumn leaves on the path. There are two photos, one showing a woman pushing what looks like a pram, whilst the second shows a man starting to sweep the fallen leaves.

City in Autumn 2

I suspect that he had taken these photos either for exhibition or competition at the St. Brides Institute Photographic Society as they have a more composed quality rather than the straight forward recording of London’s buildings and streets.

City in Autumn 1

To try and find the location of these photos, a day off from work last Friday provided the opportunity for an autumn walk around London.

Finsbury Circus is much the same today, with one significant exception being that it is a major construction site for Crossrail with the centre of the gardens in the middle of the square being used for access to Crossrail and sections of the path that runs round the perimeter of the gardens also being closed.

If I correctly located the buildings in the background, they were behind part of the closed off path, however parts that remain open provided the opportunity to show that not too much has changed (if you ignore the major construction site to your left).

City in Autumn 3

The layout of Finsbury Circus was established in the early 19th Century, with the office buildings we see today being built over the following century, with some redevelopment continuing today.

As one of the few areas of green space, the gardens were very popular with city workers, with a bandstand and bowling green occupying part of the centre of the gardens. A small, temporary bandstand remains today. The gardens at the centre of Finsbury Circus will be restored after the Crossrail works are complete.

The main entrance to the Crossrail construction site which currently occupies much of the gardens in the centre of Finsbury Circus.

City in Autumn 4

Walking in central London, there are very few indicators of the season of the year. Apart from temperature and the times of the rising and setting of the sun, it could be any time of year. The natural indicators of whether it is spring, summer, autumn or winter are few and far between.

Taking inspiration from the title of my father’s photos, I thought it would be interesting to take a walk through the City and look for any other examples of where autumn can be found in amongst such a built environment.

The weather last Friday at least was very autumnal with strong winds and alternating between heavy showers of rain and clear blue sky (although in fairness that could be English weather at any time of year).

There are very few green spaces left in the City, the majority that remain are usually associated with a church, either still remaining or one that was lost in the last war, and it was to one of these that I headed to after Finsbury Circus.

This is the garden that occupies the site of St. Mary Aldermanbury. a church that was heavily damaged in the last war, not rebuilt and the remains shipped to America (see my first post here). Just south of London Wall at the corner of Aldermanbury and Love Lane.

A heavy rain shower as I stood in the garden, and a strong wind blowing the fallen leaves up against the far wall.

City in Autumn 5

The next stop was the garden that occupies the graveyard of the church of St. Anne and St. Agnes at the corner of Noble Street and Gresham Street.

This garden occupies a relatively small space, however some mature trees reach up to the sky in amongst the surrounding buildings, with the leaves starting to turn to their autumn colours.

City in Autumn 6

Walking to the end of Gresham Street, then turning up St. Martin’s Le Grand I came to Postman’s Park. At this time of year, the sun does not reach above the buildings to the south in order to shine on Postman’s Park, so the park spends much of this time of year in shade that appears to be made darker by the sunlight on the surrounding buildings. Many of the trees here had already lost the majority of their leaves.

City in Autumn 7

Walking out from Postman’s Park into King Edward Street and I was back in the sunshine of an autumn day.

City in Autumn 8

Heading south from Postman’s Park to one of the larger areas of green open space remaining in the City, the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

City in Autumn 9

Here plenty of mature trees can be found around the eastern half of the cathedral and their autumn colours looking spectacular against both the stone of St. Paul’s and the sky.

City in Autumn 10

From St. Paul’s, it was then a walk down Cannon Street, Eastcheap and Great Tower Street to Trinity Square Gardens. (I did miss out the garden at St. Dunstan in the East as the sky to the east was getting very dark and I wanted to get to Trinity Square before another heavy shower of rain).

This large (for the City) open space also benefits from a lack of tall buildings to the south so the rare combination of a City garden that also gets the sun at this time of year.

The pavements showing the signs of recent rain. Overhung by mature trees, the pavements will soon be covered by leaves.

City in Autumn 13

The old Port of London Authority building in the background with the new memorial to Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Merchant Seamen who lost their lives in the Falklands Campaign. The mature trees around the edge of the gardens just starting to change to their autumn colours.

City in Autumn 11

My final visit was to the churchyard of St. Olave in Seething Lane. A small churchyard just catching the last glimpse of an autumn sun, with leaves on the trees starting to fall.

City in Autumn 12

It was a fascinating walk through the city on a typical autumn day with extremes of weather from heavy rain showers to clear blue sky. Even with the amount of building there are still places were it is possible to observe the changing of the seasons and retain contact with the natural cycle through the year.

I fear though that with the ever increasing height of buildings in the City, these valuable survivors of the natural world will be spending more and more of their days in the shadow of their surroundings.

The Lamb And Flag, Rose Street

After the last few weeks of exploring the River Thames and beneath the city streets, this week it is time to return to London in the late 1940s.

This is my father’s photo of the Lamb and Flag pub in Rose Street, near Covent Garden, taken in 1948. The name Lamb and Flag can be seen just above the entrance to the Saloon. On many London pubs of the time, the name of the brewery was given much greater prominence than the name of the pub. Barclay, Perkins & Co. Ltd were a major London brewery operating from the Anchor Brewery in Park Street, Southwark. The brewery was originally founded in 1616, becoming Barclay, Perkins in 1781 when John Perkins and Robert Barclay took over. Barclay, Perkins merged with Courage in 1955 and the brewery closed in the early 1970s.

Lamb and Flag 2

And my photo of the same pub from the same location 67 years later in 2015.

Lamb and Flag 1

The Lamb and Flag occupies one of London’s older buildings. It was originally built at the same time as Rose Street in 1623 and much of the original timber frame survives although the front was rebuilt in 1958 as can be seen in the above two photos.

The 1958 rebuild of the front of the pub lost many of the original architectural features including what appears to be a parapet running the width of the building at the top of the wall.

A close-up from my father’s photo shows the carving of the Lamb and Flag at the centre of the parapet:

Lamb and Flag 3

The pub has a historic interior, unfortunately it was a bit too crowded for photos at the time of my visit.

To the right of the pub is an alleyway with a side entrance to the Saloon Bar. The alleyway leads  through to Lazenby Court.

Lamb and Flag 4

Halfway along the alleyway, the height of the ceiling drops and at this point is a plaque that records some of the history of the pub and the immediate area. The plaque looks very new, however the reference to Courage and Barclays beers rather than those of Fullers, the current brewery, indicates an older source for the text.

Lamb and Flag 10

The plaque makes reference to Charles Dickens as well as one Samuel Butler.

Butler died in a house on Rose Street and is buried nearby at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. He was a royalist during the English Civil War and at the restoration had a number of posts with other royalists who held key positions close to Charles II.

Butler wrote “Hudibras”, a popular satirical poem directed mainly against religious sectarianism and due to his Royalist sympathies focused on the Roundheads and Puritans.

The plaque also records the attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 “at the instance of Louise de Keroualle, Mistress of Charles II” for allegedly having written some scurrilous verses about her.

Louise de Keroualle was unpopular in London for being both French and a Catholic, so may not have been the real culprit and an alternative person responsible for the attack was another alleged target of John Dryden’s writings, John Wilmot the Earl of Rochester.

At the time of the attack, Rose Street was a dark and narrow alley and an ideal place to carry out such a deed. Despite Dryden depositing £50 with Child’s Bank in Fleet Street as a reward, the guilty party, responsible for the attack was never identified and a Mistress of Charles II probably sounds a better attribute to the history of the Lamb and Flag than the Earl of Rochester.

Walking through the alleyway into Lazenby Court. This was probably  more open than it is now, forming a small courtyard behind the pub.

Lamb and Flag 5

The source of the name Lamb and Flag has a religious basis. The “lamb” is from the Gospel of St. John: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world” and the flag being that of St. George.

The pub was also once known as the Bucket of Blood due to links with prize fighting.

An older sign for Lazenby Court is partly hidden behind the direction sign for the pub.

Lamb and Flag 6

Rose Street runs from Long Acre, adjacent to the map and travel bookshop, Stanfords, down to Garrick Street, however today, it is cut in half by Floral Street.

As with many London streets, it has changed over the years. The following extract from John Rocque’s survey of London from 1746, shows Rose Street, with the alley running up from where the street bends to the left, in exactly the same position as the alley of today, however in 1746 it led to Glastonbury Court rather than today’s Lazenby Court. A very narrow Rose Street runs up to Long Acre.

To the right of Rose Street is Little Hart Street. Today, this street has been renamed Floral Street and extended just past the end of Rose Street where it meets Garrick Street, a street also not yet built in 1746 which cuts diagonally from the junction of Long Acre and St. Martins Lane (the street on the left with just the word Lane showing) down to King Street.

As far as I can tell from checking maps, the part of Rose Street leading up to Angel Alley, along with Angel Alley was lost when Little Hart Street was extended and renamed Floral Street.

Lamb and Flag 11

Older sign for Rose Street above the modern name sign.

Lamb and Flag 7

In Rose Street, just in front and to the right of the Lamb and Flag is the Westminster Fire Office, one of the original fire insurance companies who also ran a private fire fighting service.

Lamb and Flag 9

The door to the building records key dates for the Westminster Fire Office. 1717 was the founding year of the company. Offices were originally based in nearby King Street, but as the company grew more space was needed and in 1875 the company expanded into the building in Rose Street.

Lamb and Flag 8

The Lamb and Flag pub is a fascinating historic pub close by Covent Garden and Rose Street is an original street from the development of this part of London. They are both well worth a visit.

The Post Office Railway

There is a parallel city beneath the streets of London with all the services needed to support such a complex city. Changes in the life of the city above ground are often reflected below ground with new means of transport and the closure of services that have become outdated.

One of these is the Post Office Railway which ran the six and a half miles from Paddington in the west to Whitechapel in the east, with a total of eight stations located below key postal sorting offices including the major sorting office at Mount Pleasant.

I have long wanted to see this railway and in October the British Postal Museum arranged a limited number of tours of the railway at Mount Pleasant.

My first introduction to the Post Office Railway was reading my first book on what is below the city streets, Under London, by F.L. Stevens, published in 1939. This book describes a visit to the railway when it was in full operation.

The plan for the railway was to speed the delivery of mail between the main London sorting offices and the key rail stations. The streets of London were getting more congested and removing the transport of mail from the streets would save time and help reduce congestion.

Construction of the railway stared in 1914, however construction had to be suspended due to the shortage of manpower and materials during the first world war and the sections of tunnel that were completed were used for storage of rare and valuable items from the London museums.

Construction started again in the early 1920s and the railway fully opened in 1927 and in the period up to the 2nd world war it was carrying six and a half million letter-bags and four  million parcel-bags a year.

The railway closed in 2003. The closure of a number of the sorting offices above ground that connected to the railway reduced the efficiency of the service, and transport by road was seen to be a more economical method.

Since then, it has been mothballed, however the British Postal Museum have plans to open up the platforms and a section of the railway at Mount Pleasant as part of a new museum and visitor centre.

The visit to the railway started with the main workshop area. Much of the repair and maintenance of the railway was performed in-house and these workshops had the majority of facilities to keep the service running.

The view on entering the workshops:

Post Office Railway 1

In the workshops. Two main workshop areas leading to a common space. Trains from the railway can be driven up from the tunnels below for maintenance.

Post Office Railway 2

One of the workshop areas. The ramp leading down to the tunnels is on the left.

Post Office Railway 3

Looking down the tunnel that connects the underground tunnel system with the workshops.

Post Office Railway 4

Lathe in the workshop showing the in-house capabilities.

Post Office Railway 5

Most of the original equipment and signage is still in place. Although the railway closed twelve years ago it felt as if it could spring back into action at any time.

Post Office Railway 6

Looking down one of the workshop areas.

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Original rolling stock in the maintenance area.

Post Office Railway 8

Having walked around the workshop areas, it was now down to the platform where the trains would arrive and depart with their loads of letters and parcels. Two more items of rolling stock waiting at the platform. During peak operation, forty of these trains an hour travelled underneath the streets of London carrying letters and parcels.

Post Office Railway 9

The one nearest the platform had been modified to carry passengers. The size of the rolling stock reflect the nine foot diameter of the main tunnels on the system.

Post Office Railway 10

One of the specialised trains. This one is battery powered (the batteries are carried in the large box on the top of the train). If a train needed to be recovered from the tunnels with the power switched off, the train could independently go and retrieve.

Post Office Railway 11

Looking down the full length of the platform.

Post Office Railway 12

F.L. Stevens writing in Under London in 1939 also visited the same station, and it was fascinating to recall his account of the railway in operation whilst standing on the same platforms over 76 years later:

“I made my introduction to the Post Office railway at Mount Pleasant, a station which occupies a key position in the system. It was rather queer to find oneself in a clean and large underground station so like all the others – and yet so different. There were no advertisements on the wall, and that was the first odd thing I noticed. Then there were the little perky trains, stopping and setting off again without any apparent sign of control. Of course, the control is there all right, and very thorough and alert it is, but you cannot see it. The electric locomotives have a kind of robot head and face, which seems to be perpetually at the wink, and saying ‘Pretty clever, eh?’

Picture the scene on the west-bound platform at Mount Pleasant. here comes our train, running smoothly out of the tunnel and stopping at precisely the appointed place. Actually it stops twice at Mount Pleasant; once for letters at one end of the long platform, and again for parcels at the other.

As soon as it stops, a couple of men step forward and move the containers – shaped like long cradles – on to tippers, which turn the containers upside down, emptying the bags on to conveyors running beneath the platform. In a few seconds the bags are emptied again into a “bag elevator”, which is really a big dredger, with great buckets which scoop up the bags as they fall and carry them up to a sorting office above ground.

Whilst this is going on, letter-bags from the offices above are tumbling down the chute (which is exactly  like a helter-skelter at the fair ground) on to the platforms, where they are piled into empty containers in readiness for the next train. It is all done very quietly and methodically; the three-minute service is operating and everything goes like clockwork.

Meanwhile our train moves on a hundred yards or so to the parcels end of the platform. The men can see at once from the ticket fixed to the containers which parcels are meant for them, and off they come and are wheeled, not to a tipper this time, but to a conveyor, a kind of endless carpet, moving uphill at quiet a steep gradient. It is odd to watch the parcels drop on to the conveyor. Many of them seem to come to life, and act just like children. They do not want to go up the moving hill, so they dance and writhe, sit up for a minute and fall back, sometimes clutching their neighbour, turning head over heels, or just shaking with rage. After a few seconds these fits of obstinacy pass, and they lie down and disappear in the shadows of their upward journey.

But who is controlling all this, you might ask? Who knows when the men have finished unloading and loading? Well, as soon as the job is finished, and the train is ready to set off again, the head man of the platform staff presses a button. A red light appears, which means ‘ Stand clear and don’t touch’. At the same time, a green light, meaning ‘Set her off,’ appears in the underground switch-cabin which is the nerve-centre of the system.”

All is silent now on the Post Office Railway and it will not carry any more letters or parcels.

Having reached the end of the platform, it was now time to take a look at some of the tunnels.

Post Office Railway 13

There seem to be numerous tunnels. The main tunnels running to the next stations, loop tunnels between the platforms and tunnels up to the workshops.

Post Office Railway 14

Tunnels into the stations are 25 foot in diameter.

Post Office Railway 15

Here is the tunnel leading of to the next station, this is where the tunnels reduce to 9 foot in diameter. The tunnels between stations are on average 70 foot below ground level.

Post Office Railway 16

The stations that these tunnels connect were:

  • Paddington Station
  • Western Parcels Office – Barrett Street
  • Western District Office – Wimpole Street
  • West Central District Office – New Oxford Street
  • Mount Pleasant – Main London Sorting Office
  • King Edward Building Sorting Office – King Edward Street
  • Liverpool Street Station
  • Eastern District Office – Whitechapel Road

In between stations the trains would get up to 35 miles per hour. The tunnels are designed so that they slope up towards a platform to help reduce the speed of the train, and slope down from a station to help accelerate the train.

The tunnel curving into the distance.

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Part of the loop tunnel between platforms was painted white with Christmas paintings in paint that will glow under ultra-violet lighting. This was for Christmas Parties organised by the staff when children would be taken on a train between the two platforms in the dark, but with the paintings on the wall glowing under the special light.

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Another reduction in tunnel diameter.

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Tunnels leading off in all directions.

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Back on the platforms, one of the essential bits of equipment.

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Standing on the platform imagining the scene as described by F.L. Stevens with the trains running up to the platforms, being unloaded, loaded with new mail and parcel bags and running on to the next station.

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Some of the platform equipment for managing letter and parcel bags.

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It was a fascinating tour run by the British Postal Museum with very informative and knowledgeable guides. When opened as part of the new museum, the Post Office Railway will be a great example of London’s industrial heritage.