Over the past fifty years London has been home to a number of transport museums, the first incarnation being the British Transport Museum which opened at a former bus garage on Triangle Place, Clapham in the early 1960s.
The collection housed at this early site included trains, buses and trams from all over the UK. The gallery below contains a number of images from the Illustrated London News depicting the museum as it appeared in the early 1960s.
Before long the large exhibits began to outgrow their space and so the big locomotives were transferred to the purpose built National Railway Museum in York. Other items specific to the capital were sent to a new home; the London Transport Collection which opened at Syon Park in 1973.
In 1980 the collection moved once again, this time to an old market hall in Covent Garden where it has remained ever since and is now known as the London Transport Museum.
Although the London Transport Museum is one of the capital’s most popular attractions, what visitors see represents only a small fraction of the collection. To see the rest, you must head to Acton where the museum maintains a vast, 6,000 square meter depot containing over 320,000 artefacts which cannot be squeezed into the Covent Garden site. It’s the sort of place Willy Wonka would’ve dreamt up had he dabbled in transport rather than chocolate.
The catch with the Acton Depot is that it’s only open a few times a year; the next dates being the 24th and 25th September 2016. For those of you cannot make it, here’s a taste of what lies inside…
There are signs everywhere…
Row upon row of them, from all eras, taken from every station and bus stop you can imagine.
Countless tube roundels representing the system’s development over the years.
And lots of original maps too, many of which would look quite unfamiliar to today’s commuters. This one shows Aldwych station which closed in 1994.
This one’s a bit of a shocker; no doubt it would deter most from trespassing on live rails.
First opened in 1863, the London Underground is the world’s oldest subterranean railway, so unsurprisingly there’s a lot of history packed into the Acton Depot.
Carriages on the earliest line; the pioneering Metropolitan Railway were wooden, gas-lit and hauled by steam locomotives. Here’s the Metropolitan’s crest, emblazoned on the side of a third-class coach.
For years the Metropolitan Railway carried freight as well as commuters. Milk was one of the most popular goods, ferried from the countryside straight into the heart of The City in study churns.
The world’s first deep-level electric tube was the City & South London Railway which opened in the 1890s between Stockwell and King William Street. It now forms part of the Northern Line. Here are some hefty iron segments forged for the original tunnel lining.
The deepest station on the tube network is Hampstead which opened in 1907. Here’s a segment from a vintage lift which whisked passengers between the street and the platforms.
This tube ‘motor car’ was built for the Central London Railway– aka the ‘Twopenny Tube’, now known as the Central Line- in 1903. Trains of this model carried passengers up until WWII and were later converted into ‘sleet locomotives’ for de-icing tracks; a task they slogged out until the mid-1980s.
Improbable as it may sound to younger Londoners now, escalators throughout the tube network were once constructed from wood. They were phased out following the King’s Cross Fire in 1987, although the last wooden escalator remained in service at Greenford station until 2014.
This is part of an experimental, winding spiral escalator which was installed at Holloway Road tube station in 1906. The project flopped and lay forgotten until 1988 when it was rediscovered in a shaft, buried beneath heaps of rubble.
Running a shuttle service between just two stations, the Waterloo & City line is the shortest on the Underground. Until the early 1990s, the line was operated by British Rail making it something of an anomaly and the reason why this carriage is decked out in blue and white. Built in 1940, this unit was also painted dark green during in its time and remained in service for fifty years.
Built in 1940, this hefty fan once spun in the Adelaide Road ventilation shaft at Swiss Cottage. Because it was installed during WWII, the fan (and others like it) was designed to run backwards in the event of a gas attack. Thankfully this aspect was never required and the fan hummed away right up until 1999.
This is one of the few remaining R-Stock trains which were constructed in Birmingham and Gloucester from lightweight aluminium between 1949 and 1959. Noted for their distinctive windows and flared sides, the R-Stock trains could be spotted on the District line until 1983.
These vintage fire extinguishers were a common site on the tube for many years… and came with rather unusual instructions.
Built by Cravens of Sheffield, the A-Stock trains were introduced in 1961 and served the Metropolitan line until 2012. For a time they also ran on the old East London line which is now part of the Overground. Originally coloured silver, the A-Stock were the fastest trains on the network, capable of reaching speeds of up to 70mph as they roared through the suburbs of Metroland. They also boasted luggage racks; a quaint feature now sadly absent from today’s tube.
For decades trains on the Underground carried guards who worked from a cordoned off area in a designated carriage, barking out the familiar phrase, “Mind the doors!” at each station. The very last train to operate with a guard ran on the Northern line in January 2000.
Passenger operated door buttons first appeared on tube trains in the 1930s. They were abandoned in the late 1950s, but made a return on District line trains in the early 1980s and are now in use across the network. Here’s a vintage, pre-war rubber example.
When Queen Elizabeth officially opened the Victoria line in 1969, it was in this carriage that she hitched a ride- including a go in the driver’s cab.
These two tube carriage posters date from the late 1960s/early 70s. One advertises ‘Humpty on Ice’ at Wembley… the other a strongly worded warning to wannabe football hooligans.
We’ve got Oyster cards and contactless now, but years ago commuters had to grapple with these hefty ticket machines which look like they belong more at home in Dr Who’s Tardis.
This train was built in 1938 and used for maintenance on the tube. Because it often worked at night when the electrical current was switched off, it was battery operated. When first delivered it was coloured maroon, but later changed to yellow to make it more visible to workers. It remained in service until 1992.
Nicknamed a ’10 ton, 3-plank’, this ballast wagon was one of 100 ordered by the Metropolitan Railway in 1897. It would’ve been used during WWII by crews repairing air-raid damage and remained in service until 1970.
This is the funky interior of a 1983 Jubilee line carriage, complete with wooden floors and garish, orange decor. This particular design served the line until 1998. Two of its cousins can now be seen perched high above Great Eastern Street where they’ve been adapted as workshops for Shoreditch’s Village Underground. Another 1983 unit can be found tucked away inside Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital where it’s used as the studio for ‘Radio Lollipop’.
This ultra-rare tube carriage appeared in 1986 as a prototype for a new Central line train. There were two other designs; one coloured red, the other blue with Londoners invited to judge which they preferred. If you’ve used the Central Line, you’ll know that this pastel green number wasn’t the winner…
Signalling equipment from Elephant and Castle.
There are no airs and graces at the Acton Depot. Much of it feels like an attic where various bits and bobs have been chucked to gather dust- such as these signs and knick-knacks.
This beauty’s a London Beardmore Taxi, licensed for use in 1955. Beardmores were considered the Rolls Royce of taxis and a number of models were designed between the 1910s and 1960s. As with other vintage cabs the luggage rack was open to the elements resulting in a lot of soggy suitcases.
For many cabbies including myself, this sign strikes a note of fear… for it used to be displayed outside the Public Carriage Office on Penton Street, Islington, the intimidating building where students on the Knowledge had to sit their many, fearsome appearance exams. I had to pass this metal sign many times and was nervous as hell every time I did. The PCO has since moved to Southwark.
Based upon an earlier design for a prototype Beardmore taxi, the Metrocab was first made available to cabbies in 1987. Production ceased in 2006, but the Metrocab brand will soon be reentering the market with a new zero-emission model.
Badge for the London Vintage Taxi Association.
Buses, Trams and Trolleybuses
Horse-drawn omnibuses were the Routemasters of their day. Each route was colour coded which was pretty vital in the days when many folk were illiterate and is a system which lives on in today’s tube map. This particular wagon was introduced in 1885 and trotted the yellow line from Baker Street to Waterloo until 1911.
This beautiful old tram was built in 1908 in Motherwell, Scotland and rattled through London until 1952.
Known as a B-type, this was one of London’s first motor buses and began running between Barnes and Liverpool Street in 1914. When WWI erupted in August of that same year many London buses- including this one- were commandeered for use on the Front Line to act as ambulances and troop transporters. This gnarled warrior was restored in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of that appalling conflict.
This Green Line coach used for long distance express services between London and the surrounding counties was built in 1930. During WWII this particular bus was used as an ambulance around Hendon and Golders Green. Other vehicles of this model were adapted by the American army as mobile kitchens dubbed ‘clubmobiles’.
The gallery below features more classic buses from the early 20th century…
Trolleybuses operated in London between the 1930s and 1960s. This one served route 604 between Hampton Court and Raynes Park.
This is a Tower Wagon, built in 1937 for maintaining and repairing tram and trolleybus wires. Crew working on the raised platform communicated with the driver by ringing a bell.
This American Indian chief was the mascot of Guy Motors, a manufacturer based in Wolverhampton. He’s on top of a Greenline bus that was built in the 1950s and based at a garage in Amersham.
This Green Line bus was built in 1977 and remained in service until 1982. Although reliable, it had a reputation for having very bumpy suspension.
As well as the full-size trains, buses, cabs and trams, the Acton Depot also contains many intriguing miniatures.
This is a scale model of the vast Aldenham depot which was based near Elstree. Opened in 1956, Aldenham became the main service and maintenance centre for London’s bus fleet. It closed in 1986 and was demolished ten years later.
A tiny tube train…
And an architect’s model of a Bank station platform.
This rather sombre model lies shrouded in a quiet corner of the depot. It’s a representation of Kings Cross underground station, made for the 1988 Fennell inquiry which examined the causes behind the tragic fire that had claimed 31 lives the previous year.
Prototype model for the new generation of tube carriages.
This charming architect’s model from the late 1950s was used to represent Bank stations’s proposed airport-style ‘travelator’ which opened in 1960.
This architect’s model for Canary Wharf station was created by Sir Norman Foster’s company in 1990. The station opened in 1999 and was recently voted London’s best loved tube station.
As well as being one of London’s major transport hubs, the Elephant and Castle (or, more simply, the ‘Elephant’ as locals like to call it) is one of the capital’s more peculiarly named areas.
Thanks to its post-war jumble of tower blocks, roaring traffic and gloomy pedestrian subways, Elephant and Castle has become rather unloved over the years… which, when you consider the area’s long and fascinating history, is a sentiment nothing short of travesty.
Before the Elephant
Before acquiring its unique name, the land which would eventually become the Elephant and Castle was occupied by a village known as Newington which came under Walworth; a manor listed in the 1086 Domesday Book as being part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s portfolio.
Today, the name of the early settlement lives on in two roads- Newington Causeway and Newington Butts which lie either side of the present day junction.
Many historians believe that ‘Butts’ is a reference to archery butts; a strip of land dedicated to practising bow and arrow firing.
During the Medieval era, such exercise grounds existed all over the kingdom thanks to a law drawn up in 1252 which stated all Englishmen between the ages of 15 and 60 were required to own a bow and to practice their shooting skills every Sunday!
The Elephant stomps in
The Elephant and Castle eponym evolved thanks to a tavern which established itself in the area (to this day, a pub by the same name operates on the junction’s northern roundabout).
Although the image of an elephant partnered with a castle was fairly common at the time, what the pub’s owner was precisely referring to when they named their boozer remains a mystery.
Perhaps it was an allusion to a heraldic symbol? Or an early chess piece?
Then again, the landlord may have been aligning the tavern with the Worshipful Company of Cutlers; the guild responsible for regulating the manufacture of weapons and cutlery who, for many years, incorporated ivory into the handles of their wares- hence their coat of arms bearing the Elephant and Castle icon:
Or perhaps the unusual name was a reference to the time when Louis IX of France presented King Henry III with an elephant as a gift; the donated jumbo being gladly received and placed in the Royal Menagerie which, in those days, was housed in the Tower of London.
Sadly, this celebrated pachyderm somehow managed to wangle its trunk into a large rake of wine… an indulgence which evidently killed the sorry beast after three years spent in the tower.
At least it died happy…
A very early reference to the district’s now famous name can be found in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, penned circa 1601.
In the play, Antonio informs Sebastian that a good place to lodge for the night is “in the south suburbs, at the Elephant.”
Although Twelfth Night is set nowhere near London (or even England), it is likely that Shakespeare slotted the name in as a cheeky local reference which most of the audience would have understood- the Bard’s Globe Theatre being situated just under a mile away from the area.
It is also possible that the allusion may have been included as an early form of advertising for the tavern, especially as it was within staggering distance of sinful Southwark’s playhouses and debauchery!
The area begins to boom
In 1760, a blacksmith’s workshop in the village was enlarged and converted into a tavern which adopted the Elephant and Castle title.
The newly established premises gradually developed into an important coaching inn, with traffic and trade boosted by the opening of nearby Westminster Bridge (in 1751) and Blackfriars Bridge (in 1769).
With London’s road network expanding around these two new and vital river crossings, the Elephant and Castle quickly became an important hub in the capital’s burgeoning transport network.
In 1861 and encouraged by the Elephant’s growing prominence, the Reformed Baptist church decided to build their main place of worship in the area- the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
As well as the growing importance of the Elephant and Castle, the Reformed Baptists also chose the location as it marks the approximate site where the ‘Southwark Martyrs’ (a group of Protestants executed during the reign of Mary I for their faith) were suffered the brutal fate of being burnt at the stake.
When it first opened, the Metropolitan Tabernacle had a congregation numbering over 5,000 people.
Despite being destroyed by fire in 1898 and Nazi bombs in 1941, the main front portico survived and remains a prominent Elephant and Castle landmark.
Rebuilt in 1957, the interior now hosts religious sermons which are broadcast on Sky Television every Saturday afternoon.
The role of Elephant and Castle as a major transport hub developed even further with the arrival of the railways (in 1863) and the Underground in 1904- with the Bakerloo line making the Elephant their southern terminal.
The Elephant also became a vital cog in London’s sprawling tram network.
Thanks to its multitude of transport links, Elephant and Castle grew into a major shopping and entertainment destination during the early 20th century, earning it the nickname; the ‘Piccadilly of South London.’
A short, moving film from the early 1950s entitled ‘The Elephant Will Never Forget‘ which details the end of tram services in London can be viewed below:
Glamour at the Elephant
Two of the most popular destinations in the Elephant’s glitzy heyday were the large department store, William Tarn and Co, and the mighty Trocadero cinema.
Opened in 1930, the Trocadero (which stood on the present site of the modern Elephant and Castle pub), was a glorious picture-house, capable of seating 3,000 movie-goers.
It also boasted Europe’s largest Wurlitzer organ.
In 1932, the Trocadero was joined by a second cinema; the Coronet; an art-deco 2,000 seater picture house which opened up on the opposite side of the road after being converted from the Victorian built, Theatre Royal.
The theatre (known then as the ‘Elephant Theatre’) can be seen in the following 1920s clip, London at Night, filmed a few years before its conversion to a cinema:
Despite the glitz, the Elephant was still home to many of London’s impoverished, including a large number of down and outs, footage of whom was also included in London at Night:
Although the Elephant’s colossal Trocadero has long since vanished, the Coronet is still going strong, now employed as a venue for many varied events ranging from club nights to boxing.
A very famous resident
Despite being no longer able to provide an evening out at the pictures, Elephant and Castle is now home to The Cinema Museum which can be found on Dugard Way.
Although discreet (at present, if you wish to visit, a tour must be booked), this museum maintains a vast collection of historical cinematic artefacts ranging from the 1890s to the present day; everything from usher’s uniforms and vintage cinema fittings, to publicity shots and rare celluloid reels.
The Cinema Museum is housed within a rather extraordinary building… it was once the administration block for Lambeth’s former Victorian Workhouse.
In the late 1890s, one of the many poor Londoners to spend time within this depressing institution was a young child called Charles Spencer Chaplin.
A few years later, and under the more informal version of his name, this former young workhouse inmate would go onto become the world’s first movie superstar… Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie was very much a local lad, born less than half a mile away from the Elephant on East Street which, to this day, is still home to a popular market.
Growing up in South London, Charlie’s childhood was defined by crushing poverty.
Along with a chronic lack of cash, his mother, Hannah Chaplin, also suffered from poor mental health; a condition which led to her spending time in the Bedlam Lunatic Asylum.
Today, you can still visit the hospital in which Charlie’s mother was incarcerated… it is now the Imperial War Museum, a short walk away from the heart of Elephant and Castle.
Charlie Chaplin’s childhood experiences of growing up in the area would later influence his famous film work which was characterized by a mixture of working-class humour and heart-breaking pathos, with those in authority often portrayed as bullying jobsworths.
This influence is well demonstrated in his 1921 masterpiece, The Kid.
In this feature length silent film, Charlie’s ‘Little Tramp’ has raised an abandoned child from infanthood, the pair very much becoming father and son.
However, when the authorities discover the pair living in hardship , they see fit to cart the child away…
Although filmed in Los Angeles, the following famous sequence contains profound and deeply moving echoes of Chaplin’s south London childhood, especially the desperation he would have experienced whilst being forcefully parted from his mother at the gates of Lambeth workhouse.