London Underground - Celebrating 150 years
The Tube and I
As the 150th anniversary of the London Underground is being celebrated, it I has led me to pause to reflect about the role that the 'Tube', as it is now affectionately known, has played in my life.
I don't just mean all the journeys I have undertaken throughout my life in England's capital aboard what is one of the marvels of the Industrial Revolution, but life shaping and in some cases life changing events which revolved around both London Underground and London Transport in general.
Photo credit: Chris McKenna (Thryduulf) Wikimedia CC 1, 2, 3
In the Beginning
The history of the Underground dates back to 1863 when the first line (Metropolitan) was built between Paddington Station and Farringdon St with funding from the Great Western Railway Company under Chief Engineer John Fowler, an event that was soon to be copied by major metropolises across Europe.
Underground railways were a major catalyst in the expansion of many major European capitals as they accelerated urban sprawl at formerly unimagined levels, thus changing the landscape, and lives, of many.
But my first meaningful encounter with the Tube was over 20 years before I was born.
Photo: The Guardian - Sarah Lee
The Tube and My Mum
My Mum, Rose, was born in 1936, so by the time she was an inquisitive and mischievous 5yo, Hitler and Goering had decided that London would be bombed into submission so they could stroll across the channel and complete their conquest of Western Europe. With hindsight this turned out to be a huge mistake, though to be fair, one of many. But the impact on my mum would have been catastrophic had it not been for the Tube.
Coming from a poor background, my mum and her mother lived on a council estate, which unlike houses didn't have a bomb shelter in the backyard. When the air raid siren howled it terrifying screech you had to escape from your surrounds and head underground.
For council estate dwellers the Tube was the perfect place and my mum and grandmother sought refuge deep in the bowels of London to escape the effects of the blitz. I am not overestimating the effect that being able to use the Tube as a refuge had on their survival.
My mum has many a time regaled me with the story of the time, when hearing the air raid sirens yet again cut the air, she ran out towards shelter with her mother, only to drop her favourite doll on the way.
Not to leave one of her few precious toys behind, she wrenched away from her mother and ran to retrieve the errant doll. The running caught the attention of a German fighter pilot who, within his orders to brings terror and surrender to the London populace, fired upon the movement that was my mother. Fortunately for both me, who was nothing more than an idea in my mothers womb and her, she bent over to pick up the doll as the bullets burst into the wall where her head had been only seconds before.
In a time when spankings were dished out to children, she got one that night that she still remembers 70 years on. But what this highlights is that without a decent bomb shelter and if the Tube didn't exist she would have been at the mercy of every 'Fritz' come lately who decided that his contribution to humanity would be to machine gun disobedient 5yos.
Not everyone who sought refuge in the underground was as fortunate as my family, as mum recalls with yesterday's clarity, the woman who was asleep next to her who didn't move even when the all clear was sounded. She was dead and no one even knew. Without the underground tunnels of the tube, the chances of my mother joining her would have been far greater.
My Mum's 'Look at Me' Pose!
My Dad and London Transport
After serving with the RAF during World War 2, my father drifted between jobs until he found one that he loved. That job was as a conductor on London Transports buses.
It combined the joys of journeying throughout his beloved London as well as meeting different and interesting people every day. In later life it never ceased to bring a smile to his face as he regaled me with tales of chicanery aboard the buses, though it did dismay him whenever he met a sullen conductor who treated the job as a chore rather than a pleasure.
The other prominent role this job played was that it gave him the security he needed to start saving for the adventure of his lifetime and that was to visit Melbourne, Australia for the 1956 Olympics. The importance of this event can be summed up in two words from me. G'day mate.
Oh and I guess my Australian birth certificate.
Returning to my Heritage
Fast forward almost half a century and I find myself living in London, the lure of those childhood stories that I was no longer able to ignore. But London being an expensive place meant I needed a job, and what did I find and succeed at on the first attempt?
A job in Transport for London's Lost Property Office (LPO). 200 Baker St, almost across the road from one of the most famous London addresses (221b Baker St home of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes) and one of London's hidden gems. A complex that plunged underground to store the 40,000 items a month that Londoners left behind on the transport system.
During the years I worked at the LPO I was always astounded by what people could leave behind. It was nothing to receive a wedge of cash, a petrol driven lawnmower in a suitcase or an array of samurai swords. The more unique items included adult toys, 26 inch colour televisions, a 14ft sailing boat as well as 40,000 pounds in cash and diamonds.
This was on top of the thousands of mobile phones, bags and keys that formed the bulk of what was received. Oh and did I mention the human ashes, maggot infested meats and full sized stage coffin?
Till I die I will not have a more unique job than following in my fathers footsteps at Transport for London.
Scaring Innocent Tube Travellers
The Lost Property Office - Everyday a Mystery
Just ask Little Bobby!
History of The Underground
For everything that I have gotten from the Underground and Transport for London, there is one overriding sadness attached to my memories.
7 July 2005 was just another day until 4 crazed, delusional lunatics decided that they were going to commit an act of heinous terror and blow not just themselves up, but also as many innocent commuters as they could. During the horror of that day, word filtered to me that the husband of one of my close friends, who I had spent the evening having dinner with only the day before, had not returned home nor returned any of his wife's or families frantic calls or text.
Some time later his body was identified by his wife and twin brother. I can't even begin to try and understand the anger and sorrow that losing someone to an act of terrorism brings, but I do know that there isn't a year that passes that I don't remember and celebrate fondly the life of Jon Downey.
So there is my relationship with the Tube. Much happiness scarred by one act of barbarism.
I still marvel at the engineering that brought about this underground labyrinth as I travelled with the laconic drivers as the train was funnelled in its tube between Bakers St and Canada Water or as I sat in Rotherhithe marvelling at the Victorian bricks that kept the world above at bay.
I hope that when year 200 is celebrated I will be around to continue my underground adventures.
Photo: Adrian Dennis/EPA