Memories of London’s underground
All the hubbub surrounding Toronto’s expansion of its smallish subway service got me to thinking about the massive London Underground System with its almost 300 stations on 11 different lines.
Having spent my childhood in a village some miles outside London and then serving in the Far East during wartime, I wasn't at all familiar with the vast and confusing “tube” when first put out on the street as a young police constable in 1947.
By that time, London's underground rail system had been around for so long that many of the original stations had already been replaced, or were rendered useless after the introduction of new and improved subway lines.
One such station was St. Mary's on Whitechapel Road in the east end of London, which had originally opened in the late 1800's and closed up a year or so prior to WWII after being deemed superfluous.
Closure didn't signal the immediate demise of St. Mary's though, as during the war the platforms were utilized as an air-raid shelter. I've often thought that while subway air-raid shelters certainly saved lives, they weren't always the safest place, especially if the enemy's target was the railway line!
One event kept from the general public until after war's end was the shelter tragedy at Bethnal Green tube station in March of 1943. Well over a thousand people were crammed on the platforms when panic ensued after hearing an explosion which, unbeknownst to the crowd, was actually an anti-aircraft rocket. It only took one person's stumble as the masses swarmed the stairs to cause a ripple effect with several people falling one on top of another, resulting in nearly 200 being crushed to death.
As for St. Mary's, I've never heard of any fatalities during its use as an air-raid shelter, but the street level station was hit by a bomb during the blitz and severely banged up. A temporary replacement was quickly put up, which was also hit within weeks. That was the end of the line for St. Mary's altogether.
Once the war was over, people still managed to make their way down to St. Mary's abandoned platforms and one night I was sent to investigate. My task was to hustle out drunks seeking a spot to sleep it off, juveniles intent on exploring the tunnels, couples involved in a romantic tryst and homeless people who had set up residence.
Mind you, I was told leeway was usually given to an elderly married couple who were living on the streets by their wits, relying on the largesse of street vendors for food, sleeping in the park and taking to St. Mary's for refuge once the bad weather set in.
When I reached the platform it was easy to imagine the station in livelier times. Dusty colour adverts remained plastered to the walls – jaunty sailor asking for "Player's Please" and child beckoning the winged symbol of "Robin Starch" come to mind.
A grimy penny vending machine stood on the platform, although I didn't see any Nestle's chocolate bars left in the slots. Immediately adjacent was a coin-operated weighing scale where you could use your next penny to see the effects of all those chocolate purchases.
Save for the sound of scurrying rats, it was eerily quiet as I shone my flashlight around the dark, musty platform. That is until I heard a familiar, yet confusing sound - the rumbling of an oncoming train!
The noise became ever louder and I couldn't help but peer into the tunnel anticipating the train's light, even though it was obvious the tracks were long in disuse.
I shook my head a few times trying to make sense of it all. That's when I noticed the floor shaking beneath my feet as the invisible train approached and then rushed by causing dust to rise up from the platform.
That was it for me. I ran up the station steps two at a time and out into the street.
I didn't relate my tale of the phantom train to anyone for fear of being mocked (or locked up) and had to find out for myself that one of the newer tube lines had been built right alongside a portion of the old rail line.
So, it was the noise and effects of a speeding train directly on the other side of the bricked-up wall of the St. Mary's platform I'd been standing on that had me scratching my head. Blimey, it was a relief to know I hadn't lost the plot after all.
St. Mary's (Whitechapel Road) in 1938, shortly after its closure