Hold Very Tight, Please

5th January 2008

The London Transport Museum, one of our best loved family attractions, has been closed for two years, undergoing a £22.4 million refit.

Now its doors are open once more, and the results, according to Jack Watkins, are impressive…

The London Transport Museum may be housed in the distinctly Victorian setting of the former Covent Garden Flower Market, but its pricey revamp gives it a very state-of-the-art feel indeed. Huge screens flicker with digital projections; buttons and handles beckon to be pushed or pulled; noises from videos, voice-overs or transport sound effects emanate from every corner, creating a cacophony of sound akin to a busy railway terminus. The Transport Museum has always been a great hands-on experience, allowing you to jump on board a period-piece omnibus or railway carriage, but this is now the modern museum experience – an exhilarating wander through the great story of the capital’s transport system that is likely to satisfy adult and child alike.

It may have long been fashionable to knock the state of our Underground, comparing it unfavourably with the Paris Metro, but in truth the development of the London public transport network, having led the world in its innovative spirit, is rather something of which we should be proud. While the last section of the museum, looking at current developments and speculating about future systems, is, for me, the least interesting, it shows that even today, London Transport remains at the heart of new thinking as we enter an era in which energy conservation becomes a central part of strategic planning.

Jump in the lift to the top floor, however, and you’re immediately transported back to 1800, as you listen to sound effects that change from a deep rumble of heavy duty lorries and trains, to the raised voices of barrow boys, rattling wooden carriages, and the incessant clop of horses’ hooves.

The first item of transport you see is a sedan chair, Covent Garden having provided the only public parking sport for them in the Georgian period. But most Londoners of the time walked everywhere and thought nothing of it. If you headed off in any direction from St Paul’s or Westminster Bridge, within half an hour you’d find yourself in the country. A walk directly up from the Strand to the airy heights of Highgate was nothing to the likes of Charles Dickens and his contemporaries.

The first, brightly painted, horse-drawn omnibus, established in 1829, and handsomely reconstructed here, ran from Paddington into the City. No advance booking was required, but it was a strictly middle class affair, as indeed were those buses famously run by Thomas Tilling from the 1840s. Enlivening the displays alongside the old carriages are reminiscences that convey the hard lives of the men who worked the ‘buses. ‘Cast-Iron Billy’, for instance, was a bus driver for forty years, until he was so old he had to be helped up onto the carriage, and could barely hold the reins, enabling younger, more alert drivers to nip ahead of him and pinch his passengers.

Horse trams, utilising iron rails in the road that meant a pair of horses could pull larger vehicles with more passengers, lowered the fares and gradually ‘democratised’ public transport. But London’s population was soaring, rising from one million to six million during the course of the century, and the Museum has effectively managed to weave together the strands of personal memory, and the physical appearance of roads and transport of the time, with the social impact. You might grumble that much of London today seems like a permanent building site, but clearly the mid-19th century was a time of even greater upheaval, as attention turned to the problem of how to move ever-rising numbers of travellers across town. “If things continue the way they have,” said one agitated commentator, “they will have to double-deck the entire city.”

In the 1860s there came a brainwave: the Underground. The Metropolitan Line, from Paddington to Farringdon, was the first stretch, but since it largely involved digging out shallow cuttings along the street and then roofing over, cut-and-cover style, it was enormously disruptive to both pedestrian and road traffic. Those first underground trains were, incredibly, run by steam, and here you can see the last surviving locomotive from those early years.

If journeying in a steam train underground was thought thoroughly unpleasant – ‘a journey from Kings Cross to Baker Street is a form of torture no person would undergo if he could,’ complained The Times in 1884 – think what it was like for the driver, out on the footplate, and the fireman alongside him. Underground owners, beset by complaints about bronchial attacks, dug out some dubious medical theory that breathing in all the sulphur was actually a curative, says Oliver Green, curator of the museum. In the 1980s, he interviewed an old man who had been a fireman before the trains were electrified in 1905. Rather like the ancients about whom we read, who attribute their longevity to a life of beer and cigarettes, he lived on to be 102.

‘The Tate Gallery by Tube’, by David Booth, 1986

If you have the chance to walk around the museum on a guided tour led by Green, I strongly recommend it, for he is a mine of information. I’d never appreciated that we lacked air-conditioning on the Underground service, since the Tube, so named after the cast iron or concrete casing in which the tunnels were constructed from the 1880s, is a deep-level system which makes such a provision impossible. The Paris Metro lines, by contrast, run nearer surface level, which also accounts for its slightly larger trains (a characteristic noticeably shared with our similarly shallow-tunnelled Metropolitan, and District and Circle lines).

London, in fact, could boast of being the first deep-level electric Tube in the world, but the first generation carriages were hideous. You can step inside one from the 1890s, and it is, indeed, like the claustrophobic ‘padded-cell’ that it was nicknamed. Passengers understandably felt queasy about being shut inside windowless compartments deep in the earth, while a guard stood on the footplate outside and shouted the name of the station each time the train stopped. To the Victorians, it must have felt as though they were stepping into the world of science fiction.

But the growth of the Underground in the early decades of the 20th century was a real triumph, and the story is well told here. We are introduced to heroes like Frank Pick, the overseeing eye who, as transport manager, brilliantly coordinated a range of creative talents, from architects to artists, and was responsible for the establishment of a stylish corporate image for the network, envied, but unmatched, around the world to this day.

Apart from the famous bar and circle logo, so brilliant it prompted a surrealist poster by Man Ray, you can see Harry Beck’s original design for the iconic Underground route map, inspired by an electrical circuit board. Beck, apparently, received the princely sum of five guineas for his ingenuity. But it didn’t discourage him, for in the 1950s he came up with a similar plan for the Paris Metro, recently discovered and on display here, which the French sniffily seem to have rejected. As Oliver Green says, perhaps they should have another look, because it is much better than their current map, which remains notoriously complicated.

Among other delights is a London Transport at War gallery, with a fascinating film installation in which Henry Moore talks over footage about the experience of watching communities sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz, and its impact on his work.

There’s a goodish selection of old buses, not least the famous Routemaster, happily still to be seen today wending its way through the streets of Piccadilly and the Strand on a couple of ‘Heritage routes’, beloved by tourists and locals alike… although serious students will bemoan the absence in the museum of its equally historic predecessor, the RT, best known for its appearance in Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday. To see one of those, you’ll have to visit the Transport Museum Depot at Acton – which, if you hanker for more about London’s fascinating public transport history, is a valuable follow-up to a visit here.

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