London Transport at War

I’ve been reading the London Transport Museum’s new history of the Underground system, Underground: How the Tube Shaped London, which is a pretty fine book for anyone who wants to know just how London’s crazy-quilt of subway lines happened. I certainly didn’t realize that goods (i.e. freight) service ran on the Metropolitan line for almost a century (from 1860s to 1960s) or that the system didn’t become publicly-run (and not even totally publicly-owned) until the 1930s.

There are very good sections on both World Wars in the book (the World War Two chapter was done by a former chief curator who is now at the National Army Museum), which are themselves filled with all sorts of interesting facts. The story of the Tube and London Transport (LT) is fairly similar to the common narrative: replacement of male workers by women, conversion of infrastructure for war work (Underground tunnels became an AA operations room [Brompton Road], an electronics factory [two miles of Central line tunnels], storage, and shelters), morale-raising use as a symbol of normalcy and triumph (LT commissioned a poster series called Seeing it Through on the contribution of LT staff during the Blitz), and so on. LT had its own Air Raid Precautions program (from 1937), Home Guard unit, anti-gas suits for repair workers, and civil defense plans.

Still, Underground manages to take the reader past the usual story to a few shocking facts. Apparently, London Transport’s managers were strongly opposed to letting civilians use the shelter. Once it became clear that keeping shelters out was impossible, police and LT staff were still supposed to try and turn away young and able-bodied men. Then, once it became clear that the Underground would have to be officially opened for shelter, LT blamed the government for the original policy.

More endearingly, one learns London Transport created a London Passenger Transport Medal for bravery in 1941 to award to its staff, who also received two George Medals and twenty-nine British Empire Medals.

The biggest surprise in the chapter, at least for me, had to do with Henry Moore’s famous drawings of the shelterers in the Tube. Moore’s sketches are some of the most inspired British art of the war, but though Moore was seen making them in the shelters in the 1944 Ministry of Information film Out of Chaos (directed by Jill Cragie) he actually prepared them at home based on brief notes jotted during his trips underground (quite reasonably: he later said it would have been “like making sketches in the hold of a slave ship. One couldn’t be as disinterested as that”).

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