‘London Underground at War’ by Nick Cooper


2014, 120 p & appendices

Heaven knows that I have a million things that I should be reading, but I found myself returning to the ‘new books’ shelf of the library each day just to have another little browse through this small book. In the end I thought- sod it!- just borrow it! and so I did. From the safety of sixty years on and the comfort of being in another hemisphere on the other side of the world, I’m fascinated by the Blitz.

The book has seven chapters and two lengthy appendices.  The chapters are not long, and they are supplemented with many black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings.

Chapter 1, ‘Beginnings’ explains the construction of  London’s Underground. I am amazed that it commenced so early, opening in 1863 -( about twenty years after the opening of the little Port Phillip courthouse shown on the top of my blog!)  Privately owned London railway companies linked most large cities with London, but they stopped on the boundary of the city, prevented  either by an act of Parliament from encroaching into the city from the north, or by prohibitive expense from entering from the south.   The North Metropolitan Railway Company was incorporated in 1853 to build a three-and-a half mile underground railway using ‘cut and cover’ where a deep trench was dug down a road, lined with brick then covered over again and the road re-laid.  In the mid 1860s the engineer James Barlow developed a simplified version of Brunel’s huge tunneling shield that had been used to construct the Thames Tunnel between 1825-1843 (and again, I’m stunned, thinking of the technology in Australia at the time). With this new technology, the tunnel could be built in segments using a series of 8-foot diameter rings, without surface disruption.  They were off!!  The creation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933 finally brought all public transport in the capital under central control and the lines were given generic names (Central, District etc) instead of the private railway company initials that they had used until then (e.g. CLR, GN&CR)

I must confess that I wish at this point that there had been larger map than the ones provided.  There were two- each taking up half a page, and I think they merited a whole page to each.

Ch. 2 ‘Preludes’ starts in World War I, when German airships bombed London. People sheltered in the Underground tunnels then too, but not enough for the authorities to worry about it or, alternatively, promote it.  During the Spanish Civil War civilians used the underground metro for protection, and the British government resolved that in any future wars, they would not use their Underground in this way again.  The major concern was that the tunnels would flood under sustained bombing and so flood-gates were installed (remnants of which can still be seen in some stations today).

Chapter 3 ‘Sheltered Lives’ explains the arrangements that were made by Councils and Corporations that did, as it turned out,  utilize the Underground stations, despite the pre-war intention not to do so.  There are many photographs here of people sleeping on platforms, storing their bedding etc. and the chapter describes the arrangements made for  sanitation and litter collection. People paid at least a penny ha’penny to enter (how frustrating- WordPress doesn’t show halves- a penny and a half)  which would be the equivalent of 80p today.  I should imagine that buying a ticket would be a form of head-counting as much as anything else.

Ch. 4 ‘Deep Defence’ describes the deep level shelters that were used for official and emergency service provision- offices and troop and firefighter hostels etc.  These deep shelters had liftwells leading down to them as well as emergency staircases, and so at ground level, square boxes were built onto the top of existing buildings to accommodate the lifts.  There are many current-day photographs of these buildings which are otherwise unremarkable, quite ugly and no doubt ripe for demolition without people realizing what they are.

Ch. 5 ‘The Blitz and Beyond’ is a chronological list of damage to the Underground, most particularly between September 1940 and May 1941.  Night time bombing recommenced in 1944 with the ‘Baby Blitz’, followed by the V1 and V2.  There was less damage to the Underground with these later waves of bombing.

Ch. 6 ‘Major Incidents’ describes the major bombing incidents and the infrastructure damage and loss of life entailed in each. Again, they are arranged chronologically

Ch. 7 ‘Aftermath’ is only a short chapter of four pages (two of which are pictures) describing the changes to the lines post war.

A lengthy appendix  lists the names of those killed in the incidents identified in Chapter 6.  It does not claim to be definitive, and the opening paragraph explains the parameters that govern inclusion in this list.  The lists are arranged alphabetically by station.  It is sobering to see whole families lost, particularly in the earlier bombings.  A final appendix discusses the fears of flooding from the Thames, and the arrangements that were made to prevent the inundation of the whole system.

As you can probably detect from this chapter summary, this is very much a book of lists and incidents.  Chapter 3 does describe the conditions in the tunnels and the human response, but it’s all at a rather technical and disengaged level.  There’s not a lot of poetry in the writing: it is very matter-of-fact.  This is a book that focusses on the Underground and its infrastructure, and it is not (and nor does it pretend to be) a social history.  As the author notes on his website,

this new book details the early years of the London Underground, concerns about public air raid shelter provision in the 1930s, and how sheltering in stations and bombing affected the operation of system during the Second World War.

The emphasis is on how the presence of Londoners affected the Underground during the war,  more than how the Underground affected them.  The detachment of the writing does mean that it reads a bit like a report.

There was, however, one quotation at the end of Chapter 6. The bombing of Bank station on 11 January 1941 resulted in, according to most accounts, fifty-six killed and sixty nine wounded.  The only doctor on the scene was a Hungarian refugee, Dr Z. A. Leitner who treated patients for an hour and a half until help arrived.  He gave testimony to the inquiry held afterwards, and even allowing for any ‘buttering up’ in order to stay in the country, his statement is quite remarkable and has the ring of truth:

I should like to make a remark.  You English people cannot appreciate the discipline of your own people.  I want to tell you I have not found one hysterical patient.  I think this is very important, that you should not take such things as given, because it does not happen in other countries.  If Hitler could have been there for five minutes with me he would have finished this war.  He would have realized that he has got to take every Englishman and twist him by the neck- otherwise he cannot win this war.  (p 115)

The author has a website that contains much of the information in this book, and it will give you a flavour of the approach he takes.



4 responses to “‘London Underground at War’ by Nick Cooper

  1. Collateral war time damage, but did the author mention the 173 crush deaths at Bethnal Green Station. It sounds like an interesting book.

    • Yes, he did mention the deaths at Bethnal Green, and did spend some time on it, recording the names of the people who died there. But again, a fairly top-down report-style approach- few eyewitness quotes etc.

  2. Hmm, interesting. Of course there is a place for a matter-of-fact history of the underground, but there is an emotional/patriotic side to its history as well and I think it’s only telling half the story to omit it.

  3. Pingback: ‘London Under’ by Peter Ackroyd | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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