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Ghost signs… the ghost trains and phantom threads of London’s transport system

Great Queen Street station – Top Hat (1935)

‘I just got an invitation through the mails
“Your presence requested this evening
It’s formal, a top hat, a white tie and tails”‘

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails‘ Irving Berlin

Fred and Adele Astaire with the comedy actor Leslie Henson, examining the aftermath of the Christmas 1928 Holborn gas explosion outside the Prince (now the Shaftsbury) Theatre during their run in London of ‘Funny Face’.

Gas from a fractured main at 216 Shaftsbury Avenue built up in disused London Pneumatic Despatch tunnels (usually abbreviated to LPD, built in 1863 to move post from Euston via Holborn to the General Post Office building at St. Martins-le-Grand, near St. Paul’s cathedral). The gas was accidentally ignited at 8am on 20th December 1928 when workman Percy Thrower looked for an electrical plug in darkness with his lighter.

Blasts continued for minutes from Kingsway to the Charing Cross Road, sending a horse into the air, blowing people out of bed, knocking over a butcher’s van which sent meat flying across the road, and smashing shop windows as cement flew “like feathers” according to one account.

The path of the 1928 explosion took a curious route around the “forgotten” tunnels on the edge of Bloomsbury, from the corner of Holborn and Kingsway past the Prince Theatre – where damage was most severe – since in 1863 the Duke of Bedford, who owned most of the land between Euston and Holborn, had refused to allow LPD engineers Rammell and Clark permission to mine underneath his property.

Before the Blitz, the 1928 Holborn explosion was one of the worst disasters in London after the zeppelin raids of WWI. The minutes after 1928 Holborn explosion were pandemonium. It was four days before Christmas in a busy shopping area and people were on their way to work. Police had to contend with flooded basements, fires – including a building which caught alight – and thousands of terrified Londonders milling around the West End. Gas filled the LPD tunnels for 30 hours after the blast till the leaking main was isolated. Police wore gas masks, at first it was thought a gas attack had happened on the Underground. One reporter at the time talks about locals “disconsolately” eating ham sandwiches and reduced to collecting water from stand pipes in the street (once the cause of cholera in London). Silent Pathé footage of the aftermath of the explosion, shot outside the Prince Theatre, shows fire blazing hours after the explosion early in the morning.

The Astaire’s co-star in the Gershwin’s ‘Funny Face’, Leslie Henson isn’t much remembered now but in his subsequent career he was no stranger to violence. He went on to co-found ENSA to entertain WWII troops.

It’s incredible to think that, 7 years before ‘Top Hat‘ – which (very loosely) has London as a backdrop – universally acclaimed as the pinnacle of his partnership with Rogers, and had the explosion happened later in the day, Fred Astaire could have easily been killed along with hundreds of people Christmas shopping in the West End. Astaire’s screen test for RKO wasn’t for another 5 years. (“Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances,” said the report).

  • Although the LPD tunnels were filled in after the 1928 incident, another disused underground system further down Holborn remains: the Kingsway Tramway Subway in Holborn, which connected tramlines in the north and south of the city. Now it’s a strange, unused railed track in the middle of a busy central London street, on a slow decline leading to a locked double-doorway like the one on a funfair ghost train. In 1906, a brisk stroll from the West End’s Theatre Land and the bushes in the well-appointed cottaging location of Bloomsbury Square, it was opened as Great Queen Street station. E M Forster had seen ‘Funny Face’ 6 days before the explosion, too. It will be remembered that Forster later had a fling with a young a young Egyptian tram conductor, Muhammad el-Adl, in Alexandria.

  • The successor to the LPD, the mail train, is now a museum where you can ride on the old post carriages under Mount Pleasant sorting office for 15 minutes.

British Museum station – Bulldog Jack (1935)

The ‘British Museum station’s mummy’s curse’ (got all that?) is one of the most persistent urban myths of the Underground. According to story, the ghost of the daughter of a Pharaoh, Amen-Ra, haunts her sarcophagus in the Museum’s Egyptian collection. Her screaming can be heard far away, echoing through the tunnels below.

The British Museum Underground station was opened in 1900 and closed in 1933, since it had been made effectively redundant by Holborn station which was only a few minutes away. It was used as a military command post till the building above ground was demolished in 1989. The eastbound part of the British Museum tunnel is still in use to store materials for track maintenance, and can be seen as the train goes between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn. Two deaths in the tunnels of British Museum station are attributed to Amen-Ra’s daughter, though the websites that repeat the story breathlessly only reference one another rather than citing any historical source. The ghost story has since shifted to Holborn station, where images of Mummy cases decorate the tiled platforms. During World War Two, British Museum artefacts were stored not in its old Tube station, but at the disused Aldwych or Strand station which is often used as a film location, and where – at least according to rumour – the British army’s SAS regiment stages test explosions on train carriages.

In fact, the British Museum station Mummy story is a conflation of three separate wholesale fabrications. One component of the myth is stories about the “curse of the Pharaohs” which became common after Howard Carter’s team excavated the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. The second element is folklore associated with the ‘Unlucky Mummy‘, item EA 22542 in the Museum, a 950 BCE gessoed and painted wooden ‘mummy-board’, or inner coffin lid, from Thebes.

The third part of the myth, the idea that the Museum halls above are secretly connected to the disused Underground in some way, is part of the plot of the 1935 Gaumont British spin-off ‘Bulldog Jack‘, in which the square-jawed sleuth is incapacitated, so a stand-in – played by Jack Hulbert – outfox art thieves led by Ralph Richardson, who’ve kidnapped Fay Wray’s grandfather, and operate from tunnels under the British Museum in a fictional, closed station, ‘Bloomsbury’. The film is memorable not only for a trick-photography sequence in which Drummond’s stand-in for the duration, Jack, rides a tea tray down the stations’ spiral staircases, but also for his duel with Richardson in the empty ‘Bloomsbury’ platforms and a fight on an out-of-control train. The studio set of an oriental gallery in the Museum is stunning, considering the budget. A massive and splendid sculpture of a fake Tibetan deity is resplendent with glistening gem-stones. The criminals access the Museum from their sepulchral lair, through a secret entrance in a chest that could have belonged to Aladdin himself.

The memories of the film were not so vivid in the public imagination after World War Two, however, that anyone could distinguish its plot points from the vague stories of ghosts and curses drifting around the closed British Museum station. In the curious way of these things, the year before Gaumont British had spun off a ‘fake’ Bulldog Drummond for a cinematic jaunt, Alfred Hitchcock had filed the numbers off his planned Drummond film, ‘Bulldog Drummond’s Baby’ with a screenplay by Charles Bennett because he couldn’t get the rights, so filmed it for the same studio as ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much‘. Peter Lorre stars as the head of a criminal gang of sun worshipers with a secret temple based in Wapping rather than Bloomsbury (near to where the engine room of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel still stands, now a museum to the inventor). Lorre, who had escaped to London from the Nazis a few months earlier, could speak very little English, so learned his lines in Hitchcock’s film phonetically. The final shoot-out is based on the 1911 Siege of Sidney Street in which the then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill took personal charge of an armed stand-off with anarchists in the East End.

Ludgate Circus Station – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

The mystery cults of Roman London have left oblique tracings on the city. Bloomberg have recently restored the temple of Mithras (what Mary Beard calls “the blokeyest of blokey” Roman cults) in the basement of their property at 12 Walbrook. Bottom in the Shakespeare play is based on ‘The Metamorphoses of Apuleius‘ aka ‘The Golden Ass’, the only surviving Latin novel from the Roman period, in which the narrator is a devotee of the Egyptian cult of Isis. These two esoteric religions based on ritual were foreign, even to Romans, but Iranian Mithras worship and Egyptian devotion to Isis represent opposite ends of an archetypal gender spectrum.

Shakespeare’s London contained these influences as well as the imprint of the classical world. The City of London was, as now – and like the play – a jumble of classes and professions. He owned an apartment in the old Blackfriar’s Dominican chapterhouse, over the east gate, where the covered Blackfriar’s theatre stood (but that’s another ‘Music for Films’ for another time). Shakespeare’s earlier lodgings on nearby Silver Street were associated with lascar sailors from North Africa. In Max Reinhardt’s 1935 Warner Brother’s version of the play, Jimmy Cagney shows his roots in vaudeville and comedy by playing Bottom. The film was sold as classy picture for the masses. American towns were pulling themselves out of the Depression by the bootstraps by building beautiful picture palaces for the people, where audiences could see highbrow entertainment. Ludgate Circus station was a planned stop on the Fleet Line that was eventually built as the Jubilee line (St. Paul’s Thameslink is now on the intended site of Ludgate Circus station). The Fleet River, which Ludgate Circus is on the old site of, brought immigrants and Londonders of all backgrounds together on one thoroughfare. (Bridewell Palace was at one time the French ambassadors’ residence and had a long association with foreigners, actors and sex workers. The Palace was the setting for Holbein’s painting, ‘The Ambassadsors‘).

Brompton Road station – Towers Open Fire (1963)

Burroughs met filmmaker Antony Balch in 1962 at the Beat Hotel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, 75006 Paris. Balch is better known for his collaborations with Burroughs than for his horror and exploitation films including ‘Horror Hospital‘ (which is on the Scala Map where it was filmed, at Morden. ‘Towers Open Fire‘ includes a scene with a “board” including Alex Trocchi, David Jacobs, Liam O’Leary, Norman Warren, John Gillett, Andrew Rabanech and Bachoo Sen. The last of these is a particularly interesting figure at the interface between exploitation and experimental film-making in Britain, an Anglo-Indian owner of ‘dirty mac’ cinemas as well as a producer and actor in Norman Warren’s 1968 ‘Her Private Hell‘ which has recently been restored and reappraised by BFI Flipside. The music by John Scott is particularly good.

In London, Burroughs stayed with friend of the Rolling Stones, the “man of infinite wealth and taste” Christopher Gibbs.

Bill and Christopher first met in Tangier, when Mikey [Portman] took Christopher around to see Bill at the Muniria, but it was in London that they became friends, and Bill would visit Christopher at Lindsey House at 100 Cheyne Walk, a mansion dating from 1674, remodeled from an even older building. Bill appeared very at home, lounging on the sofa smoking hashish in front of the huge bay window with its magnificent view of the Thames (James McNeill Whistler, who did many studies of the Thames in the 1870s, had lived next door), attended by his smartly turned-out boys. The room was dominated by an enormous painting by Il Pordenone that had previously belonged to the duc d’Orleans. A huge Moroccan chandelier cast a thousand pinpoints of light over Eastern hangings and silk carpets. In the summer, afternoon tea was taken under the mulberry tree in a garden designed by Lutyens.

Barry Miles ‘William Burroughs A Life’ pp 409-410.

Gibbs had Antonioni filming the party sequence in ‘Blow-up’ at 100 Cheyne Walk too. The film in which David Hemmings’s young shit-about-town drives a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III Drop Head Coupé, registration number EVN 734C, previous owner, Jimmy Savile.

Strand station – The Imitation Game

Aldwych or Strand station closed in 1993 and has been used as a location in numerous films, including the Turing biopic. It was also a store for the British Museum during WWII and is rumoured to be used by the SAS to trial explosions on train carriages.

Hackney Cab shelters – The Knowledge (1979)

Structures protected with a Grade II listing by English heritage, only 13 of the original 60 “cabmen’s” shelters remain, 10 of which are in use. Though many sell teas, coffees and snacks to the public through a small window, it’s Hackney cab drivers – an elite trained with “The Knowledge” of the quickest routes by road around London – who are still the shelters’ main customers. The remaining green cabmen’s stands are to be found at Chelsea Embankment, near the Albert Bridge; Embankment Place, south of Trafalgar Square; at Grosvenor Gardens; Hanover Square; Kensington Park Road; Kensington Road; Pont Street; Russell Square, the shelter being the structure which used to be in Leicester Square; St George’s Square, Pimlico; Temple Place; Thurloe Place, opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum; Clifton Gardens on Warwick Avenue; and Wellington Place, St John’s Wood).

Crouch End – Shaun of the Dead (Redux)

Crouch End – a fictional version of which features briefly in the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg film (According to his DVD commentary, Pegg now has the signage in his house) – was a station on the disused line that ran from Finsbury Park to Edgware via Highgate. From 1923, it was part of the London & North Eastern Railway. The station buildings were demolished in the 1960s but the Crouch End platforms remain. The track bed of the old between Muswell Hill and Finsbury Park part of the LNER line is now the Parkland Walk.

It’s a lovely location. It’s a very vibrant little part of London. Because we didn’t want to have the film set outside Westminster Abbey or anything. We didn’t want to have any traditional London significations in the background. Crouch End encapsulated a little mini-London on the outskirts of the city. But it’s far from undead. Go on the Saturday night – go to Bar Rocca!
Simon Pegg.

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