An underground airport, tube-travelling pigeons and giant locusts: Cultural research into London Underground

January 9, 2013

Did you know that the London Underground once planned to build its own airport? Or that the creators of the first Underground line originally intended that it would terminate in Paris? Or that pigeons regularly get on at Hammersmith and get off at Ladbroke Grove?

Kingston University architecture expert Dr David Lawrence is the source of such gems of information. He can also talk knowledgeably about ghost stations, stations that featured in James Bond films and the lost tribe of cannibal Underground workers.

The London Underground celebrates its 150th birthday this week – the anniversary of the first tube journey from Paddington to Farringdon on the Metropolitan Line. "The line's owners planned to extend it out into Kent and ultimately, through a channel tunnel, to Paris," Dr Lawrence explained.

As well as envisaging a Channel Tunnel, more than a century before it became reality, the Underground's planners, in the 1930s, drew up plans for an airport to the east of London. "The Underground liked the idea of having its own airport and wanted to build one at a station at Fairlop, in Essex," Dr Lawrence said. "But the scheme was abandoned at the outbreak of ."

Dr Lawrence – who has been a consultant to London Underground and the London Transport Museum since 1990 - is particularly interested in the cultural history of the network. "The word underground became common currency at the time of H.G. Wells' novel The Time Machine 1895," he explained. The book foresaw a time when the human race would have, effectively, split into two sub-species: the leisured and effete Eloi who lived on the surface and the hard-working but vicious Morlocks, who laboured underground.

"The Morlocks did the work – they made society function," Dr Lawrence said. "The notion of underground culture meaning a counter culture, of underground art and music, stems from this. On the surface you had the bright, shiny, well-functioning city – underground you had its sinister mirror image."

The Kingston University architectural historian has also studied the Underground's role on television and film. "In the 1950s you had Quatermass and the Pit, which saw giant locust-like aliens breeding in the tube, for example, and then in the 70s there was a film called Death Line (Raw Meat), in which a lost tribe of former Underground workers preyed on passengers."

Several disused, 'ghost', stations have been used in film and television. "Licensing these spaces for filming is big business for London Transport," Dr Lawrence remarked. "One of the most interesting ghost stations is Bull and Bush under Hampstead Common on the Northern Line. It's not disused – it was never used."

Dr Lawrence has lectured at Kingston University since 1998. His interest in the Underground extends to its logo and map. "Many people have remarked that the map is elastic – not geographic in its layout," he said. "What they may not realise is that that was a quite deliberate commercial ploy to exaggerate distances and to encourage people to take the tube to make journeys that they could quite easily have walked."

Or flown, in the case of a group of pigeons who have been observed regularly travelling between Hammersmith and Ladbroke Grove and between Baker Street and Euston Square or Great Portland Street. "They take advantage of the fast food that's left on the trains and seem to choose these stations as they are quite near the surface," Dr Lawrence explained.

Explore further: London subway system launches WiFi service

Related Stories

Expert: Ky. earthquake not from mining

November 12, 2012

(AP)—Geologists say the 4.3 magnitude earthquake that shook eastern Kentucky over the weekend was too deep to be induced by the region's underground mining activity.

Recommended for you

Roman theater uncovered at base of Jerusalem's Western Wall

October 16, 2017

Israeli archaeologists on Monday announced the discovery of the first known Roman-era theater in Jerusalem's Old City, a unique structure around 1,800 years old that abuts the Western Wall and may have been built during Roman ...

Human speech, jazz and whale song

October 13, 2017

Jazz musicians riffing with each other, humans talking to each other and pods of killer whales all have interactive conversations that are remarkably similar to each other, new research reveals.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.