Michael Williams

Steaming to Victory – and my visit to Churchill’s ghostly Tube HQ at Down Street station


July 31, 2015 Blog

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At last achieved my ambition of getting access to the spooky Down Street station on the Piccadilly Line, which I wrote about in my book Steaming to Victory. Here are some of my pix. Full of memories of Churchill – though I didn’t hear the legendary ghostly laughter from the tunnel. This is an extract from what I wrote in the book:

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THE HOME of the REC was one of the great national secrets of wartime. It’s still there, fossilized deep below the ground just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. You’d hardly give it a second glance nestled among the smart restaurants and hotels around Mayfair’s Down Street. The only giveaway that there was once a Tube station here are the oxblood tiles on the wall denoting a product of the Underground’s most famous architect Leslie Green. Yet Down Street station, on the Piccadilly Line between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner was a top-secret nerve centre as vital to the security of the nation as Churchill’s famous Cabinet War Rooms at Westminster.

As war neared it soon became clear that the original location for the headquarters of what would effectively be the central control for all transport in Britain, housing the team that would keep the nation moving, was not suitable for the job. The planned location, in the basement of Fielden House, an office block near Westminster Abbey was too close to the sewers and to the high water mark of the Thames – rendering it highly vulnerable to flooding. But Cole Deacon, the secretary of the REC had an idea. Having once been a consultant to the Tube companies, he knew the location of a number of disused Tube stations in central London that might make ideal wartime headquarters – so deep below the ground that they could be made impervious to bombing. One possibility considered was British Museum station on the Central Line, which had been made redundant by nearby Holborn station. A better option, though, appeared to be Down Street, which had closed in 1932 . It had never been a busy station because the residents of the surrounding area of Mayfair were wealthy and not in the habit of using the Tube. Many had even forgotten about its existence. As Cole Deacon and Sir Ralph Wedgwood inspected the dusty interior of the station by the light of a flickering candle, they were thrilled that it seemed like the perfect location for their new home. “I don’t think we’ll find anything better than this,” Wedgwood told his colleague, and work to convert it began within days.

But there was a problem. Although all the station fittings had been stripped out, the Piccadilly line services still passed through the station every few minutes. And the only potential office space on the station, apart from the passageways and lift shaft, was on the platforms themselves. The platform spaces would have to be walled off from the tracks in such a way as to make them virtually soundproof from passing trains. Engineers pondered the conundrum of how to build the wall in top secrecy so its construction couldn’t be spotted by passing passengers. The only way it could be done was between 1.30am and 5pm, with all the materials for the new offices and accommodation taken down the lift shaft and along the warren of narrow passageways inside the station.

Although Down Street was so deep that it couldn’t be penetrated by any known bomb, the engineers were taking no risks. A massive reinforced concrete cap was placed over the spiral stairway and lift shaft to the platforms, and gas locks were installed in case of gas attack. But there was another even more secret means of access and escape. Special short platforms were built – one for each direction of travel – to be used only by the members of the REC and very senior staff. The trains would be halted at the concealed platforms by a secret red signal operated by a plunger and unconnected to any of the other signals on the line. Once the train had stopped, the passenger showed a high level pass to the driver, being allowed to travel in the cab to the next station before transferring back to the carriages..

By the time the new nerve centre was fitted out, it was commodious indeed, with office suites, kitchens, mess rooms and dormitories. There was sleeping accommodation for twelve senior people and 22 members of the ordinary staff. But there was one final problem – the platforms were curved and it proved difficult to fit in conventional office furniture. So specially shaped furniture had to be constructed at the carriage works of the LMS at Wolverton in Buckinghamshire. So secret was the location of the Down Street headquarters that the Post Office gave it a special address “London SW” (with the added twist in that this wasn’t the actual postcode of its location). Even when details of the existence of the railways’ nerve centre was announced in 1944, the location was still not revealed as Down Street

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The ghostly remains of the place, still mostly intact, can still be seen today since it serves as an emergency escape route for the modern Piccadilly Line. Entering from an anonymous door in the street, there are 103 steps down to the platforms. In wartime, a small two-person lift ran down the middle of the spiral staircase. (Legend has it that Winston Churchill once got stuck in it while he and his war executive used the REC’s offices before his own War Rooms were ready.) At platform level there are dusty remains of the old offices, a derelict telephone exchange and two bathrooms – one until recently with its own heater and tank. This was known to staff as “Winston Churchill’s bath”. Certainly Churchill was a regular visitor in the early part of the war. From “the middle of 1940,” he wrote in Their Finest Hour, “until the end of the year I used to go there once the firing had started to transact my evening business and sleep undisturbed. Parts of the 2004 British horror film Creep were set in Down Street, although many of the scenes were shot at Aldwych, another disused Piccadilly Line station. (The few present day enthusiasts who have visited Down Street on London Transport Museum’s occasional “Disused Station Tours” have reported on a “creepy” atmosphere, and some have commented on the reputed sound of a woman’s laugh coming from one of the tunnels. It is more likely, however, that the unusual sounds emanate from the wheels and brakes of the trains on the other side of the platform walls.)

 

 

 


July 31, 2015 Blog

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