There has always been something slightly adverse and mysterious about Aldwych Station on the Strand. Created as a working station it has always seemed fated not to follow convention to what it should be. Designed by the iconic Leslie Green it was completed in 1906 with the name of ‘Strand’ amidst great division as to how it should operate. In it’s life it has rejected it’s given name, retaliated in extending, rejoiced in sheltering the dehoused during war time and reincarnated itself as a working film set. It retains its non-conformist soul even today.
In the early 1900’s, the Piccadilly line was an amalgamation of 3 different projects with 3 separate Railway company’s running different sections of the line: the Great Northern & Strand Railway for Wood Green to the Strand; the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway for Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington; and the Deep Level District for the express route from Earl’s Court to Mansion House Station. The extension to Aldwych was built in the hope that the line would eventually extend south of the river Thames. This never came about and has consistently been on the verge of termination till finally it did in 1994.
The branch first opened as the “Strand” to the public on the 30th of November, 1907. The name proved too confusing for Londoners since the nearby Charing Cross station was also located on the other more vibrant side of the Strand. It thus changed to its current name of ‘Aldwych’ in 1915. They had drastically overestimated the number of people that would use the station and closed the second track in 1917. (This platform is currently used to test out new platform and lighting designs)
During WWII Aldwych station was closed for nearly 6 years and the platforms were used as an air raid shelter while the empty tunnels served to protect treasures of the British Museum such as the Elgin Marbles. The period between September 1940 and May 1941 is known as the Blitz and in this time London was unremittingly bombed practically every night and then periodically until the end of the war. The London Underground was thought to be the safest place for civilians to survive through the night’s bombing. Although the British government had implemented suitable deep shelters for the Royalty and Government officials, they had not properly thought through how to house the main populace. There were concerns that if they let people down into the tube stations that they would not come up, the tube system would be immobilized and the general morale would crumble. However, the public, many of which had lost their homes already, took the situation into their own hands and forced entry into the tube stations. By October 1940 well over 100,000 Londoners were sheltering on tube platforms. At first the conditions must have been pretty awful, what with lack of proper toilets and overcrowding, but little by little the organization got better: they developed a ticket system to combat over-populated spaces; everyone had to bring their own toilet bucket; numbered bunk beds were introduced after October 1940; and even a catering service began serving tea and snacks on special trains. One cannot even begin to fathom the alternative.
The tube shelters did not prove as a foolproof safety guarantee. Direct hits from bombs resulted in 100’s of deaths during the Blitz, the worst happening in Balham (October 14th, 1940) and Bank. (January 11th,1941) In the incident at Balham, the bomb burst a water main and 64 people drowned. The story was never released to the press till after the war, as they believed it would cause too much panic.
After the war, Aldwych station felt the constant shadow of the axe as trains were now limited to peak hours. In 1994 a mere 600 commuters used this station and with £3,000,000 worth of refurbishment work needed on the lifts it seemed that the high cost out-weighed the justification. And so, Aldwych was closed. The last train left Aldwych on the evening of the 30th September 1994.
Ironically, since it’s closure it has proved to be the most “used” of all the disused stations of the London Underground. It is utilized regularly as a film location and for private event hire. I do find it hard to fathom and a touch regrettable that this space will very slowly fall into decay and disrepair as it holds testament to some of the more beautiful features within London’s underground train stations today.