A glimpse of the past London Underground through the means of Vertical Archaeology

The London Underground has given me high expectations. As soon as I set foot on the platform, I expect the train to arrive instantaneously. Once left the station, the train whisks me to my next destination, where I catch another to take me home. Everything is rushed. I can’t afford to miss that connection and besides, if I don’t keep up, I’ll be swept away with the crowds. This high level of expectation has in turn heightened my impatience. Waiting for a train, be it only a few minutes, feels eternal and my eye wanders around the tube platform. The infrastructure, cameras, mice and recently, vertical archaeology. Over the past couple of years, with major and minor refurbs to tube stations, layers of the walls, have been pealed back revealing their predecessors: previous rendering, tiles, posters even. This has entertained me no end.

I had never considered that what we see in a tube station is a façade. And I had never thought that below the facade we see earlier façades. I presumed the visual surfaces, the design, paintwork and advertising was placed directly onto the tunnel walls. But there are earlier surfaces, false walls and cavities left un-touched. Thanks to refurbishments, earlier tube stations are briefly revealed in a piecemeal manner.

Posters at Tottenham Court Road

Opposite the platform is a stretch of wall made up of decomposing posters. Posters overlay posters, earlier ones revealing themselves through the rips and holes of the latter ones. You can make out faded colours, obscured words and “period” typefaces. They are incomplete, torn or covered in the black tube dust and grime.

These posters are in situ. That is, they are still in the spot where they were stuck up for their intended use. The posters were put in an ideal place, on the wall opposite the platform, which is the direction where everyone looks and stares. A captive audience. They are not the examples reserved and put into an archive for the records. They were the marketing tools of the companies attempting to sell their goods. These pieces are the exact artwork that our ancestor Londoners would have seen and read.

I can’t make out what companies they advertise, or even what merchandise they are selling. I can’t even make out complete sentences, but merely just a few words. Neither can I make out what period they are from, but I estimate some are from the 1930s, some from the post war period, 1950s and early 60s.


There are two obvious posters here, with plenty of ripped paper indicating others. I can’t make out the text. The red poster has the most information on. Could it be G-r-a-m-g-e-s?


There is a real Papier-mâché collage feel to this panel, but to the right is boldly written, “.. big ones for _uth…” and beneath I can make out “The small ones for..”


This is one of my favourites. You can really see the stratigraphy of the posters toward the bottom of the image. This is a great example of the vertical archaeology I keep talking about.

I can make out words “Lactic” and the few words “… containing the [something] of M… in active form…” I’m not sure who the target audience would have been.


Second line, beneath the heading reads, “Enables it to reach the…” next line “Tissues w…”. I guess this was a winter campaign aimed at commuters with colds. This time the poster stratigraphy is more subtle. Visually it is difficult to differentiate that there are two posters. They are almost melded together.

I’m interested if anyone can shed light on any of the adverts, whether it is the companies or merchandise being promoted. What are the straplines?

The Moorgate false walls

If it wasn’t for the tube station sign “Moorgate” peeking out from behind the make-shift frame and chicken wire, I would not have seen the original wall and cavity, and not realised there was a false wall.


Why is there a false wall? Was it to do with creating cavities to run cabling for an ever-demanding tube system. Think of the new technologies over the past, say, 60 years: public announcements, security, radio, fire alarms, CCTV, illuminated signs, developed platform lighting and intercoms. Pre “live” signage, destinations were placed on the front of a train and changed by hand. Electronic signs would be more along the lines of those seen at Earls Court, where space allowed.

Is this the reason why cavities are used? Was it more cost effective to add a wall rather than re-build an existing one with cabling behind? Are there many such cavities on the tube system? Are platforms more narrow than they once were because of the false walls? Is there a more hermetical reason to having false walls? A conspiracy relating to passageways. Perhaps they are priest holes dating from catholic persecutions in the latter half of the 16th century.

The uninteresting at Vauxhall20160325_173545.jpg

Often simplicity provides beauty and provokes imagination. This wall has been stripped back and prepared for plastering, then tiling.It appears that some pre-existing tiles have been prepared and about to be tiled over.

When will this wall be again exposed to the human eye? That thought intrigues me.



Vertical Archaeology

As I wrote earlier, this is an archaeology with a complex stratigraphy that confuses the eye. Although it is not the ground that is being exposed, but a wall. It is vertical archaeology. Excavating it properly would require precision and a head for detail. I want there to be an expert who specialises in this. They would have to match up minute and disparate pieces of paper across a large area to a single poster.

By the time I publish this piece, the posters will have been covered and the cavity, yet again, concealed. Once the redevelopments are finished what will happen to those glimpses of the past? Will they be consciously preserved in situ? Will they be professionally recorded before being sealed up? Are these elements preserved by internal policy or government legislation? I doubt it.

I wonder if there are people who travel around the tube photographing and recording such glimpses. Are they Tube enthusiasts, archaeologists or social historians? It is only for a limited time and once it has been covered back up, it will be gone. That makes the challenge greater. They would have to be there on almost a daily basis, keeping a watching brief to capture those glimpses.

One archaeologist-archivist question I do have, will there be anything of our posters and adverts in 60 years? As adverts are increasingly projected onto walls, I guess, no. There will be no trace of them or ourselves. It is that glimpse of the past into people’s lives that captures my imagination. You can directly see what Londoners and tourists of the post war period were looking at when they were standing on the spot exactly where we stand today. They too staring at the opposite wall, reading, passing the time, impatient and bored.

20170709_165205 (2)
Piccadilly Circus, late 1950s/early 1960s. From Hamilton Ellis’s The ENcyclopedia of Railways, 1968, Hamlyn. 


Post Script

Today I passed a revealed wall going down the escalators at Bank to the Central Line. Behind the chicken wire, someone had graffitied “LTFC”. With a crutch in one hand and the other on the rail, I didn’t have a chance to take a picture. It’s there and I trust it will be for years to come, similar to graffiti and masons marks we find behind wooden panels of ancient buildings. Perhaps our future vertical archaeologists will consider it a good luck spell for Luton Town Football Club.


Other references

Ian Visits has already recorded some revealed posters.



And finally

As I mentioned above, if anyone can shed light on any of the gaps I have in what companies or goods are advertised in the posters, I’d like to know. Similarly, if you have seen anything else on the tube stations drop me a line. Let me know and I will update this piece, with credits.

Apologies for the lower quality of some of the images. They were taken on my phone, from a distance and in low light levels.

For Cordoba and Si.


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