transport history

London: London Transport Museum


Luxuriating in the plush interior of a Victorian era train. I believe this was actually a second class carriage, but it was still positively opulent by modern standards!

The London Transport Museum has long been beckoning to me from its perch in the middle of Covent Garden (right where I imagine the Georgian ladies of the night featured in Harris’s List did some beckoning of their own).  Massive queues, coupled with a hefty £15 admission fee had kept me away in the past.  However, a few weeks ago, a visiting friend was keen on seeing it, and there was no queue late on a Friday afternoon, so I was persuaded to part with some cash (and received an annual pass for my trouble, which is something I suppose) to gain entrance into this veritable palace of public conveyance.


Immediately upon entering, we were directed up a sort of gangway which led us into a lift/mock TARDIS, which was, disappointingly, not any bigger on the inside.  As the doors shut behind us, dates began flashing on a screen above our heads, ostensibly sending us back to 1800 (I freely admit I was jumping up and down and clapping my hands with delight the entire time.  Even fake time travel is cool) which took the form of the second floor of the building.  We were greeted by an impressive fleet of omnibuses driven by (squee!) wax figures galore.  I think it was the first time I actually saw an omnibus in real life, and I was quite surprised at how large they were.  It made all the accounts I’ve read of people being run down by them make much more sense, especially as they would have also had giant, scary horses attached to them in real life.  This uppermost floor focused on early 19th century transport, with posters detailing the difficulties of pre-industrial travel lining one side of the room, and the omnibuses dominating the other side.


Progressing downwards via the stairs (much less exciting than the lift), we jumped forward in history to Victorian London, and the infamous Underground steam trains (one of which I am sat inside at the start of this post).  This floor was quite narrow, and taken up mainly by the huge steam engines, and some information about the planning of the early Underground system (Circle Line), and the subsequent development of the suburbs, which is the basis of my interest in the history of the Underground (I am deliberately not referring to it as the Tube, as purists will tell you that only the deep line tunnels, like the Victoria Line, are actually the Tube proper.  All of the oldest lines, including the District, are mainly cut and cover, with some overground sections).  To understand how London expanded, you really need to know why and when the Underground arrived in the suburbs.  The Transport Museum only offered a bare outline of this process, with no mention of the many squabbles that delayed the growth of the Underground, which are covered in books like The Subterranean Railway and Underground, Overground (both of which, honestly, go into a bit too much detail for my tastes, especially the former title, but my interest in transport history is relatively limited), so judging by this, and the location, I have to say the museum is geared more towards the tourist than the TfL enthusiast.


I can only guess at the depraved things this man is subjecting his fellow passengers to. Disturbingly, I have encountered similar passengers whilst Inter-railing through Europe some years ago. Oh, the stories I could tell!

Moving down to the ground floor, which was by far the largest floor, took us into 1900-the present day. Half of the space was devoted to the Underground (yet again), as it is obviously the most iconic form of transport in London, and included trains from a number of different decades that you were welcome to sit inside (along with a delightful cast of era-appropriately attired wax people).  I love interactive things like this, and I even took the opportunity, as I was alone, to swing from the bars inside one of the cars, like you see obnoxious children and even more obnoxious drunk people doing from time to time (I have to admit, it is pretty fun). There was quite a large section devoted to transport during the World Wars, which I found very informative, as well as an explanation of the technology that allowed for the creation of the Underground. I also really like the various posters that have been used to advertise the Underground over the years, and there was a small display of them here, along with a bit of information on Harry Beck‘s famous map (though not as much as I would have thought).


The rest of the floor space was given over to the somewhat less enticing above-ground vehicles, i.e. buses and the tram.  Living in Wimbledon, I am all too familiar with the tram, which goes to such delightful places as Croydon and my personal favourite: Therapia Lane (pronounced the-rape-ia.  Not somewhere I’d want to find myself alone after dark, just in case it lives up to its name…), so I found it hard to summon up much enthusiasm over this part of the museum.  What I did enjoy, perhaps bizarrely, was the design of the bathroom.  They had a different moquette pattern on the back of each stall, made of wallpaper rather than fabric for obvious reasons, and a neat curvy hand-washing trough thing (less gross than it sounds).  Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the difference, and I thought it was a nice touch.  The shop is also fairly impressive, and a good place to pick up unique gifts (you can enter the shop without buying a ticket for the museum).  They have a large selection of the aforementioned TfL posters, along with moquette patterned purses, pillows, and even sofas (I secretly lust after the sofas, even though they are admittedly kind of hideous, but the £1000+ price tag is probably enough to assure that I am never able to turn my living room into my own personal version of the Tube.  I think I’d go for either the Barman pattern, found in new Central Line trains, or maybe the 1947 Roundel, if anyone’s interested.).


I shall award the London Transport Museum 3/5.  I do think the admission fee is much too high, and the museum doesn’t go into enough depth to appeal to proper enthusiasts, but it was nonetheless a fun museum with just enough information to provide a general history of TfL to tourists and other casual visitors.  And the many things to climb on, and in and out of, ensure that less keen adults (and probably children too) won’t get too bored whilst people like me read all the signage. 5/5 for the mannequins though, they were magnificent! Thus, if you’re debating between visiting here and Madame Tussaud’s, there’s really no contest.  The London Transport Museum is cheaper, has much shorter queues (even in peak times), and I’m fairly certain their wax figures will afford you far more hilarity than anything the Madame can offer up.