Beneath a glowing underground sign, bathed in yellow from an anti-aircraft searchlight and surrounded by scattered sandbags, stands an air raid shelter for one.
More than 80 years ago this shelter was among the many that offered refuge to London transport staff on duty as bombs fell on the capital. Today, this scene marks the entrance to the London Transport Museum’s new gallery, London’s Transport at War.
The gallery looks at the crucial role that London Transport (as it was then called) played during the first and second world wars, from keeping civilians safe at home to supporting efforts on the front line. Personal stories of bravery, hardship and resilience, featuring objects, audio, quotes and film, bring the narrative to life.
A combination of individual experiences and state propaganda, shown in posters and public notices, provides a well-balanced history of how London Transport presented itself during war and the true experiences of its workforce.
Covering two wars in one gallery is ambitious. Looking at these conflicts through the lens of London Transport’s history inevitably limits the scope and, given the scale of the subject and the size of the gallery, it can only give a light touch to the topic. What is on show is rigorously researched and well supported by a mixture of images, artefacts and reproductions from the museum’s collection. At times, the densely packed displays, including many text-heavy posters and signs, can feel overwhelming.
Divided into five sections, the gallery combines stories from both wars in themes. Though not chronological, the first and last sections act as bookends, starting with the war mobilisation and ending with the commemorations at the end of hostilities. The other three sections cover women workers, stations becoming bomb shelters and the challenge to keep London moving.
Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square
In the Going to War section we see how London Transport supported conflicts abroad by releasing staff, redirecting skills and donating vehicles to the war effort. We are introduced to two London bus drivers, Jim Woodards and Charles Lee, who volunteered to support the war effort by using their driving skills to transport supplies and troops across Europe. Photographs and army keepsakes bring their stories to life, but their experiences are not that dissimilar.
This felt like an ideal place to introduce Joseph “Joe” Clough, London’s first black bus driver, who drove an ambulance on the western front in northern France and Belgium during the first world war. Joe Clough is mentioned elsewhere in the museum, but this gallery is an opportunity to put his wartime years in a wider context and add a diversity of experience, which is otherwise not present.
The section titled They Also Serve celebrates the contribution made by women, as they stepped into roles left by men who joined the armed forces. While women readily filled these positions, the inequalities between them and their male counterparts are made clear – they were often paid less. As we learn, this was not taken lightly and, in 1918, women at Willesden bus garage took industrial action that quickly escalated into nationwide strike.
Posters illustrate how women workers became important symbols of London Transport’s wartime identity despite their poor treatment. Posters by AS Hartrick and Fred Taylor reflect how women’s jobs changed between the wars, the former depicting a gate woman and lift girl and the latter, produced 24 years later, show women in maintenance roles for the first time. Like this example, the content is at its strongest when explicitly highlighting the changes and continuities between the two conflicts.
The next section, Keeping London Moving, shows the challenges faced by transport workers as they tried to run a functioning network with fewer vehicles and the constant threat of air attacks. The topic of death and destruction is dealt with sensitively and, where possible, the staff who lost their lives are named. While it is mentioned that passengers became used to blackout conditions, which saw them flag down buses with torches, what’s missing is a broader sense of how transport habits changed during the wars and the strain that placed on the service.
Wheels on the bus
The small gallery does well to cater for different audiences. Interactives clustered on a central table provide a destination for creative hands and draw visitors into the space. The chance to make a bomb shelter ticket was popular, with adults and children enjoying crayon-rubbing their preferred underground station refuge.
Some exhibits are more accessible and attractive than others. The invitation to turn a bus steering wheel that was used in the first world war – the only piece of a vehicle on display – is less appealing. Rotating a fiddly knob reveals details about the locations and army slang inscribed on the wheel’s spokes. In a text-heavy gallery it would have been nice to see a creative solution to bring this information and object to life, possibly through illustrations or maps. A focus on analogue experiences was
a thoughtful contrast to Future Engineers, the predominately digital interactive gallery next door.
The Shelter section is a welcome shift in tone to the rest of the gallery. Wooden benches, period lighting and train tracks seemingly travelling off into the distance – thanks to two cleverly positioned mirrors – creates the atmosphere of standing on a station platform.
A film about the experiences of sheltering from air attack is projected on the wall and is an engaging and evocative piece combining archive footage and testimonies from survivors of zeppelin raids and the Blitz. This part of the gallery deserves better signposting as it could easily be missed.
The design to create the illusion of travelling through an underground station becomes uncomfortably dominant with the use of blindingly white plastic tiles that wrap around the space. While being a means to attach labels, its overall effect is distracting, overwhelming the objects and cluttering an already busy gallery.
More successful are the floor-to-ceiling section panels, their angular shape and backlit design evoking anti-aircraft searchlights and echoing the graphic at the gallery entrance.
This new gallery, although modest in scale, shows the significant contribution made by transport staff during two world wars. While these stories would benefit from a little more space to breathe, visitors will certainly find something new to see with each visit to the permanent gallery.
Rachel Boon is the curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum, London