Category Archives: History

The name’s Fleming. Ian Fleming.

I’ve recently been acquainting myself with one of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century, a secret agent by the name of James Bond.

Everyone knows James Bond. The tuxedo, the gun, the enigmatic smile, the Aston Martin DB5, vodka martinis shaken and not stirred, licence to kill, 007 (008 outside Central London), “the name’s Bond,” lots of fancy ladies and so forth. The character has basically become the very definition of spy fiction. Any fictional spy who’s appeared on screen since the 1960s will inevitably be compared to him. Heck, most action films that have come along since then owe something to the tropes established by the Bond movies.

But the Bond we all know and love is, let’s be honest, the Bond of the films.

Being a cultured sort, you’re no doubt aware that the Bond franchise started out with a series of novels by Ian Fleming, pictured right. Fleming was a spy himself during the Second World War, and in fact claimed that Casino Royale was inspired by an experience he himself had with a couple of undercover German agents at the gaming table (sadly, not the wicked-awesome bit from the film where Bond flips his car over seven times).

Fleming created Bond initially as a fairly dull character – the name was chosen to reflect this, and was taken from an American ornithologist. The ornithologist in question did see the funny side. Fleming built the character and his world up from his own experiences and those of friends and colleagues – for instance, it’s from Fleming that Bond gets the bon viveur tendencies for which he’s known. The first book, Casino Royale, was published in 1953.

The books were, initially, only a modest success, and Fleming planned to end the series after the fifth, From Russia with Love. This is actually incredibly obvious from the ending of the book, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. However, this very same book was a roaring success, and is considered by many fans to be the best of the series. It was followed by seven more before Fleming’s death.

So how does Literary Bond compare to Movie Bond (s)? Well, it’s all rather interesting. Fleming himself rather liked Connery’s portrayal, to the extent of giving Bond a Scottish father in later books. However, the closest portrayal to the early books is probably that of Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton.

Literary Bond, as Fleming envisioned him (the picture on the right was commissioned by the author), is something of a damaged individual. He is a man with definite mixed feelings about his calling in life. Not the sort of man who’d kill a henchman in cold blood and then produce a one-liner. There are several occasions when he becomes positively morbid – he accepts as inevitable the fact that he’s probably only got about a decade before being killed in the line of service, for instance. By the time of Doctor No, one of the weaker books in my opinion, M has decided that Bond is losing it as a result of all the crazy shit he’s been involved in recently. He’s an imperfect man whose cruel façade is built upon a very fallible, human foundation. As such, I actually find him a much more satisfying character than Connery or Moore’s impermeable action hero.

Interestingly in character terms, the Bond girls in the books are far more rounded characters than they are in the films. One, Gala Brand in Moonraker, is arguably more responsible for foiling the villain’s plan than Bond. And, most surprisingly of all, he doesn’t always get the girl.

The films vary in terms of how closely they stick to the books. Aside from updating the setting and padding the story out, Casino Royale is a fairly faithful adaptation. Moonraker, meanwhile, adopts the title and name of the villain and little else (so if you saw that film, don’t be put off the novel)

As I said earlier, the suave sophistication of the films is there – Fleming takes an almost pornographic delight in describing Bond’s food, drink and surroundings. Bear in mind that when the first books were published, Britain was still in the grip of rationing and far-flung holidays were just a dream for most people – this luxury was as much a part of the escapist fantasy as the machinations of Le Chiffre or Julius No.

One point against the books is that, in some regards, they are very much of their time. Particularly when it comes to things like imperialism and race. It’s always a bit embarrassing when Bond starts talking about race. Doctor No is particularly bad in this regard, and the whole thing frankly feels like a late installment in the Fu Manchu saga.

This aside, I can’t deny that they are very, very readable. I’ve ploughed through the individual novels at a rate of just under one a day because they are extremely compelling. Not great literature, you understand – I suspect that were it not for the films they’d have been forgotten by now – but something of a guilty pleasure nonetheless. And I think that when you have a character as iconic as Bond, you really ought to familiarise yourself with the source.

Moonraker was still a terrible film, though.

Further Reading

If you’re in the mood for further comparisons of films to their literary sources, my good chum Jess has recently started a blog doing just that for Disney. It’s right here. I’m looking forward to the surely-upcoming entry where she compares The Lion King to Kimba the White Lion (zing!).

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Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

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Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line

Good evening, fright-fans, it is I, Tom, your extravagantly-cleavaged Master of the Dark [picture inadmissable]. As Halloween approaches with the inevitability of death, I thought an appropriately-themed entry might be in order. As last year’s entry on the ghosts haunting the Northern Line was so popular, I figured I might continue the theme with the hauntings on the old Central London Railway or, as the kids call it nowadays, the Central Line. Mind the gap…

Northolt

You’ve all heard of the Beast of Bodmin, but did you know there was a Beast of Northolt? In the early 1990s, there were several sightings of a big cat alongside the Central Line between Northolt and Greenford. Accounts vary as to the species of cat, although most seem to settle on “puma.” Whence it came and how it got to Northolt without being noticed remain to be explained.

Marble Arch

If you should find yourself leaving Marble Arch late at night, when the station is quiet, you may find yourself being followed up the escalator. Several people have reported a sinister man in 1940s clothing who they sense close behind them on the escalator and see out of the corner of their eye. Upon turning around completely, the man vanishes. Again, no explanation has been offered as to who this restless spirit might be.

British Museum

Perhaps the most unlikely ghost out of the many on the Underground was sighted at this now-closed station. The ghost would, so the story goes, appear at one end of the platform and walk to the other, wailing mournfully. What marked this particular spectre out, however, was the fact that he was dressed in the clobber of an Ancient Egyptian. Being the intelligent and probably very sexy reader that you are, you’ve no doubt figured out why there might be an Ancient Egyptian haunting British Museum Station. To be more specific, the Egyptian is said to have some sort of link to the so-called Unlucky Mummy (pictured right), a sarcophagus lid in the Museum that is said to be cursed. This is just one of many legends attached to it, the most interesting of which says that it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

Even bearing in mind that I’m a sceptic, I’m inclined to take this one with a pinch of salt. The accounts are lacking in detail and only emerged shortly before the station was closed down. I’m inclined to believe it was the invention of a journalist looking for a spooky story. Nevertheless, the story persists, albeit with the ghost now haunting Holborn. Why Holborn and not the closer Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road stations? It is a mystery.

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane has plenty of secrets of its own, but in the tunnels between here and Holborn, there’s said to be one more surprise. During the 1960s,drivers stopping at signals here would often be freaked out by the appearance of a man standing next to them in the cab. Apparently some sort of fellow crewman, he would be staring straight ahead, and would vanish as soon as the train pulled away.

Bank

I covered the manife-stations (see what I did there) at this stop in last year’s entry, but I thought I’d mention that it’s a haunted station on the Central Line for those pedants who’ll leave comments if I don’t.

Liverpool Street

This terminus is built on the site of a plague pit and one of the several incarnations of the notorious Bedlam. The building of this and neighbouring Broad Street Station involved the disturbance of many final resting places, so really it would be surprising if there were no hauntings here. Sure enough, Liverpool Street and environs are said to be haunted by the ghastly screams of a woman.

The most popular suggestion for the screamer is one Rebecca Griffiths, an inmate at Bedlam in the late 18th century whose illness included a compulsive need to hold on to a particular coin. Upon her death, one of the staff (who were not known for their selflessness) stole it from her lifeless fingers and Rebecca’s inconsolable spirit searches for it still.

More recently, in 2000, the Line Controller sighted a man in white overalls in the tunnels who should not have been there. He sent the Station Supervisor to investigate, who found nothing. What made this particularly peculiar was that the Supervisor found no man down there – even though the Controller could see the man on the CCTV screen right next to him.

Bethnal Green

I’ll finish with the Easternmost of the haunted Central Line stations that I’m aware of, and one of the most frightening hauntings. This one is traceable to a specific incident that took place on 3rd March 1943. As often happened in the East End at that time, when the air raid siren sounded, the local people made for the Tube station. Unfortunately, on this night it had been decided to carry out a test-firing of an experimental new type of rocket in nearby Victoria Park. Panicked by what sounded like a very nearby explosion, the crowds surged forward. A woman on the stairs lost her footing and fell, taking several others with her and causing further panic, which in turn worsened the stampede and the crush inside the station. 173 people were killed in the disaster, crushed or asphyxiated. For reasons of morale, the Bethnal Green incident was covered up until 1946.

From 1981 onwards, however, there were reports of an extremely unnerving nature from the station. Staff working late at night spoke of hearing screams – at first one or two, then more and more, clearly identifiable as women and children. These screams would go on for up to fifteen minutes before dying down.

There you have it, readers. I hope you enjoy your Halloween this year and whatever you do, don’t have nightmares…

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Hackney, History, London, London Underground, Museums, Occult, Paranormal, Suburbia, The City, Transport, West End

“A most infamous, vile scoundrel.”

I’ve written about some pretty dreadful people in this blog before, but I think the subject of today’s entry might well beat all. You see, most of the notorious figures I’ve written about have had some redeeming feature – usually in terms of the comedy value of their actions, or because to some extent they acted the way we all secretly wish we could. Colonel Charteris, however, seems to have been utterly irredeemable.

Francis Charteris was born in Edinburgh in 1675, inheriting much of his wealth from his family. This he augmented with his considerable skill at gambling, both honest and dishonest, as well as lending money at ruinous interest, bribery, blackmail, fraud and shares in the South Sea Company (being one of the few investors not to lose his shirt in that most unwise venture). To give some idea of his methods, he once managed to con £5,000 out of Child’s Bank simply by informing them that he was going to withdraw that amount, sending down a servant to collect it, subsequently denying all knowledge and kicking up a stink over the bank’s security until the poor chap in charge was forced to “reimburse” him. He bought his way up through the army to the rank of Colonel before his dodgy dealings were uncovered and he was kicked out, then he was allowed to re-enlist for reasons that are not entirely clear. 

He is perhaps best known for seduction. “Seduction” here being a very loose term, as many of the 300 women he claimed to have seduced were not as willing as he might have pretended. He was a great enthusiast for the ladies, claiming a fondness for those with “B-tt-cks as hard as Cheshire Cheeses, that could make a dint in a wooden chair” and would go to any lengths to get them

For instance, while staying at an inn in Lancaster, he took a fancy to one of the servant girls, promising her a shiny guinea in exchange for her favours (cough). The girl was initially reluctant, but gave in. The following morning, Charteris indignantly spoke to the landlord, claiming to have given the girl a guinea to change into silver and not had the money back. A search revealed that the girl did indeed have Charteris’ guinea, which was returned to him and the girl dismissed. This story did not work in Charteris’ favour when he was later standing for election to MP for Lancaster.

He found himself in a similar pickle in Scotland after raping a married woman at gunpoint. For this, he was charged, but able to avoid arrest by virtue of running away. This meant he was unable to visit his extensive estates north of the border, to which you or I might sarcastically remark, “Boo hoo.” However, Charteris was able to get around this by… asking the King for a pardon in 1721. It really was that easy.

The classy thing to do under the circumstances would surely be to lie low. However, “classy” was not exactly an adjective one could apply to Charteris, and as Fog’s Weekly Journal put it,

We hear a certain Scotch Colonel is charged with a Rape, a misfortune he has been very liable to, but for which he has obtained a Nolle Prosequi. It is reported now that he brags that he will obtain a Patent for ravishing whomever he pleases.

Note that it’s clear from this that Charteris’ reputation for rape was already well-established. It may have been at around this time that he began referring to himself as “the Rape-Master General of England.”

This was not the first time his tendency to let his Old Chap Downstairs rule over him would get him into trouble, nor would it be the last. On several occasions he found himself having to fork out considerable sums of money to avoid prosecution. Most of these stories are far too depressing to recount, so I’ll instead recount the tale of the one who got away. It seems that there was a young lady looking for employment as a servant near Charteris’ Leicestershire residence, Hornby Lodge. Charteris took a fancy to her, hired her and at once set about having his way with her at gunpoint. The young lady pretended to acquiesce to his demands, and the horny bastard dropped trou and prepared himself for the act. So excited was he at the prospect of getting in there that he made the mistake of putting the gun down. The young lady seized the firearm and forced him to let her out unmolested. I hope she didn’t give him time to put his pants back on.

Less amusing was the case of Anne Bond. Such was Charteris’ reputation in 1729, when Bond was hired to work at his Hanover Square residence, that she wasn’t actually told who her employer was – it was claimed that he was a Mr Harvey. However, she soon figured out his true identity, not least because of his persistence in offering her money for sex. She requested to leave, whereupon Charteris had her up. A month later, he called for the “Lancashire bitch” and raped her. He then had her horsewhipped, stripped and robbed to silence her. Nevertheless, when she was allowed out, she told a friend and Charteris again found himself under arrest. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Charteris being Charteris, however, this was not the end of the story. By means of some £15,000 worth of bribery, a campaign was set up for his release. The most surprising voice among the pro-Charteris campaigners was Bond herself, almost certainly thanks to an £800 payment. Rumour at the time had it that she was planning to use the money to finance a pub called ‘The Colonel Charteris’ Head.’ In 1730, the ageing rake was released from Newgate.

Thereafter, Charteris fell ill and died in February 1732 in Edinburgh. One theory has it that this was the result of sickness contracted in prison. His funeral was not exactly one of pomp and ceremony, as an angry mob tried to seize the coffin and threw dead animals and offal into the grave.

Charteris was perhaps the most hated man of his era. The poor hated him for his crimes and ability to avoid punishment, and the rich hated him for being a crass upstart with no honour or conscience. The title of this entry was given to Charteris by Jonathan Swift. The playwright John Gay sarcastically wrote to Swift during the Bond trial, “Does not Charteris’ misfortune grieve you? For this great man is liable to save his life and lose some of his money. A very hard case!” William Hogarth portrayed him (right) in ‘The Harlot’s Progress,’ leering out of a doorway, having a covert wank. While he was far from the worst figure in history, it’s hard to think of one less personally likeable.

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The name’s Bond

This weekend found me back West at the parents’ place for a specific task. The Da has been streamlining his car collection, and my assistance was required to move one of them. The vehicle being disposed of was a Bond Minicar.

Now, you say “a Bond” in a car context, people automatically assume you mean an Aston Martin. A Bond Minicar is actually pretty much the opposite of an Aston Martin. It looks like what you’d get if you didn’t bother to get your Reliant Robin neutered and it mounted a Ford Anglia.

The vehicle on the left is a Bond Minicar. Not the Da’s one, but very similar. As you can see, it’s tiny. The chap who took the Da’s one described them as “the original Mini.” Actually, they’re smaller than that. We were able to fit it into the back of a Transit van for its trip to its new home. Four of us were able to physically pick it up with ease. Picking a car up is the manliest thing I’ve done since that time I ate a steak while smoking a cigar and wearing a Stetson.

To understand the appeal of the Minicar, you need to know a little about the history of motoring in Britain. In 1949, when the first Bonds were built, car ownership in Britain was nothing like as widespread as it is now – cars were simply not affordable for most families. Often, the family runabout, if you had one, would be a motorbike and sidecar (Dad driving, Mum riding pillion, two kids crammed in the sidecar, God hopefully on your side).

Enter Lawrie Bond, an engineer who had made military components during the Second World War. He aimed to produce a small, economical car for the average family, and the Minicar was the result. Period advertisements show a family of four happily chuntering along in their spacious automobile, which suggests that either people were about half the size back then or the publicity department was being economical with the truth. In reality, the Minicar was a very basic vehicle. It used a Villiers motorbike engine with no reverse gear which was actually mounted on the single front wheel. Due to the car’s tiny turning circle, however, the lack of a reverse gear wasn’t a huge issue. The Deluxe version had electric windscreen wipers (believe me, chums, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to clear a windscreen in the driving rain with a manual windscreen wiper).

This basic nature was the main attraction of the vehicle. You see, with its tiny engine and its three wheels, it wasn’t technically a car. Technically, it was a motorbike. You only needed a motorcycle licence to drive one and, crucially, you only had to pay a motorcycle’s road tax, purchase tax and insurance. For all I joke about them, you can see the appeal of such a car to the motorbike-and-sidecar families.

The Da’s is a Mark G, which was first manufactured in 1961. This included such luxuries as opening windows and door locks. The Da’s is notable for the fact that it was the first one with an opening boot (which raises the question of whether early Mark Gs had boots you couldn’t get into) and is thus An Historic Vehicle. Unfortunately, in 1962 a crippling blow was dealt to Bond when the government reduced the tax on four-wheeled cars. Thus, immediately, much of the appeal of the Minicar was gone, and people started to favour cars that might actually get you laid.

Bond produced a follow-up, the 875, which (worryingly) could do up to 100mph. Bond Cars Ltd. was bought up in 1970 by Reliant, whose name is legendary (notorious?) in British motoring circles for the three-wheeled Robin and Regal (best known as Del Boy’s van from Only Fools and Horses) models. However, the Bond name lived on in the form of the utterly bizarre Bond Bug, seen above. This was essentially a sports version of a Reliant Robin, and one can’t help wondering if there was one guy at Reliant who was a bit embarrassed that they’d taken his joke suggestion seriously.

These days, all these three-wheelers – the Minicar, the Robin, the Regal, the 875, the Bug – have a cult following. Perhaps because they’re so unusual, perhaps because they represent a niche market, perhaps because they appeal to the British sense of the ridiculous. If any car personifies the “lovable loser,” it’s the three-wheeler.

"You plonker, 3PO."

One final note. The chap who designed the Bug, Tom Karen, would go on to design the Landspeeder from Star Wars. This means that technically, the Bond Minicar is the ancestor of the Landspeeder. Next time George Lucas decides to tinker with the original films, do you think he could be persuaded to put Luke Skywalker in a Minicar? That would be so awesome.

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The Leaning Tower of Westminster

So anyway, one of the significant stories this week revolving around Our Fair City is the discovery that Big Ben is, in fact, leaning. Some reacted with indifference, some with curiosity, those angry guys you see in the Wetherspoon’s at 2pm with a clenched fist of triumph. Some pointed out that technically Big Ben isn’t leaning, because the clock tower isn’t actually called that.

I have to admit, Big Ben (I am going to call it that, pedantry be damned) is not a landmark I feel any great affection for. That might be partly because I used to work opposite it, so it was just another part of my daily routine. I’m also not a huge fan of the architecture, which to my eye is just a bit too “busy,” if you know what I mean. Still, I’m not going to deny that it’s a significant part of our skyline and we’d all miss it if it was gone. After all, how would you establish that characters from American movies had arrived in Britain if not for a shot of Big Ben and a couple of bars of ‘Rule Britannia?’ Not easily, that’s for sure.

The clock tower was completed on 10th April 1858, part of Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament. The Gothic style being very much in fashion then, that was the architecture plumped for by the Powers that Be. The clock tower at the end was farmed out to Augustus Pugin, who you may see on the left there. Pugin was a noted architect of the Gothic style, and when not busy designing spooky buildings, he supplemented his income by looting from shipwrecks (I am not making this up).

After completing his design, he went mad, probably as a result of syphilis, and died in 1852. Students of architecture will note that this is a surefire way to ensure that your building includes lots of non-Euclidian geometry and possibly summons the Elder Gods, but there has been no sign of that thus far. It would certainly liven up the parliamentary debates.

As I said at the start, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower, but the big bell, the one that sounds the bongs. The official name for the bell is the rather less interesting “Great Bell” (how long did it take you to come up with the name for that, guys?). It was originally cast in Yorkshire and brought down to London by water, its size nearly wrecking the boat carrying it. On arrival, the bell was found to be defective. It was melted down and recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, from whence most of London’s bells originate. The method used to cast “Big Ben II” was an unusual method of casting, unique at the time and now used for bells all around the world. Oddly enough, Big Ben is actually cracked, resulting in its very distinctive tone. I’m sure a campanologist could tell us more.

The origin of the nickname is disputed. The official story has it that it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Royal Commissioner for Works at the time of the tower’s construction. Another has it that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxer of the time who was himself nicknamed “Big Ben.”

The clock is famed for its accuracy. However, should the necessity arise, it is possible to adjust the swing of the pendulum and thus change the time. On top of the pendulum is a little stack of old pennies. By removing or adding a penny, the speed of the pendulum is changed. You’d expect something a bit more hi-tech, or at least legal tender, but I suppose it’s worked this long.

The most recent news, to return to the start of this entry, is that the tower is actually leaning. In fact, this is not particularly new news, and I’m not sure why it should particularly come to prominence now. Thanks to all the many different tunnels dug under Westminster since 1858, the ground isn’t as firm as once it was, and so a degree of lean is to be expected. Wake me if it actually falls.

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I get a roundel

Now here’s a London icon for ya.

This is the old London Underground roundel. If you’ve spent any time at all in the city, you’ve come across it. Hell, these days it’s practically a symbol of the city itself.

It’s one of those designs that’s just so simple and effective that you find yourself thinking, “Golly gee, anyone could have come up with that.” I mean, red circle, blue bar, the word “UNDERGROUND,” hardly rocket science amirite?

Actually, it’s been a long evolutionary process to get this far. The roundel, or “bullseye” or “target” as it used to be known (maybe these earlier titles are seen as too confrontational in the modern age?) is believed to date back ultimately to the 19th century. The London General Omnibus Company’s logo consisted of a spoked wheel with a crossbar (see above right).

In those days, simplicity doesn’t appear to have been a thing that corporate image-makers did, and for a long time the Underground railways (not that London Underground existed as a unified concept back then) went for more elaborate symbols. The one on the left, for instance, was used in 1908 by London Underground Electric Railways, the direct ancestor of the modern Underground system. You can see elements of the roundel concept in this, but it lacks a certain “oomph” to my mind.

The true London Underground roundel appeared that very same year as a handy and eyecatching means of identifying stations belonging to London Underground Electric Railways (or “The Combine,” as it was nicknamed). The original roundels consisted of a red circle with a blue bar across it, and you can still see these at a few locations – Ealing Broadway springs to mind. As stations featured colourful advertising and complex tiling schemes (to enable illiterate travellers to identify their destination), the sign had to stand out.

The next big development for the roundel took place a few years later, in 1917. This was during the reign of Frank Pick as the Combine’s Publicity Manager. Pick, as I’ve mentioned in other entries, basically set the design standards that London Underground follows to this day. Part of this was the introduction of the Johnston typeface in which all Underground-produced written material is written. Edward Johnston, who devised the typeface (duh) also redesigned the roundel to work with his new alphabet.

This roundel was in use during the Underground’s greatest period of expansion, and consequently architect Charles Holden used it extensively in his station designs. He even came up with a rather natty 3D version, as well as a stained glass variant.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, more changes were afoot. In 1933, all of London’s Underground lines, together with all of its bus companies, tramlines and coach services, were united under the London Passenger Transport Board – better known to you and me as London Transport. Variants of the Roundel were introduced across the board to emphasise the unity of the transport network.

In 1947, the roundel was reworked again. Following the Second World War, the prevailing design aesthetic was far simpler – partly due to Austerity period economy measures. To this end, Harold Hutchison (then Publicity Manager) eliminated the dashes above and below the word “UNDERGROUND.” This is basically the version still in use to this day.

In recent years, the scope of its use has expanded even further, with variants being devised for the DLR, Overground, riverboats, Dial-a-Ride and even streets.

In fact, its (unauthorised) use has spread yet further afield. On the left you can see it in use on the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, which is a narrow gauge steam railway in India (not yet covered by Oyster). It even crops up in fiction – the subway in the film Dark City uses it, and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, the dwarfish rune for a mine is… a circle with a line across it.

You can dis the Tube all you like (I know I do), but there’s one thing you can’t deny – when they come up with a good design, they really come up with a good design.

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