Tag Archives: london general

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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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Fashion and trends, History, London, London Underground, Transport

Nightbusmare

London has no shortage of ghost stories. It’s almost inevitable in such a large, old and densely-populated city.

For instance, there’s the tale of Thomas Cox the hackney-cab driver, who picked up a passenger one night in Fleet Street who caused his horses a great deal of distress. When he went back to investigate, the passenger had turned into the apparition of a giant bear before vanishing in a flash of flame. This is coincidentally Yr. Humble Chronicler’s favourite way of fare-dodging, too.

Then there was the ghost of Old Jimmy Garlickhythe, an unknown medieval gentleman named after the church of St James Garlickhythe in which his mummified remains were displayed. His tomb was hit by a bomb in 1942, following which his ghost would appear around the church looking reproachful.

Bank Station, we are told, is haunted by a strange and unearthly sense of dread and misery, but this is actually normal for the Northern Line and is nothing to worry about.

If you believe in ghosts (Yr. Humble Chronicler remains sceptical), these are practically routine for the area. This is, after all, the City itself, dating back to the Romans.

On the left you may see a black-liveried Routemaster belonging to Ghost Bus Tours, and this reminded me of a particularly memorable haunting. This one didn’t take place in the City, but in the rather more suburban surroundings of North Kensington. This area, although historic enough, wasn’t really a part of London until the coming of the District Railway in the 1860s (Yr. Humble Chronicler was once able to impress a resident by guessing precisely the year in which her house was built, in what might have been the nerdiest chat-up technique ever).

The ghost in question was first noted in June 1934, when a motorist swerved off St. Mark’s Road at 1.15 a.m. for no apparent reason, hit a lamp post and was killed. The accident was a mystery. When the police appealed for information, a number of people came forward with the same somewhat bizarre suggestion. Namely, that the motorist had swerved to avoid a ghost.The ghost supposedly took the unlikely form of a Number 7 bus, and would always appear on St Mark’s Road (near Ladbroke Grove tube station, if you’re interested). It most commonly appeared at the junction with Cambridge Gardens, but could be sighted anywhere along St Mark’s Road between there and the junction with Chesterton Road. It would appear very suddenly, accounting for the motorist’s sudden swerve, and always at 1.15 a.m (this, you must remember, was long before the introduction of night buses). What was more, the driver appeared to be somewhat homicidal, and would apparently head straight for anyone witnessing his vehicle.

What led witnesses to think this was a ghost? These days, psychotically-driven late night buses are the norm, and the ghost would probably go unnoticed. In this case, the big thing that seems to have tipped people off that the bus was not all it seemed was the fact that it was painted in the livery of London General. In 1933, this company was taken over by London Transport. Frankly, this part of the story is the least spooky aspect for me – public transport vehicles taken over by new owners tend not to get repainted until they go to the works for a service.

Regardless, stories persisted – particularly after the inquest. Strangely enough, though, within ten years they had died down, and the ghost has not now been seen in more than half a century. Even the author of the book on London ghosts that I’m reading at the moment is sceptical as to whether there ever was a ghost bus. Sceptics suggested that it was perhaps a late night staff working or an optical illusion caused by tiredness and reflections, and the sudden appearance of the vehicle might be put down to the fact that that part of the road had notoriously poor visibility.

Knight buses, on the other hand, are very real.

Nevertheless, the story goes that that blind curve was rebuilt in part because of fears of the Ghost Bus. Perhaps so, although I would imagine that spooks or no, a blind curve that causes accidents is a bad thing.

Michael Moorcock briefly mentions the bus in his book Mother London – essential reading for any London enthusiast – adding the detail that “passengers foolish enough to board it are lost forever.”
The most exciting thing that has ever happened to me on a Number 7 bus was that time my bag got nicked.
Now I come to think of it, that wasn’t a Number 7 at all.

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Filed under 20th Century, Geography, History, Kensington, Literature, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Transport