It is very difficult nowadays to say where the suburbs of London come to an end and where the country begins. The railways have turned the countryside into a city”Anthony Trollope, The Three Clerks, 1857
Established at the beginning of the 20th century, the origins of this museum was an attempt to preserve for prosperity buses retired from service by the London General Omnibus Company. Over the course of the century, through acquisition and expansion the collection expanded beyond its original remit to include the preservation of all vehicles including the transition from steam railway to the electrification of the railways in the capital.
Originally situated in Clapham, the expanding collection moved to Syon Park in 1973 before arriving at its final location in London’s Covent Garden in 1980. Today, the museum is divided across two sites, the main museum in the markets Victorian iron structure and a seperate collection in a depot site in Acton. The transition to its current identity as the London Transport Museum, showcasing the history of travel across the capital saw a majority of its historical collection moved to the National Railway Museum in York, part of the Science Museum group.
Today, visitors arrive from the pedestrianised piazza square close to a host of tourist attractions and venues including amongst others the London Film Museum. With a family friendly pricing structure and the option to return throughout the year with the purchase of a day ticket, the museum is always a popular location to visit throughout the year. Following an expansion program that ran for two years between 2005 and 2007, with the development of a dedication educational area, refurbished dining and refreshment areas as well as a push to encompass the entire remit of the London Underground and its history.
The museum is very much a showcase of the history of transport in the capital, though given the confines of its original structure as well as space being at a premium in London you do come away perhaps longing to see more of its collection. Thankfully, those with a predication towards this particular history are catered for with a series of ever popular and fast selling limited time events that see London Underground open up its dormant and unused stations and passages as part of it’s Hidden London program for the public to visit throughout the year. Entry isn’t cheap but for the opportunity to see these hidden treasures, it’s a worthwhile experience.
On arrival, you are guided towards a lift to the top floor, walking passed a variety of global underground maps from the major metropolitan hubs including the New York transit system amongst others. There is a fun transitory process as you step onto the lift with imagery of London in its modern guise before leaving the cart and emerging to a view of the city in the late 19th century. The top floor is dedicated primarily to the origins of the transport network in London, from the earliest forms of carriages towards the introduction of omnibus and private carriage. Information and context is a little sparse however the museum does succeed in telling a fairly succinct linear narrative of the history of public transport in the capital.
With the aversion to large scale public infrastructure projects beyond a planning stage in the UK in the modern era, there is an historical fascination in viewing these historical projects in their formation. The historic images of Tower Bridge for instance in construction is fascinating to see, especially the impact in had on transport links at that period in time between Bermondsey and The City. There are a variety of photographs and images from this period of time, second place perhaps to the carts and omnibus present in the middle but recommended for those looking for an informative experience.
There is a tacit pleasure from the tactile contact upon these vehicles, being able to witness and in some cases climb aboard the carriages gives a new understanding and appreciation of what my peers in the city and beyond would have endured on their commute to work. Wooden seats and dimly lit interiors give indication it was not a pleasant experience but the comfort and standard we come to expect today from the latest generation of vehicles was born out of the innovation of the pioneers who brought mass transportation to the general public as an affordable and accessible means of travel in London.
Throughout the museum, there are many opportunities to climb aboard and take a seat in a variety of the vehicles on display, the wooden omnibuses on the top floor were perhaps the most uncomfortable of the collection however that is no reflection on the enjoyment on being able to witness and enjoy these carriages. London was a city with a view to expansion and growth with the introduction of the railway lines into the capital and the development of the underground first with transit provided by steam power before their eventual electrification in the middle of the 20th century.
A highlight of the museum was the inclusion of a steam A-Class locomotive that served the Metropolitan Railways that would in turn become one of the main lines of the London Underground serving the newly formed suburbs of North West London. As a resident and frequent user of this particular line in the modern day, there is an historical appreciation to view and learn about this route in its original form. Constructed in Manchester in 1866, this particular engine serviced the Metropolitan line for over 80 before finding a new purpose in the service yards and maintenance duties. It continued to see service until the electrification of the Metropolitan and District lines in the capital.
Sitting alongside, the age of electrification typified with the inclusion of a new fleet of engines constructed to service and replace the steam powered locomotives, here the Number 5 ‘John Hampden’ named after the 17th century parliamentarian. Using the familiar almost dark crimson red colorings of its counterpart, it is a a beautiful train in its own right and a reflection of the transport system that existed in London following the first world war, one of these class of locomotives showcased at the British Empire exhibit in Wembley in 1924. Exploring the length of the carriage affords you access into its exterior and view of life of those that lived in the so called Metro-Land. There is perhaps a perception or historical view of London bombarded during both conflicts, war torn streets and buildings reduced to rubble. It’s certainly informative to view the critical infrastructure that kept the city moving at this time.
You are afforded the opportunity to view here a number of posters across the history of the transport network, these showcase a variety of styles and approaches which are enjoyable to see and at the end of the museum, a chance to buy a reproduction. They served to act as advertising, enticing workers to visit the countryside or the coast long before air travel and overseas holidays became commonplace. There is also an opportunity to view the museum in its entirety from an upper walkway that crosses over to the refurbished education portion of the site. It’s a welcome respite having this broad, holistic overview of the museum and the visitors below, you do gain a sense of perspective of the size of the earlier buses and trains that existed in London and their modern counterparts that travel the streets and tracks today.
Emerging back onto the ground floor having left the upper levels gives you the chance to explore in whichever direction you chose to take, the museum itself opens up to some degree affording you the opportunity to view and walk amongst the tall original buses or climb aboard the early underground tube trains. For the purpose of transparency, I am partial to old and historic trains, I would highly recommend a visit to the railway museum in York, as such taking a seat on the old Piccadilly line carriages was a real treat, the adverts for products and services is fun to explore looking for familiar brands or logo. I was proud and amazed to see my current employer showcasing its services in London at this time.
There is a great deal to see on the ground floor, highlight include the impact of the conflicts of the Great War on the populace of the city and how the employees and staff of the transport network served their country with distinction, the development of the escalator and lifts within stations allowing the underground system to be a viable form of transport in moving passengers between levels. The variety of buses on alludes to the origins of the museum, from the green livery of the war time vehicle that served to move troops to the various types and decorations of the trams before the adoption of the familiar red coloring and style that is synonymous with those that serve in the capital today. I enjoyed the design work behind the familiar roundel, the most well known and oft imitate logo of the Underground. First used in 1908 and continues to be associated with London Underground well into the 21st Century.
Should you so wish there are a variety of amenities available to enjoy including a nice assortment of snacks and food. The exhibit itself concludes with a brief exploration of the Docklands railways and modern station design with a few of the more interactive exhibits such as a chance to drive and stop a train using the simulator exhibit although of course this is always a popular item to try. Pushing forward brings you to the latest and most current development of transport in London and the progression of the Elizabeth line due to open in the next few years providing a faster cross city service from east to west. One of the few public infrastructure projects actively in development it perhaps doesn’t have the visual visible impact on the London skyline as the construction of Tower bridge or any of the great projects of Brunel but it will provide a legacy well into the future.
One of the main attractions of the museum and notably an area you can visit without paying any separate entrance fee is the museum shop, usually not an area to eulogise over but it really is an impressive collection of items to buy. From exclusive furnishings using the London Underground fabric prints to create cushions and throws, expensive but worth the cost to a whole floor devoted to transport books and recordings and the copies of the posters visible during the exhibit. Below, an assortment of collectable items, decorations, clothes and toys that anyone of any age or budget can enjoy. It may not give the Harry Potter experience in Watford competition for its vast array of merchandise but even if you have a partial interest in the tube system or travel in general, there is something to find here.
In conclusion, in contrast to the more extensive and expansive National Railway Museum in York, the variety of trains and vehicles is somewhat restricted in comparison. Though abated somewhat with the option to visit the depot museum itself in Acton affording a chance to see a great variety of trains in its collection, if this is your only experience, you may find yourself longing for more. That said, it is remarkable value for money and with the option to return during the year for no additional charge for residents or occasional visitors to the capital a worthwhile investment of your time. It fulfills its remit admirably, within the confines of the iron and glass framework in Covent Garden, you are treated to the story of transport in London from its historical roots to the present day.
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