6 Bits Of History To Spot On The Underground

Londoners are very proud of their 150+ year old subterranean network. Sure, we can complain about it, but we love it really. The main reason I love the tube is the little quirks you find at every new station, so this post is focussing on the six best bits of history to spot in the underground.

1. The Tiles at Aldgate East

Look closely on both platforms at Aldgate East and you’ll spot an odd collection of tiles among the plain cream ones.

History To Spot On The Underground

They were created by Harold Stabler in 1938 and are sporadically placed along the walls with no rhyme or reason.

Some show London landmarks like St Paul’s or the Houses of Parliament. Above and left is 55 Broadway (more on that later).

But some are more unclear, the TFL roundel on the right is pretty self explanatory. But the griffin is less so – possibly a reference to the City of London’s dragons?

You can also spot them at Bethnal Green station, though there’s not as many.

2. The River Above Sloane Square

It’s easy to ignore the steel pipe above Sloane Square station, but it contains one of London’s lost rivers!

History To Spot On The Underground

Inside the conduit is the Westbourne River which rises in West Hampstead and flows through Hyde Park and Sloane Square, emptying into the Thames right by Chelsea Bridge. This section is also referred to as the Ranelagh Sewer.

Originally pure, the water became polluted in the 19th century and as the areas between Hampstead and Chelsea became more residential these cesspits were covered from the late 1820s. Some parts (in less wealthy areas) survived uncovered until 1871.

3. Stepney Green’s Stencil Sign

I haven’t been able to find a precise date for this pleasing stencil sign, but Stepney Green station opened in 1902. If – like me – you enjoy a bit of typography you might enjoy my post full of geeky tube font facts here.

History To Spot On The Underground

Today the signage is hardly necessary (there is literally only one set of initial stairs to get down to the platforms) but it makes me chuckle to think people needed reassurance that they’re heading in the right direction, despite already being halfway down the stairs!

Get the latest London secrets to your email
See the city from a new angle, discovering little things you miss everyday and get the latest news about upcoming tours.
Once a week. No spam, just inspiration.
Your details will never be shared with any 3rd parties

4. Gloucester Road’s Abandoned Platform

One of the older stations on the network, Brompton (Gloucester Road) was originally part of the Metropolitan Railway and opened in October 1868. It’s sort of two stations in one with District and Circle line in the ‘sub-surface’ station (which used to be above ground) and then the Piccadilly line in the ‘deep level’ station.

In the 1970s the Circle line tracks were reorganised, making the extra eastbound Circle line platform redundant, but the whole station wasn’t covered from the outside world until the 1990s when the ‘Deck’ appeared, intended to support a shopping mall and apartment building.

History To Spot On The Underground

Today, because it’s inside and has the access to dramatic lighting, it’s an ever-changing undergound art gallery!

Run by Art on the Underground who put in installations, the current one celebrates their 15th anniversary. For a look at some of the previous ones including work by David Shrigley and Cindy Sherman and click here.

5. The World Clock In Piccadilly

If you’ve ever circumnavigated the ticket hall of Piccadilly Circus you’ve probably walked past this weird clock.

History To Spot On The Underground

The station opened in 1906 but was refurbished between 1925-8 by Charles Holden, who designed many tube stations in the 1920s and 30s as well as the TFL HQ, 55 Broadway;

History To Spot On The Underground

But take a closer look at the clock…

History To Spot On The Underground

It supposedly shows each timezone’s current time as the strip moves at a snails’ pace (the same speed as the Earth’s revolution) across the map.

It’s not wholly accurate (only following longitude) but at a glance does show you more of less whether it’s day or night in any given place. In any case it’s worth pausing to have a look if it’s not rush hour!

6. Temple’s Heritage Map

The last on my list isn’t quite on the underground and stands outside a central station. As you walk into Temple (beloved by tour guides because it only has one entrance/exit) look out for the Heritage Tube Map dating from 1932.

History To Spot On The Underground

It predates Harry Beck’s iconic London Underground map which is still used today and one massive difference is clear.

Beck’s map was so clear and simple because it didn’t take into account real geographical positions. While this map overlays stations on top of an accurate London map, Beck realised that wasn’t necessary.

History To Spot On The Underground

We should give F. H. Stingemore some credit though, he tried to enlarge the central London area so stations appeared less squished and probably inspired Beck’s design which appeared a few months after this one, also in 1933.

Any more transport history gems I should keep an eye out for?


More London Inspiration

Aldgate Pump


  • If you can find an excuse to blag your way into reception at 55 Broadway, you will be rewarded with this gem, an art deco train frequency monitor which is quite literally from another age! https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen-hartley/shares/Zw5NZ1 Comprehensive write-up here: https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/55-broadway/

    February 7, 2018 at 4:34 pm
  • Martyn Agate


    Great piece, very informative. Re the Griffin mentioned in the item about wall tiles, the griffin is widely used in the symbolism of the company. Even the ‘own brand’ tea bags in the canteens were labled Griffin Tea. The Griffin was also used on cap badges of supervisors and managers.

    January 25, 2020 at 8:51 pm

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.