55 Broadway

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Above: A view of London Underground Headquarters at dusk.

The address ’55 Broadway’ is a large white-stone building standing in Westminster, in a street called Broadway which is a few minutes walk from Westminster Abbey.

In the 1950s there was an interesting piece of technology to be seen at Piccadilly Undergound Station. You may know that this station has many entrances, all leading to a circular concourse where there are shops and, of course, the ticket barriers.

Mounted into the curved wall of the concourse was a large glass case in which were mounted six dials, each one monitoring the frequency of underground trains on one of six lines passing through or near to the station. Each time a train passed, a mark was printed onto a circular disk of paper mounted within a special ‘marking’ machine. The dials were working probably through until the 1970s.

At busy times, like 5.30 pm on a weekday, it was fascinating to stand and watch the paper dials as marks were being printed onto each paper disk at intervals of only minutes. Each round sheet of paper was also marked with the hours of a whole day and, presumably at midnight each night, someone had the responsibility of manually removing each paper disk and replacing it with a new one, ready for the next 24 hours.

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Above: The six dials, one for each underground line.

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Above: Close-up of one of the six dials. 

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Above: Detail of the marks on the circular disk of paper.

In 1999 I visited the old London Underground Headquarters building, at 55 Broadway. The building stands above St James’s Underground Station. The building, not normally open to the public, was open for ‘Open House’ weekend. Much to my surprise I noticed the old dials mounted on a wall which is not usually accessible to the public. On enquiring whether the dials were another set, I was informed that they were in fact the original set that had been at Piccadilly Underground Station. By 1999 they were no longer in use and they had been mounted at 55 Broadway as a reminder of times past. As the guide informed us ‘We know where all our trains are these days and we no longer need such antiquated equipment to do the job.’

Seeing the old dials after so many years was quite a ‘blast from the past. Where the dials will be moved to next is unclear. At the time of writing this article, there are rumours of the building being sold and converted into a luxury hotel!


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