Above: View looking west on the platform of Great Portland Street Station in 1883.
A children’s book was published in 1883 called ‘London Town’ with illustrations by Thomas Crane. As you might expect it was all about London with places of interest being explained from a child’s perspective. Most of the pictures are charming but of little historical interest but the one shown above has quite a story to tell.
The platforms formed one of the stations on the world’s first underground railway — the Metropolitan Line — which opened on 10 January 1863. The station was at first called ‘Portland Road’ and the name did not change to the present one until 1917. The two platforms are both curved because they are beside a gentle curve in the underground railway, although not quite as curved as the drawing would have you believe.
Above: View looking west on the present day platform.
The view looks west on the westbound platform. The arch over the two tracks appears in both pictures. The book was for posh kids (sorry, that should read the children of well brought up children) living in the wealthier part of the West End. Great Portland Street Station would have been just around the corner from where such wealthy families lived. The three children in the picture, are out with ‘Mama’ and are probably being taken on the train as a treat. They almost certainly had servants and a chauffeur who normally drove them around town. The artist adds two other families on the other platform of equal class. We don’t want to lower the tone, do we!
As we compare the two pictures — separated by over 130 years — we notice several interesting changes. The first is the change in the name of the station, which has already been mentioned. The second change is that we learn that the early trains were drawn by steam engines. Being a ‘cut and cover’ railway, the railway line was often open to the sky along part of the route for which the passengers must have been quite grateful. In the drawing we see that there was more ‘open sky’ at this station than in today’s view. However, in front of the brick arch in the modern picture there is is still daylight coming onto the tracks.
A third change is that, in the early days, it was possible to buy a ‘First Class’ ticket for the wealthier passengers travelling by underground. Notice that the sign says ‘Wait here for First Class’ and, of course, Mama with her brood of three is waiting in that exact spot. It is a shame that today’s picture no longer shows the ‘First Class’ sign. In the early days of the underground there were, in fact three classes of ticket — First Class, Second Class and Third Class. It is believed that ‘First Tickets’ ceased to be issued some time around 1936.
Notice that the antiquated train in the drawing had a guard in the last carriage who is shown leaning out of the window. Today’s trains are fully automated and there is no guard. The so-called driver sits at the controls but he is only responsible for opening and closing the power-operated doors.
Fourthly, notice the brickwork on the left in today’s photo. Remarkably it is the original wall of the platform from the 1860s and would have been visible in the drawing if the artist had chosen to alter the angle of view. Not only is the brickwork original but, up above the platforms, are bowl-shaped lamps. London Underground have either retained the same lamps or (more likely) had new ones made in the same style as the original ones.
So why is this picture from a children’s story book so important? Believe it or not, there are no better pictures or photos of this station from its early days remaining for us to see today than the one in the story book.