This week’s transport beauty is one of those small pieces of design work which are easily overlooked. It demonstrates the care and attention someone, whose name is now forgotten, has taken to ensure that a small piece of a larger transport mode not only works well, but looks well, too.
It’s a gorgeous upcycled table lamp, which before its current incarnation as a piece of domestic furniture (and talking point) was… a ceiling light in a Waterloo and City Line train of 1940.
The Second World War was already underway when the Southern Railway’s new trains for its Waterloo and City Line arrived in 1940 (the line runs non-stop between Waterloo and Bank, taking commuters to the heart of the City of London). The design and manufacture of the trains had started before the war, otherwise the trains would probably have never got off the drawing board. They were one of the few British trains to attempt anything approaching a Modernist or Art Deco look. On the outside, the trains featured gently curving fronts and windows with rounded corners, considerably more modern-looking than other underground trains of the period, and indeed the Southern Railway’s other electric trains. Alone amongst the underground railways of London, the Waterloo and City Line was operated by a mainline railway company, rather than London Underground.
Inside, the seat backs had butterfly wing profiles across the top, and along the ceilings were two rows of beautiful little lights, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the corridors of a contemporaneous Streamline Moderne Odeon cinema. The backing plates of the lights are made of steel, with an enamelled white face to reflect light into the carriage. The funnel-shaped translucent glass lampshades are held onto the steel plate by a brass ring in the maritime style. It’s a lot of fuss to go to for something which most passengers would have completely ignored except when it wasn’t working.
The Southern Railway’s above-ground electric trains were spartan to say the least. They were flat fronted and devoid of any styling touches (despite the Southern being a keen adherent of the Streamline Moderne style at its stations and signal boxes). Inside, bare light bulbs illuminated the carriages, and manually operated slam doors were the way in and out. Yet underground on the Waterloo and City, the Southern, under the aegis of its chief mechanical engineer Oliver Bulleid, had produced a miniature modern masterpiece of train design (it’s not clear that the precise design of the light fittings was Bulleid’s work; it would have been an unusual level of detail for a chief mechanical engineer to have gone into). The gulf between the two design aesthetics remains a puzzle to this day. Was Bulleid prevented from producing something similar for the Southern’s main line trains by more conservative members of the management? Was the anomalous Waterloo and City Line the only place he was allowed to let rip?
The lights remained in place throughout the working life of the 1940 stock, which continued until the early 1990s, though the light fittings were painted over, obscuring the fine detail of the light fittings.
Two years earlier, London Underground had introduced its 1938 stock, trains which are often referred to in railway books as Art Deco in design. They are actually a lot less Art Deco than the Waterloo and City Line trains of 1940, but more famous. Their prototype ancestors of 1935, on the other hand, featured streamlined front ends (quite unnecessary for the speeds at which they were intended to travel) which were much more the essence of Art Deco (see one here). The 1938 production versions retained the Art Deco chevron grille on the front ends above the driving cabs, but were otherwise a lot more conservative in appearance, with flat fronts.
Inside, the 1938 stock wasn’t notably Art Deco, except for its moquette and, again, its interior lights. Once again, these were super pieces of design, very Art Deco. They’re referred to as “shovel shades” because of their distinctive shape. Fluted beauties, even though there’s no practical reason for their attractive form, they demonstrate that someone was proud enough of the product to ensure the fittings on the train were more than just merely functional.
You can still see shovel shades in situ on London’s Transport Museum’s preserved 1938 stock train, as in the picture above. Although long since gone from the London Underground, 1938 stock trains are still running on the Isle of Wight line, part of the South West Trains franchise, but they’ve been internally refurbished and now sport bare fluorescent tube lighting inside.
Bare fluorescent bulbs have been a slightly unfortunate South West Trains speciality. In the mid 2000s, the company worked with the trains’ owner, Porterbrook, to brilliantly refurbish a fleet of 1970s suburban trains with a redesigned interior that convinced most passengers they were brand new trains. Regrettably, inspiration appeared to run out at luggage rack level and above, and the interiors were again lit by bare fluorescent bulbs.
The neighbouring franchise, Southern, oversaw a refurbishment of its own fleet of near identical suburban trains at the same time. Ironically, the fluorescent tubes were concealed in a much more aesthetic and pleasing manner but the refurbishment from luggage rack level downwards was a lot less effective. In a typically British design flub, there’s a perfect refurbishment in there somewhere, but it’s split between two different train operators.
The advent of affordable and effective LED lighting in recent years, with multiple tiny light emitting diodes replacing single incandescent bulbs, gives the opportunity for more imaginative lighting schemes and the chance to design stylish lighting to match that on London’s underground trains in the 1930s and 40s. Of which more, I hope, another time.
how to find Art Deco lighting on underground trains from London
London’s Transport Museum keeps a 1938 stock train at its Depot in Acton, details of opening times here. It also holds a 1940 stock Waterloo and City Line train in its collection at the same location, though it’s in rather a sad condition at the moment.
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