East Meets West Under the Streets of London (Mile End and Gants Hill Underground stations, London, UK)

I don’t know if you’ve ever read one of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels (The Da Vinci Code is the most famous). The basic concept is that Langdon and co chase around on high-stakes treasure hunts, deciphering clues hidden in paintings or built into the architecture of buildings. I always get a frisson of something similar on the eastern leg of London Underground’s Central line. Two of its stations look less like typical London Underground stations, and instead more like those you’d find on underground railways in the USA and the USSR. The two  stations in question opened just after the end of the Second World War. Was London Underground pre-emptively hinting at the great Cold War which was about to commence between these two rival superpowers, if only we’d been able to decipher the clues?

Fanciful perhaps, but to travel the Central line to Mile End and Gants Hill is to be transported to New York City and Moscow in the space of a few minutes, without the inconvenience of ever having to leave the London Underground.

Mile End station. Photo by mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The existence of these two stations is thanks to the fact that in the late 1930s, London Transport preempted today’s Crossrail project by a mere 80 years. London Transport’s New Works programme was a series of extensions to various Underground lines, and the provision of new trains. It was the first big project out of the London Passenger Transport Board, which had been created in 1933 when (most of) London’s public transport network was nationalised.

At the time, the Central line ran east to west under central London, terminating at Liverpool Street station in the east and Ealing Broadway in the west. The New Works programme envisaged the Central line being extended north-westwards from North Acton to Denham along a rail corridor created by the Great Western Railway, and eastwards over routes then operated by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). Suddenly, two surface-level suburban commuter railways on either side of central London would be linked by a tunnelled section, opening up new journey opportunities from east to west. And that’s almost exactly what Crossrail is doing as we speak, except that Crossrail has had to build brand new tunnels to link the existing railways either side of the city centre. The New Works programme is the reason that the Central line’s Loughton station looks very like the sort designed by prodigious inter-war London Underground architect Charles Holden, but was actually designed by James Murray Easton and commissioned by the LNER, which owned it in advance of the line being handed over to London Underground.

For the Central line’s eastern extension, tunnels were planned to continue from Liverpool Street station to Leyton; the line passing Mile End on the way, and popping up to the surface briefly at Stratford station. At Leyton the tunnels met the LNER’s existing tracks, with LNER train services to Ongar and Newbury Park via Hainault being taken on by the Central line. Another new tunnel would create the bottom part of what is now the Central line’s Hainault loop, serving Gants Hill, Redbridge and Wanstead.

That was pretty much what happened (1990s cutback of the Ongar route to Epping aside), and although construction work started in the late 1930s, the actual opening of the extension was delayed by the not insignificant matter of the Second World War. During that time, the Wanstead-Redbridge-Gants Hill tunnel was requisitioned for use as an aircraft components factory. Shortly after the war ended, however, the Central line’s eastern extension was ready to go, complete with its tributes to New York and Moscow’s underground railways.

Mile End station was originally opened in 1902, and served by the District and Metropolitan sub-surface lines until the war. It was comprehensively rebuilt so that it could accommodate the Central line too, expanding from two tracks to four, served by two island platforms. The inner two tracks today are for the District and Hammersmith & City lines, while the outer two are for the Central line. A four track sub-surface station is highly unusual on the London Underground, and Mile End remains unique as a sub-surface station where cross-platform interchange is available between a tube line and a sub-surface line (normally, the tube routes pass under the sub-surface lines with stairs/escalators/lifts linking the two). Four track sub-surface stations are, however, par for the course on the New York City Subway, where many lines have a pair of tracks for express services and a pair of tracks for all-stations/stopping services (and some even have more than four tracks).

Hoyt–Schermerhorn Streets subway station, New York City. Photo by Harrison Leong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

But it’s not just the four tracks that bring to mind the New York City Subway, it’s the way the stairs lead down to the platforms and the sections of platform with double rows of square pillars which support the roof of the station. It’s a design idiom you’ll see repeated all over the New York City Subway; same design problem, same design solution, of course. Exposed metal I-beams or columns tend to be what you’ll most commonly find on the Subway, rather than Mile End’s tiled columns. But even then, there are quite a number of New York City Subway stations which featured tiled columns, further enhancing the visual resemblance. The resemblance has been further strengthened since Mile End’s recent refurbishment, carried out in the late 2000s/early 2010s. That stripped away the somewhat Post-modern tiling scheme which had been applied to the pillars (with decorative plinths at their bases), in favour of a much more restrained tiling scheme which did away with the plinths.

Mile End station. Photo By Sunil060902 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As far as I know, however, Mile End’s resemblance to a New York City Subway station is unintentional. That’s certainly not the case at Gants Hill, where the platforms look like a Moscow Metro station for the simple reason that they were supposed to. During the 1930s, several London Underground engineers had been sent to Moscow on a consultancy basis to assist with the design of the city’s new metro. London Transport consultancy businesses are an idea that go in and out of fashion, depending on the parlousness of the company’s finances. London Transport International operated between 1976 and 1992, advising Metros around the world, while TfL International was set up in 2017 to generate much-needed revenue by selling its experience to cities around the world.

The Moscow Metro’s first line opened in 1935, and its stations were decorated to a degree of opulence and grandeur seen nowhere else on a metro system until that point. London Transport was determined to have something like it for London and at Gants Hill, it got the chance, with Holden drawing up the design. This is Gants Hill’s famous ‘Moscow concourse’:

Gants Hill station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Although it omits the garlands, gilding and chandeliers commonly found at Moscow Metro stations, the resemblance to a Moscow Metro station is clear. Of course, it does beg the question as to which Moscow Metro station it most resembles. For a long time, I thought it was Komsomolskaya station:

Komsomolskaya station, Moscow. Photo by A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) (Own work) [FAL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s far more ornate, but the basic form seems similar. However, author David Bennett contends that Gants Hill was modelled on Okhotny Ryad station, and I’m inclined to agree. The resemblance is quite uncanny:

Okhotny Ryad station, Moscow (c. 1935). Photo by The Municipal Archives of Trondheim [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Although Okhotny Ryad has since lost its uplighters in favour of globe lamps hanging from the ceiling, it remains otherwise largely unaltered (see here).

Gants Hill, Redbridge and Wanstead, all opening in 1947, represent Holden’s last station designs for the London Underground. He drew up the designs pre-war, but the stations themselves didn’t open until 1947. Although Gants Hill’s Moscow concourse survived essentially intact design-wise, Holden’s designs for the surface buildings at Redbridge and Wanstead were radically altered (Gants Hill has no surface building apart from a ventilation shaft, making do with subway-style entrances positioned around a roundabout). The post-war years were a period of austerity, and Holden’s proposals were worked over by Oliver Hill, who was given a brief to make economies, and they are nothing like as stylish as Holden’s original visions or his other pre-war stations.

The ticket hall ceiling and skylights, Redbridge station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Enough survives of Redbridge’s original design to get a sense that its circular ticket hall and splendid skylight design could have rivalled Holden’s Southgate, but Wanstead looks very pared-down, while Holden’s proposal for a rebuilding of the ex-LNER Newbury Park station in his typical Modernist style was completely abandoned. That’s not a criticism of Hill however; he was working to a brief and his bus station at Newbury Park, in place of Holden’s total rebuild, remains one of London Transport’s finest pieces of architecture. Nevertheless, the Central line’s eastern extension represents a slightly downbeat end to Holden’s association with London Underground. But under the ground at Gants Hill, the barrel roof of his Moscow concourse represents a much better legacy altogether.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Bennett, David (2004): Metro – The Story of the Underground Railway. Mitchell Beazley, London.

Ovenden, Mark (2013): London Underground by Design. Penguin Books, London

TfL Board paper on the setting up of TfL International, here

…and anything else linked to in the text above

How to find Mile End and Gants Hill stations

For Mile End, click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

For Gants Hill, click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

6 thoughts on “East Meets West Under the Streets of London (Mile End and Gants Hill Underground stations, London, UK)

  1. The book London’s Secret Tubes (easy to find on Amazon) has an entire chapter devoted to the Plessey factory, with numerous WW2 photos taken both above and below ground. This also deals with the heavy engineering works required to convert the factory back into a usable railway. The book also covers other underground factories, bunkers, command centres, trunk telephone exchanges and suchlike built below London during WW2 and the Cold War era.

  2. The marble in some of the Moscow Metro stations came from the Christ the Saviour cathedral, demolished in 1931. The cathedral was rebuilt and reopened in 2000.

  3. I always learn a lot from your articles Daniel, thank you! I hadn’t known about the Central line cross-rail plan before.

    1. Thanks! I think it is possible to read too much into the similarities between the Central line extensions and Crossrail, not least that Crossrail has had to dig a new cross-city centre tunnel, whereas the Central line’s tunnels were already there and ‘just’ needed to be extended. But the takeover of suburban railways on both east and west sides is remarkably similar.

  4. Some factual corrections:
    -The Central London Railway was extended from Wood Lane to Ealing Broadway in 1920, rather than just as far as North Acton.
    -At Mile End, the Central Line uses the outer tracks – the District is on its original alignment between these.
    Good work on tracking down the Moscow-lookalike.

    1. Thank you – both corrected. I had a terrible case of false memory syndrome on Mile End, absolutely convinced I remembered getting onto a Central line train on the inner tracks, but clearly completely that memory is quite wrong. Bizarre.

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