"Excuse me", said the American lady, her I suppose husband hanging back a little sheepishly, "Can you direct me to the British Museum?" Well I could do better than that I was going to walk past it, so I accompanied them on the short five minute stroll.
On the way they told me that they had gotten (!) confused as they couldn't find the "subway station" for the museum. Immediately the phrase, from whence I have no idea came to mind, "Alight at Holborn for the British Museum", probably a station poster from my childhood, as I haven't seen the phrase recently. I explained the Holborn was the nearest station and pointed roughly in it's direction. They looked a little confused and asked if there wasn't a nearer one. "No", I replied "Holborn is your nearest". The husband / partner stared at his street map as if trying to catch me out and then spoke for the first time, "So there's no station called British Museum?"
Now I knew the exact answer, but decided that time was marching on. Giving them the full details may well of made me feel rather knowledgeable, but I doubted if it would have added anything to their day, so I just reiterated that Holborn was their nearest and there was no station called British Museum. "Interesting", said the lady, "Some friends told us that was the name of the station".
We parted company and I watched them join the back of the rather long snaking queue to enter the museum. As I walked towards Russell Square I idly wondered to myself if I hadn't just had a bit of a timeslip event. Although the couple looked 21st century, were they in fact tourists from the 1920s transported to Bloomsbury by a black hole or something similar? It passes the time you know.
On reflection, I should have returned to the couple, still probably queuing to ask them the back story to who it was that told them that the station was called British Museum. It's the sort of fact known to many London Anorak's and I wondered how it had come to find it's way across the pond.
British Museum station was opened on 30 July 1900 by the Central London Railway. Its entrance was located at 133, High Holborn near the junction with New Oxford Street. Six years later and only a hundred yards away the competing Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway opened Holborn station. Despite fierce competition between the many railway companies in London, there was a spirit of co-operation when it came to route planning and locating stations so that interchanges could be easily formed between services. In this case the alignment of the tunnels serving both stations did not allow for the creation of one station. A pedestrian subway was considered but ruled out as the space between the two stations was already riddled with tunnels.
Of the two stations, Holborn was better situated, having station access to the underground Kingsway Tram stop and as early as 1913 proposals were made to enlarge Holborn with extra platforms to accommodate the Central's line and to close the British Museum station. The advent of the First World War put pay to any commencement of the project and it wasn't until 1930 that work began with British Museum closing on 24 September 1933.
However, fate gave the disused station a new lease of life as during the Second World War it was used as an air raid shelter.
It is well recorded that the authorities did not want the population of the city using the underground as shelters during air raids, apparently they feared that many of the population would not emerge from their shelters and would make the stations insanitary and squalid places, while also hampering commuters travelling within the city. Once it became obvious that there was nothing that could be done to stop the nightly influx of civilians taking shelter, rules and regulations at each station were enforced with strident rigour. While browsing an archive of images from the 1940s I came across the following poster that was displayed in the British Museum Shelter.
What the man and the four women got up to I have no idea, but I suppose you had to make your own entertainment!