I’ve recently finished reading an excellent book called London Under, written by historian and London history Guru, Peter Ackroyd. It’s a fascinating look at life below the City’s streets. Some facts I knew and some were a complete surprise.
I’ve been fascinated by what’s below our streets from an early age, my interest being piqued when a night watchman allowed me to see inside a sewer culvert that was being repaired in our high street (Health & Safety didn’t exist back then).
So I thought I’d spend the next few posts looking at things underground and I’d kick off with a story that has been embellished a bit over the years.
Before the unification of the separate companies that ran train services in the capital, part of the Northern line was under the control of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway.
As with today’s modern Northern Line, the route splits at Camden Town, terminating back then at Archway (today it continues another seven stations to High Barnet). The line passed through the area known as Kentish Town where the route planners proposed and built two stations, Kentish Town and South Kentish Town. The latter was first called Castle Road and was situated about half a mile south of Kentish Town station. Opened with the rest of the section of the line in June 1907, the station was not well used due to its proximity to Kentish Town, Camden Town and also due to the regular trams that ran on the road on which it was sited. The Castle Road name had been fired into the platform tiles inside the station, so after the name change they were painted over with the revised name. The station limped along with many trains failing to stop at the station until in 1924 when a strike at Lots Road Power Station which supplied the railway with power closed the system down. After the resumption of supply the station never reopened.
The tale in question relates to around 1926 when a gentleman who was not aware of his location or just paying more attention to his newspaper alighted from the carriage onto the deserted platform while the train was stopped before a red signal. Apparently after the train moved off he looked up to find he was on a darkened platform and this is where the tale gets greater in the telling.
Apparently it was so dark he thought he had gone blind, but eventually he lit a match and it illuminated a station name board and he realised what had happened. Some accounts of the day have the man who was never named but later immortalised in a poem by Sir John Betjeman spending all night in the station. It is thought in reality that it was only a couple of hours and for dramatic effect it is said that he tried to flag down several trains without success until he set fire to his rolled up newspaper and waved it at the approaching train which stopped.
In the 1950s John Betjeman published a poem entitled South Kentish Town where the man known as Mr Brackett by its author is stuck on the station for nearly a week and as usual the fantastic seems to take the place of mundane reality and the tale takes on a life of it’s own.
South Kentish Town Station today
SOUTH KENTISH TOWN by John Betjeman
The train to Highgate opened, Mr Brackett stepped without, He struck a match to light his pipe – a “zephyr” blew it out, “‘Tis strange” said Mr Brackett, as the train left him behind, “How very dark this station is – Good gracious! Am I blind?” He lit another match and by its feeble little flame, He made out “Benedictine”; then he saw the station name! “Whatever shall I do?” he said, and shouted down the track, But no one heard the question and an echo sent it back. Then came a distant rumble, and another train swept by, Poor Brackett waved and shouted, but it never heard him “Hi,” And ’till the close of traffic rushing “Highgates” came and went, When Brackett fell asleep against a barrel of cement.
When morning came he started in his hands and kneels to crawl, And made a lot of progress ’till his forehead hit a wall. Then he sat and chewed a poster which was advertising “Port,” But the paste upon it proved a most unsatisfying sort. All day upon the platform Mr Brackett sat and fumed, His mind was full of pictures – of the day he’d be exhumed; His widow and his orphan, and the story in the Press, His mystified employers – was there ever such a mess! “I cannot stand it longer… I will run to Kentish Town, I’ll risk electrocution”… to the rails he clambered down. But scarcely had he taken eighteen paces down the line, When red lights changed to green – and Brackett scurried back in “nine”!
Four days have now elapsed since Mr Brackett disappeared, His wife would never know him with his funny little beard. The sympathetic neighbours have expressed their deepest woe, And whispered to each other “Yes, I often thought he’d go!” From Portland Place and Fleet Street, now, the news begins to pour, Photographers’ magnesium lies thick upon the floor. Police have cross-examined Mrs B, and asked her straight, “What sort of husband was he? Was he early? Was he late?”
One day as Mr Brackett sat upon the spiral stairs, A circumstance occurred which threw a light upon affairs, A circumstance which proved to be his greatest piece of luck, A match deep in the lining of his coat… a match unstruck! He hastened to the platform, screwed some posters in a ball, And in between the cyclones, struck the match upon a wall. His eyes were nearly blinded after seven darksome days, But the next oncoming motorman espied the bonfire’s blaze!
So ends the tale of Brackett, there is little left to tell, Not only is he still alive, but happy, fit and well. The Company, moreover, waived their claim to seal his fate “For being on the premises with ‘Season’ out of date.”