It was early one autumn evening in 1940, as the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell on London overhead, when Mr G. Cole-Deacon finally got the call. Cole-Deacon, the secretary of the Railway Executive Committee, had half expected it to come. A few hours earlier, whilst sitting in the office of his own design deep beneath the streets of Britain’s capital city, he had received a highly unusual visit from a senior Cabinet minister. Ever since then he’d been waiting for the phone to ring.
Whilst Cole-Deacon’s work was important – the Railway Committee, after all, had been given the heavy duty of running all of Britain’s railways for the duration of the war – it wasn’t exactly glamorous, and thus the unannounced arrival of a well known member of Churchill’s government earlier that day had been rather unusual. After the man had officially introduced himself, Cole-Deacon politely asked how he could help.
“I would like,” the Cabinet member asked, innocently, “to see this underground hive of industry.”
The Committee Secretary happily agreed to give him the tour. As he guided the Cabinet Minister around the offices in which he and his staff worked, he proudly began to explain how he had created one of the most secure wartime offices in London – the Railway Committee’s secret underground control centre in the abandoned Down Street Tube Station on the Piccadilly Line.
A forgotten station
Cole-Deacon was rightly proud of his subterranean creation. As war had increasingly seemed inevitable in the run up to 1939 it had become clear that Britain’s civilian services were as ill-prepared for the coming conflict as its military. This included the “Big Four” – the railway companies who, between them, were responsible for running practically all of Britain’s railway network. In wartime those railways would be vital, moving men and material to where they were needed throughout the British Isles. Yet they also represented a critical weakness as they, and the men and women who ran them, were highly vulnerable to bombing.
On 24th September 1938 the Railway Executive Committee (REC) was formed once more. As it had in World War One, on the outbreak of war it would be tasked with taking control of all of Britain’s railways. This single point of command, it was hoped, would help ensure that the railways were able to meet the needs of the nation’s war machine quickly and effectively. It also, however, represented a single point of risk. For reasons of command and communication, it would need to headquarter itself in London. But doing so would render its operations and staff highly vulnerable to bombing. A bomb-proof facility, it was soon decided, was needed.
To begin with the REC thought they had an easy solution – convert the basement of Fielden House, an office block near Westminster Abbey in which the REC was based, into a bomb-proof facility. Very quickly, however, it became clear that this presented a number of problems. Firstly, the existence of the REC – and its location – had hardly been a pre-war secret. This meant that, when war broke out, there was a non-negligible chance that Fielden House would be targeted by the bombers and agents of Hitler’s Reich. Perhaps more crucially though early exploration at the site revealed that there was a considerable risk of flooding, as the basement itself was close both to the high-water mark of the Thames and to a nearby sewer. In the end the REC were forced back to the drawing board, and the REC’s Secretary, G. Cole-Deacon, was the man tasked with finding a suitably solution – and quickly.
Luckily, G Cole-Deacon had an idea. He had, briefly, worked as a consultant for London Underground during the inter-war years and thus had a greater awareness than most of the organisation’s history and facilities. Most crucially, he knew the locations of many of its “ghost stations” – the stations that had either been closed (and often forgotten) by the public at large, or which had simply never been finished. One of those stations was Down Street on the Piccadilly Line, and Cole-Deacon had a sneaking suspicion that it might be exactly what they needed.
The stairs used to access the REC facility at Down Street. The tiles are original, the steps have been replaced at some point.
An unpromising opening
Down Street station had first opened to the public in on the 15th March 1907. That date itself didn’t bode well for the station’s future. The rest of the (now) Piccadilly Line had actually opened a couple of months before, but construction of Down Street (a classic red Leslie Green station) had been plagued with problems and delays.
A lot of these came down to its location. Sited in Mayfair, between (now) Green Park and Hyde Park stations it had not been a popular construction project with the largely upper-class residents of the area. Mostly owning their own methods of transport, and sometimes citing the fear that the station would bring disreputable people to the area, they raised objections to various aspects of its construction. The sheer cost of land in the area had also forced the station to be built well away from the main thoroughfare, increasing the length – and cost – of the below ground tunnels which provided access to the station platforms.
From its opening, Down Street was little used. By 1909 a number of services were skipping the station entirely and from 1918 onwards it was completely closed on the Sundays. In the end this lack of passengers would cement its fate. When the legendary Frank Pick embarked on his plan to extend the Piccadilly Line in 1929 he needed to increase line average line speeds to 25mph in order to ensure that service frequencies remained high. With passenger numbers at Down Street still low, and with entrances to both Hyde Park and Green Park stations now closer than they had been at opening (the result of escalator works forcing the relocation of their entrances) it was decided to sacrifice the station. Down Street saw its last paying passengers in 1932.
The Perfect Location
Whilst its general existence had been largely forgotten by the wider public (although the classic red frontage was still perfectly visible on Down Street itself), it was not forgotten by Cole-Deacon. He quickly arranged for himself and Sir Ralph Wedgwood, the REC’s Chairman to pay the old station a visit.
Descending by candle-light, what they found was a dusty, but large station deep underground with an awful lot of potential. After its closure, lengths of the stations platforms and track had been seized in order to allow a new siding to be built, but the rest of the station was largely unused. Multiple large lift shafts and a secondary stepped access to the street still remained, as did the the long, wide tunnels linking the station’s entrances with the running tunnels. A keen yachtsman, and thus aware of just how much could be fitted into limited space with careful thought, Cole-Deacon saw these tunnels not just as the connecting passages they had been but as something the REC needed – rooms and office space.
“I don’t think we’ll find anything better than this.” Sir Ralph Wedgwood said, as his colleague pointed out the possibilities, and within days work was underway.
Descending into Down Street today one will find little remaining evidence of its wartime role. The many offices and rooms put in place by Cole-Deacon and his staff are long gone. All that remains are little hints at the site’s past – the odd sign, still on the walls, the outline of the original offices on the floors of tunnels and, in side passages, the remains of toilets and storage once used by those working there.
At the time, however, Down Street was one of the most remarkable (but secret) sites in London. It contained offices, control rooms, typing rooms, conference rooms and even living facilities – kitchens and sufficient sleeping facilities for the 12 senior officials and 22 members of regular staff that worked there, safe from the Luftwaffe’s bombs deep underground.
Old staff facilities like these can be found in the dark off-shoot passages of the station. Time has rarely been kind to them.
All this had been constructed entirely in secret – despite the fact that the station still lay on the working Piccadilly Line. Engineers, working only at night when the Tube was closed, had built walls along the old platform edges to hide what was going on from passengers, leaving only two short platform spaces that could be used by senior staff at the facility if necessary. To do so they operated a secret plunger on the short remaining platforms that would activate a special red signal. Once the incoming train had stopped, the VIP would be allowed to enter the cab on displaying the appropriate high-level pass. The driver would then drop them off at the next station along the line.
The walls and furniture were custom built to Cole-Deacon’s exact specifications in order to maximise usage of every single space. Despite this, they were comfortable and well laid out. The facilities (but not their location) were described by The Times as being comparable to those found on an ocean liner or first class carriage and the description was apt – everything had been put together by the the LMS Railway’s carriage works, although they had not know where the results of their work were to go. Even the small passages linking the offices were given careful thought, being just wide enough to allow the passage of a tea trolley (whether this was by design or chance Cole-Deacon would never admit).
All this Cole-Deacon proudly showed the Cabinet Minister as he toured the facility in 1940. At first, the man seemed unimpressed but gradually, as the scale of what Cole-Deacon and the REC had achieved dawned on him, he had finally confessed to Cole-Deacon the true purpose of his visit.
He had been tasked with finding a safe location for the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill to work during air raids whilst more permanent facilities were constructed elsewhere. As he left, he told Cole-Deacon that during the next big raid he might well be in touch.
Looking back towards the entrance. The raised area is all that remains of the typing pool. Note the tea-cart-sized passageway on the right.
The Special Guest
Winston Churchill made his first visit to the REC Down Street facility at 7pm that same night, arriving at the height of the bombing. Accompanying him were many senior members of the Government. Cole-Deacon and his staff cleared the conference room for their use and, within a few hours, a full War Cabinet meeting was underway at Down Street. Churchill, who practically had to be dragged off of London’s rooftops at times during raids by his staff, was enamoured of the place – which he felt at least gave him an opportunity to work, rather than hide.
Photos of the original lift shaft, reinforced with concrete during the war. The two openings show where the lifts once stopped.
“I used to go there once the firing started,” Churchill would later write in Their Finest Hour, his history of WW2, “to transact my business, and to sleep undisturbed. One felt a natural compunction at having more safety than most other people; but so many pressed me that I let them have their way.”
Over the next forty days, as the Blitz continued overhead, Churchill’s appearance, and that of his staff and key cabinet members, became practically a nightly occurrence. On each occasion the conference room would be put at their disposal, and Cole-Deacon would vacate his own office (and sleeping accommodation) and hand it over to the Prime Minister. On one occasion Cole-Deacon made the mistake of leaving a number of his own railway papers on his desk. He returned the next day to find that the Prime Minister had annotated them all with notes and suggestions in the margins.
Mrs Churchill also soon became a regular guest, not least because she discovered that the secret Piccadilly Line platforms at Down Street gave her, and her staff, a discreet way to get around the network, paying visits to Londoners sheltering on the Tube.
Indeed so much use did they make of the facility that Churchill himself became concerned they might be disrupting the work of the REC. Cole-Deacon assured him this was not the case, but offered to fit out one of the station’s lift shafts as an office and living quarters purely for the Prime Minister’s use. Churchill agreed, although by the time the work was completed the Cabinet War Rooms were officially open and thus the need for temporary arrangements at Down Street had passed.
The outlines of old offices and work spaces in the passage above the Picadilly Line’s running tunnels
A return to obscurity
The work of the REC at Down Street continued for the duration of the war and, despite the availability of facilities elsewhere, Churchill himself would still occasionally appear. Down Street, he admitted, represented an opportunity to escape the Cabinet War Rooms (and later facilities at the Rotunda) and get some work done. By the end of 1946, however, the need for the facility had passed and both the REC and Down Street stood down.
The last task of Cole-Deacon’s staff was to decommission the offices and, in a relatively short stretch of time, it began to return to its pre-war shabby state – as the pictures throughout this article show. In recent years it his become one of the more well known of London’s “ghost stations” – in part thanks to the public revelations about its wartime history. Nonetheless, it still holds some secrets. Rumours persist that, towards the end of the last century, it (and its sidings) were used by the SAS for training purposes – although it must be pointed out that these are unsubstantiated. Today, opportunities to visit it remain rare.
Away from the service lights, the station swiftly becomes a network of dark, twisting passages to long-forgotten places
Into the future
That may be a situation, however, that is about to change. The station remains wholly owned by TfL who have, in recent years, made increasing noises about finding commercial uses for the sites they control. Graeme Craig, TfL’s Director of Commercial Development, is happy to admit that Down Street is well and truly on the list. TfL will lease out part of the station (the part that is not required to preserve its role as an emergency access point), around 400m2 in size.
“These are difficult, complex, spaces.” He admits, as we stand on Down Street’s spiral staircase. “We need to retain the operational use. We don’t want to destroy the history.”
“This station has good topology.” Adds Lewis Kinnier of architects Carmody Groarke, who were brought in by TfL to help explore their options at Down Street. “Often there are two lift shafts but here we have just one lift shaft, a pedestrian staircase and two tunnels.”
“The lift shaft and one tunnel is an opportunity, and then the staircase and the other tunnel can be reserved for operational use.”
Just what that use might be, TfL are keen for others to decide – although they will obviously assist with exploring the logistics. The hope is that a successful partner will make interesting use of the space, although Craig is keen to manage expectations and to stress that this is something of an experiment, and that what works at Down Street might not work elsewhere.
“There’s not one single answer to the disused stations.” He says, frankly. “There’s a lot of discussion in the press and elsewhere about this huge network [of disused stations]. That network simply doesn’t exist.”
“These are at the bottom end of all the commercial spaces that we have and we’re keen to understand how we might make use of them in the round.”
“We’re confident that there is an outcome here [at Down Street].” He continues, “We’re looking for ideas as to how we can bring it forward.”
Whether TfL’s efforts come to anything remains to be seen. Rumours and plans for the use of London’s ghost stations are a persistent part of the London news cycle. Galleries, restaurants and bars are common suggestions. Just as persistent is the lack of any real effort in most of those plans to explain how the very real challenges of access, safety and fit out will be addressed. With TfL now clearly taking an active role in the process, however, it is likely that we will finally see some progress. As long as that progress respects the history and uniqueness of the locations involved as Graeme Craig asserts, that will almost certainly be a positive thing.
And perhaps in a few years, on the seventieth anniversary of its creation, we will be able to raise a glass to Cole-Deacon and his subterranean masterpiece – in the very tunnels in which it once existed.
You can find more photos of Down Street over on both Ian Visits and Londonist. As always, both Abandoned stations and Subterranea Britannica have a wonderful selection of photos and information about the station as well. We highly recommend both.