John Bull

Editor of Lapsed Historian, John Bull is a journalist and a historian whose interests cover everything from the Classics through to the history of computing. He has a particular affection for obscure moments in history that have had a big impact, but which are today otherwise forgotten. In addition to writing about history, he also writes about London Transport for London Reconnections and on football for .

Politics & War

The Impact Of The Blitz On London

It can be hard sometimes to grasp just how much of an impact the Blitz had on London alone. Between September 1940 and 21 May 1941 London was subjected to major raids over seventy times, and suffered countless other minor attacks besides. In the capital alone, over one million homes were damaged and almost twenty thousand civilians killed.

All these are big numbers, but numbers alone are hard to truly visualise. As WW2 moves further and further away from living memory that blitz experience and effect thus becomes harder to truly understand and to imagine.

That’s not to say that some signs don’t remain. If you know what you are looking for then it is possible to spot where and how a particular street was affected by the Blitz (or by later attacks, such as by V1 or V2 rockets). To do so simply look for the gaps. They may have been filled with garages, or with sudden patches of grass or wasteland. They may have been filled with more housing of a noticeably different style or later design. Either way they’re there – and once you have realised they exist it suddenly becomes apparent just how many gaps there are.

Gaps aside though, understanding the incredible impact the Luftwaffe’s bombing had on London as a whole is most definitely tricky – even for historians. For this reason we heartily recommend taking a look at Bomb Sight. As the screenshot above illustrates, it draws together a number of bomb maps and marks them all out on Google Maps, making it possible to see the impact the Blitz had at a street level or zoom right out and see the cumulative effect on the capital as a whole. It is well worth a visit

Longform, Politics & War

The Forgotten Prime Minister

At 5:15 on the 11th May 1812, Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of Great Britain entered the House of Commons on his way to attend an inquiry into a set of Orders of Council he had issued. As Perceval walked through the lobby, he passed through a crowd of petitioners and civil servants, something that he had done many times without incident throughout his time as the head of the world’s most powerful democracy.

That day, however, was different. Suddenly, out of the crowd stepped John Bellingham, a failed (and possibly insane) merchant who blamed Perceval’s government for the failure of his business. Raising a pistol before the astonished Prime Minister he fired a single shot, straight into Perceval’s chest.

As the wounded Prime Minister collapsed to the ground, and both confusion and fear rippled through the crowd, Bellingham calmly walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. Seconds later he was restrained by Isaac Gascoigne, Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool. Bellingham made no effort to resist.

Meanwhile bystanders carried Perceval into a nearby office, his pulse weak and fading, where he was placed on a table as a doctor was frantically sought. It was too late. The shot had taken Perceval in the heart and the wound was fatal. Mere seconds later he was dead. In that moment he became the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated.

History has not been kind to Spencer Perceval. Not because it has judged him harshly, but because generally speaking it has forgotten to judge him at all. Ask most people if they recognise the name and, if they do, it will be for his unique death. The truth though is that he deserves far more attention than that.

A Man of Contrasts

A short man (even by the standards of the time) and blessed with boyish features well into later life, Perceval was born into a well-connected family but as the second son of his father’s second marriage, his prospects (and finances) were not initially great. Having trained as a lawyer, however, he swiftly began to make a name for himself as he embarked on both a legal and a political career.

This was because his harmless exterior concealed a fiercely conservative outlook and an almost fanatical commitment to his beliefs. As a lawyer he helped oversee the successful prosecution of the publisher of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1792 and soon built up a reputation as a fierce opponent of social change.

In 1796 Perceval became the MP for Northampton (you’ll still find a statue of him in the Guildhall there) and soon began ruthlessly and doggedly attacking the liberal cause. Indeed so competent a conservative attack dog was he that in 1798 when William Pitt the Younger, then Prime Minister, was challenged to a duel by opposition MP George Tierney, it was Perceval that Pitt suggested should follow him if he lost.

Luckily the need did not arise. Pitt and Tierney did indeed duel, choosing pistols at twelve paces, but Tierney’s first shot missed and Pitt elected to fire into the air.

Pitt and Tierney duel

A country on the verge of great change

Perceval’s conservatism and extreme anti-liberal stance came at a time when Britain (and indeed the world) faced enormous social upheaval. France was in a state of revolution and the call for reform at home was increasing day by day. Abolitionism – the quest to end slavery – had also begun to make some small headway in Britain, although its supporters knew faced an up-hill battle to bring it to pass. Slavery stood at the heart of British conservatism – a trade which brought in enormous money to the country, particularly to ports such as Liverpool which played a crucial role in the world slave trade. Manufactured goods would be loaded there onto ships bound for Africa, where they were traded for slaves. The slaves would then be taken by those same ships to America, where they themselves (or at least those that survived the journey) would be traded for goods such as sugar, coffee or tobacco. These would be brought back to Liverpool, where enormous profits would be made and the horrific triangular trade would begin again.

Warehouses in Liverpool used to store goods for the slave trade. Today the Liver building stands in their place.

Abolutionists thus faced a situation no different to, if not worse than, that faced by those battling the Tobacco industry over lung cancer, or energy companies over environmental issues today. They may have had the moral high ground but slavery’s supporters had the money, and they could call on many supporters, especially on the conservative-leaning benches to be found on both sides in Parliament.

In this environment you could be forgiven for thinking that Spencer Perceval, Pitt the Younger’s conservative attack dog, would be at the heart of the fight to preserve this shameful institution. In fact, the truth was the exact opposite.

Refusing to look away

William Wilberforce, one of the prime architects of abolition, was a man who firmly believed that the practice of slavery could never survive the exposure of what it truly involved. Once a man knew what was involved then he faced a stark moral choice.

“You may choose to look the other way,” he once explained, “but you can never say again that you did not know.”

It was a choice that Perceval soon found himself facing. Enlightened to the realities of the trade by Wilberforce and others, Perceval was soon convinced that slavery was morally wrong. And, as a man for whom convictions were more important than politics, he was determined to do what he could to bring it to an end.

Finding a loop-hole

After Perceval’s death, Wilberforce himself would say that the abolitionist movement owed more to Perceval than it ever did to him. Wilberforce had been trying, and failing, to get Parliament to ban the slave trade for over ten years, without success. The votes weren’t there, and Pitt – though personally against the trade – would not publicly support the cause for fear of alienating his support.

In the end it was Perceval, determined to do the right thing despite the pressure to do nothing, who finally found a way to strike the first real blow against slavery in 1805.

At the time Britain was locked in conflict with France, and this had resulted in the occupation of Dutch Guiana. Perceval the lawyer quickly spotted that this occupation, which had been carried out under Crown rather than Parliamentary authority presented a rather unique opportunity. With a bit of legal hand-waving a ban on the import of slaves to the new colony could go into the controversial Orders-in-Council being enacted under similar authority to prevent neutral countries from trading with France. Importantly, thanks to the vagaries of the British Parliamentary system these Orders-in-Council didn’t need Parliamentary approval.

It was a masterful suggestion. Perceval knew that the barrier to gaining Pitt’s approval for anti-slavery legislation was the fear the Prime Minister had of standing in front of the House of Commons and publicly committing to a cause which many of his friends and supporters still fervently opposed. So rather than try and force Pitt to do so, Perceval had simply engineered a way round it – and once the plan was suggested to Pitt, the Prime Minister swiftly agreed.

The Orders-in-Council represented an enormous blow struck for the abolitionist cause. Their physical effect may have been minor, but they set a huge precedent – a crack that once opened could never be closed. It would not be the only blow that Perceval would strike.

Seeing things through

In 1807 Parliament finally passed the Slave Trade Act. As the name implies, the Act banned the practice of the slave trade throughout the entirety of the British Empire and also committed Great Britain to press other European nations to do the same.

The passing of the Act represented a public triumph for the abolitionist cause and for Wilberforce himself, but neither Wilberforce nor Perceval believed that it represented the end of the fight. Over the next few years, some of the most tumultuous in British Parliamentary history, Perceval would work hard to ensure that the ideals of the Act became the reality. When the government Pitt had formed fell as the Bill was passing through Parliament, it was Perceval that carefully shepherded it through the change of government. Later, during his own tenure as Prime Minister, he would also work tirelessly to ensure the ban was enforced, and would work hard to give the West Africa Squadron, the Royal Navy’s first dedicated anti-slavery force, genuine legal and physical power.

HMS Brisk apprehends a slave ship

Ultimately by the time of his death, Perceval had done more than almost any man to ensure that not only would the slave trade be banned, but that this ban would mean something and make a real difference out in the world itself.

Making enemies

The strange combination of anti-liberalism and reform that we have seen in Perceval so far would come to epitomise Perceval’s political career. His arch-conservatism earned him many enemies amongst the liberals, whilst at the same time his commitment to eradicating the slave trade earned him a similar number of enemies on the other side of the political fence.

He had even added the Prince Regent (yes that one) to his ever-growing list of enemies in 1806 when he effectively blackmailed the Prince into letting the Prince’s estranged wife, Princess Charlotte, back into court society. Appalled at the smear campaign being enacted by the Prince against her in the courts (including allegations of having an illegitimate child), Perceval wrote what became known infamously as “The Book” (), a brutally frank legal takedown of the Prince’s case, which he threatened to print if the Prince didn’t back down. The future George IV did so, allegedly with much swearing directed in Perceval’s direction.

An un-expected Prime Minister

To many then, his ascension to the position of Prime Minister in 1809 seemed doomed to failure – he arguably only really got the job because Canning and Castlereagh, the two leading lights of the day were in the political doghouse (yes, you guessed it, they’d been caught duelling). Forced to chose from the remaining leading politicians of the day, King George III picked Perceval – in no small part because Perceval was strongly against giving greater political rights to Catholics, a belief which the King held strongly himself.

Despite this inauspicious start though, somehow Perceval made it work. Over the next two years his personality seemed to hold everything together – even his enemies in Parliament seemed to respect him, if not his politics – and perhaps most crucially few doubted his personal integrity. For as a politician he was practically unique at the time – not only because he was happily married (and had no mistresses throughout his life), but also because he refused to treat politics as an opportunity to make money from the public purse.

Indeed his early death would ultimately leave his widow and family in such financial straits that Parliament voted them both a lump sum and an annuity for life ().

Perceval’s integrity and talent for holding things together somehow ensured that throughout his time in office he managed to bring some element of stability to the government.

Alongside ensuring that the Slavery Act was enforced he also worked hard to prosecute the war against Napoleon’s France. Despite the ebb and flow of the campaign on the Iberian Peninsular, his support of the British forces there under Sir Arthur Wellesley was unwavering. Napoleon had dismissed Wellesley as a “Sepoy General,” a derogatory reference to the fact that his experience had, until the Peninsular, largely come from fighting in India. It was a view that some in the upper echelons of British politics and the military shared. Perceval’s support of his initially embattled general, however, helped to give Wellesley the time to prove his detractors wrong. By the end of the war Wellesley’s victory over both the French and his detractors was complete, and as Viscount Wellington (an honour that Perceval had urged the King to bestow) he had rightly cemented his place in the pantheon of great generals.

Perceval’s commitment to prosecuting the war would also have consequences beyond the battlefield and beyond his own life. For whilst he would not live to see it, it would be his refusal as Prime Minister to lessen the trade restrictions on neutral powers that would help set Britain and the United States on a path to war – the War of 1812, in which the White House would burn.

The White House burns, by Tom W. Freeman

All the above meant that by 1811 Perceval arguably had more enemies than any other man in Britain. His abolitionist activities, limitations on trade, anti-liberal tendencies and ruthless tax policy made him a hate figure amongst the urban poor and trading classes, yet there were few in Parliament who didn’t accept his position as Prime Minister. Indeed he was mourned universally by both friends and enemies after his death.

More than a piece of trivia

Given his unique place in history, it is perhaps inevitable that whenever the anniversary of Perceval’s death comes about, such coverage as there is nearly always focuses only on his assassination. Do spare a thought though, reader, for the the man behind the pub quiz question.

Abolitionist, conservative attack dog, reformer, blackmailer, loving husband (and father to twelve children). War leader, White-House-Burner and almost certainly the most infuriating man living in Britain at the time. Spencer Perceval was all these things and more.

In fact, possibly the least interesting thing he ever did was get assassinated…

Longform, TV & Film

Television’s First Archeologist

On the 22nd of July 1976, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, archaeologist, died at the age of 85. He left behind an enormous legacy. In a career that spanned over sixty years, working in Britain, France and India, he had led a charge that had taken archaeology from an often amateur art and turned it into the methodical science that we recognise today.

Along side this, Wheeler has another claim to fame. One which has also largely been forgotten – for Wheeler was also archaeology’s first real television star.

Today, with series like The History of Britain, A History of Scotland and many more, we are used to the sight of historians and experts, not just presenters, delivering history on our screens. Channel 4’s Time Team also surprised everyone by becoming a popular presence on television, opening a window into the archaeology and history of Britain that was accessible to all, and transformed further over two decades the public face of these areas of study.

All of this, at least in part, is thanks to Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Wheeler firmly believed that history was something for people, not just professors, and that it didn’t need to be “dumbed down” for television audiences to enjoy it. In a television career that spanned over twenty years, and drawing on his own background and experiences through two world wars and beyond, he made programmes to prove it.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler in Buried Treasure. Watch it here

Thanks to BBC iPlayer, for the first time in many years, it is now possible to see some of those programmes again, each providing a window into the world of a man who lived a remarkable life.

From War to Wales

Watching and listening to Wheeler today, it is easy to assume that he was born into money. But despite his clipped tones, Wheeler’s background was far from aristocratic and his knighthood was his own – awarded much later for his services to archaeology. Indeed Wheeler was actually the son of a provincial journalist who won a scholarship to the University of London in 1907. There, following a degree in classics, he had just begun to enter the field of archaeology when the Great War intervened.

Like many of his peers Wheeler volunteered for combat, serving in the Royal Artillery. By 1917 he was on the Western Front, witnessing the horrors of trench warfare up close, fighting at Passchendaele and picking up the Military Cross for his bravery

At war’s end, Wheeler returned to archaeology, soon finding work as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum in Wales. It was here, alongside his archaeologist wife Tessa, that he began to change the way archaeological digs were carried out. Together they pioneered new methods for excavations that were more regimented, systematic and most importantly less destructive than had been seen before.

That Wheeler, still relatively new to the field, should find himself at the forefront of archaeology’s push to modernise sounds strange now. The Great War, however, sat heavily on Wheeler’s mind. For the rest of his life he would feel that the War had robbed Britain of an entire generation of minds, leaving a heavy burden of responsibility on those that had survived. As he would later write in his autobiography:

We had been blotted out. Those familiar only with the mild casualties of the Second German War can have little appreciation of the carnage that marked its predecessor. It is a typical instance that, of five university students who worked together in the Wroxeter excavations of 1913, one only survived the war. It so happened that the survivor was myself.

An Eye to the Future

It was also in Wales that Wheeler began to lay the foundations on which his future television work would be built. With the excavation of the Tomb of Tutankhamun making headlines worldwide, Wheeler spotted an opportunity to raise the profile of archaeology closer to home. In an unusual move, he announced the excavations at Caerleon – home, according to local legend, of “King Arthur’s Round Table” – to the press. By the next day, the Daily Mail had agreed to fund a larger dig.

The dig team at Caerleon, with Tessa in the centre. Via

From that point on Wheeler was convinced that the future of his field was intrinsically linked to the media – whatever form that media took. As he would later write in the fifties:

Archaeology, had, almost overnight, acquired a new market value, and it is fair to say that, since that time, it has maintained its hold upon the public. The press, films, radio and now television, have all taken it up. For my part I wholeheartedly welcome this development.

Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Wheelers continued to push archaeology forward. Meanwhile Wheeler’s work to take archaeology beyond the lecture theatre continued. He encouraged the likes of the London Illustrated News to cover digs in some depth, and when radio arrived he was swift to push coverage onto the airwaves as well. In both of these, and in his own books and articles, Wheeler would pull on both his studies and his own experiences of warfare to paint a vivid, and sometimes brutal, portrait of Britain’s pre-Roman past.

The thirties, however, were not an entirely happy time for Wheeler. By 1936 he was head of the Institute of Archaeology, a body that both he and Tessa had helped found, and had decided it was time to broaden his knowledge by witnessing archaeology abroad – beginning with a trip to the Middle East.

I said good-bye to Tessa. I remember turning back as I went down the stairs of our little Park Street flat, and can still hear the words which followed me in her quiet voice: ‘Good-bye – and remember, you are very precious.‘ That was the last time I saw her.

A few months later, whilst returning from abroad, Wheeler would open a copy of the Times and be confronted by his own wife’s obituary. Tessa had died suddenly of illness while he was away.

For Wheeler, however, there was little time to grieve. Soon his archaeological duties took him abroad again. In France, Wheeler faced a French Government reluctant to authorise a dig in Brittany, insisting Wheeler would have to insure the entire forested area of Finistère if he wished to proceed. Demonstrating his creativity, Wheeler eventually found a solution – a Lloyds of London underwriter with a sense of humour. With a bit of gentle persuasion he agreed to issue the policy for the princely sum of about seven shillings.

Wheeler’s sense of creativity and adventure, which would later come through so strongly in his broadcasting, was very much evident throughout the thirties. His short, but tempestuous, romance and marriage with Mavis de Vere Cole would lead the painter Augustus John to challenge Wheeler to a duel. Mavis, one of the “Bright Young Things” of the twenties, was John’s model and mistress when her romance with Wheeler began.

Inflamed, the painter challenged Wheeler to personal combat. Wheeler accepted the challenge, but told John he would exercise his right to choose the weapons. There was only one choice, he insisted, for an old artilleryman like himself – field guns. Realising the absurdity of the situation John withdrew the challenge.

A Return to War

As the thirties drew to a close, war loomed once again and Wheeler decided to put both his archaeology and media work on hold, volunteering once more for combat. By 1941 he was in North Africa with the 8th Army, fighting in the Second Battle of El Alamein. He could not, however, escape the world of archaeology and by 1943 the Colonial Office were asking that Wheeler be released in order to become Director-General of Archaeology in India.

The War Office agreed but Wheeler, by now a Brigadier commanding the 12th Anti-Aircraft Brigade, refused the offer. The Allied invasion of Italy was imminent and Wheeler insisted on leading his men through the Salerno landings before finally accepting the post in 1944.

Wheeler remained in India until 1948, leading excavations including those exploring the then-mysterious Indus Valley Civilization and helping to bring about the same kind of revolution in Indian archaeology as he had in the UK. By 1951 he was back in the Britain, however, and his television career was about to begin.

Taking Archeology to Television

On October 23rd 1952 Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? had its debut on the BBC. One of a number of programmes developed by the BBC Talks Department to help increase viewing hours ahead of the arrival of ITV, AVM was a panel show in which archaeologists, art historians, and natural historians would have to identify – and talk about – mysterious objects related to their profession. The gregarious Wheeler, already well known to the public due to his previous work both in print and on radio, was a natural fit for the format and was soon approached by the BBC to take part.

Wheeler on Animal, Mineral, Vegetable?. Watch it here.

Wheeler threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of panellist. He soon became well established as a series regular. Wheeler’s colourful descriptions of the objects selected for him to identify (by the series’ then unknown producer, ) soon established him as a favourite with viewers. Viewers, critics and production staff alike were amazed at the breadth of Wheeler’s knowledge as he smoothly identified and discussed archaeological artefacts from all over the world.

What few – including Attenborough himself – knew, however, was that with his usual creativity Wheeler was stacking the deck. Realising that the objects were generally drawn from museum and university collections in London, Wheeler started quietly checking their catalogues before broadcast to see what had been checked out, allowing him to fill the gaps in his knowledge pre-broadcast where necessary.

This was cheating, certainly, but for Wheeler there was a greater prize at stake than finishing the programme on top. He sensed that AVM had given archaeology, and history, a way into the world of television that it could not afford to miss. He’d used Tutankhamun’s Tomb to get Britain’s archaeology into the papers, he would use AVM to do the same with the BBC.

Wheeler’s instinct proved to be correct. His performances on AVM saw him named British TV Personality of the Year in 1954 and he leveraged his fame, and archaeology’s new-found success on television, into dedicated programming on the subject.

Inventing a Format

Buried Treasure debuted in 1954, in which Wheeler took the object-based format of AVM into a series focused entirely on archaeology, and would run for five years. In 1958 Armchair Voyage: Hellenic Cruise pioneered the historical travelogue format. In 1960 he took viewers through the legacy of the Roman Empire in The Grandeur That Was Rome. In 1966 Chronicle looked at everything from the history of Stonehenge to the Viking voyages to America.

Wheeler surveys the Adriatic in Voyage: Hellenic Cruise. Watch it here

It is these series that, in many ways, established that particularly British historical television format that can still be seen today. The subject matter would be approached in an informative and interesting manner, but the intelligence of the audience would be respected. The natural drama, and wonder, of the past would be highlighted, and modern comparisons made where they provided useful context, but there would be no dumbing down.

Wheeler demonstrates the scale of an ampitheatre. Watch it here

Wheeler’s programmes had one other important impact on the format – they established the benefit of having a charismatic host who was a historian or archaeologist first and a presenter second. Wheeler’s presence in front of the camera gave his programmes a sense of authority in the mind of the viewer, whilst his natural, relaxed style helped assure them that they weren’t being lectured. It proved to be a winning combination then, and – as the likes of Simon Schama, Michael Wood and Neil Oliver have demonstrated since – remains so now.

Right up until his death, Wheeler continued to balance his work as an archaeologist with his work on television. In 1974, perhaps realising that his time was coming to an end and that he was one of the last links to archaeology’s past, he sat down with Magnus Magnusson to record Sir Mortimer and Magnus. It remains incredible viewing today, with Wheeler discussing not only his own work and the changes he had seen, but also the people he had known – from the aforementioned Augustus John to legendary Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Magnus Magnusson. Watch it here

A Forgotten Legacy

Whilst Wheeler’s role in the history of archaeology is well known today, why has his legacy in television, a legacy that is almost as big as his personality, been largely forgotten?

In part, it’s because television of the fifties rarely translates well to the screen today. Watching any of the videos featured in this article now can be a less than optimal experience – thanks to the sound and video technology, and the production style and values, of the day.

Historical documentaries also rarely age well. New discoveries, techniques and most importantly technology often advance argument and knowledge beyond that featured in the programme.

Finally, there is the sad fact that Wheeler, like many television stars of his time, is a victim of the BBC’s archival apocalypse that manifested during the sixties and seventies, when many older tapes and shows were wiped. It was not just classic dramas like Doctor Who that suffered – today only four complete episodes of AVM exist within the BBC archives – a sad legacy for a series that ran for seven years.

All this has meant that whilst Wheeler has continued to be acclaimed for his work as an archaeologist, his history as a broadcaster has often been sadly overlooked. It’s a shame, for both his remarkable life, and his work, deserve to be better known.

Perhaps fittingly though, for a man like Wheeler, his exploits have not even ended with his death, for he has a posthumous appearance in the Doctor Who extended universe to his name. That came in the Big Finish audio production Many Happy Returns in 2012, released to celebrate twenty years of adventuring for Bernice Summerfield, the Seventh Doctor’s archaeologist companion.

Script writer was responsible for that appearance, and shared with us the reasons he decided to give Wheeler his brief cameo:

Wheeler’s a bit of a hero of mine. The programmes he made and books he wrote are engaging, funny and full of brilliant insights. He’s an expert in his field who sees it as his duty to engage and excite the general public about his work – something that’s rather rare. He was also committed to making history about the study of “people, not things”, which makes his work moving as well as insightful.

Wheeler’s influence then, if not his fame, lives on – at least if you know where to look.

The same is now true of his broadcasts – at least those that still exist today. Much of his surviving work can now be found on the BBC Website, specifically in the BBC Archaeology section.

As an archaeologist, soldier and one of British television’s earliest stars, Sir Mortimer Wheeler was a fascinating man. Watch some of the programmes linked to above, and we suspect you’ll agree.

This article first featured on

Design & Tech, Longform

A Typeface For The Underground

On Monday the 2nd January 1979, Eiichi Kono walked into the offices of Banks and Miles, one of London’s most renowned graphic design agencies. It was his first day at the firm as a typographer, and he was very excited. Admittedly Eiichi didn’t actually know what he’d be working on – they’d been slightly vague about that – but he was excited nonetheless. This would represent his first major typographical job, and that was something he’d been working towards for some time.

Eiichi had been working in the optical printing industry in his native Japan for some years when, in the mid-seventies, he had experienced what he would later describe as a “mid-career crisis.” Switching directions, he decided to explore a career in something that had fascinated him for some time – typography.

He chose to begin his journey into the world of typography at the London College of Printing – a choice partially motivated by memories of previous time spent in London. Visiting the city on holiday he had, like many tourists, found the transport network rather daunting. His initial apprehension though soon disappeared. The ever-present roundels, he discovered, made stations easy to locate and identify and the easy-to-read signage really impressed him.

“The symbol was accompanied with a simple, elegant, slightly old-fashioned alphabet.” He would later write, “At first, I thought it was Gill Sans; it wasn’t Futura, and definitely not my then favourite, Helvetica.”

The typeface was, of course, Johnston Sans and, although Eiichi didn’t know it at the time, it was a typeface created by Edward Johnston and unique to the London Underground. It was this typeface that helped motivate him into becoming a typographer and indirectly this that meant when Colin Banks (one of his course assessors and the “Banks” part of Banks & Miles) offered him a job as a typographer post-graduation, he leapt at the chance.

It was also this typeface, Colin Banks told him when he arrived, that Eiichi would be working on. He had been hired to redesign Johnston Sans.

“That morning,” says Eiichi, “was a bit of a shock.”

Going Back to the Beginning

Eiichi’s shock at being asked to redesign a simple typeface may seem a bit over the top. In part, this is because typography (and indeed professional writing in general) is no longer as dark an art as it used to be – the modern computer has put an end to that. In the main, however, this is because few people realise just how much of an important typographical – and indeed historical – landmark the humble “Underground Font” really was. Created almost 100 years ago, in design terms Johnston Sans literally helped create the modern world.

So perhaps before we continue our look at Eiichi’s role in Johnston’s history, we should take a trip back to the very beginning. A beginning that, slightly strangely, begins in 1908 not with the man who actually created Johnston, but with a man who just thought it was about time there was some bloody design consistency on the Underground – Frank Pick.

Frank Pick (1878 – 1941)

Pick had started working at the “Underground Electric Railways Company of London” (as it was then known) back in 1906, but it was after his appointment to the position of Publicity Manager in 1908 that he really began to leave his mark on the railway. In a career that would eventually span over 30 years, Pick would be directly or indirectly responsible for creating almost all the iconography we now associate with the Underground – the Roundel, the map, the moquette, the famous posters – all Pick’s work in some way. Pick wasn’t a designer himself, but he knew a good one when he saw one and – perhaps more importantly – he believed in a couple of simple design concepts that seem obvious now but which were almost revolutionary back then.

Corporate Design, Pick believed, should be consistent, it should be easy to grasp and (almost above all else) it should look good.

This belief grew, in part, from work Pick carried out on promotional poster campaigns for the Underground in 1908. Noting the success of a similar campaign carried out by the North Eastern Railway, Pick commissioned a series of posters depicting the various interesting landmarks and locations Londoners could get to by Tube. Pick tried to ensure that all the posters produced were of a very high visual quality, and the campaign was a success. It was even more successful, he noticed, when he took things further and made sure that the posters were well illuminated and positioned with an eye to where they would actually be noticed – a principle that over the next few years he extended to maps and signage.

By 1912, therefore, with a reputation high from his successes and a growing understanding of the power of good design and usability, Pick was finally able to turn his attention to something that had been bugging him since his very first poster campaign – the multitude of differing typefaces featured across the Underground.

Pick had first really noticed this when he had commissioned his original poster campaign – the designs that came back were all good (hardly surprising given his ability to spot talent), but they often featured differing text styles – something that he felt came across as a bit sloppy. Further years as the Underground’s growing design star had only reinforced this belief – not only did the inconsistency in typefaces everywhere look a bit haphazard, but it also served as a permanent and unwelcome reminder of the Underground’s origins as a number of smaller rivals. When the typefaces were bad, Pick also noted, they genuinely adversely affected passenger’s journeys and that was bad for both commuter and company. Pick decided that the Underground needed a consistent typeface and he was going to give it one. Making this happen, however, soon turned out to be harder than Pick had originally thought.

In his quest for a typeface Pick turned his gaze onto the various options already available but soon he realised that nothing really matched up to what he wanted. The closest Pick found to a an already-existing typeface that felt right was the one recently created for WH Smith by the famous (and posthumously infamous) type designer Eric Gill. It wasn’t quite what he wanted though and because WH Smith was already becoming a feature of station forecourts anyway he rejected it, feeling that it would confuse passengers.

Pick even briefly tried to turn his hand to creating a typeface of his own, based entirely on circles and squares, but soon realised that his skills lay very definitely in concepts not actualities.

Finally, in 1913, Pick realised that (as always) the solution to the problem was to do what he always did – hire someone good and get something brand new made just for him. As usual, Pick soon found himself briefing the perfect candidate for the job – Edward Johnston.

Creating the Typeface

By 1913 Johnston was a man already making a name for himself in the world of type. Then 35, Johnston had only really discovered his talent for (and love of) typography in his mid-twenties. By 1906, however, he had already been recognised as a man who had almost single-handedly revived and rediscovered the art of calligraphical type and lettering, and was the much-loved teacher of many of print’s future greats – including Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and the aforementioned Eric Gill. Johnston’s book, Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering would be (and indeed still is) one of the “must read” texts for anyone in the typographical world.

Edward Johnston, quill in hand. Courtesy Edward Johnston Foundation

Pick met Johnston via a mutual acquaintance – Gerald Meynell, who owned the Westminster Press. That meeting, combined with Pick’s assessment of Johnston’s abilities and recommendations from several of Johnston’s former pupils (including Gill), soon made Pick realise that he had found his man.

The typeface should have “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” Pick wrote to Johnston. It should also, he told him, be easy to read from a moving train and in bad lighting, be noticeably up-to-date with the times, and yet also be completely different from anything found on other shops and signage. Finally, in true Frank Pick style, Johnston was told that each letter should be “a strong and unmistakeable symbol.”

It was a brief that many a designer would have blanched at, but not Johnston.

It took three years (in fact all likelihood it probably didn’t – Johnston was notorious for leaving commissions until the very last minute), but in 1915 Johnston delivered to Pick a character-set that met every single one of those demands. Pick was, quite simply, delighted.

The final product, from the collection of Mike Ashworth

Little documentation remains covering the design process undertaken by Johnston whilst working on Pick’s new typeface. What is obvious, however, is that Johnston – a man, remember, who had form for reviving lost arts and styles – decided that he’d do exactly the same thing again. For what Johnston created for Pick was the very first modern “Sans-Serif” typeface.

Sans-Serif’s are “fonts without the little kicks.” Open up a word processing program and print out this article in Times New Roman. Then print it out in Arial (or Helvetica if you’re on a Mac) and look at the difference – you’ll see that the letters in the Times version are slightly more ornate around the edges. This is because Times is a “Serif” font and Arial is Sans-Serif. In the simplest, most generic terms, this is the difference between the two families.

Arial On the left, Times New Roman on the right

Sans-Serif typefaces, therefore, are those “flourishless” families like Verdana, Arial, Helvetica and (one for Windows Vista users) Calibri. Faces that bless documents everywhere and virtually the entire internet. Sans-Serif faces are, in many ways, the living embodiment of text in the 21st Century and Johnston, with the typeface that he delivered to Pick, almost singlehandedly revived them as a valid and useful style.

Johnston would later admit to two influences on the design of his typeface – walking home one evening with Eric Gill in the early 1900s, he found himself focusing on the various tradesmen’s wagons that featured simply drawn signage in sans-serif style. “Here, on their covers,” Johnston would later say, “in one small backwater of the lettering trade, tradition had preserved an otherwise extinct species; a really good block letter.”

Having settled on producing a sans-serif face, Johnston’s other big influence was the lettering on Trajan’s Column. From there he took the principle of classical dimensions and extended it all the strokes on his new typeface would be the same width, and the circles (on the “o” and “p” for example) should be exactly that – perfect circles.

The resulting typeface that Johnston delivered to Pick (uppercase in 1915, lowercase a year later), is the fruit of those influences, but also has its own unique touches. Next time you look at the tube map look at the letters i and j in lowercase – you’ll notice that the dots are actually diagonal squares – a touch that hints at the broad-nibs of Johnston’s calligraphical past. Other little touches like the hooked base to the lower-case “l” give the face personality, whilst also helping to meet Pick’s goal that each letter be subtly distinguishable at speed (although Johnston admitted he did this partially to stop bad typesetters putting his ‘l’s too close to other letters, one of his pet peeves). Overall, Johnston delivered a magnificent typeface, and Pick quickly set about ensuring that it manifested across the entire network, furthering its fame and helping kick off a worldwide sans-serif revolution.

As if accomplishing the above was not enough, Johnston then finished it all off by creating the Roundel.

One of Johnston’s Roundel sketches, courtesy the Design Museum

All of which brings us, nicely, back to Eiichi Kono.

Reinventing a Classic

Eiichi’s shock is now hopefully more understandable – he was not simply being asked to rework an old typeface, he was being asked to touch up an acknowledged “Old Master.”

If Johnston’s creation was so good though, why was Eiichi being told to work on it?

Partly this was due to changing technology. The typeface still only existed in the form of wooden and metal printing blocks for each letter, whilst the world had moved on to photographic printing methods.

Original Johnston Printing Blocks at the London Transport Museum

It was also, however, because the typeface was increasingly being called upon to appear in places and positions for which it had never been designed. The documents, signage and advertising campaigns that London Underground were now producing increasingly pushed the limits of the typeface. It wasn’t good in very small print, for example, and it lacked variable weights (such as a bold version) and italics.

None of this was really Johnston’s fault – he’d been asked to design something that would work on signage and in headlines and that was precisely what he’d delivered. Indeed he’d actually called it “Underground Railway Block Letter” – almost expressly indicating that he didn’t regard it as a complete typeface.

Other typographers had stepped in over the years (including Percy Delf Smith, one of Johnston’s pupils) to extend it at different times. By the 70s though, London Underground’s advertising agencies were getting increasingly frustrated at its inflexibility and (in a move that would have had Frank Pick spinning in his grave) abandoning it all together. Its internal use was also becoming increasingly half-hearted.

It was clear that a decision needed to be made on the future of Johnston Sans and London Underground approached various graphic design agencies and consulted on the subject. Many recommended dropping it completely in favour of other faces (Helvetica was considered, as was Univers Bold) but ultimately one agency – Banks and Miles – stepped forward and suggested an alternative:- Rework Johnston into a proper, fully extended, typeface.

Johnston wasn’t just a typeface, they insisted, it was now part of the London Underground. Get rid of Johnston they claimed and you’d diminish slightly everyone’s very impression of what constitutes the Tube.

“It is perfectly reasonable for designers to want to change things and make their mark,” John Miles would later say, “but not changing something is a perfectly legitimate design decision. It can sometimes be better to retain the existing core and make modifications – and perhaps improvements around the edges.”

Banks and Miles’ arguments ultimately won out, and London Underground gave them an almost Pick-like broad brief to rework Johnston. Luckily, in Banks & Miles, they had found a company who understood the overall ethos that Pick had been after, and which was still – with modification – relevant today.

In the person of Eiichi Kono, Banks & Miles themselves had also been lucky. They had found someone up to the mammoth task with which he had been presented – although he wasn’t entirely confident that he was up to the job at the time.

“The prospect was daunting,” he would later write, “because I had no experience in type design and very little English language. There had been no serious typeface design project in my design school days, and I expected that in the office there would be at least a kind of preliminary training or what drawing tools to be used, what guidance for a novice designer ‒ size the original artwork should be, how to typeset with newly drawn letters. I remembered one college day in 1975 when our tutor took us to the drawing office of the Monotype Corporation in Salfords. They had impressive purpose-built drawing equipment, precision machines and many skilled draughtsmen and women. In contrast, my tools were very basic: pencils, felt tip pens, a Rotring pen with 0.1 mm nib, Winsor & Newton’s fine brushes and some photographic equipment in the darkroom.”

Over the next 18 months, however, (and after overcoming his initial shock), Eiichi effectively rebuilt Johnston from the ground up.

He studied what documentation and ideas Johnston had left, and drew and traced letters by hand before filling them in with pen and altering them through photography and photocopy, creating new weights and experimenting to find sizes and standards that worked.

He soon found, to his sadness, that in some cases Johnston’s original rules had to be adapted or ignored – some of the Trajanic proportions had to be lost in order to make the typeface work well at lower point sizes with the x-height (the height of the “sticks” on letters such as “h”) having to be changed as well.

One of Eiichi’s design sketches, complete with altered x-height. Courtesy The Centre For Research & Development

In the end though Eiichi was able to produce the first truly complete Johnston Typeface, which Banks & Miles christened “New Johnston.”

London Underground were delighted. Johnston would endure.

New Johnston uppercase, Courtesy the Centre for Research and Development

New Johnston lowercase, Courtesy the Centre for Research and Development

The Evolving Typeface

Some purists argue that because it contains changes to elements such as the x-height, New Johnston is a corruption of Edward Johnston’s original work, and in the strictest of terms they may well be correct – something Eiichi himself would freely admit to.

As Mike Ashworth, London Underground’s Head of Design and Heritage (and one of New Johnston’s current guardians) points out though, Johnston himself would probably disagree with that assessment.

“As a typeface,” Ashworth says, “Johnston underwent plenty of changes throughout the twenties and thirties and Edward Johnston himself was nearly always complicit in the process – I’ve been lucky enough to read some of the letters.”

“Johnston is an evolved and evolving typeface,” he continues, “and always was.”

The “evolving” part of the statement above is obviously still pertinent. Whilst Eiichi leaves our story now having successfully reinvigorated Johnston for the modern technical revolution, Johnston itself has not remained unchanged.

“Frankly,” Ashworth continues, “the Johnston typeface has seen more change in the last eight years than in the previous eighty. It’s to the credit of Johnston – both typeface and creator – that it’s kept its honesty and recognition throughout.”

Those changes aren’t simply typographical. The transition to modern, computerised digital format was largely a painless one, thanks to a continuing relationship with Banks & Miles and the quality, documentation and methods used by Eiichi Kono when creating New Johnston. A more complex change arose, however, with the creation of Transport For London in the late nineties.

Whilst Johnston (or variations of it) had been used on non-Underground transport before (Johnston himself designed a condensed version for bus-blinds in the twenties), suddenly a serious question arose – should Johnston be confined to London Underground, or should it become the official typeface of this entirely new consolidated organisation?

“It was a big thing to consider,” Ashworth explains, “if it was to be the house style everywhere, then there were genuine fears we’d be asking too much of it. It worked well on the Underground, but if we started putting it on the License Notices of black cabs, would we have been taking away some of its power?”

Eventually though the decision was taken to do exactly that – a new version of Johnston went organisation-wide as “TfL New Johnston,” and few can argue that it hasn’t stood up to the challenge admirably.

Into The Future

Today, Johnston remains a fundamental part of the London scene, a situation that TfL are keen to ensure continues, although not at the expense of the enduring fidelity of the typeface itself.

“We continue to make subtle changes” Ashworth admits, “but we’re very wary about doing too much and are always happy to roll back changes if they end up not feeling ‘right.’

“The most recent major change was to the numbers 1 and 4 earlier this year. Not a lot of people noticed until a poster appeared advertising engineering work on Valentines Day – then I got a lot of emails!”

Going forward, Johnston and its role will undoubtedly undergo changes again – we would wager that, as website handling of embedded fonts changes, the TfL website itself may begin to show more of its true typographical colours.

As with many things on the underground, however, the important thing is finding the balance between heritage and functionality.

The heritage and importance of the Johnston typeface cannot be denied – the result of the vision of Frank Pick and the brilliance of Edward Johnston. Indeed Johnston’s creative skills are perhaps best memorialised by the blue heritage plaque that graces his former residence in Hammersmith – the only blue plaque to feature text in a custom typeface (you can probably guess which one).

Johnston’s Blue Plaque. Courtesy Jamie Barras

The functionality comes from the impressive work of Eiichi Kono and others in ensuring that the typeface has maintained its usability in the modern world.

It is TfL and London Underground, of course, that need to ensure that this balance is found going forward – a role that, for now at least – they appear to take very seriously indeed.

“I believe that the ultimate test as to whether we are doing our job properly,” Mike Ashworth concludes, “is whether a sign containing a new variant of Johnston can be placed on a platform wall and not look incongruous with the signage that has been on that platform for twenty years or more. If it does, then we need to think again.”

“In fact,” he admits, “I can think of a couple of places where Metronet accidentally used the public version of the typeface licensed by the London Transport Museum, and even they don’t look out of place.

“And no,” he adds after a brief pause, “before you ask, I’m not going to tell you where they are!”

If you spot them commentors, do let us know.

This article first appeared on London Reconnections, a site dedicated to news and long-form writing about London Transport

Design & Tech, Longform

The Man Who Painted London Red

When the architecture of the Underground is discussed, it is nearly always to the work of Charles Holden that comment turns. The reasoning for this, of course, is obvious. In the likes of Gants Hill, Arnos Grove and 55 Broadway, Holden left an architectural legacy that few other 20th Century figures could match. Holden’s legacy, however, often serves to distract from the work of another young architect roughly ten years before him. A man who would arguably do more to define the public image of the London Underground than any other figure with the possible exception of Frank Pick.

That man was Leslie Green.

In four short years, Green would be responsible for the design and execution of over fifty stations spread over three separate Tube lines – a remarkable achievement for a man who was only 29 when he was first given the task and one which would, in many ways, ultimately lead to his tragically early death at the age of 33. For many his distinctive red stations would become – and indeed remain – the stereotypical template of an Underground station.

A Boy from Maida Vale

Much of Green’s life remains hidden in obscurity – no doubt in part due to his relatively early death. Indeed in contrast to the likes of Holden, Pick and Johnston, few pictures of the man are known to exist.

A rare photo of Green, presented to Doug Rose by Green’s daughter, Vera Stubbs

Born on the 6th February 1875 in Maida Vale, a career in architecture seemed likely from a very young age for Leslie Green. He was the son of Arthur William Green – a prominent architect and Crown Surveyor – and after completing his schooling Green immediately joined his father’s firm where he worked as an apprentice. In 1893, with an architectural career now a certainty, he spent a year at the South Kensington School of Art and then another studying architecture in Paris. Finally, in 1895, he returned to his father’s firm in London.

An apprentice no longer, Green would work as his father’s assistant on several major design projects but by 1897 was already moving towards practising under his own name. By 1900, now a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Green was working on his own architectural projects out of offices on the Strand and for the next three years he would quietly develop a reputation as a calm and efficient architectural operator. By 1903 Green had a fair portfolio of successful work, although one that contained no real large scale projects. That was a situation that changed almost overnight, however, when, in September of that year, he was hired by transport mogul Charles Tyson Yerkes.

The Robber Baron

Charles Tyson Yerkes

It is impossible to continue Green’s story without pausing briefly to look at Yerkes himself. A man who built, then lost, then rebuilt his own personal fortune, Yerkes has become a legendary figure in his own right. By the time he arrived in London from his native USA, Yerkes had already built and lost a brokerage empire in Philadelphia, spent time in jail for financial fraud, been caught blackmailing elected officials and created Chicago’s public transport system.

Sensing an opportunity for further financial gain in London and encouraged by his friend Sir Robert Perks, Yerkes crossed the Atlantic in 1900. By 1901, backed by American money, Yerkes had effectively seized control of the then-ailing District Line. By 1902, now backed by the powerful Speyer banking family as well, he had acquired and amalgamated several planned Tube schemes and was poised to begin construction of the Piccadilly Line. He was also similarly placed to build the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (which would go on to form the basis for one branch of the Northern Line). Finally, by 1903, he had also acquired the begun-but-bankrupt Bakerloo Line.

In three short years, Yerkes had acquired a considerable amount of both London’s existing transport network and the network that would come to be.

An Epic Undertaking

Thus was the situation that September, when Yerkes laid out the scene to Leslie Green. Yerke’s company, the Underground Electric Railways Company London Ltd (UERL) had the plans and they were already being put into production. Tunnels were being cut and land acquired at an incredible pace across all three prospective new lines (the District Line would also be expanded and electrified, but that lies outside the scope of this article). What UERL didn’t have, however, was stations – and that required an architect.

Whether Green realised the sheer scale of the task he was about to undertake is unclear. What is clear, however, is that by the end of September Green had been contracted to be the Architect-in-Charge of all station design across Yerkes’ three new lines (the District would stay in the experienced hands of Harry Ford), for which his practice would be paid the sum of £2000 a year by UERL. The only stations outside his remit would be Finsbury Park (which was being constructed by the Great Northern Railway), Barons Court and Hammersmith (both of which, being District Line stations already, would fall to Ford).

Strictly speaking, Green’s contract indicated that he would only be responsible for buildings “above ground,” but it was still a mammoth task. It also soon became clear that whilst that may have been the letter of the contract, it certainly wasn’t what Yerkes saw as the spirit. Green would soon find himself playing a role in the design of signage and tiling below ground as well.

Fast, Fancy and Fairly Priced

Green also soon discovered that Yerkes was definitely not a “hands-off” employer. Yerkes had very clear ideas as to how he wanted the project taken forward. Foreshadowing the later branding work Frank Pick would carry out on the network, Yerkes insisted on a consistent look and feel across stations on all three of the new lines. He also believed firmly in the superiority of American engineering and construction methods and leaned heavily on Green to make use of both. Yerkes wanted his stations to be bold and distinctive – in his own words, they should be fitted out with decorative elements “fully equal to those of the best stations on the Central London Railway.”

As if the above wasn’t a tricky enough mandate for Green to achieve, Yerkes also stressed that whilst he was prepared to pay for quality where it was required (as would be the case with the brass clocks that would feature heavily throughout Green’s stations, for example), he expected Green to achieve considerable cost savings wherever possible. Finally, time would also be a major limiting factor that Green would have to deal with – construction was already well underway on the new lines, and the station production schedule would be extremely aggressive.

The brass clocks found throughout Green’s stations were self-winding and cost the princely sum of £4 each

Green swiftly realised that the construction and design methods that had been used for stations on previous Underground lines would fall far short of meeting Yerkes’ goals. After careful consideration (and possibly thanks to prompting from Yerkes himself) Green decided that the stations would use a construction method then common in America, but rarely utilized in the UK. The stations would be two-storey buildings built out of a robust load-bearing steel frame which would then be faced off with brickwork and cladding. This would allow the stations to be constructed relatively quickly and would also maximise the space within the buildings themselves. Importantly, the steel frame would be designed to support further storeys on top of the existing two, allowing Yerkes to sell real-estate over many of the stations Green designed.

It was in his choice of cladding material, however, that Green effectively cemented his legacy. After considerable investigation, he decided that the stations would be faced with ox-blood red “Burmantoft’s Faïence” to be provided by the Leeds Fireclay Company. The faïence was relatively cheap (apparently nine shillings per visual foot), hardy, quick to produce and – importantly for Green – could be just as easily and cheaply moulded into the various decorative touches he planned on including within each individual design.

Green’s distinctive red faïence in all its glory at Chalk Farm

Green’s choice of material would effectively cement his design legacy. His distinctive ox-blood red stations remain a key fixture on the streets of London and are, for many, the very visual definition of an Underground station. Of the stations Green would design, only five would not carry this faïence – Golders Green (over which there is some debate as to whether it was a Green station at all), Regents Park, Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross (all of which lacked surface buildings) and the original Holborn station.

Holborn was originally completed in red granite – Green felt it would fit in better with the new architectural style found along Kingsway

In terms of external styling, Green was not content merely to make a statement through his choice of material. Green’s stations may have all, broadly speaking, followed the same format – a series of wide bays at ground level with large arched windows above (behind which generally lurked lift equipment) – but he was determined to give each a sense individuality. A proponent of both the Arts and Crafts movement (which objected to “mass produced” visual stylings) and Art Noveau (courtesy of his time in Paris), Green endeavoured to equip each station with its own subtle selection of architectural features. Subtle tweaks to the cornice, ornate carving on window hoods and arches, the occasional carved UERL logo – all were used by Green to add individuality to the designs. He wasn’t afraid to indulge in more unique quirks either. Chalk Farm, for example, carries a Palladian window. Look carefully at the Cranbourn Street frontage at Leicester Square Station and you’ll notice wickets and a pair of cricket bats – J Wisden took the offices above the station. Knightsbridge – now sadly demolished – carried Art Noveau floral mountings across its whole frontage.

The Palladian Window at Chalk Farm (on the corner of the building)

The Wisden tiling at Leicester Square, courtesy ianoak

Art Noveau in all its glory at Knightsbridge

Internally, Green’s design was equally distinctive. At ticket hall level, a mixture of ornate tile and wood prevailed. The floors were generally tiled in a mosaic pattern, whilst the walls would be half-clad with green tiling topped off with a highly decorated tile layer (portraying either Acanthus leaves or Pomegranate). Fixtures and fittings – including the lifts – would be finished in carved wood and ticket hall windows generally carried highly decorative tile mouldings. Overall Green wished to convey a sense of heavy craftsmanship and care with occasional brass finishings (and the ever present clocks) adding a sense of style.

Gloucester Road in the twenties

Chalk Farm with Green’s tiling

Holloway Road today – Green’s colourings are still striking. Courtesy of jovike

Beneath the surface, it is unclear just how much influence Green ended up having in the design. He certainly wasn’t contracted to design the subsurface layouts, and the distinctive tile patterns to be found on the platform of Green stations are mildly reminiscent of New York suggesting Yerkes may well have been involved. Upon termination of his contract in 1907, however, Green would receive an additional payment of £750 in recognition of services delivered in relation to “underground tiling.” Similarly, in his application for Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects during the same year, Green would describe his work on the Underground as follows:

Early in 1903 I was appointed Architect to the Underground Electric Railway Company of London Limited, which was formed for the construction of the Baker Street & Waterloo, the Great Northern Piccadilly & Brompton, and the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Tube Railways. Since that time I have designed and completed the erection of more than 50 Tube Station Buildings, besides designing and carrying out the decorative works to station tunnels, platforms and passages

Wherever the boundaries of his influence lie, therefore, it is clear that he played some role in the design of his stations beneath the surface as well as above. Indeed although all have their own unique touches (often attributable to whichever tiling firm actually carried out the work), it is just as easy to spot a Green station from the window of a tube train as it is from the street. Each carried stretches of cream tiling broken up by bands of colour. The name of the station would be fired directly into the wall tiles and further bands of colour would bracket signage. Geometric patterns of coloured tiles also abound.

Tiling at Holloway Road, courtesy Ross Bowman

Original tiling at Arsenal still bearing the station’s original name, courtesy Abandoned Stations

The Work Overwhelms

Despite the success of his design and approach to construction, the hectic and heavy workload inevitably began to take its toll on Green. Although assisted by individual architects for each station, and no doubt taking a hands-off approach wherever possible, each site carried its own unique problems that needed to be overcome – whether it was a slope, the need to split the frontage around existing buildings (as at Aldwych) or the need to effectively rebuild an already half built station from scratch (as at Oxford Circus). By 1905 his health was beginning to suffer as he pushed forward to deliver the stations at the speed required and by 1907, it became clear that his health had deteriorated so much that he simply couldn’t continue any longer. In June, George Gibb – UERL’s MD (Yerkes had himself died in 1905) – informed Green that his contract would be terminated at the end of that year (although he would be retained as a Consultant Architect). In the same month, Green placed his assistant Stanley Heaps in charge of the station work and departed for France in an effort to rebuild his shattered health. A short spell in a sanatorium on the Norfolk coast served as a final effort to subvert the inevitable but it was too late. Green died – reportedly from tuberculosis – on the 31st August 1908.

An Enduring Legacy

In four short years, Green had left a mark on the Underground that few will ever rival. His distinctive red buildings and serious interiors – whether they are loved or not – are simply iconic. Sadly, however, whilst many of Green’s stations still survive, time has not been kind to most and few retain extensive original features (or at least original features in their original settings).

Green’s stations were produced before the birth of the escalator. Holloway Road was fitted with a wonderfully enigmatic double-helix “moving walkway” but it never opened to the public and the first true escalators were installed at Earl’s Court in 1911. This meant that, as lifts failed both mechanically and in terms of capacity, many of Green’s stations had to be extensively refitted inside, sometimes receiving a complete facelift in the process (Archway was redesigned by Holden in this way). In some extreme cases (such as at Knightsbridge) they were moved completely. Other Green stations such as York Road, Down Street, Brompton Road and Aldwych were closed down entirely. Today often only their still-distinctive design betrays the fact that they existed at all. Finally, from 1986 to 1989 the UTS project – which brought the automated ticket system to the Underground – meant that over 240 stations had to be refitted and rearranged in some way. This obviously included all the surviving Green stations, and many original fittings and layouts were inevitably lost.

In recent years, conservation efforts have been more kind to Green’s stations. Mornington Crescent received an extensive and very sympathetic restoration in the nineties, and at platform level the distinctive Green tiling has either been preserved or sympathetically restored. The entirely voluntary work undertaken by Douglas Rose with regards to charting and detailing the tiling of the Underground is both staggering in its complexity and in what it has achieved – preserving and uncovering tiling long thought lost for posterity both on the page and in reality.

The restored Mornington Crescent

Sadly, however, chances to see Green’s work truly as he left it are now few and far between. Holloway Road perhaps remains as the best chance to do so – a small remnant of a remarkable design achievement located in the busy heart of North London.

Holloway Road Today, courtesy Panoramio

Despite this, Green’s legacy remains immense. It is perhaps a greater testament that his stations remain so distinctive to this day despite all their changes than it would be had they simply been preserved “as was.” It may, arguably, have cost him his life, but Green’s visual legacy cannot be understated both for the Underground and for London as a whole.

A Fitting Footnote

Indeed perhaps the strangest testament to his work lies not in reality but in fiction. In 1985, when a tube station was required in the iconic London soap opera EastEnders, the fictional station of “Walford East” was created to serve the purpose.

Obviously Walford East needed to be a station that looked exactly how people pictured an Underground station in their minds and, whether consciously or not, the set designers produced a station that is unmistakeably one of Green’s.

Walford East Station, as featured in Eastenders

Of course Walford East is apparently on the District Line, and thus whilst it would certainly have been one of Yerkes’ stations in real life it would actually have been designed by Ford not Green. I suspect though that Ford wouldn’t have begrudged Green this strange – if somehow fitting – memorial.

This article first appeared on London Reconnections, a site dedicated to news and long-form writing about London Transport


Last Champions of the Third Reich

War-time football is a subject that often gets explored within a British context – whether its the story of players like Walter Tull who fought in World War 1 or the arguments over the league should continue during World War Two. Up on SB Nation though is something rarer – a look at things from the German perspective. More particularly, the story of Dresden FC, and how in 1944 they became the last war-time champions in Germany.

Helmut Schön could feel it in the summer air. All of Germany could. As the 28-year-old soccer star donned the red shirt and black shorts of the Dresden Sporting Club he had played for since he was 17 years old, pincers continued to close around his country.

Germany was on the defensive in the second Great War. The final defeat inched nearer. Two weeks earlier, the 156,000 Allied troops on nearly 5,000 amphibious vehicles had landed in Normandy, France and began fighting their way east through occupied Europe. While Schön laced up his leather boots in the bowels of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on the afternoon of Sunday June 18, 1944, thousands of predominantly American, British, and Canadian men forced German warriors from strongholds across France.

You can read the full, fascinating, story here

Books, Design & Tech, E-books, New Books

The Gaming Diaries of Jordan Mechner

Jordan Mechner is perhaps the epitome of that special generation of videogame designers that existed in the eighties at the dawn of the gaming age. Often young and working alone, they created many of the games that first hooked older games such as myself and turned us into gaming addicts for life. If they were lucky, these game designers made a fortune thanks to their work, but more often they found themselves falling victim to unscrupulous publishers who robbed them of both royalties and – all too often – the rights to the very games they created.

Prince of Persia, created by Mechner in 1989 for the Apple II and eventually ported to over 23 platforms, remains one of the greatest games ever produced. Mechner’s original game alone sold over two million copies and so much of a piece of gaming history has it become that when Mechner open-sourced the original source code in 2012 it was widely recognised as one of the most important acts so far in the quest to make sure the history of computer gaming is properly recorded.

That release, though, was not the first thing that Mechner has done to help provide an insight into that era of gaming. For he has also made his diaries, which he kept through-out his time developing Prince of Persia available to buy as an ebook. He has also done the same for Karateka, the game he made before Persia which first brought him to the attention of the gaming world.

Both books make for genuinely fascinating reads and are heartily recommended. You can buy both of them here.

Reviews, TV & Film

Vikings: Robin of Sherwood for the Internet Age

For cable and satellite television, exclusive programming has long been considered a mark of legitimacy. This was something that Sky realised early on, and whilst their erstwhile rival Super Channel concentrated on acquiring repeat rights for series like Doctor Who and Blake Seven, Sky ensured that their early fare included some exclusive international acquisitions. It is a belief that continues to this day, with Freeview comedy staple Dave picking up the rights to produce new episodes of both Red Dwarf and Yes Prime Minister in recent years.

It is therefore perhaps no surprise that, as the various legitimate streaming services for both film and TV online have come of age, they too have begun to recognise the value that exclusive broadcasting rights can bring. For Netflix it was House of Cards. For Crunchyroll it was Space Brothers. Now, for LoveFilm, it is Vikings.

Perhaps it is best to begin this review by first establishing what Vikings is not. Although originally produced by History in the US (representing – yes, you guessed it – the channel’s first foray into self-produced drama), Vikings is most definitely not historically accurate.

Although it pulls heavily on the general mythos, and indeed literature, of Norse history it has no qualms about throwing accuracy into the wind for the sake of the plot. Horned helmets are mercifully absent, and the writers clearly have a copy of Ibn Fadlan’s travel writings floating around the office (or at least 13th Warrior on DVD). The Norse Historians amongst you – of which we have no doubt there are many – will also spot that the series features an entire episode based on Adam of Bremen’s description of human sacrifice at Uppsala. Yet for all this, there are plenty of elements that raise eyebrows. The series begins with the premise that, ahead of the Lindisfarne raid, the Vikings were largely unaware of the existence of Britain to the west. Its use of a sunstone for navigation, portrayal of Viking law and government and the presence of shamanism are also elements that are there largely for the benefit of the narrative.

Make no mistake, Vikings is only slightly more loyal to its historical setting than The Tudors or Rome. The history of mediaeval northern Europe provides a framework in which the series’ drama can be played out, rather than a rigid rulebook which must be obeyed, but once Vikings is accepted on those terms, it has to be said that it is actually rather good.

Comprising nine forty-five minute episodes in total, the series follows the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok from farmer and frustrated raider (Ragnar wishes to sail west to raid the “mythical” land of Britain, his more risk-averse Earl prefers to go east) to earldom. Woven around this are the stories of Rollo, Ragnar’s brother, and Lagertha, Ragnar’s wife and a Viking warrior in her own right.

Of the various interlocking plots, Ragnar’s tale is inherently the most complex. The series manages to convey his journey from charismatic leader of a small band of men, to an Earl who is perhaps slightly out of his depth on the larger stage, with a surprising amount of heft. This is certainly helped by Travis Fimmel, who puts in one of the show’s standout performances as Ragnar. Fimmel manages to take a character that in the wrong hands could have been decidedly one-dimensional and inject just enough insecurity to make Ragnar realistic.

By contrast Clive Standen’s turn as Rollo is less assured. Loyal to his brother, but desperate for fame and glory in his own right (and in love with Ragnar’s wife) Rollo’s story is one that, on paper at least, should make for solid viewing. It never quite seems to really gather pace, however, with Standen’s shifts between loyal brother and jealous rival sometimes feeling a bit too arbitrary. There is promise there though, and by the series’ end it is clear that the writers have greater things in mind for the character. The fact that he shares a name with the first Viking Duke of Normandy is almost certainly not a coincidence, and so we must hope for greater things to come from both character and actor.

Completing the three ostensible leads,  Katheryn Winnick puts in a solid performance as Ragnar’s wife (and Rollo’s obsession), Lagertha. Like Fimmel, Winnick manages to raise her character above the “warrior by day, wife by night” role that it could easily have become in less able hands. In this she is clearly aided by the writing – if Ragnar’s journey is one from confident warrior to unsure leader, then Lagertha’s is the exact opposite:-  a contrast that is clearly deliberate and which alone should make the second series, now officially greenlit by History, interesting viewing.

Vikings, of course, is ultimately an ensemble piece, and whilst it may fall to Fimmel, Standen and Winnick to carry the weight of the plot, they are ably supported in this by fine casting elsewhere. Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Ragnar’s rival, Earl Haraldson, is as solid as one might expect, although he is arguably outshone by Jessalyn Sarah Gilsig (of Glee fame) as his wife. As with Winnick, and once again aided by the writing, Gilsig manages to take her character well beyond what in other hands could have become more of a background role.

If there is a real star-turn in Vikings, however, then it comes from Gustaf Skarsgård, another son of award-winning actor Stellan.  He is his own man though, once again proving that Scandinavia is a real hotbed of TV acting talent.  Skarsgård’s performance as Floki – slightly unhinged shipbuilder, cold warrior and friend to Ragnar – is excellent. Skarsgård manages somehow to imbue Floki with a combination of intensity and wry amusement that positively leaps out of the screen. In his hands Floki becomes the epitome of someone who is dangerous to know, but at the same time the most loyal friend a man could ever have.

Visually speaking, Vikings largely hits its mark as well. The series’ visual marker is clearly Game of Thrones, something it’s not always too subtle about hiding – be prepared for extensive shots of slightly ominous black birds, for example. A lot of thought has clearly been given, however, to working out how to capture that feel with a smaller budget. The decision to shoot in Ireland was an excellent one, as it allows the location and sets to carry more of the visual weight than special effects. The camera work is similarly clever, helping, on occasion, to make the world of Vikings feel more heavily occupied than it actually is. Indeed so accomplished is the series at this that it comes as quite a jolt when it occasionally falls short – noticeably a battle between Ragnar’s men and a Northumbrian army that looks like it would struggle to fill out the away end at a non-League football game, let alone defend one of mediaeval Britain’s most powerful kingdoms.

Ultimately, when taken as a complete package, Vikings is well worth watching. As History’s – and indeed LoveFilm’s – first real foray into exclusive drama it is incredibly impressive, and by the end of the series it is impossible not to be pleased that it has been given a second series in which to develop further.   It is a series that is consistently good, with occasional flashes of greatness. Indeed perhaps what is most enjoyable of all is that the reasons for those moments of greatness are surprisingly diverse – sometimes it will be a plot turn, sometimes a moment of action. Sometimes it will just be because Vikings manages not to fall into the clichés and tropes that we have seen so often before. For most series an episode focused on human sacrifice would be a groan-worthy experience, yet Vikings manages to make it one of the most interesting and well-shot episodes in its run.

Much of the press that has surrounded Vikings so far has focused on trying to cast it in the Game of Thrones mould, an activity that arguably LoveFilm’s own press releases have not done much to discourage. There are similarities, certainly, but anyone watching it with that expectation is likely to be slightly disappointed – and that would be a shame as there is both quality, and potential, to be found here in equal measure.

Instead a better analogy, for CTVT readers with long memories at least, would perhaps be that old classic Robin of Sherwood. Vikings has the same mix of history and occasional mysticism, the same tension between the dreams of the writers and the budgets they are working with, and the same understanding that the acting talent should not just be confined to your leads.

Log on to LoveFilm with the above in mind, and you will not fail to be charmed.