Turning the green one white

The railway between Wimbledon and Sutton in south London was built cheaply by the Southern Railway in 1929-30 after a long dispute with the Underground about the possibility of building the line jointly. All the stations were built to the same simple design, consisting of a single island platform with the way to and from the street at one end, where there was also a tiny booking office of the type known as a passimeter, which doubled as a ticket barrier. Arriving at one of these stations, South Merton, in the early 1980s, I saw an angry screed pencilled on one of the panels of the passimeter.

“Queens Road Battersea and Brentford Central have fallen”, it began, “Which will be the next to fall? North Sheen? Norbiton? SOUTH MERTON?” The writer claimed to represent the Society for the Preservation of Green Signs, and by “fallen” meant that the stations named had had their green enamelled Southern Railway “target” or British Railways Southern Region “totem” signs replaced by the black-on-white Gill sans ones then used throughout British Rail, which had no distinguishing regional colours.*  “Keep ’em green”, the writer urged, “Down with stultifying utilitarianism.”

When I first knew the Wimbledon and Sutton it had an intense “Southern” feel to it, and undoubtedly the totems, which I think then still survived at every station, added to the effect. The survival of totems in odd patches was pleasing, as any relic of past times is. The pace of change in a townscape surely should be slow, so that at any time the scene straddles several ages and is something like a natural growth. British Rail arguably should have let totems decline gracefully rather than made a concerted effort to replace them, as they seemed to be doing then. Even before I read this graffito South Merton had “fallen”.

But even if change had been slower, the old scene could not have lasted for ever. Our anonymous writer was, however, an implacable diehard. Below the broadside on green signs was the afterthought: “Also, no 508s – keep 4-SUBs running”. This was a reference to the sliding-door electric trains then starting to appear on the Southern region to replace the old slam-door ones of the 1940s and early 1950s. You could not have done that: mechanical parts and interior fittings wear out, standards of comfort increase. (It was the 4-SUBs which gave rise to the stale jokes about cattle trucks.) That writer’s howl has faded away to silence. Today the passimeter itself has long since been pulled down, and old totems fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

*Apart from Southern green these were Western brown, London Midland maroon, Eastern dark blue, North Eastern orange and Scottish light blue.

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