What is it about queens and roads?

Millicent Bell, in her notes to the Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, tells us that Bayswater station, on the Circle Line of the London Underground, and Queensway station on the Central Line, were both formerly called Queen’s Road. (Both stations stand in what is today Queensway.) According to Douglas Rose’s The London Underground: a Diagrammatic History Bayswater was opened by the Metropolitan Railway as Bayswater in 1868, renamed Bayswater (Queen’s Road) and Westbourne Grove in 1922 – after Henry James’s time – and reverted to plain Bayswater in 1933. Queensway station was indeed opened as Queen’s Road in 1900 and renamed in 1946. It is a name which seems to have caused trouble for railway authorities.

When British Rail were eradicating the last of the totem station signs (a subject I have discussed before) one of the stations to get this attention was Queen’s Road Battersea. According to Dave Brennand’s exhaustive documentation of British Railways Totem Station Signs (1991) the three words of the station name were arranged in two lines in the central section of the totem, and as was customary in capitals. About 1980 the totems were replaced by black on white Gill Sans upper and lower case saying simply Queen’s Road – no Battersea. Within months these signs were themselves replaced by new ones saying Queenstown Road, with Battersea in much smaller letters underneath.

Now Queenstown Road had long been the name of the road: it was shown as such in my parents’ Atlas of Greater London, which was published before 1960 since it did not show our road which was built in that year. So was the road ever just Queen’s Road? It had in any case been Queenstown Road long enough that British Rail should either have changed the name of the station when the totems were replaced or should boldly have kept the discrepancy: there can be no excuse for the waste of two changes of sign within a few months.

The current signs, put up by South West Trains, say only Queenstown Road – once again Battersea is omitted. This does mean that the station cannot be confused with the nearby Battersea Park station, but it would be helpful to know which district it serves. (It would anyway be difficult to confuse one station with Battersea last and one with Battersea first.) And today the booking hall at Queenstown Road is got up in a reproduction of the green and cream of the former Southern Railway, from which those who remember can catch a faint ironic mockery of the relentless replacement of totems over three decades ago.

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.