Brompton Road and the power of little old ladies

Brompton Road station, between South Kensington and Knightsbridge, had an imposing enough frontage to busy Brompton Road but the problem was that nobody actually wanted to use the station. Business premises were thin at that spot and the flanking stations quite close and more convenient. Bereft of passengers, it closed in 1934 as part of a scheme of eliminating little used Piccadilly Line stations to speed up traffic. The lifts were soon removed and the derelict building became available for other purposes, including providing a mid-tunnel ventilation plant. In fact the commodious street level building was soon leased to the National Omnibus Company for purposes unspecified; they had an independent entrance from a doorway in Cottage Place.

After discussions with HM Office of Works an agreement was signed with the London Passenger Transport Board on 30 June 1938 for their occupation of the lower levels. Everyone suspected the outbreak of war was possible and it seemed sensible for the nation’s treasures to be put somewhere safe if the worst was to happen. Brompton Road was very close to the V&A Museum and it was they who wanted to squirrel some valuables away in the disused low level passageways, as the station was considered deep enough to provide protection. The only conditions were that whatever it was that needed storage would have to be non-flammable and approved by the Board and the Fire Brigade. Items for storage were required to be loaded at South Kensington station (where the lifts served street and platform levels) and conveyed to Brompton Road by ‘goods train’. The agreement also allowed storage at Green Park station in the old Dover Street subways, the items having to be moved via the station. The agreement contemplated usage only ‘during an emergency’ and I cannot say for sure whether anything was actually stored at Brompton Road, though it seems unlikely, as we shall see.

No doubt all this would have worked out fine had not simultaneously the RAF’s Fighter Command been looking for somewhere to park what they called a ‘gun operations room’. This was a location where the positions of enemy and friendly aircraft could be monitored and coordinated with the various anti-aircraft gun-sites that were planned for the south east if war broke out. This was different to the rooms that co-ordinated the fighter response but clearly co-ordination with anti-aircraft fire was necessary to maximize impact on the enemy and minimize the risk of one’s own aircrafts being shot down. Apart from anything else, aircraft operations rooms were manned by RAF staff, but guns fell to the Army’s anti-aircraft battalions. Exactly why they happened upon the idea of disused Underground stations we do not know, beyond the obvious thought that being Underground they were presumably thought to be safe.

At a meeting in May 1938, the Board presented the War Office (represented largely by high ranking army officers with an interest in anti-aircraft matters) with a list of eight deep level stations either wholly or partly disused; perhaps oddly King William Street was omitted, perhaps because it was too close to the River. Most of these for one reason or another were unsuitable, but Brompton Road seemed the better location if matters proceeded quickly, as the London County Council wanted to buy the building (they had a scheme to widen Brompton Road). The low level passageways were over 70ft deep and offered good protection, but the ‘gold braid’ was actually taken by the opportunity to use the base of a lift shaft, which was exactly what they were looking for as a control room. This would need capping off and other protection which the Board would carry out.

The proposals began life as mere occupation by the military, followed later by the thought that a leasehold would be satisfactory. Then the War Office decided it really wanted the freehold. The Board was unhappy about this, but to cut a long and involved story short the Board agreed to selling the freehold of the upper station, two of the shafts and part of the third, and the western low level passage to a point under the building line where the passage was just about to meet the Piccadilly Line eastbound tunnel. The remaining part of the north liftshaft, the eastern subway tunnel, and certain arrangements in the superstructure, were retained by the Board to offer a tunnel ventilation facility. It was agreed that if the Board no longer needed its retained parts it would give first refusal to the War Office. Lack of ownership of the eastern tunnel did not discourage its use by the War Office for putting certain ducts in place, and the Board was quite cross when it found out and insisted a nominal wayleave was entered into. Legally, the Board agreed to sell the station and subsoil beneath down to 25ft and the arrangements for the low level passages are not very clear from the documentation seen. The purchase price was a modest £24,000; one can imagine London Underground being a bit miffed today for not being able to realize a value that must surely be worth a couple of million!

Now, you cannot run an efficient anti-aircraft gun room if every time an enemy aircraft is spotted the staff have to shuffle around lots of delicate and irreplaceable national treasures. Nor was the RAF disposed to share the upper premises with a bus company, the latter agreeing in October 1938 to surrender their lease. The sale documentation indicates the War Office had to take over the Office of Works agreement (the latter were very annoyed indeed to discover they had been outmanoeuvred) though we can be fairly certain that within government circles the agreement became void. The purchase correspondence dragged on in a desultory way for over two years, until, in fact, long after the gun room began operations.

While all this was going on the War Office was seeking accommodation for the 1st Anti-Aircraft Division (Signals), Territorial Army, then based in Regency Street. It was felt they would be more productive, even in peacetime, if located somewhere near a gun room, and it was thought that with modest expansion the Brompton Road site was best. About 4000 square feet was required. The old station was not anything like large enough for this, so the War Office wanted to buy the three adjacent cottages, Nos 3, 5 and 6, in the aptly named Cottage Place (the station also had part of its external façade in Cottage Place, but with no actual access). The purchased buildings (and adaptation of station) was expected to cost £11,000, which was agreed in November 1938. There was some debate about the price to be paid for the cottages, but the officials observed that since the Czech crisis London properties ‘were now two a penny’! However, when negotiations started it emerged one of the freeholders was demanding an ‘outrageous’ price and it was felt the better option was to seek compulsory powers. Documentation for the compulsory purchase warrant was prepared but the officials then discovered that the tenants of the difficult freeholder were in fact three little old ladies who would need to be evicted. OK, this was now February 1939 and there was a war on, but war or not no official public servant want to be caught evicting old ladies. In the circumstances it seems to have been agreed to find an extra £4000. Presumably this is what was done as the cottages concerned have been replaced by an austere and anonymous 1930s/1950s looking building, presumably linked to the upper parts of the old station. The 1934 street directory only lists tenants at numbers 3 and 5, both married women and possibly widowed.

By way of a post-script, the Gun Room occupation at some point spread to the platforms to provide more space, probably dormitory space, at which point the trains were separated from the War Office parts by a wall. After the War the Gun Room area and platforms was occupied by the TA people adjacent, as had been planned, but they seem to have retreated from the platform areas, still in LT ownership, by the late 1950s and some time after that seem to have abandoned the lower parts altogether. The road widening eventually happened and cut away the old station entrance and exit, the familiar oxblood red frontage being replaced by a blind wall set farther back. The only means of access was now in Cottage Place. 

I wonder where the old ladies went, and whether they ever knew that without lifting a finger they had cheated the civil servants?

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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