Have a look at these two images.
I suppose there must be plenty of people unable to sleep at night worrying about why the station name differs from the street sign and wondering which (if either) is correct. Well, maybe not. Actually I’m not sure anyone has even noticed. I thought it might be of some slight interest to set out what I know about this.
The east-west main road through Kensington, which dates back to Roman times and perhaps longer, was long known as Kensington Road, with the church more or less in the middle, at the corner of Church Street. However, a 400 (or so) yard length of the road centred on the church was simply known as the high street, and formally noted as ‘High Street’ by the Ordnance Survey whose interest in such things tended to fossilize naming.
The centre of activity of many communities were known as High Streets, though whether this was ever a conscious process is doubtful; much more likely it is just what people called the main area of trading. When the Metropolitan and District Railways launched their assault upon the good people of Kensington a station was to be built where the line crossed beneath this road, the station opening in 1868. The station was located at the extreme west end of the High Street portion, almost (but not quite) at the point where it resumed its course as Kensington Road.
What to call this station? Though at the centre of the community, the name ‘Kensington’ would not do: there were to be several of the companies’ stations in the parish and there was, in any case, already a station called Kensington – today’s Kensington (Olympia). Road names were a frequent source of suitable station names, but this road name was simply ‘High Street’. ‘Kensington Road’ (close by) would be ambiguous as there were two unconnected sections of it.
Having noted that there were lots of High Streets in London, perhaps dozens, it will be apparent that the opportunity for confusion was immense. Contextually ‘High Street’ would always mean the local one and if another was meant then it was necessary to state which parish was being discussed, thus High Street, Hampstead referred to in an earlier blog (noting that ‘Hampstead’ was added as a finding aid and did not appear on the name signs). This was also the mechanism used by the General Post Office (GPO) and other London-wide bodies which had to distinguish between one High Street and another. So this is what the Metropolitan and District did at their joint station. It was officially High Street (Kensington), though the latter might or might not be in brackets, or follow a comma, or where brevity was important (train destination boards and train indicators, for example) the ‘Kensington’ would be entirely omitted. This must have been very puzzling for tourists, perhaps noting that there was only one High Street on the Underground which rather implied it might have been High Street London.
In the years after electrification the railways, and London Transport, stabilized the name for publicity purposes and settled on High Street Kensington, and such it remains today, but more anon.
So how is it we see a street nameboard with something else on it? The answer comes back to the unsettlingly large number of High Streets there were in London, and many other examples where names were duplicated all the time. This was an awkward problem for the GPO, particularly when there was for many years after the penny post began no standardized way of addressing letters beyond an expectation that those posting them should at least indicate which road and general area was intended. The historian Charles Lee once explained to me his (to me) idiosyncratic form of postal address – he lived in Dukes Road (near Euston) and invariably added the words ‘Tavistock Square’, over 200 yards away. He pointed out that, historically, because of the name duplication and the fact some roads were so little known, it would be hard for sorters to identify them; senders were therefore encouraged to include the nearest well-known location in the address so letters had a fighting chance of being sent to the correct delivery office. London squares fitted the bill nicely and were frequently quoted as the location of a person or institution who in reality might reside up to quarter of a mile away. The GPO, aided and abetted by the Metropolitan Board of Works and London County Council, embarked on a merciless campaign to reduce the potential for confusion. This process included the introduction of ten (later reduced to eight) postal districts in 1857-8 and then extensive street renaming within the postal districts to reduce street name duplication, later extended to reduce duplication throughout London. The process is not quite complete, but London street names are today very little duplicated. The scale of this, by the way, was immense.
This brings us back to Kensington. Because there were so many ‘High Streets’ and it was inappropriate to lose the historical significance of these roads, the formula was adopted of adding the area name as a prefix, the whole becoming the new name. Thus the High Street in Kensington was renamed Kensington High Street in 1878 (and, as in my earlier blog, we have seen the High Street in Hampstead was to become Hampstead High Street). In Kensington’s case, parts of Kensington Road were later renamed so as to become part of the much-extended Kensington High Street we know today.
One might wonder if the Metropolitan and District Railways, or London Transport, ever considered whether they should rename the station to conform with the road, presumably after 140 years or so, the road’s name change has been spotted. There are precedents for this. Queens Road station was renamed Queensway in 1946, for example, following the road name being changed in 1938. Perhaps the war delayed things.
There again, there are other, very odd, examples of historical stubbornness. Latimer Road is perhaps the obvious example. The station was once entered from Latimer Road, but later (1884) altered to be entered from Bramley Road, but nobody appears to have felt it necessary to change the station name. After the awful and divisive Westway was driven through the area, Latimer Road became divided, the northern part retaining the name whilst the southern section (near the station) became Freston Road. This means that the entrance to Latimer Road station is now about half a mile by indirect road from the nearest part of this now-unremarkable street. There are better names that beckon (I like Notting Dale), but the present one is positively misleading. Chancery Lane is another station where a pre-war entrance move has made the present name rather curious. The original entrance was nearly opposite that road but the nearest relocated entrance is now about 180 yards away. Perhaps the disused suffix ‘Grays Inn’ would be more appropriate? Of course, Chancery Lane station is (more or less) situated in that brief length of road called ‘Holborn’, whilst the station called ‘Holborn’ is located in the section of road called High Holborn (nearly 700 yards from Holborn). This may be found to be misleading, and again the little used suffix ‘Kingsway’ may be more deserving.
Not misleading so much as a source of slight curiosity is that station called Bond Street. Built by the Central London Railway the building was located in Oxford Street just west of Davies Street which (being an important connecting road) had always been intended as the station name. When the station opened in 1900, though, it was called Bond Street. There is no street called Bond Street, and hasn’t been for getting on for 300 years, but I happily acknowledge that when Bond Street is stated it usually means the whole of the adjacent high-class shopping district and presumably the Central London was keen to be associated with that. It might be added here that the new Crossrail station entrance at Hanover Square will be much closer to New Bond Street than the existing one.
Other apparent oddities include dear old Lancaster Gate, whose attractive surface station exterior was destroyed in the 1960s in order to incorporate the site into part of a hotel. This station, in Bayswater Road, is nearly opposite the north end of the Serpentine, fed by the ancient River Westbourne, in consequence of which the station was to have been called Westbourne. It opened in 1900 as Lancaster Gate, although the nearest park gate (46yds) is Marlborough Gate (almost opposite) whilst only slightly further away to the east is Westbourne Gate (100yds). Lancaster Gate itself is some way to the west at 375 yds. Again it seem the Central London Railway was induced to select a new name by associating itself with a nearby estate. A small square surrounding Christ Church had been called Lancaster Gate but in 1865 the nearby streets called Upper Hyde Park Gardens and Lancaster Terrace were also recast as Lancaster Gate creating a large, posh estate of that name. This may not be apparent to those using the station to reach the park.
I suppose that the case could be made for the station name becoming by default the name of an area. Rayners Lane is an example of a station being named after a junction, itself named after a barely-relevant country track. When the housing arrived, for want of anything else after which to call the area, the whole lot became known Rayners Lane and it now appears on local street signs as one approaches the area (the railway floated Harrow Garden Suburb but the public did not take to that). There are many similar examples, not all involving street names. The attraction of using streets as names was applied when Walham Green (an area name of Long standing) was dropped by London Transport who renamed the station after the street outside, Fulham Broadway, in 1952. This has the merit of including the name Fulham, which I suppose was felt better known than Walham Green and will now remain so. The short stretch of Fulham Road almost outside the station had at some date prior to 1916 that I have not established with certainty become known as The Broadway, Walham Green and this, in turn, was formally renamed Fulham Broadway in 1936, the Underground feeling obliged to respond.
The opposite was done for Trinity Road on the Northern Line in 1950 when Tooting Bec replaced it. Trinity Road was apparently felt rather obscure and the manorial name Tooting Bec was revived (this was actually part of Streatham) though Upper Tooting would have been geographically as correct. It is hard to see why this renaming was felt urgent given other pressing examples.
So there we are – you can relax as the mystery of High Street Kensington is revealed and at the same time you are fully armed for the next pub quiz where questions like this often turn up. By the way, with pub quizzes in mind, until 2009 which Kensington station appeared in the Underground diagram index twice?