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A Night On Liverpool St Station

May 3, 2016
by the gentle author

When I was callow and new to London, I once arrived back on a train into Liverpool St Station after the last tube had gone and spent the night there waiting for the first tube next morning. With little money and unaware of the existence of night buses, I passed the long hours possessed by alternating fears of being abducted by a stranger or being arrested by the police for loitering. Liverpool St was quite a different place then, dark and sooty and diabolical – before it was rebuilt in 1990 to become the expansive glasshouse that we all know today – and I had such an intensely terrifying and exciting night then that I can remember it fondly now.

Old Liverpool St Station was both a labyrinth and the beast in the labyrinth too. There were so many tunnels twisting and turning that you felt you were entering the entrails of a monster and when you emerged onto the concourse it was as if you had arrived, like Jonah or Pinocchio, at the enormous ribbed belly.

I was travelling back from spending Saturday night in Cromer and stopped off at Norwich to explore, visiting the castle and studying its collection of watercolours by John Sell Cotman. It was only on the slow stopping-train between Norwich and London on Sunday evening that I realised my mistake and sat anxiously checking my wristwatch at each station, hoping that I would make it back in time. When the train pulled in to Liverpool St, I ran down the platform to the tube entrance only to discover the gates shut, closed early on Sunday night.

I was dressed for summer, and although it had been warm that day, the night was cold and I was ill-equipped for it. If there was a waiting room, in my shameful fear I was too intimidated to enter. Instead, I sat shivering on a bench in my thin white clothes clutching my bag, wide-eyed and timid as a mouse – alone in the centre of the empty dark station and with a wide berth of vacant space around me, so that I could, at least, see any potential threat approaching.

Dividing the station in two were huge ramps where postal lorries rattled up and down all night at great speed, driving right onto the platforms to deliver sacks of mail to the awaiting trains. In spite of the overarching vaulted roof, there was no sense of a single space as there is today, but rather a chaotic railway station criss-crossed by footbridges, extending beyond the corner of visibility with black arches receding indefinitely in the manner of Piranesi.

The night passed without any threat, although when the dawn came I felt as relieved as if I had experienced a spiritual ordeal, comparable to a night in a haunted house in the scary films that I loved so much at that time. It was my own vulnerability as an out-of-towner versus the terror of the unknowable Babylonian city, yet – if I had known then what I knew now – I could simply have walked down to the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market and passed the night in one of the cafes there, safe in the nocturnal cocoon of market life.

Guilty, and eager to preserve the secret of my foolish vigil, I took the first tube to the office in West London where I worked then and changed my clothes in a toilet cubicle, arriving at my desk hours before anyone else.

Only the vaulted roof and the Great Eastern Hotel were kept in the dramatic transformation that created the modern station, sandwiched between new developments, and the dark cathedral where I spent the night is gone. Yet a magnetism constantly draws me back to Liverpool St, not simply to walk through, but to spend time wondering at the epic drama of life in this vast terminus where a flooding current of humanity courses through twice a day – one of the great spectacles of our extraordinary metropolis.

Shortly after my night on the station experience, I got a job at the Bishopsgate Institute  - and Liverpool St and Spitalfields became familiar, accessed through the tunnels that extended beyond the station under the road, delivering me directly to my workplace. I noticed the other day that the entrance to the tunnel remains on the Spitalfields side of Bishopsgate, though bricked up now. And I wondered sentimentally, almost longingly, if I could get into it, could I emerge into the old Liverpool St Station, and visit the haunted memory of my own past?

A brick relief of a steam train upon the rear of the Great Eastern Hotel.

Liverpool St Station is built on the site of the Bethlehem Hospital, commonly known as “Bedlam.”

Archive images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

26 Responses leave one →
  1. Ian. permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Liverpool Street Station is my entrance to London and I have watched its transformation over the decades. I feel fortunate enough to have been a frequent visitor as a child and teenager, meaning I can remember the dark and mysterious place of old. There were no longer steam engines, but the traces of them were everywhere. The Victorian age lingered in the small kiosks, the tiled and wooden-cubicled lavatories, the dark recesses of the blackened ceilings.

    Liverpool Street today is a triumph of modernity; bright and accessible for everyone and it retains much of what went before, but what it does not retain is the feeling of mystery that its ageing and worn corners once had, which I miss.

  2. May 3, 2016

    Bedlam is a good description of Liverpool Street Station at rush hour! Valerie

  3. May 3, 2016

    Big scary London! I remember that feeling :)

    I was stranded overnight in a railway station once as a young person. Just outside Barcelona, it was busy until every single other person in the waiting room left and got on a train at about 1am. I hid in a toilet cubicle in the pitch dark with knitting needles slotted down my sleeves just in case. And horrors, someone came into the toilets and tried to break into my cubicle. I made unworldly noises (didn’t know I was going to do that) and pushed back, and whoever it was retreated.

  4. Libby permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Was it perhaps on one of these very benches that scary night was spent? So different, so peaceful, by daylight. https://www.flickr.com/photos/libbyhalldogs/16759669893

  5. Jimmy Anderson permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I have very vivid memories of being brought to London for birthday treats as a young boy in the 1970s and early 1980s and arriving into the old and sooty Liverpool Street. I recall the small black archways which one passed in the train on the approach to the station and which, for reasons unknown, carried numbers marked in chalk so that one could count down the arrival. I also recall the very strong diesel smell which permeated the “old” Liverpool Street and the occasional stop at the very internet Great Eastern Hotel where my father would have a drink and I would have a lemonade. Happy days.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Ah, the pant–&-whistle of the Westinghouse brake pumps on the suburban trains, pre-1960.
    The Quint-Art compartment suburban sets, the amazing twisty footbridge(s) linking W & E sides.
    The twin pillar-boxes (Wide & thin) plus the enormous ginger cat that regarded platforms 1-10 as it’s territory & would rub up against you if it thought you had tasty munchables …
    [ See also Betjeman & Gay's book on London's historic termini ]

  7. Nick Cottam permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I was sent away to boarding school in East Anglia at the tender age of 7 and as “train boys” we met at Liverpool Street Station. In those days – the mid 60s – the only retail experience I remember was a fruit and sweet shop above the main concourse and I think a WH Smiths. The former was particularly important for my short-trousered self as this was where I was allowed to buy sweets for the journey and for the term. Sweets at my little East Coast prep school were only dished out on Wednesday and Sunday so making the right choice and persuading the parents to buy you enough supplies at the beginning of term was essential. The WH Smith which I think was down below at platform level was a last chance to buy comics – Beano, Beezer, Buster, Dandy et al – which could be read on the journey but were not allowed at school. As The Gentle Author notes Liverpool Street Station in those days was a huge black brick edifice of dirt and noise and bustle. It was a rather foreboding terminus and for one little boy it heralded another rather foreboding term.

  8. Annie G permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I remember this station well from the late 70s. At the time, I would get the bus to St Leonards Hospital from the stop just outside the station, having taken the tube to Liverpool Street. There used to be a little door, high in the walls of the station, that led you into what looked like a strange, black inferno of noise and confusing walkways. I was always fascinated by the station itself but never stopped to explore as I was hurrying to get my bus. If I had known that I was witnessing the last days of Victorian Bishopsgate, I would have skived off work and gazed in wonder.

  9. Monica permalink
    May 3, 2016

    This brought back memories of my own night spent at Liverpool St station in the early 80s. This wasn’t an innocent miscalculation – I missed the last train home because I had enjoyed a very boozy night out and fell asleep on the platform. When I woke up, I asked the attendant if I could sleep in the ladies waiting room, which was just closing, and she very kindly agreed and locked me in, ‘for my own safety’. I didn’t manage much sleep as there was a lot of shouting and constant rattlings at the door. The attendant let me out at 4.30 so that I could catch the first train home, where with the resilience of youth I had a shower, changed my clothes and caught the next train back in time for a day’s work.

  10. Malcolm permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I, too, have spent a great part of my life in and around the vast Victorian edifice of Liverpool Street station; passing through it on my way to and from work, walking around inside and out looking for images to photograph and just being within its gravitational pull. The old station (and its smaller brother Broad Street) were great relics of the steam age. The dark labyrinthine elevated walkways, stairways and the serpentine tunnels, which connected the various rail platforms, entrances and exits and tube station together, teeming with shadowy figures in coats and hats were like something dreamed up by Hieronymus Bosch. At night it seemed as if all the then much darker streets of the City led to the great yellowy-orange glow of the station, pouring great rivers of humans into some kind of demonic cauldron, like sacrifices unto the great machine. Outside the station were all manner of kiosks and vendors and in the darkness the flickering, ghostly light from the hurricane lamps they used added to the ghastly beauty of the mysterious diorama of Liverpool Street.
    The new station is clean and shiny, the magnificent cast-iron roof structure, with opulent iron girders and pillars is testament to the wonderful engineers of the Victorian age. But the atmosphere of its previous incarnation is gone. No more shadowy light in the darkening gloom of the platforms or echoing footsteps in twisting tunnels with their white glazed brick walls and eerie green fluorescent lights, no longer does the sound of slamming train doors echo up into the sooty darkness. And never again will I board a train at Broad Street station for a day trip to Richmond.

  11. Walter Blackstock permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I’m reminded of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and his descriptions of Liverpool Street Station: “…innumerable people passed in great tides, disembarking from the trains or boarding them, coming together, moving apart, and being held up at barriers and bottlenecks like water against a weir. Whenever I got out at Liverpool Street station on my way back to the East End, said Austerlitz, I would stay there at least a couple of hours …”. In your case a stay not by choice.

  12. Patricia Celeveland-Peck permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Beautifully written as always. How well you capture the image of yourself as a scared youngster – yet one who was taking it all in for the very purpose of writing about it years later…

  13. May 3, 2016

    A marvellously expressed evocation.

  14. Jill permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I love stations, and particularly Liverpool Street. The excitement as the train pulls in from rural East Anglia! I tempted to think the Cotman watercolours outweighed the long and scary night?

  15. Milo Bell permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I remember when living in Bayswater many years ago going to Euston to visit my family in the North and arriving late in the evening in order to get the first train out.
    You were allowed to doss down on the station if you could show a ticket and i settled for the night anongst a real cross section of humanity eventually getting pally with a young chap who was a salesman for ‘Glenmorangie’ whisky and had various samples in a case.
    Oh dear.
    Not sure how i got on the train the next morning – or got off at the other end but it had been a great night.
    If i ever see that product being advertised to this day i both wince and smile.

  16. David Verguson permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Back in the mid 1960s I frequently travelled through Liverpool St Station on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights – visiting jazz and folk clubs from out in the ‘suburbs’ of Romford – was well at at other times during the weekends. Having seen the station more recently I could not help but marvel at the transformation. Back in the day the ground under one’s feet was covered in a layer that probably consisted of soot etc; nowadays you could probably eat your tea off it! And the station has become a shopping experience – unthinkable not so long ago.

    However does no one long nostalgically for the ‘good old days’ . . .

  17. david whittaker permalink
    May 3, 2016

    WONDERFUL JUST WONDERFUL

  18. May 3, 2016

    I remember passing the soot-stained, grimy glasshouse that was the old Liverpool Street in the 70 and 80s. And from the mid 80s hanging about waiting for the milk train, so I could get back to Billericay….

    Should you or any of you readers get locked out by the 1 am curfew at the station (as I did a few years back) – pop in to Polo#s over the road, they’re open 24 hours serving Met, City and Transport police along with passing night workers

  19. Ian permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I too spent a night on a bench in Liverpool Street station in the late 70s. I had been to the music festival at Blackbush in Surrey (Dylan, Clapton, Armatrading, Graham Parker), and reached the station after the last train back to Waltham Cross. Dark, dirty and Dieselly are my main memories.

  20. Robert permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Love this one and I was pleased you’ve solved a mystery with me with one of your then and now photos. I did wonder what became of the taxi ramp to the side of the station next to Broad st station. It’s now an impressive enterance and public square. I thought it was an original feature but it appears to be new.

  21. pauline taylor permalink
    May 3, 2016

    I remember Liverpool Street in the days of steam trains and walking up the platform on arrival to see which wonderful steam engine had been responsible for our arrival in the great metropolis, never ever did I find it a frightening place but then I had a lovely grandfather who was a railwayman so perhaps that had something to do with it. Despite its much cleaner and brighter appearance now I miss the old days, it was much more exciting then!!

  22. Beryl Happe permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Liverpool street was the closest ‘mainline’ station to where we lived in the 40′s and 50′s. We lived in Bethnal Green, very close to Bethnal Green station in fact. We would get on a train at BG and go the one stop to Liverpool street, and the world was our oyster, well it seemed like the world to me at my tender age. In reality it meant one thing -Southend-. It was a real treat to go there for a day out. When I started courting,-now there’s an old fashioned word-, we went to Southend for the day for the princely sum of 4shillings and threepence return. now 22pence. We had a fabulous day eating fish & chips, candy floss and riding on every ride in the Kursaal. The whole day cost my boyfriend (now my husband of 57 years), £1.50p. I love Liverpool Street.

  23. Vivian Campbell permalink
    May 4, 2016

    This is just how I remember Liverpool Street station. I lived in Bishopsgate from the age of 3 till I was 20. I could look out of the window on the stairs going up to my bedroom and remember seeing the steam trains. I also could climb out of this window to sit on a flat roof and sunbathe. I would come in not so much tanned but covered in soot. My friend and I would go to the station and go in the photo booth nearly every week to have our photos done. I also had a blind date at the station from a pen pal who was in Ganges. He looked so smart in his navy uniform but unfortunately he was not the one for me. There also used to be a recording booth were you could go and record yourself singing. My friend still has the recording. When I visited a few years ago I did not recognise the place. I will always remember it how it used to be.

  24. May 4, 2016

    coming from Bethnal green I and my mates used to go to Liverpool street station looking for girls this was late 1960s 1970s we used to run around that place for hours getting up to mischief and as I said trying chat up girls which seemed to be the main pastime of young men them days :-) .when my mum was young she used to go there with her girl friends ..we used to love running along the trellis work bridges ? walkways ,I haven t been there since it was modernised but looking at photos they have ruined it with the modern design crap they have ruined London with.
    all the best
    essexcockney

  25. John Linquist permalink
    May 6, 2016

    When I first came to England (many years ago) I had a maintenance job which often finished after the last train. I used to fill in the time walking around the streets. In the early hours they were more or less deserted and this allowed me to look at the more interesting buildings from novel view points such as the middle of what would be a busy road. On rainy nights I would curl up and go to sleep in a corner of Liverpool St station and wait for the first train .
    Thank you for the article.

  26. May 8, 2016

    You’ve captured the station as it was – perfectly.

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