From Old Bedlam To Liverpool St
Novelist & Historian of London Gillian Tindall takes over as guest author this week in celebration of the publication of her new book, A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey by Chatto & Windus.
Liverpool St Station
The central section of the Crossrail line is designed to carry passengers swiftly from Paddington Station in the west to Liverpool St in the east with only three stations in between. Yet while Paddington is one of the oldest of London’s main termini – there has been a station there since the eighteen-thirties – Liverpool St Station is the newest. When the first Metropolitan line train made its way triumphantly from Paddington as far as Farringdon in the eighteen-sixties, it could – for a brief while – go no further, because the heart of old London was a railway-free area, as the City fathers wanted it.
But in a Victorian era obsessed with progress and modernity this could not last. Once a North London Line commuter station had been built in an inconspicuous side street north of London Wall that was inappropriately called Broad St, the Eastern Counties Railway saw its chance. By 1870, the Company had acquired a large swathe of adjoining land as a site for a new station in another minor side street. This was Liverpool St, a cobbled lane which had for centuries been called ‘Old Bedlam’ after the mental hospital that had originally stood there, but it had been re-named in the late eighteen-twenties after the Prime Minister of the time. Soon the two stations stood side by side, occupying a huge space – about seven hundred feet long and four hundred feet wide.
Underneath the shunting lines and coaling bays disappeared a Tudor mansion, a theatre, a gas works, breweries, a grid of tiny, ancient streets, and the trading places and homes of the small businesses and artisans that had been settled there for two centuries. Bishopsgate was forever changed, losing its traditional identity, and becoming an annex to the City, which by-and-by absorbed it.
So, through sheer chance, the City of London’s mainline station is called after a forgotten politician and stuck with the name of a west coast port at the other end of the country. Liverpool St Station has traditionally served east coast ports, notably Harwich, Yarmouth and Grimsby, but you cannot – of course – go from it to Liverpool which is far away in the north west. I am sure I am not the only person who, as a child, was confused by this. On my youthful mental map of Britain, I vaguely located Liverpool somewhere up the coast from Skegness. On the rare occasions I was taken to the station, it always seemed to smell of fish and comprised two separate parts, so that it was difficult to find your way around. What a pity the name of the cobbled side street along side its frontage was ever changed. ‘Old Bedlam Station’ would have been a much more resonant name.
As those who have been following the Crossrail excavations will already know, this cobbled side-street hid, till very recently, the last remnant of a large cemetery. Early last year, the newspapers were full of ‘discoveries’ there, although the Museum of London archaeologists employed by Crossrail knew quite well that they would find human remains – the only question had been ‘How many?’ In fact, there were two-and-a-half thousand bodies in this small segment of land, considerably more than predicted. Clearly the cemetery had been used and reused since it first opened in Elizabethan times. Not for mad paupers, as some of the lurid tales would have us believe, but simply as an extra graveyard for ordinary parishioners of the City churches, generation after generation.
Ever since the station was built, the cab rank has been located inside Liverpool St itself – although it is currently shut to all traffic while the new Crossrail station is being built. Old photographs show a line of horse-drawn vehicles which, by the early twentieth century, were known in cabbies’ slang as droshkis. At that time, many cab-drivers were Russian-Jewish immigrants. They or their families had sought refuge in England from the pogroms that were visited upon the Jews of Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus and the Ukraine.
A generation later, motor-taxis replaced the horses, but the Jewish tradition of London cab-driving persisted. One dark evening early in 1939, a line of taxis was waiting as usual. The evening rush-hour was over. Most customers had already returned hours ago to their suburban homes or were up in the West End for an evening out, and some of the drivers were thinking of heading home to Hackney or Homerton. Then they noticed, standing around in the entrance to the station, a group of about thirty children aged from early teens down to four and five year olds. They did not look like street-children – they were respectably dressed, many wearing hats, and carrying small suitcases, knapsacks or bags.
The cabbies conferred across one front-of-cab to the next. They were well aware what was going on in Europe that year and they guessed who the children were at once. They had caught sight of these groups before, but always being shepherded from the station by adults. Eventually, after some muted discussion, the driver who spoke Yiddish best (having being brought up by his grandmother) approached the group and addressed the eldest-looking girl.
“We think you are Jewish children arriving off the boat-train from Harwich. We are taxi drivers and many of us are Jewish too. Were you expecting someone to come and meet you?”
They were. But it had not happened. Some mistake, some message not getting through. Perhaps they were not expected after all? Perhaps not wanted? The children were stoical. They had been urged to behave well on their long journey across Europe but they looked very tired, and some of the smaller ones had dirty faces and been crying. The taxi-drivers conferred. One of them went to telephone his rabbi. The rabbi phoned another, who phoned someone he knew who worked with the Council for German Jewry. This had been set up in 1936 as an off-shoot from the Central British Fund that assisted immigration to Israel, when it was becoming clear that getting children away from Nazi persecution was a matter of urgency.
Wheels began to turn slowly. Someone, the drivers were told, would soon be on his way, though as he lived in Finchley it might take a little while… Meanwhile, the children were cold and hungry. A posse of drivers awaited the hastily-summoned ‘Someone’ to offer free transport as necessary, while another posse had a whip-round and took the children to a kosher café for something to eat.
So there was a happy end to this particular kindertransport story. The children were finally scooped up, sheltered for the night and distributed to foster homes. They must all be old, the ones that are still alive. Statues commemorating them and over ten thousand other children saved in those years by the Central British Fund and the Council for German Jewry, by Save the Children, and by the free-lance efforts of the late Nicholas Winton in Prague, are to be found in Liverpool St Station today. Some of their actual baggage, including cherished stuffed toys and especially precious objects, such as a pair of skates, are preserved in the Imperial War Museum.
The cabbies involved must, I assume, all be dead and gone by now. I first heard this story years ago from a friend of Whitechapel Jewish origin, now deceased, who had heard it as a child. Then, a few years ago, by chance I heard someone recounting it on BBC Radio, but I did not catch the details that would enable me find any names or date it exactly – so, if anyone can tell me more about those taxi drivers, I would be glad to hear.
Füre Das Kind by Flor Kent, 2003
The children of the Kindertransport (Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Lore’s rucksack (Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Stephie’s puppet (Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Herbert’s skates (Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Arriving in the snow (Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Kindertransport – The Arrival by Frank Meisler, 2006
On Thursday 15th September at 8pm, Gillian Tindall discusses her work and reads from ‘The Tunnel Through Time’ at Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, E1 5JP, which is positioned – appropriately enough – directly over a Crossrail tunnel. In her new book, Gillian explores the history of the new Crossrail route which turns out to be only the latest scheme to traverse an ancient path across London’s buried secrets and former fields. Click here to book your free ticket
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