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Rush Hour At Liverpool St Station

January 20, 2014
by the gentle author

On Blue Monday, I present my account of the mighty phenomenon that is Rush Hour at Liverpool St Station, complemented by the pictures of Contributing Photographer Simon Mooney, who passes through regularly at that time of the morning and always carries his camera.

At seven, the dark streets of Spitalfields were empty, save the traders waiting outside the market in the rain, yet by then the first commuters were already crossing Liverpool St Station, descending from the trains and walking purposefully into the underground. At this hour before dawn, I found the station hushed and barely anyone spoke, walking swiftly and preoccupied, many were almost sleepwalking – as if they still inhabited the dreams of the night, as if the moment of awakening would be the point of arrival at their destination.

More trains were arriving from eastern counties, each one announced by a loud rattle, thump and hiss, reverberating throughout the cavernous station before another wave of passengers in dark raincoats, and clutching umbrellas and briefcases, poured out into the luminous white concourse. Among a crowd seemingly still intent upon their nocturnal journeys, just a few runners and cyclists punctuated the muted rhythm of the multitude.

Lined up along one side of the vast space, brightly-lit kiosks sold hot drinks – but everyone passed them by, heading for the far end where the escalator creaked, at this hour serving only to transport travellers upward and out of the station. Streaming diagonally from the north-east, where the mainline trains arrive, the primary migration courses towards the City of London at the the south-west corner, drawing all as if by some magnetic force.

Arriving from Walton-on-the-Naze, Thorpe-Le-Soken, Turkey St, Brimsdown, Wivenhoe, Seven Sisters and Silver St, after eight o’clock, the current of humanity is swollen and grown animated, no longer pacing in unison, with more chatting and the occasional smile. The day has broken and the bare murmur of an hour earlier has become the hum of a swarm, teeming through the station. Standing in midst of the current of people when it peaks at eight-thirty, you cannot see through the crush to either end of the station. The momentum of the crowd is palpable, acting upon you as it flows around you like water round a stone in a river. You feel as invisible as a ghost.

You see the masses but you notice the individuals, drawing your attention by a private smile or a fleeting scrap of conversation, and you imagine the dark bedrooms and the alarms that snatched them prematurely from their slumbers, the hot showers that wakened them and the hasty walks to get them to the station.

For a hundred and forty years and throughout the twentieth century, this surging current of humanity has coursed through Liverpool St Station, growing in force. A phenomenon to compete with any migration the natural world has to offer, whether eels, or geese, or even ants, the spectacle of this daily wonder is a fleeting spectre that ebbs and flows, but is entirely incidental to the participants in transit who protect their personal equanimity by resisting the presence of their fellow travellers.

Yet I spot a group of school children in high spirits who are immediately awestruck by the sight of it – as I am – and to them it evokes the magic of the fairground or the carnival, momentarily liberating them to misbehave and play. They recognise the truth of it. With elaborate decorative arches towering overhead, the station is a theatre staging a great epic, performed twice daily, with an infinite cast of characters filling the stage in a chorus of which every one is a leading character, and the drama is called ‘Rush Hour At Liverpool St Station.’

Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    January 20, 2014

    Living as an ex-pat, so far now from Southern England, I always check your excellent pages.

    I used that station for years — how rushed, troubled and unhappy the people look.

    I miss aspects of London life a lot — but the train and underground always had a ghastly atmosphere when I used them from the 60s to the mid 2000s, much like a journey into Orpheus’ underworld.

  2. January 20, 2014

    Amazing atmospheric pictures. Rush Hour, like last minute Christmas shopping on 24 December, is always more interesting and enjoyable for the spectator than the participants.

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 20, 2014

    Some trains disgorge more than 1000 passengers, & even with a lot getting off on to the Victoria Line @ Walthamstow (C), Tottenham Hale & 7 Sisters, the 8-coach trains coming in form the Lea Valley lines ( approx 640 seats) unload 850+ people in the peak …
    I well remember the “old” Liverpool St, as shown in Betjeman & Gay’s book, with the snaking footbridge that wound its way betwee E side & W side, & the pair of “fat-&-thin” post boxes & the enormous ginger cat that oversaw that concourse.
    In steam days it was very atmospheric, with the rhythmic hiss-swish-thump of the Westinghouse brake pumps on the locomotives, the spotless “Britannias” on the Norwich fasts & the romance of “The Hook Continental” boat train.
    Little-known fact: Somewhere between 75 & 90 % of all passengers arriving @ LST take no further public transport, but walk to their final destinations.

  4. January 20, 2014

    Lovely photos, your artcle brings back ‘fond’ memories of journeys in crowded trains and tubes and sometimes watching the commuters pour out of the station like columns of ants. Valerie

  5. Robert permalink
    January 20, 2014

    Love how you describe the daily life of the commuters but it made me glad that my commute is in reverse! As my shifts are back to front…

  6. January 20, 2014

    Difficult to tell, what is more “important”: the text or the pictures… I think both are of equal standing!


  7. Walter Blackstock permalink
    January 20, 2014

    My abiding memory of Liverpool Street Station is of a reddish-winged pigeon walking among the throng on the concourse, seemingly more at ease than the people.

  8. Patricia Celeveland-Peck permalink
    January 20, 2014

    A very good piece of writing. I particularly liked the idea that the preoccupied commuters “still inhabited the dreams of the night.”

  9. Penny Wythes permalink
    January 20, 2014

    Love the article, love the pictures – I too knew Liverpool Street well in the past, although not as a commuter – it was the start of a journey home to parents, while I lived and worked in London – my commute was always tube.
    Would absolutely love to see some old photographs of the major London stations if you have any………..

  10. Jill permalink
    January 20, 2014

    I love Liverpool Street, it’s my London station when we visit the capital from East Anglia. There’s always a great sense of anticipation as the train crawls in through the blackened high brick walls and emerges in the iron and glass cathedral-like station hall. My great-great-grandfather left Suffolk to be a railway guard at Stratford in the 1840s and my niece now commutes from Brentwood to L’pool Street every day. I can’t see her in the photos!

    Thanks for an interesting post and wonderful pictures. I hope you both treated yourself to a hearty breakfast.

  11. Mirjam Visser permalink
    January 20, 2014

    Great article.
    I love London trainstations for some reason (I’m not a train’nerd’ at all). Liverpool Street is special in that it is the station at which I arrive when I visit London, travelling on the boattrain from Harwich to the most wonderful city in the world. (I’m from Holland).
    The last time I was in London, two years ago now, I arrived at o8.30 and bought a cup of tea and a pasty, and sat down to watch the crowds. It was amazing and captivating to see that enormous throng of humanity pass you by.
    Another memory I have is the time I arrived on a Saturday evening in 1990. There weren’t many passengers on the train and the station was almost empty, at least the concourse was completely devoid of people. Except one man, rushing towards the taxistands. Out of all the people in London, it was none other than Lionel Blair…., 😉

    Hoek van Holland

  12. January 21, 2014

    Lovely article, it does bring back memories…. Liverpool St has always been my ‘gateway’ to London, that’s where I arrived the first time I visited the city as a kid in the early eighties, and I remember how awed I was by those dark brick walls you pass before entering the station. When I was living in Walthamstow for a while a couple of years ago it really became ‘my’ station.

  13. January 21, 2014

    Did you see this when £25000 in £5 notes was scattered over the commuters on liverpool St?

  14. Bob Land permalink
    January 21, 2014

    Interesting photo’s but too much reality to be pleasurable viewing. Thousands of faces, not one smile.

    I don’t think the term ‘rush hour’ has had any meaning for some years now. I have struggled to get on a packed Northern Line train at 10 pm on a Wednesday night and I have boarded the Central Line at 7 am at Stratford and have had to stand until Oxford Circus.

  15. cmc permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Is that Martin McGuinness on the escalator in the 6th picture?

  16. January 22, 2014

    Lovely words and pictures. I used to pass through Liverpool Street every day, and one of my favourite things was to just stop for five minutes and watch people like this – fascinating!

  17. David j Gabriel permalink
    June 18, 2014

    Watching the trains arrive at Liverpool st was a pass time my great friend Leslie Briggs and
    Myself use to enjoy from time to time,
    We used to stand on the upper level just watching the people getting off there trains and scurrying off to work,
    We were on OWER dinner brake at 8am if we had no money we would go to Liverpool st and do some people watching (memory’s )

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