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From Old Bedlam To Liverpool St

May 26, 2022
by the gentle author

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Liverpool St Station

Novelist & Historian Gillian Tindall, author of A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey, introduces the Elizabeth line.

The central section of the Elizabeth line carries passengers 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 followed the Elizabeth line excavations will know, this cobbled side-street hid, till recently, the last remnant of a large cemetery. The newspapers were full of ‘discoveries’ there, although the Museum of London archaeologists employed by the Elizabeth line 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 the times of Elizabeth I. 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 had been located inside Liverpool St itself but now the cabs line up outside. 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.

Für 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

You may also like to read about

Rush Hour at Liverpool St Station

At Liverpool St Station

Elegy for the White Hart

Graham Kennedy, Directions Man

12 Responses leave one →
  1. marianne isaacs permalink
    May 26, 2022

    what a great story . Those belongings look so familiar to me . The puppet and the skates in particular . I had some just like them as a child in the 1960s in Germany . I would so love to hear some of these children’s stories . I wonder how many had family who survived this huge cataclysm .

  2. Laura Williamson permalink
    May 26, 2022

    A beautiful story about the taxi drivers, thank you.

  3. Annie Green permalink
    May 26, 2022
    I wonder if the link above is what you heard on the radio?
    Great post.

  4. May 26, 2022

    Sir Nicholas Winton (1909 – 2015) organised the Kindertransport from Prague in 1939. Bronze statues at the railway stations in Prague and Liverpool are an impressive reminder of this.

    The background stories are very touching:

    Love & Peace

  5. May 26, 2022

    What a beautiful story.

  6. Sigrid permalink
    May 26, 2022

    Hi Gentle Author,
    The title of the memorial, Pro Dite, unless the artist spelled it the way you write, in German should be “ Für das Kind “ . Both of course meaning. : For the child. Hope you don’t mind me saying. Sigrid

  7. Sarah B Guest Perry permalink
    May 26, 2022

    I’m not Jewish but a roommate I had in 1978 was. Her mother who I think was 11 years old at the time was on the last train out of Vienna, part of the kindertransport. She was raised by foster parents in England. Thank you for your post today.

  8. John Cunningham permalink
    May 26, 2022

    What an uplifting but also very sad story. One can only imagine the anguish of these children’s parents as they waved them off to refuge in a strange country,as they faced their own horrific future. Evil was on the march in Europe at that time as it is again today.

  9. May 26, 2022

    And this was the beginnings of Paddington Bear.

  10. Andy Strowman permalink
    May 27, 2022

    I cried while seeing the photographs.
    Wonderful kind taxi drivers.
    Did you know a taxi driver changed my life?.
    The only person to ever ask me, “What arevyou going to do with your life?.”

    My dad Sam Strowman one cold February night found a man in the road at Watney Street off Commercial road, picked him up and took him to the London Hospital. Saved his life.

  11. Tony permalink
    May 27, 2022

    Actually, you can go from Liverpool Street to Liverpool Lime Street by changing at Norwich. It’s not the most direct route but it could be done.

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 20, 2022

    The story moves me to this day, especially as my married home was at Pinkneys Green in Maidenhead Berkshire, and (Sir) Nicholas Winton was a near neighbour. There is a wonderful memorial park near my old home telling about the journey he took when bringing the children over to England. My tears are threatening just thinking about this and similar stories – but worse, for the ones who didn’t make it. If anyone is going near Maidenhead Railway Station, there is a lovely statue of Nicky Winton ‘sitting’ on a bench on the Platform there. He did other wonderful things in and around Maidenhead, which my disabled nephew benefitted from, so a truly good man. And if you ever go to visit Oaken Grove Park in Maidenhead, the memorial will move you too.
    Sadly I know nothing of the taxi drivers, so cannot help you there Gentle Author.

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