‘Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square’, sang the troops in ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. The London Transport Museum is marking the centenary of transport workers swapping the West End for the Western Front in the First World War.
1914, and the capital’s zappy new electric trains were emblematic of a whole nation’s dizzying voyage through modernity. This exhibition demonstrates that the capitalist boom which birthed competing omnibus and railway franchises (and with them some pretty dubious marketing, like the Underground’s posters boasting the network’s ‘temperate’ summer temperatures) was the selfsame destabilising boom which precipitated global conflict.
This, as we are often told, was the first mechanised war. The transport firms would drive the British effort in more ways than one. Dissatisfied with the recruitment methods of Kitchener et al., Frank Pick, the Underground’s PR man of his day, rolled out his own posters exhorting ‘slackers’ to go and attend ‘England vs Germany’ in much the same way he would publicise London’s football matches.
The city became the army’s engine-shed: we’re shown amazing pictures of fusiliers awaiting a train at Waterloo, and of a frantic, bus-clogged Piccadilly Circus roundabout looking all of a sudden like the country’s very command centre. For the government had a plan to enlist vehicles as well as men, and in total over a thousand B-type buses were sent trenchward; whereupon they shuttled soldiers to the frontline or were variously converted into turrets, ambulances, or homing pigeon lofts. With them went the very few men who knew their way around a two-foot steering wheel: cabbies, truckers, and – as one veteran recalled – ‘even a tram driver, with a hazy idea of driving’.
Many of these drivers did not have a return journey – and although commemorated today, theirs is a story often untold. But it’s compellingly told here. We witness humorous photos of buses’ destination signs overpainted to read ‘Berlin’, and a particularly thrilling anecdote from one William Mahoney, who relives the most unorthodox of MOTs: tuning up a knackered B-type while under enemy shell fire.
The museum also diligently explores the role new transport played at home. Mid-Suffragette movement, women were offered a degree of empowerment as ‘conductorettes’ on the buses as home. Six women applied for each of the 3,500 jobs going. Business was thriving on the Underground — now promoting itself as ‘bomb-proof’ – and the new Maida Vale station was entirely female-staffed.
Contemporary reports prove that women excelled in these roles. They were always deemed ‘substitutes’, however, and when the War was over, it was back to timetable. Britain had entered the Great War with a Great Unrest, and exited it with rationing and social deprivation; as for the women, they wouldn’t work on the buses again until the World War Two. Like the LCOG’s posters promising luxurious single-person buses, there were certain tantalising visions of progress and futurity that were as far away as the proverbial Tipperary. This exhibition demonstrates there’s no better vehicle for exploring the revolutions and disillusions than transport.
Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front runs until 8 March 2015 at the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 7BB. Entrance fee included in the general admission charge: £15 adults, £11.50 concessions, free for under-17s. The exhibition is complemented with a number of events, and we’d particularly recommend a talk by Jerry White on London and Londoners in the Great War, 3 June, 7pm.