The Isle of Wight has an uncanny link with the London Underground. Famously, its train line runs with vintage tube stock. But did you know the island is also where many of London tube roundels are made?
Above the workshop floor of AJ Wells & Sons in Newport is a tube platform. No trains run through it, but the signage is very much bona fide. The family business, established in 1972, has been in the business of making London Underground roundels since 1990. Following the tragic King's Cross fire of 1987, bolstered safety measures were introduced to the tube network — one of them being that all signage must be fire proof.
Cedric Wells, Director at AJ Wells & Sons, tells Londonist: "Our core business at the time was making wood burning stoves, and we had just installed a vitreous enamelling facility in the factory to enamel our stoves.
"As there were very few enamelling plants left in the UK we were approached by London Underground and — never one to turn down an opportunity — quickly turned our hand to making signage and roundels!"
The company has never looked back. Their team of 30 works across design, artworking, surveying, manufacturing and installing. While they started out focused on metal working and enamelling, AJ Wells have expanded their Isle of Wight facility over the years to cover framing, illumination, electrical and powder coating. So when you see a London Underground roundel glowing gloriously through the gloom, it may well be an AJ Wells work.
Though AJ Wells are not the sole company to produce tube roundels, they've produced thousands of them in their 32-year tenure, "Some very large and some very small that are incorporated into other signs," says Cedric Wells. Their work features in most of London's 272 tube stations — including new additions for the Northern line extension at Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms.
What with that Northern line extension, and the imminent Elizabeth line, AJ Wells have had a busy few years. The latter line — with its striking purple colour scheme — introduced fresh challenges to the team, as Wells explains: "The purple was a new colour for us and one that performs quite differently whether it is enamelled, printed onto glass or illuminated. So this was quite a challenge to begin with."
But then the team aren't exactly averse to a challenge: among the roundels they've made were square/triangular/cross-shaped ones for a PlayStation ad takeover of five tube stations: "The campaign was a stroke of genius," says Wells, "although the shapes were different they were instantly recognisable as roundels.
"We were sworn to secrecy until the launch day and had just two weeks to turn the project around. We installed them in the middle of the night and as soon as they were switched on the pictures went viral across the globe."
It must feel pretty special pulling up at a station in London and seeing a roundel that's your own handiwork?
"We are so used to seeing our signs in the factory environment so it takes it to another level to see them in the context of a station guiding people around the city," says Wells. "It is still very exciting after all these years and gives us a sense of pride to be playing a small part in something so iconic!"
People looking to commission their own roundel will be excited to learn that AJ Wells & Sons do make them on request, and they're not as spendy as the original roundels which crop up on the London Transport Museum shop. But before you start rubbing your hands together at the thought of a 'Mornington Croissant' sign hanging above your breakfast bar, AJ Wells are only sanctioned to make roundels bearing official named stations.
One or two exceptions have been made. Says Wells: "We did however make the fictional Walford East roundel a few years back for EastEnders!"
There is something else you can buy from AJ Wells & Sons, too; enamel stoves. They never stopped making them.