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A new war gallery tells the story of how the men and women of London's transport played their part in two world wars
A corporal and three soldiers of the London Transport Home Guard, 1941. © care of London Transport Museum.

LONDON.- A new permanent gallery, London’s Transport at War, opened to the public on Saturday 17 October 2020 in Covent Garden at London Transport Museum. The new gallery, which has been completely transformed, reveals the crucial role London’s transport has played in global conflicts, from keeping civilians safe on the home front to supporting efforts on the front lines. It introduces visitors to the people behind these stories and features new posters, photographs, safety notices and wartime objects from the Museum’s collection.

To make these important historical stories about life in wartime more accessible for visitors of all ages, including children and young people, the gallery features new interactive displays. An atmospheric and immersive sheltering experience reveals what life was like for Londoners seeking refuge in Underground stations during wartime air raids and visitors can make their own Tube station shelter ticket to take home with them.

People can rotate a real bus steering wheel to learn about the London buses that went to the Western Front to transport troops. The wheel is engraved with slang terms used by the Army that reveal the experiences of soldiers, including the London bus drivers who served with their vehicles. The word ‘Maconochie’ appears on the wheel – referring to a type of tinned stew of turnips, carrots and potatoes that was eaten in the trenches. It was said that “warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller.”

Visitors can also use a new digital touch screen featuring animations to discover the stories of women who worked for the Metropolitan Railway in the First World War and see new photos of women at work on London’s transport in both world wars.

The gallery showcases five different themes that explore how the people and transport system of one the world’s greatest cities helped with the war effort.

Going to war
The two world wars were all-consuming for the country. Britain had to mobilise people and materials urgently to help fight overseas. Viewers will see some of the First World War publicity posters that were posted across the transport network urging men to join the armed forces. The Underground essentially provided a huge gallery for this important marketing campaign and other wartime messaging and propaganda.

As well as people, London’s buses were also sent to war across the channel during the First World War. Over a thousand buses were painted khaki green and converted to carry troops to the front lines. Some were even turned into mobile pigeon lofts. During the Second Wold War buses were turned into ambulances or mobile canteens for the troops.

They also serve
Women filled the gap left by the men that had gone to war and without their contribution the city would have ground to a halt. Women served on buses, trams and trains, working as conductors, station staff and in engineering roles. Around 18,000 women worked in transport in the First World War setting a precedent for the 20,000 female staff that were employed during the Second World War. A quote from Anne Parker, a First World War bus conductor, shows how keen some women were to work in transport – traditionally a male dominated sector.

“They had girls on the railway…they had girls on the trams and I thought…I wish they had them on the buses, I’d love to scoot along the road.”

Despite the major role women played in the First World War they were asked to leave their jobs to make way for the men returning from the armed forces. A never-before displayed letter of dismissal dated from 1919 can be seen in the new gallery and exemplifies how women were forced to give up their wartime transport roles.

In both world wars Tube station platforms and de-electrified tracks provided refuge for civilians escaping from the horrors of falling bombs. Conditions were basic; people took their own bedding Underground and there was a ‘Tube Refreshments Special’ delivering food, but at least people felt safe.

‘Blackouts’, when all the city’s lights were turned off or hidden during air raids, including on trains, became part of daily life. Visitors to the gallery can see archive safety notices and a 1943 poster by influential graphic designer Hans Schleger, originally from Germany, who produced many posters for London Transport.

Keeping London moving
Despite being under attack and the danger this posed to everyday life, the London transport system kept running. While doing their jobs in the Second World War, 426 staff were killed and nearly 3,000 injured. Bus routes, stations and garages were regularly damaged and disrupted.

A striking photo on display in the new gallery captures children being evacuated via Paddington station in 1939. Around 1.25m people fled to the countryside in August and September 1939. London Transport vehicles were used to carry children and vulnerable civilians to mainline railway stations so they could live in safer locations.

Making do with less and rationing became a feature of wartime life. A London Transport staff notice – itself printed on an old map and on view in the gallery – asks employees to re-use paper.

The day will come
The end of the war resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief, joy and celebration combined with grief for those who had lost loved ones. Peacetime offered opportunities to build a brighter future. In 1944, artist Anna Zinkeisen created a painting for a London Transport poster that was accompanied by an uplifting Winston Churchill quote. The original poster artwork, on show for the first time in the galley, is of a family group, surrounded by objects symbolising the dark presence of war, looking towards a brighter future on the horizon.

Sam Mullins OBE, Director for London Transport Museum, said: “During these challenging times for all museums, I am especially proud to be able to launch our new London’s Transport at War gallery. From sheltering in Tube stations to escape the Blitz, to the buses and drivers who went to the Western Front, visitors will be able learn about the vital role our world-famous transport system played in two world wars.”

Matt Brosnan, Head Curator at London Transport Museum, said: “We’ve brought the stories of the people involved in London’s transport during the First and Second World Wars to life with a combination of collection objects, photos, film, new audio hand-sets, and digital and interactive displays. Young visitors will particularly enjoy hands-on interactives that involve discovering the wartime roles of men and women and making a Tube shelter ticket to take home.”

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