The Curious Origins of London Tube Station Names

El metro de Londres -uno de los más antiguos y extensos del mundo- posee una historia muy rica. Un repaso a los nombres de algunas de sus estaciones supone aventurarse en un viaje en el tiempo.

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Rachel Roberts

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Have you noticed how unusual some of the names of the London underground are? This is because the London underground system is the oldest in the world, and many stations take their names from buildings and places that no longer exist.

Work on building the London underground railway began in 1860. It was a difficult and slow process: a large trench had to be dug along the streets, requiring the destruction of many buildings and homes. The railroad and brickwork were constructed on the sides of the trench, and girders or a brick arch were built to form a roof. Finally, the roadway was restored on top. When the railway finally opened in January 1863, wooden carriages were hauled by steam locomotives, which burned coke and coal. Today, London underground trains run on electricity; but because the system is so old, many stations have names that now seem mysterious or enigmatic. Here are five of the most interesting.

Canary WHARF

Canary Wharf

This 19-year-old station takes its name from a warehouse on the West India Docks in the Thames. But it’s nothing to do with yellow birds. The dock was built for the Mediterranean and Canary Islands fruit trade and the Canary Islands, in turn, are actually named after dogs that once filled this located off the coast of northwest Africa.

Elephant and Castle

Elephant and Castle Station

There is a romantic idea that Elephant and Castle comes from ‘La Infanta de Castilla’, and refers to a Spanish princess. This is just folk history. In fact, it comes from an inn of the same name frequented by members of the ‘Cutler’s Company’ – medieval craftsmen who made swords and knives. Their emblem included an elephant - probably a reference to the ivory they used for the handles.

Maida Vale

Maida Vale

Forget maidens and green valleys. Maida is a town in Calabria, Italy, that became famous when the English defeated Napoleon’s allies in an 1806 battle. A pub, called ‘The Hero of Maida’ and named in honour of the battle, has now disappeared, but in 1915 it gave its name to this station on the Paddington Line.

Piccadilly Circus

Picadilly Circus Station

Forget strongmen and acrobats; a ‘circus’ is another name for a round junction where several streets meet. Piccadilly, on the other hand, refers to a ‘piccadill’ – a large, ruffled collar, fashionable in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. The famous London tailor Robert Baker made his fortune and paid for the construction of his grand house here in 1611. Many people ironically called his house ‘Pickadilly Hall’ and the name stayed when the underground station was opened in 1906.

Picadill!

Lechuguilla. Se trata de una prenda de función puramente ornamental que cubre el cuello y que se puso de moda entre la aristocracias de diferentes países a partir del siglo XVII. Una teoría etimológica sugiere que el término piccadill proviene del español ‘picadillo’, un patrón de encaje que se dibuja con ‘picadas’ o ‘cisuras’ en la tela.

Tooting Bec

Tooting Bec Station

One of the most amusing tube station names is Tooting Bec. ‘Bec’ comes from Bec Abbey in Normandy (which owned this land after the Norman Conquest). However, if ‘tooting’ makes you think of cars honking their horns, think again. In the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons conquered Britain and transformed its society and its language. ‘Paddington’ comes from the Old English word for “the farm belonging to Padda or his clan”. Similarly, Kennington means “Cēna’s farm”, and Tooting “the place where Tota’s people lived”, Tota being a local Anglo-Saxon chieftain.

The Tube

The nickname ‘the Tube’ is quite strange itself. It came into use in 1900 when the Central line was built. This line, which had distinctive cylindrical tunnels and a flat fare of two pence per journey, came to be known as the ‘Twopenny Tube,’ a name that caught on to describe the entire system. The two-penny fare did not last long, of course! Today, the London Underground has more than 250 miles of track that connects some 270 stations, and a single ticket for zones 1 to 3 costs £4.90! That is why many of the one billion passengers that travel on the Tube every year use a rechargeable travel card (pictured below) or a bankcard to make their trip. This cuts two pounds off the cost of their journey, and contributes to less traffic and a healthier London environment.

two names

If some tube stations have strange names, others have more than one! Many names have changed over the years, but Transport for London has never removed the old name from the tunnel walls. If you have ever watched Arsenal playing at home, you have probably used Arsenal underground station. The station was renamed Arsenal in 1932 for the local football team, but the old name Gillespie Road can still be seen.

The original name proposed for Hampstead tube station was ‘Heath Street’. By the time the station opened in 1907, planners had changed their minds, but it was too late, so both names remain. Marylebone tube station was originally run by the Great Central Railway and when it opened in 1907 it was called ‘Great Central’. (in reference to the nearby railway station Great Central Station Marylebone). Ten years later it was renamed Marylebone, but the old name is still there.

Ghost Stations

Transport for London runs some 270 functioning stations, but there are at least forty ‘ghost stations’ – stations that closed for various reasons that still exist underneath the city. Many stations were used as public bomb shelters during World War Two. Other stations had different uses. Down Street station on the Piccadilly line functioned from 1907 to 1932 and during the war it was transformed into an underground office for the War Cabinet.

It served as Winston Churchill’s secure deep level site until his cabinet war rooms were built. Aldwych station, again on the Piccadilly line, played an important part during both world wars as it was used to store paintings and artefacts from the National Gallery’s collection and the British Museum. Having opened in 1907, the station closed completely in 1994, but over the years it has been used as a film location for many productions including Superman IV (1986) and Sherlock (2014).

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