Sunday, 17 May 2020

A little Piccadilly Circus secret

Tucked away in a part of Piccadilly Circus Underground Station inaccessible to the public is this tile. The station opened in 1906; this tunnel was one of those no longer used after it was extensively modernised in 1929.

Tiling is important on the Underground. Of course, it serves a practical function, providing a hard-wearing surface for station interiors which can be shaped to fit the many quirks of the environment and is relatively easily cleaned.

Wood Green Station tiling detail
The Underground's tiles are also an integral part of station design. They add colour and appeal to these windowless, often featureless spaces. 

Aldgate East tiling detail

Many stations have distinct patterns, originally designed to help illiterate passengers to recognise their destination. Leslie Green's Piccadilly Line stations, of which the old Piccadilly Circus was one, made use of this technique. The variety of styles are also a branding exercise - their diversity reflects not only the age of the system, but also the many companies who originally owned different sections of it.  

So, tiles matter. But where do they come from? This little stencil tells us a lot about where one part of one station sourced its wall covering. 

W B Simpson & Sons were established in 1833 and are still trading today - and still working with London Underground. While these particular tiles are no longer visible to the public, there are plenty of other examples of their work throughout the system, from the Northern line around Camden Town to the Jubilee Line extension. Other clients included Turkish baths, theatres and restaurants, medical buildings, and toilets.

Simpsons are described here as sole appointed agents for Maw & Co: founder William Butler Simpson had become Maw's sole agent in London in 1858. Maw also supplied bisque tiles which Simpsons decorated with their own designs in kilns at Vauxhall and, later, Chandos Street. WB Simpson's sons had become partners in the firm in 1860; after their retirement in the early 1890s, the new owners won a huge contract with London Underground. Worth an incredible £100,000, it even required the company to bring its own trains underground to move the materials around. 

Tiled corridor, Cardiff Old Library

The company of Maw & Co was not much younger than Simpsons. It was founded by brothers George and Arthur Maw in 1850 with a factory in Worcester, later moved to Shropshire. Their new 1883 ceramic tile factory was the largest in the world, making 20 million tiles a year. As well as their huge contribution to London Underground, they were also famed for their encaustic floor tiles and mosaic tiles, as well as for their work at many other locations - including the glorious tiled corridor in Cardiff Old Library (now part of the city museum). Maw & Co would finally close in 1970.

Much like the corridor it adorns, then, this tile with its humble stencil leads much further than a casual glance can show. 

This was just one small detail on the Hidden London tour behind the scenes of Piccadilly Circus. 


Zephyrinus said...

Thank you very much, Caroline, for your most interesting Post.

Together with all your other Posts, one can discover such interesting things that, otherwise, one would never know.

Respectfully, well done, and many thanks.

Gmain said...

Very fun blog, Caroline.

Your tile episode reminds me of the tile work done in the early 20th century throughout Los Angeles in tunnels, outdoor walkways and stairways, retaining walls, libraries, museums, and schools. They deserve to be remembered because they’re vanishing, ignored, and in disrepair.