Every picture tells a story – the TOT Alphabet

tot2

As we continue to remember the First World War 100 years ago and think about the men recruited from London’s transport workers who fought in it, we have an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the less well-known objects in the Museum’s collection connected to this human story. One such item is An alphabet of TOT produced by the TOT Mutual Aid Fund at the end of 1915 (TOT stood for Train, Omnibus, Tram) which is in our library collection.

At the start of the war the TOT Mutual Aid Fund was set up to support the struggling families of men from the bus, rail and tram companies who were serving in France and elsewhere. The alphabet was one of many fund-raising initiatives undertaken by the organisers.

At first sight, this book intended for small children seems nothing out of the ordinary. Closer inspection though reveals a lot more. The beautifully crafted illustrations, inspired by public transport and drawn by the well-known poster artist Charles Pears, reveal a wealth of intriguing details about London’s public transport at a time of transition between old and new.

tot1

I have a favourite letter myself – ‘O’ for otter. This illustration tells several stories. The image shows a stuffed otter in a glass case being admired by a lady and her enthusiastic young companion. The text reads ‘O the ozone which improves ventilation. And also the Otter at Mansion House station.’

Ozone was quite a new thing in 1915, used as part of attempts to improve air quality on the Underground. Ventilating plants could inject 60,000 cubic feet of fresh air into tunnels and passages every minute. Before pumping, the air was cleansed of impurities, mixed with ozone and brought to the correct humidity. The motion of passing trains then circulated the air into the lower passages.

1998-78273_U3621_Mansion_House
Exhibition at Mansion House station of stuffed animals including several owls and a female otter, c1925

The inscription on the otter’s case in the drawing is indecipherable in the drawing, but we know the picture is a true representation, because we have a photograph to prove it. The photograph is of an exhibition of stuffed animals (including several owls and the otter) caught on Underground property. These were then displayed on the platform at Mansion House station. The picture shows the otter in its case and when the image is enlarged, you can clearly see the plaque says ‘Female otter caught at Acton Town station 4 April 1911’. The exhibition moved to Charing Cross (now Embankment) Underground station in 1929.

The illustrations for all the other letters in the Alphabet have similarly interesting historical details in them, so in 2015 we produced a facsimile of this alphabet as part of the Museum’s commemorative activities marking the centenary of the First World War. Illustrated alphabets have always offered a great way to encourage lively discussion between young and old whilst children learn their letters, and this example is no exception. For older readers interested in London’s transport history the detailed pictures provide hours of pleasurable scrutiny.

Get the book

You can buy a copy of this limited edition publication and support the Museum’s charitable objectives by going to our online shop or visiting the Museum shop in Covent Garden.

Written by Caroline Warhurst, Information Services Manager

London’s other Underground Mail Rail

Our friends at the Postal Museum are working hard to prepare a section of the Post Office Mail Rail at Mount Pleasant for passenger rides in 2017: previously it famously carried post and parcels beneath London on electrified narrow gauge tracks.

But what is lesser known is that for a short while, London’s Underground was also used for the delivery of parcels.

In the years leading up to the First World War, the Central London Railway (CLR, now Central line) ran a parcels delivery service known as the Lightning Service Express. This originated at Post Office station (now St. Paul’s) where the General Post Office was situated.

1998-87708

Wicker hampers, as seen in the photo above, were used to convey parcels between the surface and the platform. The parcels were then whisked off to other stations along the line and then taken by young employees on tricycles or on a horse and cart to their final destinations, depending on size, distance or importance. The rolling stock used was the day-to-day 1903-Central London multiple unit tube stock, but rather incredibly from 1911 there was a  compartment built in aboard for a parcels porter to sort the mail as the train went along. That made it rather like a localised version of the Night Mail and Royal Mail Trains which operated on the main line railways above ground.

According to 20th Century London, the Lightning Service Express was a profitable side-enterprise but was discontinued because of labour shortages in the First World War – and it never resumed.

It’s interesting to note that TfL has more recently forged partnerships with parcel collection and delivery companies, so the Underground is once again being used as infrastructure in Britain’s mail distribution network.