Did The British Museum Really Have Its Own Tube Station?

British Museum
© Claudio Divizia / Adobe Stock

The British Museum is home to an amazing seven million exhibits, including some very important finds, such as the world’s oldest mummy and a royal edict engraved in stone more than 2,000 years ago.

As one of the United Kingdom’s most important museums, it is located on Great Russell Street in London. It attracts around six million people every year, with artefacts that were widely sourced during the era of the British Empire, when they were gathered from all over the world. They have created a fascinating exhibition!

The museum was established in 1753 to display the personal treasures of the late doctor and scientist, Sir Hans Sloane. He bequeathed his collection to King George II, on condition £20,000 was spent to display them to the public.

His treasures included antiquities from Sudan, Egypt, Rome, Greece, the Americas and the Far East. He had amassed 40,000 books, 337 volumes devoted to natural history – including prints, drawings and dried plants – 7,000 manuscripts and various antiques.

Museum’s treasures

The museum first opened to the public in 1759 and, in the years since, it has collected some of the most significant artefacts in the world. These have included “Lindow Man”, the preserved body of a man found in a peat bog by commercial peat-cutters working at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, on 1st August 1984.

Scientists dated the body from between 2 BC and 119 AD. He was believed to have been in his mid-20s and there were suggestions his death may have been part of an ancient ritual, although no-one knows for sure.

Dating from 196 BC, the Rosetta Stone is also kept at the British Museum. It was found in 1799, near the Egyptian port of Rosetta. It is engraved with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V, written in three different languages. It was presented to the British Museum in 1802 by the British Army and has been displayed there ever since.

Tube station

By the end of the 19th century, the museum was so popular that it was given its own tube station to cope with the growing visitor demand! Construction began in 1898 and took two years, before the station officially opened in 1900.

The London Underground had played a big part in the capital’s transport system since it opened in 1863 and it seemed a natural progression that one of the UK’s biggest attractions would have its own station.

The British Museum Tube Station, on the Central Line, was built near New Oxford Street by Central London Railway. It opened to passengers in July 1900 and for six years it was the only such station in the area. However, in 1906, the Piccadilly Line opened a new station on the corner of Kingsway and Holborn.

The new tube station was built by a rival company, which was common in those days. Normally, the different tube companies would share interchanges and stations, but the Piccadilly Line wouldn’t curve round the tight bends to reach the British Museum station. Also, the new Holborn Tube Station was said to be superior, so the Piccadilly Line used that instead.

This meant there were two stations only 250 yards apart, with an interchange section that was oddly curved and very inconvenient. The Central Line already had an extension to Liverpool Street. In 1908, the owners also sought permission to dig a tunnel that would link the British Museum Station to Holborn Station.

Closure proposals

In 1913, however, it was proposed the British Museum Station should be closed, to enable the Central Line tunnels to be enlarged east of Kingsway to link them to Holborn Station, but when the first world war broke out in 1914, the work was never started. After the war ended in 1918, the status quo was retained in terms of the British Museum Tube Station and it continued to operate unchanged until the 1930s.

In 1932, an agreement was reached to enlarge the Central Line tunnels at Holborn, where two new platforms were to be built. Designed by architect Leslie Green, the old station had used a lift to take passengers down to the Piccadilly Line.

Modern facilities

To coincide with the works, a modern new station was designed by Charles Holden, a Bolton-born architect who designed many Tube stations in the 1920s and 1930s. It featured modern escalators instead of the old lifts.

The old Holborn station was replaced and seven new escalators were installed. At the time, four of them, each of which measured 147ft 7ins long, were the longest escalators in the world. A new booking office was also constructed.

The modern new station, called Holborn Kingsway Station, opened in May 1933. New platforms became fully operational for the public on 25th September 1933. In the 1960s, the station dropped the “Kingsway” bit from its title.

Featuring modern signal cabins with power-controlled levers, in addition, the new platforms included emergency tunnel telephones, battery and relay rooms and automatic train stops.

End of the line

Coinciding with the official grand opening of the new station and platforms, the British Museum Tube Station closed for the final time at midnight on 25th September 1933. There seemed little point in having the stations in operation less than 100 yards away from each other.

Before the new Holborn Kingsway Station opened, passengers wishing to switch between Central Line and Piccadilly Line must leave one station to walk down the main road and go into another station. The new development reduced the journey time by almost six minutes.

This wasn’t the end of the British Museum station, as it was used as an air raid shelter during the Second World War.

Demolished

The station was subsequently used until to the 1960s as an administrative office and emergency command post for the military. The surface building was still in existence until 1989, when it was finally demolished. A building society was constructed in its place.

Passengers on Central Line trains can still see the old British Museum station, despite the platforms having been removed, by looking through the left-hand windows as the Tube leaves either Holborn or TCR stations.

Today, the British Museum is open seven days a week and offers free admission.

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