A private tunnel linking Bond Street tube station to Selfridges, letting shoppers have a direct route underneath Oxford Street to the department store? Sadly, no such tunnel exists, but it should.
There are tales that such a tunnel was planned, occasionally mentioned in tube history books, but with no supporting evidence that the rumoured tunnel ever existed. Or for example as a sentence on Wikipedia, and in many places who seem to have just copied the Wikipedia reference, but facts to support the claim seemed scarce to the point of writing off the claim as an urban legend.
But, there is evidence.
Found recently within the depths of TfL’s archives is a small ordinary-looking folder. Within its manila contents is a collection of letters, and they reveal a really quite remarkable plan for a tunnel, and how London Underground’s management conspired the thwart the plans.
[For convenience, I shall refer to London Underground (LU) as opposed to using the various names of the company at the time.]
Bond Street station was originally opened in September 1900, and a decade later Mr Selfridge opened his famous department store. It’s worth noting that this was at the time, the rather shabby unfashionable end of Oxford Street, so Bond Street station wasn’t a large one.
The arrival of the department store through increased traffic, and it would seem that in 1920, there was talk about a joint venture between LU and Selfridges to rebuild the station, with a new booking hall under Oxford Street, and a separate entrance inside Selfridges basement.
It’s difficult to know how far these talks went, but letters from LU’s chief engineer a decade later shows limited knowledge of the earlier plans, which must have still been fresh in their memories had they been developed to any significant degree.
So, maybe the tunnel was a random idea that never got very far?
But leap forward a bit, and LU went ahead with the required station upgrade, and in 1926, the old lifts were swept away and modern escalators installed.
Today, the tube network often has more passengers than capacity, and upgrades are funded by the wider benefits to local society — but a century ago, the tube wanted more customers and tube upgrades were funded by an expectation of more ticket sales thanks to the nicer journey.
LU spent £100,000 upgrading Bond Street station, which saw passenger numbers rise by around 12 percent, but the additional ticket sales barely covered the costs incurred.
“already taken a big risk on Selfridges store drawing passengers to the area to cover station upgrade”
Lord Ashfield, 25th Jan 1933
This was to be a perpetual problem for London Underground, running costs were covered by ticket sales, but upgrades rarely were — and this is largely why they later supported de-facto nationalisation, in order to tap the government for capital investment.
But, back in the late 1920s, and Bond Street station was now a modern tube station, while Selfridges was continuing a building programme which wouldn’t see the full building as we know it completed until 1928.
Seeing ever more customers coming through his doors, Harry Gordon Selfridge’s thoughts once more turned to those cancelled plans for a direct link to the London Underground and sometime around late 1929 appears to have raised the issue with the Chairman of the London Underground, Lord Ashfield.
An evidently confused LU’s chief engineer records in a note that he received a “telephonic enquiry” about the tunnel in December 1929.
(…and isn’t telephonic enquiry just a delightful phrase)
The following month, in January 1930, Lord Ashfield wrote to his Managing Director, the legendary Frank Pick that Gordon Selfridge would be quite keen on a tunnel link, and could they at least investigate the possibility.
It seems that while LU’s engineers toiled on the plans, Selfridge had his own people working at it as well, and in April 1930, proposed a basement ticket hall inside the department store, with escalators running down to platform depth, with a deep tunnel running along to the platforms themselves.
The documents refer to the use of “moving platforms” in the tunnels, which is likely to have been a reference to what could have been London’s first travolator.
This was almost immediately ruled out, as it broke pretty much every fire regulation they could think of. Mr Selfridge had a reputation for pushing at the limits of London’s building and fire regulations, which had nearly blocked his preferred construction method for his department store, so we shouldn’t be too surprised he tried it with London Underground as well.
However, both Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick had no intention of allowing that sort of behaviour on their pitch.
Undeterred, Mr Selfridge came back with an idea of extending his lifts down to the platform level. This was also ruled out, as it was simply not acceptable to allow direct connections of that sort.
A few letters do make references to drawings, but sadly these do not appear to have survived.
In August 1932, London Underground’s chief engineer threw out all of Selfridges proposals as either too expensive, impractical or downright dangerous.
What they proposed instead was to become the fabled tunnel.
A connection from the upper escalators in the tube station would run in a 125 foot tunnel under the road and then connect with a new ticket hall to be built inside Selfridges basement.
There was a sting in the proposal though — as both Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick clearly worked together to make the proposal as unattractive as possible.
Not malice from how they were slighted a decade earlier, but cold hard economics and they needed to persuade a head-strong Gordon Selfridge that his desire was frankly, undesirable.
“present a rather formidable proposal to Messrs Selfridges and they will not be desirous of proceeding with it”.
Frank Pick, 4th Jan 1933
In a series of letters, they outlined the proposal, and the significant downsides they saw for any sort of link between the department store and the tube station.
Remember, they had just spent £100,000 upgrading the entire station, but the cost of the tunnel was put at a preliminary estimate of £120,000 to build, largely due to the need to move sewers and utilities out of the way.
Putting in the interest on the loan to cover the construction, the annual costs of staffing, maintenance, and even business rates, they estimated that it would cost £9,300 per year to have the tunnel in place.
“I do not think therefore that we should encourage the proposal”
Lord Ashfield, 25th Jan 1933
This was after all the Central Line, nicknamed the tuppenny tube for a very good reason, and with low fares, they expected that the tunnel alone would need to attract at least a million additional fare-paying passengers per year. That would have required a formidable 15% increase in traffic through the tube station.
However, as they note, in general, people are disinclined to use foot tunnels of that length, and even if made pleasant by use of display cabinets from the department store, it would be unlikely to ever pull in such numbers of new passengers.
“the figures collected, Mr Selfridge will not be very pleased with the financial prospect of proposals for a station in his store.”
Lord Ashfield, 4th Jan 1933
Gordon Selfridge did offer to cover half the costs if the passenger numbers were not met, but the two top men at London Underground were unmoved.
“not what we would consider an attractive scheme,”
Lord Ashfield, 1st Feb 1933
Part of the reason was also that having spent so much upgrading Bond Street station, in financial terms it had to earn its keep. Putting a new ticket hall inside Selfridges basement would have meant some ticket sales occurring there rather than inside the rebuilt ticket hall — and in accountancy terms, would push the Bond Street station rebuild into a financial loss.
Today, such issues would not affect the decision, but at the time, it was normal for tube stations to essentially earn their own keep, regardless of any wider benefit to the tube line as a whole.
There is also a claim that Selfridges once tried to rename Bond Street station after the store, but there’s no evidence for that. However, in the parlance of the time, a separate booking hall was called a station, so it’s likely that as the letters talk about a new station in Selfridges, some confusion has occurred and someone once inferred that the entire station would be called Selfridges, not just the basement ticket hall.
The last correspondence is a lengthy letter concocted by Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick where they laid out the unpromising prospects for the tunnel.
“I do not feel that we should be justified in increasing our investment and taking risks beyond those to which we are already committed”
Lord Ashfield’s letter concluded though that if Mr Selfridge wants to pick up the bill himself, then he would be welcome to do so.
What Mr Selfridge’s response was is not recorded, but the absence of the tunnel tells us what the decision was, if not the probably ripe words used to convey it.
The tunnel remains as elusive as ever.