Sudbury Town – neon on the Underground

At the London Transport Museum’s Night Shift exhibition, the story of a city emerging into light following the First World War is told through posters and photographs. One compelling image is of Sudbury Town station which, in 1931, became the first and only Underground stop with a neon sign.

In the 1920s, during London’s gradual recovery after the First World War, the city literally began to brighten up. Lighting became more prevalent as a feature of architectural design, while neon started to be used as an advertising tool. In 1923, the first electric billboards were installed at Piccadilly Circus.

The London Transport Museum’s current Night Shift exhibition looks at the city after dark and how the travel network served both those who worked long into the night and those fortunate enough to enjoy its entertainments for even longer. While above ground, posters enticed theatre-goers and jazz fans into an increasingly flood-lit environment, in the Underground system itself, rat catchers and fluff collectors worked under electric light to keep the network moving.

Flood lighting even became a form of entertainment with Underground stations being completely lit up. The most brilliant example of this is Sudbury Town station, which opened in 1931. Encapsulating Charles Holden’s modernist approach to LU architecture (it is now Grade II listed) the building also reflected the potential of electric light. On opening, it became the only station on the network to have neon station signs – one on the front facade, the other on the platform side.

Brighter London for Theatreland by Harold Sandys Williamson, 1924
Brighter London for Theatreland by Harold Sandys Williamson, 1924

“In 1921, well known ‘Jazz Age’ figures and celebrities, including the retail magnate Gordon Selfridge, and the famous artist Christopher R.W. Nevinson decided to establish a society called ‘Brighter London’,” says Veronica Dominiak, curator of Night Shift. “The society aimed to tackle issues such as improved lighting for buildings and public spaces. The Brighter London theme carried on throughout the 1920s, inspiring Underground poster artists amongst others.”

Dominiak says that the development of high-powered floodlights lit up the city and enabled new forms of evening entertainment. “Greyhound racing by electric light was introduced in 1927 and London Zoo offered late night opening in 1935,” she adds. At the same, attempts to establish a unified national electricity supply in Britain began with the Electricity (Supply) Act of 1926 and architects began to exploit the properties of lighting into their designs.

“In 1931 many public buildings in London were floodlit for an International Illumination Congress”, says Dominiak. “The event marked the centenary of Michael Faraday’s first experiments with electricity and pulled together various researchers, scientists, designers to discuss advances in lighting. At this congress it was established that ‘There is now an Architecture of the night’.”

Floodlighting by Harold Sandys Williamson, 1931
Floodlighting by Harold Sandys Williamson, 1931

London Transport commissioned posters to advertise all of these events – the greyhound racing by electric light, the Late Night Zoo, and the Illumination congress – with Sudbury Town’s neon signage going up in the year of the prestigious event.

“Charles Holden made dramatic use of electric light in the stations he designed in the 1930s,” says Dominiak. “Some of the illuminated station facades, especially on the Piccadilly line extension, mimicked the bright lights of the West End. Not only did they beautify the space, they also created a warm and welcoming atmosphere and provided an effective advertising tool for the Underground.”

The neon signs at Sudbury Town were in place until 1958, while the station itself remains one of the best preserved examples of Holden’s design philosophy. According to Historic England, the body that maintains the National Heritage List for England (NHLE), the Sudbury Town ‘box’ was the prototype for Holden’s ground-breaking modernist designs for the Piccadilly Line during the 30s.

“These were of great importance for introducing rational modern design based on Continental models to a wider public and for imposing a brand image to buildings and design when this was still novel,” runs the station’s list entry summary. “They were widely praised in the architectural press at the time and still remain influential today.”

Night Shift – London After Dark runs until 10 April 10 2016 and is part of the London by Design season. The individual ticket price is £16 and a special London by Design Pass is available at £20, allowing visitors the chance to view the Night Shift exhibition as well as other events and exhibitions throughout the season.

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