A symbol that fell from grace

Saturday, January 25th 2014

Early last December, we paid a visit to Hornchurch and Upminster, as I recounted in A quick look at Upminster and Hornchurch. What I did not mention there was that as we were travelling by bus between those two places, we happened to glance into the entrance of a tube station and there saw something in the decor that startled us. We made a note to visit the station another day to take a better look.

What we had seen was a decorative motif executed in floor tiles in the atrium or entrance hall of the tube station. What was so special and so surprising about that? Stations on the London Underground were built at various dates and in various architectural styles and there are many different styles of decoration to be seen within them. Why should one startle us more than another? The simple answer is that the motif or symbol in question, once popular in Britain and Europe for decorative purposes, and still widely seen in Asia, had fallen from grace for political reasons and is today still regarded with fear and horror by many people.

Hornchurch Station
Hornchurch Station
The wrong one

There are some days when nothing seems to go quite right. I expect you known the sort of thing I mean. You are trying to do something but your efforts continually misfire and you have to keep starting again.

To start with, we were sure that what we wanted to see was at Hornchurch tube station. We took a bus to the Monument and from there, a District Line train bound for Upminster, disembarking at the third stop from the end of the line. This is quite a long journey but we sat it out patiently and eventually reached our destination.

“Have your camera ready,” whispered Tigger as we left the train and headed for the stairs to the exit. Her caution was justified because London Underground seems to have banned photography on its property and while I see people happily clicking away with camera phones without let or hindrance, if I try to take a photo with my camera, a member of the station staff is almost certain to spring out of the woodwork shouting “No photos! No photos!” This was possibly going to be a “click and run” job!

Hauling ourselves up the steps, we arrived at the ticket barrier. But… where was what we were looking for? It wasn’t there. Oops, we had come to the wrong station!

The District Line at Hornchurch
The District Line at Hornchurch
The Underground often runs above the ground

Which, then, was the right station? As we had spotted our quarry on the way from Upminster to Hornchurch, the answer seemed to be that the station we wanted was in between the two. That would be Upminster Bridge. Right, no problem, let’s go to Upminster Bridge.

“It can’t be far,” said Tigger. “Let’s walk.” So we started walking. We went on walking and then we walked some more. “Tube stations tend to be farther apart out here in the sticks than they are in the city,” I remarked, casually. “You’re right,”said Tigger, “It’s further than I thought. We’d better take the bus.”

While Tigger was trying to work out what bus we should catch and where we should catch it from, we spied an elderly couple, obviously locals, and sought their advice on transport. Pleasant people were they, and only too happy to help. Following their advice we caught the indicated bus and sat down to wait for our destination to appear. We waited rather a long time and then realized: we were going in the wrong direction! Our advisors had misunderstood our destination and unwittingly sent us on a wild goose chase. (Not that we saw any geese, wild or otherwise.)

Co-operative Store
Co-operative Store
Elm Park

We got off the bus in Elm Park. We had a quick look around and I took a photo of this building that must once have been a major Co-operative store, though I do not know its date or anything about it. There is a single-storey extension, in the same style, making the corner though this is now a pharmacy and apparently no longer  part of the Co-op.

Upminster Bridge Station
Upminster Bridge Station
The right one

We took a bus back in the opposite direction. It was fun seeing again lots of things we had seen on the outward journey – or so we told ourselves! At last we arrived where we had wanted to get to all along: Upminster Bridge Station.

Upminster Bridge Station looks like a typical suburban Underground station of 1930s vintage. Built in the 1930s it certainly was, but not by London Underground. It was built by the London Midlands & Scottish Railway (LMS) in 1934 though I think the track always belonged to the Metropolitan Railway (one of the lines of the present Underground network).

Entrance hall
Entrance hall
Upminster Bridge Station

We readied our cameras in case we met hostile station staff and would have to “click and run”. In the event, we saw nobody and had a clear field. In the above photo, you can see what had surprised us when seen from the bus: in the middle of the floor, made of tiles, is a swastika! Why is there a swastika in a London tube station, albeit one built in the 1930s?

Swastika motif
Swastika motif
A commonly used design before the Second World War

The lazy answer, of course, is “Why not?” Until the swastika became notorious as the symbol of the German Nazi Party, it was a commonly used motif in decoration. Even in 1934, when the station was built, the motif had not yet become infamous. We should also point out that the version of the swastika used by the Nazis was in any case rather different (for example, see here).

The symbol is very ancient and appears in the iconography of several Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Its name derives from a Sanskrit word that is usually transcribed as svastika and it stands for good luck and auspiciousness. It was doubtless used for decoration in Europe as a meaningless shape whose symmetry appealed to Art Deco designers. The presence of a now notorious symbol of German Nazism in an English tube station may seem strange – even shocking – at first sight, but in reality is not so surprising after all.

The Civic Centre
The Civic Centre
Formerly Dagenham Town Hall

Having satisfied our curiosity with regard to Upminster Bridge tube station, we started back for home but stopped off in Dagenham. Prior to the 1965 reorganization of London boroughs, Dagenham was an independent Municipal Borough within the county of Essex. From 1965, it has been combined with Barking to make the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. The Art Deco building shown above is known today as The Civic Centre but was originally Dagenham Town Hall. The Coat of Arms of Dagenham, with its motto JUDGE US BY OUR DEEDS is still proudly displayed over the main door.

Main door Coat of Arms of Dagenham
“Judge us by our Deeds”
The Coat of Arms of Dagenham

This impressively huge town hall was designed in 1930 by E. Berry Webber in the then popular Art Deco style. The foundation stone was laid in July 1936 and the building formally opened in October 1937. The original plan called for a complex comprising town hall, fire station and public library. While the town hall itself and the fire station were completed, the library unfortunately never became a reality.

Civic pride and optimism
Civic pride and optimism
Have they gone to waste?

In Greater London, one finds many old town halls that ceased to have that function as a result of the 1965 reorganization. All are of interest architecturally and historically but few are as big as this one. It speaks clearly of civic pride and optimism for the future and I feel there is something sad about the way this has been swept aside. Those present at the opening ceremony could hardly have suspected that a mere 28 years later, having endured the Second World War in the meantime, the Borough would cease to exist and the town hall would be relegated to a subsidiary role. Contemplating this once proud structure, we cannot but experience a certain feeling of vulnerability as we wonder what other changes await us in the future.

Copyright © 2014 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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11 Responses to A symbol that fell from grace

  1. WOL says:

    The town hall is a rather handsome building. I like the clean lines of Deco. As for the swastika, the Native Americans used the symbol also, although I think the arms of theirs went in the opposite direction. You look to have been in a more spacious part of the city with a more horizontal spread and a lot less vertical spread.


    • SilverTiger says:

      The symbol is ancient and appears in many cultures. Native Americans could have brought it with them from Asia or even have reinvented it.

      Dagenham Town Hall certainly is an impressive building, much better than some of the monstrosities built more recently. The open aspect perhaps derives from the fact that it stands on the edge of parkland.


  2. Urban Fox says:

    Was writing a blog post about Camden Passage and saw your blog. Love your blog and love living in Islignton too!


  3. Jeff says:

    Great to see someone taking these places seriously and approaching them with curiosity. If you’d have come by in the 1980s, of course, you might have come across a few NF scrawls, but they might not have had the wit to be placed anywhere near the deco tiling.
    I’m going to have a look at some more of your travels. I couldn’t help but wonder how your post might have been had you arranged to explore the inside of the town hall in advance. Have to admit I vaguely recall going in when I was very, very young. Can’t remember anything about the visit, alas.


    • SilverTiger says:

      You could say we approach all of our subjects “seriously and with enjoyment”.

      For a while in the 1930s, the swastika peace symbol was quite popular and appeared in many buildings. Unfortunately, people using those buildings today often feel constrained to remove them. It seems that people don’t have the discriminatory ability to distinguish between a politically charged Nazi symbol and an innocent peace symbol. Thus does bigotry lead to vandalism.

      The Civic Centre or Old Town Hall was locked up solid or we would have asked if we might have a peep inside. We have done this with success elsewhere on a number of occasions.


  4. Nigel says:

    Why did you not get the District fro Elm Park?

    Station was managed by LMS TO 1948, Btitish Railways (then Rail) until 1969, then London Transport. But only District Line trains ever called there. The Metropolitan Line never went east of Barking.


  5. Nigel says:

    You could have got the District from Elm Park. Easy to say for those who live in the area!

    Station was managed by LMS TO 1948, Btitish Railways (then Rail) until 1969, then London Transport. But only District Line trains ever called there. Being pedantic, the Metropolitan Line never went east of Barking. But the original name of The District Railway was The Metropolitan District Railway. I don’t know when rlMetropolitan was formally dropped from the title, it may have been 1933 on the setting up of London Transport.


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