A History of Aldgate East, the Tube Station We Love to Hate

The history of Aldgate East captured my imagination. I’m a huge fan of the tube. Ever since my first day in London I fell in love with its iconic design and the convenience of travelling from one end of London to another so quickly. I found the frequency of the tube very impressive. I came from a city where it was normal to wait 30 minutes for the next train. As they say, you know you have become a Londoner when you become impatient waiting 5 minutes for a tube. Although it is expensive, there is no denying the tube is easy to navigate and has most of London connected.

But, of course, there is a but. Many people have their gripes with TFL, whether it is about the price of fares or recurring signal failures. My biggest gripe is with the London tube station Aldgate East station….

A History of Aldgate East

Aldgate East services two tube lines, the Hammersmith & City line (H&C) and District line. But there are always delays and the technology doesn’t work so it’s a wonder why it stays open.

History of Aldgate East
Aldgate East is in the borough of Tower Hamlets and close to The City of London

During peak times, the westbound H&C line is most popular because the next station is Liverpool Street, where everyone then alights for their city jobs or to change for the Central line. In peak times, the H&C trains should run approximately every 10 minutes but they never do, causing the platform to build up with lots of people until a tube finally arrives. At that point everyone is pushing and shoving to get on the carriage because they don’t want to wait another 10+ minutes for the next train.

The most annoying part is not the wait, but that with all the modern technology available this remains practically the only station not to indicate the train schedule or even what train is next on the platform sign. The sign always has the standard “District Line and Hammersmith & City Line Trains” which means you just need to wait and see what turns up. Staff working at the station are equipped with iPad’s listing the schedules, however whenever you ask them how long will the next H&C train be they are either not bothered or incorrect.

When you finally board the tube there is always a 3-5 minute hold up in the tunnel before it reaches the next stop. It is terribly uncomfortable to be packed tightly in the carriage and held in a dark tunnel for several minutes, just praying your shirt won’t get too creased and you won’t smell too sweaty by the time you get to work. The reason for this has a little to do with the history of Aldgate East. The original Aldgate East station built in 1884 was situated between Aldgate station and Commercial Street and it was moved to accommodate the addition of the Metropolitan line. When you are invariably held in this tunnel, you are actually waiting where the old station once stood, and giving way to Metropolitan line trains bound for Aldgate that are held here and which always get the right of way to pass first.

However my biggest annoyance with Aldgate East are its exits. It has four exits and the exits towards Whitechapel (near Bricklane and London MET) are the first to close in the evening, and are sometimes closed for no apparent reason during the morning as well. These are the closest exits to the majority of flats and council housing. The western exits are where the fancy new Aldgate high rise apartments and offices are. Ironically these western exits once led to the poorer housing and infamous Dorset Street as well as Toynbee Hall, home to a charity started in the early 18th century aimed at bridging the class gap in the locality.

History of Aldgate East
One of the eastern exits near Whitechapel Gallery

Now given what a pain it is to commute from Aldgate East station, I rarely do it. I go to Aldgate station, which is a few blocks further up, or walk 18 minutes to Liverpool street. However there is the rare occasion when I’m running very late for something important and decide to give Aldgate East a chance, like what happened to me very recently. I had slept in and was rushing out the door. As I passed Aldgate East station first, I ran down the stairs to find the eastern exit locked. I then ran to the next exit and enquired with staff how long the next H&C train would be, they said 4 minutes. Based on this, I swiped in and waited on the platform for more than 15 minutes for the train to arrive. When it finally did, I squeezed my way onto one of the heaving carriages only to be held in the tunnel for a further 5 minutes before I could change at Liverpool Street. It caused me to be even more late!

But it is not all negative as Aldgate East station has an interesting design feature, which makes it worthwhile to keep open. Its platforms are dotted with relief tiles specially designed by Harold Stabler and produced by Pool Pottery, depicting typically British scenes and symbols. It has become a pastime of many to spot the unique tiles whilst waiting for the H&C tube to arrive. Two tiles I have found include one of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and another of Westminster, zoomed in below.

History of Aldgate East
Tile depicting Westminster along with two royal crowns and a bowlers hat
History of Aldgate East
Representation of St Paul’s Cathedral

Harold Stabler’s designs can also be found at Bethnal Green, St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage, and Antje Bird identified a total of 18 different designs across all these stations. Most curious are why these particular stations were selected and the associations of some tiles with Middlesex. The tile of Thomas Lord was a ground staff bowler at Middlesex Cricket Ground, and the trio of blades is emblematic of Middlesex county.

History of Aldgate East
Harold Stabler tile designs found at Aldgate East, Bethnal Green, Swiss Cottage and St John’s Wood stations

Why go to Aldgate East?

Rant over, although the station might sometimes cause grief the area itself is fantastic and there are many reasons to alight at Aldgate East, including:

  1. Whitechapel Art Gallery
  2. Bricklane
  3. Jack The Ripper Walk
  4. Petticoat Lane
  5. Spitalfields Market
  6. Tayyabs Restaurant
  7. Blind Beggar Pub
  8. Whitechapel Hospital Museum
  9. The Bell Foundry
  10. Street Art
History of Aldgate East
Street Art: a mural of an elephant-octopus creature by Puerto Rican artist Alexis Diaz on Bricklane

Other Stations We Love to Hate

Because it has four platforms with all tubes heading westbound, and as the platform signs showing the train schedule are ALWAYS wrong, you are never sure which tube to board to depart first.

Covent Garden
It is always overpacked with tourists and there are no escalators so it can take a long time to exit the station as you must queue for the lift.

Changing from Piccadilly to Central line and vice versa is always painful here, because there are too many escalators and stairs to navigate.

Baker Street
Most famous for having lots of mice running across the tracks and on the platform.

Bethnal Green
Because regardless of the season, there are always a biting cold gusts of wind near the station exit. It is particularly unpleasant to exit the station when it’s freezing in winter or raining.

The featured image is an anime scene of Ho-Kago Tea Time at Aldgate East station.

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