It seems that this is a year for anniversaries. Our local volunteer-run newspaper is celebrating twenty years of reporting on East Finchley, and the London Underground is now 150 years old. You don’t have to look very far to spot the link between the two.
For over seventy years, the iconic archer statue has overlooked the Tube station and the suburb, becoming the symbol of East Finchley. ‘Archie’ has inspired the names of our local paper and the new free school, features on the benches on the High Road and even represented the London Borough of Barnet on one of a series of 2012 Olympics commemorative pin-badges.
“Brilliantly sited, fantastically realised, impishly styled and enduringly relevant, the archer sums up pretty much everything worth celebrating about the Underground,” says blogger Ian Jones, whose study of the Tube’s “finest features, sensations and oddities” has become an online hit.
There has been a station at East Finchley since 1867, when a railway linking Finsbury Park and Edgware opened. This later had branch lines to High Barnet and Alexandra Palace added and came under the control of London Transport in the 1930s, when the plan was to electrify the railway and make it a part of the Northern Line. This was just a part of the Northern Heights plan, under which the line would also be extended north from Edgware, from which trains would be able to run trains south via both Highgate and Golders Green. Highgate station was to become a multi-level station with the original (and still visible) ground-level platforms being used as well as new underground ones. To facilitate this, East Finchley needed to have four platforms as trains would be running south at both ground level and in the tunnel which was being extended north from Archway, the Northern Line’s original terminus (which was originally called Highgate but had its name changed in 1939 to avoid confusion with Highgate station).
The plan was certainly ambitious, and it took a combination of the Second World War and post-war Green Belt legislation to ensure that it was only partly realised. The line north of Edgware never happened, although you can still see the remains of what was going to be Brockley Hill station by the A41. Of the line between Finchley Central and Edgware, just the spur out to Mill Hill East was retained, and that was only as a matter of wartime expediency due to that station’s close proximity to Mill Hill barracks.
One part of the plan that did come to pass before the war put a stop to things was the rebuilding of East Finchley station with its four platforms, two of which are largely redundant now as the multi-level Highgate station (see above) didn’t become reality. The architect was Charles Holden (1875-1960), the man responsible for many of the Tube’s strikingly art deco stations that were built during the inter-war period.
He wanted several of the new or rebuilt stations on the Northern Line to have statues, and the sculptor Eric Aumonier (1899-1974) was commissioned in June 1939 to produce the East Finchley archer which, due to the war, was the only one to be completed. The decision to have him in a kneeling position, looking like he has just fired an arrow down the line to the entrance of what was then the longest railway tunnel in the world and still is the longest on the Tube (17.3 miles via the Bank branch), was deliberate. As a London Transport staff publication noted at the time: “It is more than a decorative device – it is powerful symbolism.”
As well as pointing out that Tube travel is fast and direct, the statue commemorates the fact that what is now East Finchley used to be a part of the ancient Forest of Middlesex and was the Bishop of London’s hunting ground in the Middle Ages. Further evidence of this can be seen locally in various street and pub names (Bishop’s Avenue, the Bald Faced Stag), and on the old Finchley Borough Council coat of arms which is visible on the façade of East Finchley Library.
Unveiled on 22nd July 1940, Archie is almost twice natural size and was made from six hundredweight (672 lbs, or just over 300 kg) of beech timber round a steel armature (whatever that is), covered by sheet lead. The bow was made by bending English ash with steam and coating it with copper and gilt. It’s reckoned that the sculpture was constructed in three sections which were assembled on-site.
As for his arrow, it is said that this was located at the other end of the tunnel (Morden) but it was stolen. However, as Morden station – another Holden design – predated the rebuilding of East Finchley station by over a decade, I suspect that this is an urban myth.
(NB: This piece is a significantly extended version of an article I wrote for The Archer which appears in the February 2013 edition.)