Charles Holden, London Underground architect: a passion for beauty and for service

For Londoners and visitors alike navigating our great metropolis is likely to involve a descent into the earth, a tremendous gust of whistling wind and a warm, rattling rush beneath the familiar streets of this city. Our experiences of life in London are shaped by those journeys – by the trains, the passenger information systems and the design of the stations and interchanges.

This year sees the 150th anniversary of the London tube: the world’s very first underground train made its first passenger journey from Paddington to Farringdon on 9 January 1863. The anniversary will be marked by all sorts of celebrations, including heritage outings and events organised by the London Transport Museum (Tube150) and a conference at the Centre for Metropolitan History at London University  (Going Underground, 17-18 January, Institute of Historical Research).

Arnos Grove Underground Station

Arnos Grove Underground Station. Photograph by jelm6 on Flickr

One name which will come up again and again during the anniversary year is that of the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960), who designed numerous tube stations during the 1920s and 30s, commissioned by Frank Pick, general manager of the Underground Electrical Railways Company of London.  Holden was the architect of the remarkable London Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway, SW1 (the tallest steel framed office building in London when it opened in 1929, and later listed as one of “Pevsner’s Fifty”), as well as tube stations from Cockfosters to Morden, Sudbury Town to Wanstead. In addition to his stations he also designed equipment and furniture, and made a great contribution towards a coherent visual identity for the underground system.

While many of Holden’s stations have been completely remodelled in the intervening decades, most visitors to London will have passed through some of them. Who has been to London and not wandered around the underground booking hall and circulating area at  Piccadilly Circus, designed by Charles Holden (completed in 1928 at a cost of over half a million pounds)?

Charles Holden by Benjamin Nelson

Charles Holden, by Benjamin Nelson. Oil on canvas, 1910. National Portrait Gallery NPG 6808
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Charles Holden and his partner Margaret Macdonald (who wrote books and articles on country life as Margaret Holden) lived at Harmer Green, Hertfordshire, from 1907 until the end of their lives, and attended Hertford Quaker Meeting, although neither were formal members of the Society of Friends.  Margaret served with the Friends Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in Distress during World War One. Holden described himself as “nine-tenths Quaker”, and after his death in 1960, his ashes were scattered in the garden at Hertford Friends’ Meeting House

Apart from his work for the London Underground, Holden’s architectural legacy includes the former British Medical Association Headquarters on the Strand (now Zimbabwe House), notorious at the time for the sculptures of nude figures by Jacob Epstein representing the development of science and the ages of man (Epstein’s first major commission). The public uproar against nudity in Epstein’s sculptures did nothing to discourage Holden from commissioning him for the London Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway (besides sculptures by Eric Gill, Henry Moore and Samuel Rabinovitch, among others), and he wished he could have used his work again in the design of London University’s iconic and controversial Senate House.

Jacob Epstein Day and Night

Jacob Epstein’s Day and Night (1928) Portland Stone, carved for London Underground Headquarters at 55 Broadway.
Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 29 September 2004, from Wikimedia Commons
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Which leads one to wonder – how different might Friends House have looked, had the architect been Charles Holden instead of Hubert Lidbetter?

Charles Holden’s style changed over his career, but was distinguished by simplicity and modernity. Nikolas Pevsner credits his underground stations with helping to “pave the way for the twentieth-century style in England” (An outline of European architecture, 7th ed., Pelican, 1963). To quote himself, Holden had a “passion for building and for service … [and] an invincible belief in the power of the human soul, the God in man, to rise above and master ugliness and desolating conditions.” (Adams, Holden and Pearson archive, RIBA BAL, AHP/28/23/1)

Further reading

In the Library:

Christian Barman, The man who built London Transport: a biography of Frank Pick. Newton Abbott: David & Charles, 1979

Eitan Karol, Charles Holden, architect. Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2007

David Lawrence, Bright underground spaces: the railway stations of Charles Holden. Harrow Weald: Capital Transport Publishing, 2008

Edward H. Milligan, Quakers and railways. York: Sessions, 1992

Charles Holden, Letter from Charles Holden, London, to Samuel Graveson (11 December 1932) Samuel Graveson Papers.  Temp MSS 58/3/6  (“Dear Mr Graveson, You can ask me to design anything from a railway station to a university and I might be able to make somewhat of a charitable[?] job of it – but please oh! Please don’t  make me talk about it!”)


Charles Hutton, ‘Holden, Charles Henry (1875-1960)’, revised by Alan Crawford. In Oxford Dictionary of national biography. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online edition Oct. 2007. (accessed January 2013)

David Burnell, A Quaker and the underground. London Historians, 2011. Online document. (accessed January 2013)

‘Charles Holden’. In Wikipedia. (accessed January 2013)

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7 Responses to Charles Holden, London Underground architect: a passion for beauty and for service

  1. wynnquaker says:

    An excellent coherent piece about Charles Holden. Thank you.
    I did not know the name before this.

  2. linyangchen says:

    The impact Charles Holden had – and still has – on London is indeed significant. To think that we continue to be able to commute through and enjoy the very station that inspired the Moscow Metro and possibly even the Singapore metro (one of our stations has a ticket concourse that resembles that of Piccadilly Circus)!

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thanks for your comment Yangchen Lin, and good luck with your upcoming London Underground photo exhibition!

      • linyangchen says:

        Thanks very much for your wishes. Holden’s work has not failed to catch my attention time and again in the course of my Tube exploration.

  3. Judith Jennings says:

    Thanks so much for this timely and most informative post.

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thank you for the encouraging comment Judy. We aim to be informative without being indigestible…

  4. I used to travel to Cockfosters Tube Station occasionally. I react strongly to architecture and when I fist got of the tube and walked along the platform toward the ticket hall I though ‘Wow, this is really special”. It has an extraordinary simplicity and functionality of design.

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