The lost Independent: A railway station sign that’s a piece of journalism history

Bexleyheath station
This old Kentish Independent sign survives at Bexleyheath station 34 years after the paper’s closure

Not a word from 853‘s turf investment advisor and special correspondent MERCURY MAN for a while. Can only assume he’s had a bad few weeks in the betting shop. But we’ve got none other than MERCURY WOMAN to step into the breach (apologies, MW, we’re struggling with the artwork…)

Mercury WomanA few years ago I was on a train that stopped at Bexleyheath station. Out of the window, I saw a hoarding for the now defunct Kentish Independent newspaper saying it was the best weekly read on the bookstand.

That hoarding took me straight back to the summer of 1969 when I went for my first ever job interview for a cub reporter’s job at the Woolwich-based KI with its wonderful and enigmatic editor, Charlie King.

I sidled into his cubby-hole of an office as a nervous 18-year-old straight from A-levels and was confronted by Charlie’s back. He was leaning out of the window feeding a pigeon! (In months to come, Charlie called this pigeon Percy.)

Charlie King, who lived on Shooters Hill, was the much-loved editor of the Kentish Independent

It was a strange start to the interview and got even stranger as pipe-smoking Charlie sat down at his desk and told me he was struggling over one of the cryptic clues in the Times crossword that apparently he did every day. None of this was what I’d been told to expect at an interview so I was a bit unnerved.

Charlie asked me a few basic questions and then went on to outline a couple of story scenarios and asked me what questions I would ask as a reporter on the scene, and what my intro would be to each story.

One scenario was a major fire at Woolwich’s busiest department store Cuff’s (remember that?) and the other was about a prize-giving at a local school that had had outstanding results where the headmaster (in his enthusiasm) had fallen off the stage (“Stage flight”? – Ed).

While I was pondering all this and offering up some very “green” suggestions, Charlie went back to his crossword. He relit his signature pipe and started mumbling that a clue he was struggling with should be “glitters” but that it didn’t fit with his other answers. “I’ve got an ‘s’ and an ‘n’,” he said.

Glad of a distraction from fires and stumbling headmasters, I piped up. “Could it be glistens?”

Kentish Indepdendent
The KI in the summer of 1969. Work started on the Thames Barrier five years later

Charlie’s eyes bulged, he sucked enthusiastically on his pipe, and “glistens” was duly put into 15 across, completing the crossword. And I got the job!

I spent the next five years at the glorious KI and never did come across a headmaster who fell off the platform at prizegiving. But as I learned my trade (which also took me to the Mercury!) I could see where Charlie was coming from.

So it was little wonder that seeing that station hoarding filled me with such nostalgia that I wanted to get my hands on it.

The last KI rolled off the presses in the early 1980s so it was strange that the advert was still up in the station and I assumed British Rail had overlooked the fact that “the best weekly read on the bookstand” hadn’t been available for some 30-odd years!

I emailed various railway press offices outlining my links with the KI and offered to write them a story for their magazine, line up a few old KI journalists, etc etc, and get a photographer along to take a pic of the sign coming down and being handed over.

But it wasn’t to be. I got more of a brush-off than leaves on the line!

Kentish Indpendent
Greenwich Council opposing turning the A20 into a motorway in 1969. The dog in a pub is in the Union Tavern, Woolwich, which closed in 2003.

Intrepid as ever (No digressions. She should be given this column – Ed), I then had a word with the affable ticket office chappie at Blackheath station who told me to jot it all down and he’d pass my request on personally to the regional manager for the area.

But I was derailed again. The upshot of this was that staff were told to forage through old station cupboards and backrooms at all stations on the line on the lookout for any old station signs that could be worth money!

I can only assume that my dogged pursuit of the old KI hoarding has now given it artefact status and that it will remain rigidly screwed to the wall at Bexleyheath station for years to come!

Mercury WomanSo if you’re at Bexleyheath and have a moment to spare, please ask for a copy of “the best weekly read on the bookstand”. It will make dear Charlie smile.

853 would like to thank the excellent Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre at Bexleyheath Library for access to the Kentish Independent, stepping into the gap left behind by the Greenwich archive’s sudden closure this summer.

Got a story or a tip for Mercury Man or Mercury Woman? Drop them a line at mercuryman.853[at]gmail.com or leave a comment below.

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One comment

  1. Great reminisce Darryl. Maybe better to suggest the sign is donated to a local history museum ? LB Bexley ?

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