Lost your brolly? How about your teeth? Well, there’s a good chance that they ended up here, in Transport for London’s Lost Property Office. Eddy Frankel goes rummaging on thousands of shelves and gets a new insight into Londoners’ lives. Photography Rob Greig.
You know that feeling of sheer, undiluted panic when you realise that you’ve left your laptop/wallet/keys/iPod/grandfather’s ashes on the bus? That overwhelming rush of ‘oh shiiit’? Well, there’s a place for that. Halfway up Baker Street is Transport for London’s Lost Property Office, currently celebrating 80 years of reuniting kids with their cuddly toys and geeks with their replica swords (more on that later). On a drizzly November morning I take a trip into the labyrinthine, subterranean vault which houses the city’s forgotten detritus. Last year alone, around 232,000 pieces arrived. We Londoners, it seems, are a forgetful bunch.
Marilyn is the lady in charge, and she’s been watching all of our crap go in and out of her perfectly organised storerooms for 23 years, overseeing a team who meticulously label every brolly, bag and tin of beans left on London’s public transport. She’s the stern gatekeeper and she follows me around during my visit, making sure I don’t try to make off with a kid’s Pokémon backpack or a granny’s shopping trolley, while steering me away from stacks of jewellery and iPads. Most items are kept here for three months before being given to charity or sent to auction, but until then, this is their home.
What you encounter as you wander through the corridors is a portrait of the city in objects. And London is fucking weird-looking. In the corner is a stuffed gorilla in a Hawaiian shirt sitting in a wheelchair. There’s a sad-looking shelf of sex dolls, some seemingly trying to escape from their tawdry packaging. A hole cut in one of the boxes invites you to poke a finger in and feel the ‘realistic’ faux minge within, which is like stroking a dry slug. Next, I find a judge’s wig, which is not only filthy with some gavel-basher’s head dirt, but also suits me to a tee. Combined with the gas mask I discover in a nearby shopping trolley, I look like I’m about to preside over a dystopian future court: Rumpole doing a ‘Mad Max’ cameo. Further rummaging turns up a bright pink dildo, enough African masks and carvings to start an ethnographic museum, a creepy doll dressed as a nun, who will no doubt haunt my nightmares, and a bed headboard. How do you lose a bloody headboard? They’re massive. On one shelf I even find a London Underground public-announcement system. If the people who run London’s oldest lost property office lose stuff, what chance do the rest of us bozos have?
It’s an intimidating place, too. You can barely turn a corner in here without impaling yourself on some kind of replica sword – there are huge, rusty, medieval-looking ones, long, thin fencing ones, short, stubby Viking ones. Why do so many Londoners own swords? Why do so many Londoners then lose the damn things?
It’s not just the objects that are unusual, some of the staff have intriguing habits too, like the employee who has created a shrine to Arsenal out of lost memorabilia, or the fridge-magnet obsessive who has assembled his very own magnetised still life on a cabinet.
Despite all the unusual stuff packed into these rooms, it’s the ordinary things that are the most illuminating about Londoners. Last year, 20,309 mobile phones were handed in, along with 11,580 wallets and 10,790 sets of keys. That’s a lot of people who can’t get into their own homes, call locksmiths or pay for a hotel for the night. Shelves lined with countless crutches leave you wondering if the city’s public transport has some magical ability to cure broken legs (sadly it doesn’t). There are more brollies here than you can possibly imagine, shelf after shelf of the things. There’s an area dedicated to jewellery and fancy watches, gold brooches and expensive perfumes. There’s food and toiletries – stacks of bog roll, discarded tins of hot dogs, packets of chocolate digestives, huge containers of whey protein, all neatly labelled and awaiting their owners. Marilyn tells me that it’s not unusual for people to drop by and claim a single roll of toilet paper.
You’d imagine the temptation for staff members to half-inch the good stuff would be hard to resist, but Marilyn gives me a look that could turn a grape into a raisin and informs me, politely but firmly, that TfL staff are aware from day one that if they nick anything they find, they get the sack. ‘Even the biscuits?’ I ask. Her eyes say: ‘Yeah, mate, even the biscuits’, but I can’t believe that the odd Hobnob doesn’t go missing every once in a while. You can understand how most of these items might get accidentally left behind, but who forgets someone’s ashes? ‘Mr Johnston’, as staff call him, is the Lost Property Office’s third set of cremated remains. The last two have been reunited with their families, but despite much time and effort, no one has claimed poor Mr J, who was found going round and round the Circle line, a metaphor we can all relate to.
But there’s more life than death here. From countless Kindles to endless Oyster cards, all of London is on these shelves, waiting to be collected and taken home. If you’ve lost anything recently, it may be worth a trip down Baker Street, you never know what you’ll find.
TfL Lost Property Office, 200 Baker St, NW1 5RZ is open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-4pm.
It isn’t just objects that get lost, TfL found a kitten on the underground too!