London Underground lost property
Time Out rummages through the umbrellas, false teeth and unclaimed wheelchairs at London Transport‘s legendary lost property office in Baker Street
Tucked around the side of Baker Street station, and appropriately just across the street from super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes’ fictitious residence, London Underground’s fabled Lost Property Office (LPO) has been a fixture since 1933, a time when people didn’t leave the house without a hat and gloves – and therefore frequently did leave the tube without them. The office collects, collates and returns lost items, not just found on the tube, but on buses, the DLR, at Victoria Coach station and in the city’s black cabs.
The front desk and office behind it look ordinary enough; it’s downstairs, in the underground storage rooms, where you realise you’re somewhere quite unique. This is the domain of grinning Australian Ted Batchelor, the LPO’s supervisor who agreed to show us round.
In the biggest storage room, one wall that appears to be decked out in bright, primary-coloured bunting, turns out to be made up of scores of schoolbags discarded by careless kids. Round the corner, similar numbers of plastic lunchboxes are stacked. Schoolchildren with their heads in the clouds are one thing, but the number of forgotten pushchairs here is staggering – many of them of the expensive variety and few claimed back. Unusual items – souvenirs of the job – are arranged around the room to liven up the space. A four-foot Mickey Mouse is propped up in one corner, a small meeting room is decorated with creepy voodoo masks, and a purple ballgown hangs incongruously from a shelving unit stuffed with scarves. A glittering noticeboard turns out on closer inspection to be hundreds of key rings. The less said about a large tray of false teeth, gummy-pink and gory, the better.
Mickey Mouse (not the office's four-foot version) remains cheerful despite being placed near a Nazi hat
Thankfully there is no sign of the breast implants a courier once left on the Circle Line while heading to a Harley Street clinic. They were claimed back and are now walking around somewhere, their owner unaware of how well-travelled her chest is. Another part of the storage area is introduced with the words ‘We do miracles too’. Dozens of pairs of crutches and almost as many wheelchairs line the wall. ‘They couldn’t walk when they got on the tube, but something must have happened by the time they got off,’ Batchelor says drily.
Poking around, you get the impression that nothing much has changed in the past seventy-odd years. Except, of course, it has: almost everything is replaced every three months. What seems to remain constant is the propensity of the capital’s residents and visitors to lose almost anything, regardless of size, importance or worth. London’s most absent-minded route is the Piccadilly Line, which, with Heathrow airport at one end, has more than its fair share of major finds. Batchelor remembers one woman being tearfully reunited with her wedding dress, just purchased in Peru. He also tells me that only a couple of days earlier a man managed to lose six full-size dress mannequins on the tube. Somewhat predictably, the doors had closed just as he lifted the last one onto the carriage and they’d been whisked away without him. He understandably assumed such an unconventional cargo would be picked up at the end of the line but they haven’t been seen since. The case is still ‘live’ (within its three months investigation period), but Batchelor’s professional instinct tells him they are gone and lost forever.
The sort of toys most people are too ashamed to admit they've misplaced
From this little vignette, you’d assume that Londoners won’t only lose anything that isn’t screwed down, they’ll also nick it. Almost more surprising are those who are scrupulously honest. ‘We get several single pound coins handed in each week,’ says office manager Julie Haley. ‘It’s remarkable. It restores your faith in human nature.’ At the wealthier end of the spectrum, people have also handed in suitcases and bags full of crisp new notes, £10,000 worth on one occassion.
A wedding dress
The office has a high success rate of reuniting owners with their possessions (of the 27,000 handbags handed in last year, 40 per cent were returned) and prides itself on being pro-active; if it can trace someone from their lost property rather than waiting for a call, it will. When a lost walking stick turned up engraved with a church’s address it rang up the vicar and invited him to come in and claim the missing item if it was his. The trouble was, he couldn’t remember losing anything except, after much head-scratching, a walking stick he’d last seen ten years before. The LPO can only surmise that it’s a case of karma in action; whoever picked it up and kept it when the vicar initially lost it had used it for a decade before losing it themselves.
Another long-term success story involved an 80-year-old man who was reunited with his brother’s ashes five years after the cremation. Following the funeral in Germany, he’d been mugged at Heathrow, and with his stolen suitcase went the precious urn which the muggers abandoned. When the LPO received the urn, all it had to work on was a tiny reference to a German crematorium. Staff wrote a letter, got it translated and started up a long-distance correspondence. When the urn was finally returned, the d man said it had been the perfect send-off for his maverick brother.
Forgotten cans of booze
To manage the daily influx, the LPO has to be supremely organised. It takes 39 permanent staff manning the phones, working front-of-house and sorting. There is also a dedicated fleet of drivers kept busy five days a week collecting the transport network’s forgotten booty: 600 items a day and a total of 150,000 a year. The cost of running such an operation – in addition to the cost of renting storage space in central London – is funded by regular auctions for the higher-value unclaimed items and by the small reclamation charge (from £1 for an umbrella to £20 for a laptop).
Books, a classic car and hazardous items keep this miserable clown company
If someone has been contacted about an item, it immediately gets a bright green tag. After the three months are up, all but the most precious, unique and weird items (and Arsenal ephemera, held onto for the office ‘shrine’ to the Gunners) are given to charity if they’re not going to auction. Stationery items – hundreds of half-used biros and pads – get used up in the office. Weapons, reassuringly rare (though perhaps you would be more careful…), are handed to the police. In some cases, the LPO might gather items for a particular cause – footballs, shin pads and new boots for an underfunded youth team, for instance. Perishables are thrown away, but duty-free cigarettes and booze – and there are plenty of both – are sold on.
A gory tray of abandoned false teeth
It turns out that even casual monitoring of the daily haul provides an accurate snapshot of what people are buying, reading and using – as well as losing – in the outside world. In addition to the predictable upturn in umbrellas when it’s wet and caps when the sun’s out, it seems that tennis rackets multiply when Wimbledon’s on. Just-bought shopping is often left behind, from toothbrushes and groceries to TVs. It was easy to spot the Dan Brown phenomenon as it got going, as well as the skinny-jean trend, and to work out what the latest ‘in’ gadget is, staff just wait for them to start flooding in.
The office also has its repeat offenders. One man, fond of a drink or two on a Friday night before catching the night bus home, has become infamous having lost and reclaimed three bags in a row. As Batchelor says, ‘It’s amazing enough that he’s lost three bags on the same bus – but what nobody can believe is that he’s got all of them back too.’
What to do if you’ve lost somethingGet in touch with the staff at London Transport Lost Property Office, based at 200 Baker St, W1. Call 0845 330 9882 or check www.tfl.gov.uk/LPO for more information. The offices are open Mon-Fri 8.30am-4pm.
How to purchase unclaimed itemsGreasbys Auctioneers & Valuers, 211 Longley Rd, SW17 (020 8672 2972/ www.greasbys.co.uk) Tooting Broadway tube. Auctions are held roughly once a month. Check website for details of next sale. Note: London Transport’s items are not distinguished from other sale items.
Now where did I leave my…The LPO’s most unusual finds:False teethFalse eyesReplacement limbsTwo-and-a-half hundredweight of sultanas/currantsLawn mowerChinese typewriterBreast implantsFour-foot teddy bearTheatrical coffinWheelchairsCrutchesStuffed eagle14-foot boatDivan bedOutboard motorWater skisPark benchGrandfather clockBishop’s crookGarden slideInflatable dollJar of bull’s spermUrn of ashesThree dead bats in containerGas maskTibetan bellStuffed puffa fishVasectomy kitHarpoon gunTwo human skulls in a bag
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