London Bridge Door-slammer


By John Kolodziejski

John Kolodziejski was born Bolton, Lancashire, in 1953 – into what became a large Lancashire-Polish family.  After studying Politics and Sociology at Swansea University (1972-75) and then qualifying as a teacher at Weymouth.  He taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Madrid (1978-79).  In 1980 John worked as a teacher at the National Language Institute in revolutionary, war-torn Angola.  He continued in Luanda 1981-84 as a language instructor on a UN project for aircraft technicians, controllers and pilots at the city’s airport.  During his four years in Angola he developed skills as a Portuguese interpreter for the UN and the international press.  After three years teaching EFL in Notting Hill and Oxford St, and (unfruitful) computer studies in London, he moved to Brazil in 1987 to work as a journalist for the British and US press (FT Newsletters, Dow Jones Newswires, Wall Street Journal, Business Week and over 20 other economic titles) as well as undertaking documentary research for the BBC, Channel 4 and Australia’s ATV.  John also worked as a translator and interpreter for Amnesty International.  He returned frequently to Angola (2010-17) editing its English language international magazine ‘Universo’.  Since 1999 he has lived in Arnside.

BRITISH RAIL 1976-1977

My second longish stint in the capital began around September 1976.  I moved to Deptford, in south east London from Weymouth where I had hung on through that record-breaking long dry summer after a post-grad teacher training course.    The previous summer I had been on the dole there after leaving Swansea University and had ended September hitching to Portugal to see the army-led left-wing ‘Carnation Revolution’ in power.

The old borough of Deptford I knew well. My elder brother Steve moved there around 1973 and I’d visited his low rental council flat several times. He shared it with two other Kent University graduates and now worked, not at all keenly, as a Lewisham (an even larger London borough) housing trainee.   Unemployment was high enough in that area of London for there to be little pressure for me to take work.  Dole money, of around £8 a week I think, was then sufficient to feed me and pay for a couple of pints a night.

After a few months Steve’s one remaining Kent University flatmate moved out and so I had my own bedroom instead of the floor of a room he used for a storage/dark room to develop photographs.  Duvets, the lazy bed-maker’s friend, had just come into wider fashion along with fitted sheets. I made my own crude but functional curtains using big ‘donkey stiches’ to form a channel to thread the curtain wire through locally bought material.  The dark blue curtains kept the south facing room dark, protecting it from the heat and light of that balmy summer.

Autumn was approaching and I began looking for work in earnest.   I had just turned 23 and in the past few years until then had only had holiday jobs.  The last two were processing suspected fraudulent driving applications at the government licencing centre in the summer of 1973 in Swansea and the following summer at historic Bolton engineering works, Hick Hargreaves, in various roles covering for holidays.  Firstly on the gate house clocking in office and reception, then as a loo and canteen cleaner and finally as a fitter’s mate.  The last job enabled me and one young fitter to climb high on to the works’ roof and play chess untroubled by any chance of the rotund, cardiac works’ manager discovering our idle days.

At window level, 50 yards across a lawn behind our third floor council flat, was the grime-stained brick viaduct that carried two trains an hour in each direction on the Greenwich line, London’s oldest commuter line.  The passing electric train motors whirring sound was much quieter than the rhythmic rattle of its racking wheels over the track joints.  This world of London’s huge complex railways was to be mine.


Although I had just trained as a teacher I did not then feel any great attraction to the profession.  Chancing on a newspaper ad for station staff on British Rail I applied.  I was a bit worried that having a degree would put BR off me as too qualified for an unskilled post.  At that time I just wanted some non-brain taxing employment and I knew something about railways.  I had spent many hours watching trains by the lineside as a keen trainspotter until I was 15 in 1968 and steam locomotives ended their long reign on Britain’s dense and complex rail network.

The job interview was informal and relaxed at London Bridge Station.  It took place in offices in a Victorian building on Tooley St, accessed through a discrete door off the passenger walkway above platform one.

I told them that I wanted to start with a manual job with a view to eventually working in BR management as a graduate trainee.  There was no cross-examination of why I wanted the job.  They weren’t phased by my over-qualification and the probability that I might move on swiftly to a professional career elsewhere.

It later transpired that there was quite a fast turnover in railway employment and by the time I had completed my year on the tracks I’d seen quite a few workmates come and go before me.  The jobs market was so heated in London that unskilled workers could easily change jobs, even those with a limited command of English, as better paid work appeared elsewhere.  Here was a high degree of employment mobility unknown in the declining industrial areas of Bolton.  This even applied to men in their mid-50s who were unemployable in the north.

There was plenty of overtime available for platform staff in central London so anyone really chasing the money could make a good enough living provided they put in long hours.  The price for this was almost no time for a social life.


The huge London Bridge commuter station in the autumn of 1976 was undergoing extensive rebuilding.  The roof over the station was being systematically ripped off and the demolishers had reached platforms nine and ten when I began work.  It was still mostly a dark Victorian structure and its management offices were accessed through corridors lit day and night by pale yellow light bulbs.

The main passenger overbridge used by commuters to change platforms had been partially demolished and was steadily being replaced by a new one with black rubbery floors with anti-slip nodules like worn-down football studs.  The bridge’s new walls were large plastic-laminate panels.  This thoroughfare was very busy as arriving passengers arriving at the south side of the station rushed across it from nine dead-end platforms to catch trains at the platforms where trains continued through to Cannon St, adjacent to the Bank of England and Stock Exchange in the City or on to Charing Cross at the corner of Trafalgar Square for the West End (theatreland), Westminster, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery.

Cannon St was a three minute hop across the Thames while Charing Cross trains wound slowly along the Thames South Bank shadowing the river’s meanders for a further twelve minutes or so, often longer as signals held trains up.  This line was clearly a late-comer as it had to painfully avoid Southwark Cathedral and the glass and wrought-iron roof of adjacent Borough Market, also passing a host of Dickensian tenements and warehouses at chimney level.  The roof-scape was of the type of Fagin’s lair of pickpockets. Southwark riverside was home to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and the George Inn to this day still has a yard and terraces where the bard’s company performed.

Station rush-hour crowds moved en masse like those going to a football match but unlike them there were few people traveling or talking together.  They were individuals in a hurry, going to work, focussed on their routes, walking briskly, even running as they avoided each other.  Their faces witnessed no great joy coming anytime soon, mostly anticipating the work concerns in the day ahead.

During the rest of the day the passengers were the less hasty: shoppers, family outings, friends meeting, medical students and patients going to Guy’s Hospital.  Between peak hours the station could be quite deserted and the numbers of carriages on each train were reduced accordingly, usually from ten down to four.

Modernisation work on platforms one to six had largely been completed in 1976 but the overbridge to the sprawling station’s other dozen or so terminal platforms was still underway with several of their canopies and walls in the process of demolition.  These are the platforms now nearest to London’s today tallest modern building, the acute glass pyramid, ‘The Shard’.  The ticket offices in 1976/77 were in temporary portable buildings flanked by an array of scaffolds.  New ones along with staff rooms and administrative offices were being built and some completed by the time I left the job in late 1977.

If there is one over-arching signature of London it is its perpetual processes of reconstruction.  Elsewhere in Britain a new building is completed and then a new development only occurs after a long pause.  That was generally the case in Bolton where demolition old mills, engineering plants and slums left open spaces far in excess of the requirements of new structures.   In the capital, building work was and is constant.  It never stops.

Because, more than elsewhere, London depends on the mass movement of its workforces, the city keeps on functioning. Its crowds swarm around between hoardings which hide demolitions and rebuilding.  Walkways through these temporary walls keep the armies of commuters and visitors moving, funnelled through tunnels or over work sites by make-do scaffold footbridges. After many months or even years the makeshift walls are removed to reveal a modern building and the commuters adapt easily to their new normal surroundings as if they had always been there.


My first railway job as platform staff (door-slammer) involved ensuring train doors were closed.  None were automatic then.  I pushed a button on a platform column shortly before the trains departure telling the signalman the train was ready to leave, then blew long blasts on a whistle to hurry straggling passengers along.

The doors were designed in such a way that there was an intermediate stop mechanism, ‘the catch’ that was a safety measure so that even if they were not fully closed they were unlikely to open.  As a door-slammer we could see these doors ‘on the catch’ at quite a distance. We would then run up and slam them fully closed before allowing the train to go.  Passengers could tell by the sound and look if the door was not properly shut so it was quite rare the need to run to re-shut it.

Rush-hour was of course the most important time for us.  As trains arrived and could spill out several hundred commuters each, we waited usually behind a protective pillar until the passengers rolled off the train and dispersed down the platform.  Then starting at the rear end would walk the length of the train slamming the doors shut but always with a keen eye to see what had been left on the train.   Passengers often left newspapers and magazines, umbrellas or occasionally something more interesting.  I once found a fresh loaf of bread while others told me of more exotic objects such as false limbs.  A surprise was to see evidence of alcohol on the early morning trains: City gents arriving from the south coast had been drinking gin and tonic before work.

The City had changed as far as dress code was concerned.  Bowler hats were already very much a rarity in 1976 but smart suits were still mostly worn.  Nowadays (2024) even a suit is less likely to be seen.

Once, while I was standing back from the throng of disembarking passengers alongside a colleague, one of them said loudly and belligerently words to the effect that station staff did nothing.  But, we had to wait for them to pass before we could get near to do the door-slamming.  We exchanged hostile, half-threatening looks.  Each thinking the other a twat.

At evening rush-hour departure there were usually two or three staff on each platform, along the length of the train, doing the same job.  The longest trains might be 12 carriages long, most heading for the south coast, perhaps eight of these would serve Brighton just over an hour or so away on the south coast.

I was based at the terminal part of the station, known as ‘the Central’ side, the dead-end platforms.  As the trains here had a reasonable time interval for the driver to change ends, despatching trains was less hectic than at London Bridge’s six through platforms, the ‘South Eastern’ side.  The different names referred to the former names of independent railway companies before huge amalgamations in WW1 and nationalisation in 1948.    On the South Eastern side, dwell times were just a couple of minutes and there could be some danger as commuters sprinted, at literally break-neck speed, down the bridge steps to leapt aboard moving, already packed trains.

Outside of rush hour train lengths were cut back presumably to save wear and tear.  Few were longer than eight carriages, most had only four and one had a mere two carriages.  This was the London Bridge to London Victoria service which did a long loop through south London’s inner city stations at Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton and Clapham.

In this less busy period I might receive and dispatch trains alone from around four platforms.  I would also often walk to the far end of the platform between arrivals, beyond the station’s huge glass canopy, and look south towards New Cross where tracks from London Bridge’s array of platforms formed a gleaming silver spaghetti tangle of lines.  The trains were powered by an electrified third-rail on the ground which added to the complex, dense weft of tracks.

From the platform end I would turn around and look back at the skyscrapers clustered at the terminal end of the station and beyond. In 1976 there were three high-rise buildings, two of them very modern looking glass-faced office buildings and the third was Guy’s Hospital which had the shape of an adjustable spanner.  By 2020 the two offices buildings had been replaced by two others and a new architectural landmark has appeared next to Guy’s, the towering glass steeple that is the Shard.

On the Central side of the station, apart from Brighton, other South Coast destinations were Hastings, Newhaven and Littlehampton. These were joined by a dozen other routes from a maze of suburban starting points halfway between the coast and London.  Places like: East Grinstead, Sutton, Crystal Palace and endless lines snaking through characterless suburbs deep in the Surrey commuter belt hills.   All the arriving trains at the terminal platforms at London Bridge were electric except for one. This was an ancient diesel unit, which came from a non-electrified line, from Uckfield.  This train’s engines were built at the end of the passenger coach bodies and made a racket as they idled in the platform pumping fumes all around, contrasting with the at rest pollution-free and absolutely silent electric trains.

Very infrequently we would help load mail bags on a train.  There was by then so little parcels traffic at London Bridge that instead of using dedicated trains consisting of long-bodied vans the mail bags were just piled on to the turned over seats of empty passenger trains.

The Post Office was massively overmanned (even more so than London Bridge platform staff) and comically you might get two postmen carrying a single light mail bag on to a train.  A loading job for one might have eight men doing it!

Platform staff and train crews’ imperative was to get trains out of the station as fast as possible.  So if we were around we would help have the mailbags loaded in a few minutes.


London Bridge station’s upper through platforms, served mainly North Kent: Gravesend, Chatham, Rochester and the important hub of Dartford (via 4 routes – including the Greenwich line passing my flat window).  These platforms also connected to several terminal stations in the area of Croydon and Bromley (Bromley North, Addiscombe, Hayes and Elmers End) as well as Orpington on London’s suburban fringe.  Longer distance trains went beyond to Tonbridge, Hastings, Dover, Sandwich, Ramsgate and Margate.

While a door-slammer I worked two shifts roughly 6 to 2 and 2 to 10.  Although there were as many of three of us per train, or should have been, this only really happened at rush-hour.  More often a single platform staffer dealt with a train in the off-peak.  Waving and whistling the guard away and preventing late-coming passengers from dangerously leaping on it.

Management for us was non-existent.  We had work rotas and did our shifts with no day-to-day supervision.  Most of my fellow slammers spent much of their shift in our rest room, far more often than on the platform.  One told me that 10 years or so previously management discipline had been strict and the station master had to be addressed as ‘sir’.  This man apparently prowled the platforms wearing a bowler hat and wouldn’t tolerate staff smoking on the platform, and certainly wouldn’t have allowed them to spend most of the day in the staff room.  That world had gone.  I never saw a single supervisor actually supervising and the threat of getting the sack for any rule infringement seemed nigh impossible.

While station rebuilding on the ‘through line’ platforms to Cannon St and Charing Cross had been completed, our terminal, working side of the station, was as yet untouched.  Our supervisor’s offices and the rest room were in an old building whose general lay-out was dark, cavernous and all the brickwork was black and sooty, its corridors and passageways dusty.

The logic of planned building work, as is the case on most old site reconstruction projects, was difficult to fathom out.  Scaffolding and under-lit pedestrian tunnels, former goods storage cellars along with cloister-like arches and caves made pedestrian orientation difficult.  I had very little idea of how these buildings were set out given their masking by temporary walls.

After huge renovations around 2010, these pedestrian tunnels are a marvellous succession of tastefully-lit arched scrubbed-brick caverns with trendy shops, some exuding aromas of coffee and pricey deli sandwiches.  The dense passenger crowd flows continue but their processions are less brisk, slowed by retail opportunities.

BACK TO 1976

The rest room was located in a labyrinth of grimy railway arches.  The rooms were dark with feeble lighting murkily revealing smoke-stained yellow walls.  Here was the ‘card school’.  The players were mainly Cypriots: both Greek and Turkish whose fellow citizens had fought and massacred their compatriots only a few years earlier.  Here they were however, working side-by-side in central London, in the bowels of a dilapidated old station with no obvious animosity, dealing cards to each other or sharing comments and gestures about pin-ups in their Sun newspaper or the occasional porn magazine.

Apart from a minority of England-born natives there were many West Indians from their distinctive Caribbean islands.  There were only two or three young men under-30 doing the job like me.  I must have cut an odd figure as I sat there on my first day flicking through the tedious railwayman’s rule book manual, still with an academic frame of mind after four years in higher education.

Many of my fellow workers spoke broken English and I think some may have been functionally if not totally illiterate.  One example of this was I wore a ‘Fight Racism’ badge with just those two words on it.  This was a major campaign in the late 1970s (and it’s not gone away since) and led to street conflicts with the then still rising racist National Front.  One of the railwaymen thought by some convoluted reasoning that my badge meant that I was against blacks and not quite half-jokingly said to an Asian colleague that I was against him…. and the Asian man seemed to believe him! In a conciliatory, appeasing way he smiled at me and said we could get on together anyway!!

Most of the many platform staff, some of whom I rarely saw on the platforms, were pleasant enough guys.  Some had seen much better days. Tony, a Greek Cypriot, had had businesses.  He spent most of his time playing cards and I guessed he’d lost his livelihood through gambling. They were a diverse bunch.

There were a couple of Jamaican shunters, tall skinny guys with BR pill-box hats and languid walks.  They didn’t have a great deal to do, the number of trains needing to be divided and joined-up were few, and their work was during the less busy periods of the day. A cool English guy from Charlton who had an ex-hippy vibe used to jest knowingly in Jamaican patois with them about their going to the end of the platform to smoke a spliff.  Their faces would crack open half-guiltily in great white smiles.

Joining trains meant getting in between the units and connecting the couplings and the air brake pipes. Wearing their thick oily orange rubber gloves, they jumped between carriages to uncouple the units.  I later had to do this murky task when working as a freight guard on the much less wieldy old-fashioned, vacuum brakes of waggons.

Another Jamaican was a guy called Angel.  Small, chubby, he was always smartly dressed in collar and tie under his well-pressed raincoat.  Angel had a defensive air about him as if he was half-expecting, had parried and probably defeated much racist abuse.  Indeed his self-confidence was the likely stimulus for the racist graffiti in the loo slagging him off.  He was a cleverer man than most others there, and I heard him arguing rationally about betting odds when another man said he would always bet on outsiders and not horses in-form.

At least one of the Englishmen was probably an NF supporter, a tatty, scrawny unshaven man, aged about 40 but who looked a lot older. Poor inner-city whites were a type and looked like they had all the physical defects of past generations deprived of sun, healthy food, dental care and adequate living and working conditions.

I also came across younger, suburban whites, some sons of immigrants, who hadn’t bothered with education for various reasons.  Working on the railways was an easy option – BR, like many state and municipal concerns, tolerated absenteeism.  Pay was relatively good for the work once extra was added if you opted to do overtime.

A West Indian ticket inspector, Joseph had a big belly busting out of his BR waist-coast and a spotlessly clean white shirt.  His spine arched markedly making his buttocks protrude.  He was a smiling bearded, gentle, happy soul.  One day there was a bit of a kerfuffle: Joseph had been knocked out cold by an upper-cut delivered by a disgruntled, probably ticketless passenger.  Joseph carried some weight and the wonder among staff was the fact that the aggressor had been a little, slight white man.  He must have packed a hell of a punch.   The story was a bit of a surprise sensation in the mess given the tiny size of the assailant relative to Joseph.

There were several Indians working on the platforms, some as senior ticket inspectors on the barriers.  Several of the older ones were austere Anglo-Indians who had left the subcontinent after independence in 1948.  They were erect, dignified figures and had clearly had once quite high status jobs on the massive colonial Indian railway system.  Their posture and bearing was almost as if their work at London Bridge was below them.  They must have had their own rest room as I never saw them in ours which was certainly rough-looking and resembling an oily refuge for car mechanics.

Other ethnic Indians had come to the UK from East African countries when they gained their independence in the 1960s, others sometime later, expelled by Idi Amin from Uganda.

One young Indian guy I befriended had worked at the US embassy in London and had acquired a convincing American accent.  He loved the double pay for weekend overtime and thought I was missing a big opportunity by not doing it but I was 23 and prized my free time and the socialising possibilities of meeting women.


Antoni Sowaniuk was a stocky, not very tall man, blonde greying hair curling away from his forehead, hands thrust in pockets emphasising his bullish-strong broad chested profile with his trousers narrowing to his ankles. Like me, he was a door-slammer in 1976 at London Bridge Station, before suburban train services had automated sliding doors.

He was friendly towards me when I told him my dad was Polish.  I knew very few details of my dad’s past and other Poles I had grown up with from his church.  Their stories were in the mists of time.  They never talked to me about it and in those days I hadn’t the intense curiosity I later developed.

Toni’s accent had tangs of cockney although his English was poor and unclear.  Every now and again clearly enunciated parts of sentences in pure-London surfaced such as “Cam rarnd an’ ‘ave a point of Giiniss”.

Toni confided that he was estranged from his wife and had a 15 year old son who lived with him near South Bermondsey station.  This was less than 5 minutes by train from London Bridge so he could easily sneak home for lunch if he wanted.  He expressed some worry about his son, which explained the preoccupied air about him.  Later when I was a guard based at London Bridge Station but rarely there I saw him on the odd occasion just to say a cheery ‘hello’ later when I went to sign on for duty or collect my pay.

‘Only UK-Convicted War Criminal’

There’s a big post script to Antoni Sowaniuk.  Years later while I was working in Brazil I heard of a former long-term London Bridge employee being accused of war crimes.  I deduced it could only have been him, there were no other Poles.  Wikipedia includes this:

 Anthony Sawoniuk (7 March 1921 – 6 November 2005) was a Belarusian Nazi collaborator from the town of Domaczewo in Poland. After taking part in the murder of the Jewish community in his home town, Sawoniuk served in the SS until November 1944 when he defected to the Polish II Corps in the British Eighth Army. After the war, he settled in Britain, became a British subject, and became the first and only person to be convicted under the UK’s War Crimes Act 1991 when he was found guilty of war crimes in 1999. He died in prison six years later, aged 84.

He was tried at the Old Bailey in 1999 on two specimen charges of the murder of Jews in his German-occupied hometown during the War.  The jury found him guilty of one charge by unanimous decision and of the other by a ten to one majority. A further two charges of murder were withdrawn by the prosecution due to procedural errors with evidence. However, both of the murders of which Sawoniuk was convicted were individual elements of two group murders: in the first Sawoniuk, according to eyewitnesses, shot 15 Jews; in the second he shot three Jews.

At his trial Sawoniuk said of his accusers “They are professional liars. They have criminal records. Some of the witnesses at the magistrates’ court have done 25 years, alcoholics. I was the best friend of the Jews.” He also stated that “Everyone is telling lies. They have been told by the Russian KGB to say there was a ghetto. These devils came here with their lies against me.” and “I have done no crime whatsoever. My conscience is clear. I killed no one. I would not dream of doing it. I am not a monster I am an ordinary working-class poor man.” He also denied having been a member of the German armed forces, stating “I have never been in the German army”. In court, he accused a member of the Metropolitan Police of fabricating a Waffen-SS document which contained his details. He speculated that the Metropolitan Police had conspired against him with the help of the KGB.

He was given two life sentences and trial judge Mr Justice Potts recommended that Sawoniuk should spend the rest of his life in prison.

He was the first and the only person in United Kingdom to be convicted under the War Crimes Act 1991. In 2000 the House of Lords refused him permission to appeal.  He died in Norwich Prison of natural causes.


Whereas many of the door-slammers spent a lot of time in the restroom playing cards, drinking tea or attacking their sandwiches and only showed up on the platform during the very busy periods, I preferred being outdoors most of the time.  In quiet times I would stroll to the end of the longest platforms and contemplate the fact that I was near the heart of the capital, a city I had always loved for its size, history, dynamism and variety of attractive districts.  I have never tired of London since my first visit in 1967 staying at Watford with his family friends to see Bolton Wanderers play, and lose, at Crystal Palace in suburban south London.

The canteen we used was in one of the recesses in the old station building.  You had to leave the station and return through some passageways to access it as construction work got in the way.  The building was a labyrinth of dark, grimy pedestrian tunnels with walls stained by decades of smoke from steam engines, coal fires, London’s smog and cigarettes.

The cheery, in the circumstances, canteen ladies would prepare my then favourite of greasy sausage sandwiches.  I shudder now at the thought of the ‘meat’ contents and the canteen hygiene.  Nevertheless it was comfort food then.  Anything served hot in those dank under crofts was welcome.  Neither my grubby finger-prints nor worries about the meat bothered me as a hungry 23 year old keen on warming himself up while standing on the always chilly, even in summertime, London Bridge platforms.

Back in the 1970s there were many dingy eating places that almost certainly conducted their business in the same way for the previous 50 years.  Enough people were used to them and accepted them to keep them going. The modern clean look only gained unanimity quite some time later.  I remember buying a glass of milk at a café near Highgate when I was a student and it was stained with dirt!  Hygiene standards have improved a lot since then. London’s cuisine in general only began improving markedly in quality and environment in the late 1980s and many under- cleaned cafes (aka ‘greasy spoons’ – I didn’t know that term then) survived for much longer.

London’s air although nicely disguised by bright sunny skies, was in fact then full of invisible airborne petrol-lead pollution that you could almost taste.  Lead was banned from petrol in 1999 but a 2021 university study showed there were large amounts of ‘historic’ lead still in the capital’s air.

In the 70s a shirt collar would be stained as grit mixed with your sweat and snot was always between grey and speckled with black soot.  The city’s continuing pollution means your collar will continue to be stained but this is mostly down to the ever present dust generated by the continuous rebuilding of the city.

End of Part One