The destination for history

The history of London’s Underground railway


When the Metropolitan Railway opened in January 1863, conveying its first passengers from Paddington to Farringdon beneath London’s streets, it was hailed by The Times as ‘the great engineering triumph of the day’ (though a few years earlier the same newspaper had condemned the plans as ‘an insult to common sense’).

The Times particularly commended such ‘ingenious contrivances’ as the gas-filled tarpaulin bags on the roofs which provided lighting for the carriages, though since the trains were drawn by steam engines which emitted smoke, steam and sparks into the tunnels it is perhaps surprising that no explosions were recorded. Nor did it bother the writer that the smoky atmosphere in the tunnels sent passengers coughing and spluttering into the streets or, occasionally, to the pharmacist near Euston station who sold glasses of ‘Metropolitan Mixture’ to soothe damaged mouths, throats and lungs. One early passenger described his journey as ‘my first experience of Hades’ and resolved to live a better life.  But the advantages of the new system in transporting passengers swiftly beneath London’s congested streets were too great to be held up by a spot of smoke and over the next century and a half the London Underground evolved to become the world’s most extensive and busiest, used by 3 million passengers each day. Steam of course was replaced by electricity, the first underground electric railway being the City and South London Railway, now the southern part of the Northern Line, running from the City to Stockwell and eventually to Morden. In the early days its little electric locomotives struggled up the incline which ran from beneath the Thames to the heart of the City, lights flickering. Occasionally it didn’t make it and had to reverse to take another run at it, an experience which can have done nothing to calm the nerves of the passengers.

One of the most extraordinary features of the Underground’s history is the extent to which it has been populated by crooks and charlatans. The opening of the first line, the Metropolitan, was held up because money set aside for its construction was embezzled by one Leopold Redpath who was one of the last convicts to be transported to Australia. Whitaker Wright (1845-1904) who began to build the Bakerloo Line, went bankrupt, was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour for fraud and committed suicide in the law courts. An American called Charles Yerkes (1837-1905), who had been gaoled in Philadelphia for fraud, was responsible for the electrification of the older lines, the construction of the Piccadilly and Northern lines and for completing the Bakerloo line. He died in New York in 1905 in his gold bedstead leaving his railway network (and his family and numerous mistresses) on the verge of bankruptcy. There were heroes as well, like managing director Frank Pick (1878-1941) and architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) who bequeathed an artistic and architectural heritage which is second to none, not to mention Harry Beck (1901-74) the creator of the famous Underground map.

But without the villains (compared with whom Boris is a shrinking violet) we would not have the railway beneath the streets upon which so many of us depend.  

By Stephen Halliday

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