Stamps: A Brief British History

The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.

Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.

Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.

Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.

During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.

In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.

Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.

Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.

The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.

The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.

Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.

Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.

The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.

In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.

The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “12d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.

On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.

Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.

The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.

All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 12d, 2d, 2 12d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.

Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 12d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.

The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.

Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.

When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.

The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 12d green, the 1 12d brown and the 2 12d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.

George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.

In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 12d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.

During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.

Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.

The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.

Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.

Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

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London Down Below

On the edge of Covent Garden is a museum devoted to telling the history of London transport from 1800 until the present day. The London Transport Museum contains examples of horse-drawn carriages, trams, steam trains, buses and taxis. The red double-decker buses and the black taxi cabs have become symbols of London, but nothing is more iconic than the London Underground.

Mainline railways constructed in the 1840s and 1850s caused the population of London to rise rapidly. As a result, road traffic increased, which caused congestion in the city. A journey of five miles could take up to an hour and a half on a horse-drawn omnibus – a precursor to motorised buses. By 1850, London had seven railway termini, and people often had to get an omnibus to catch their connecting train at another station. Something needed to change to reduce the time of these journeys.

Proposals for an underground railway link between London’s termini appeared as early as the 1830s. Charles Pearson (1793-1862), a solicitor to the City of London, backed this idea and created the City Terminus Company who proposed to build a line between Farringdon to King’s Cross. It took some persuading, but after establishing the Metropolitan Railway Company in August 1854, parliament consented to the plans.

Despite having permission, the company needed to raise £1 million to cover the costs. Unfortunately, money was scarce due to the ongoing Crimean War, and it took five years to raise sufficient funds. Eventually, construction began in March 1860 using “cut-and-cover” and tunnelling methods to create the 3.75-mile underground railway.

The Metropolitan Line opened on 10th January 1863, carrying 38,000 passengers on the first day in wooden carriages pulled by a steam engine. The underground railway linked the Great Western Railway terminus at Paddington to Farringdon via the Great Northern Railway terminus at King’s Cross. Steam from the engine posed ventilation problems, but this did not prevent the public from embracing the new form of travel. The Metropolitan Line, the first underground railway in the world, was an instant success.

Inspired by the result, Parliament received 250 different plans for other underground railways. The House of Lords agreed to an “inner circuit of railway that should abut, if not actually join, nearly all of the principal railway termini in the Metropolis”. This resulted in proposals for the Metropolitan District Railway (now known as the District Line). Civil engineer John Fowler (1817-98), who worked on the Metropolitan Line, was chosen to lead the construction of the District Line, which opened on Christmas Eve 1868 between South Kensington and Westminster. During the 1870s, the line extended to Hammersmith, Richmond and Ealing Broadway.

The original plan was for the Metropolitan District Railway and Metropolitan Line to join up, creating a circuit. Unfortunately, the companies owning the lines fell out over expenses, delaying the completion of the “inner circle”. Conflicts between the companies lasted over a decade until the government intervened. Eventually, the track was complete, and the first circular service began in 1884. This route is known as the Circle Line but did not receive this name until 1949.

The Metropolitan, District and Circle lines helped reduce some of the congestion on London’s streets and made it easier for people to travel between mainline termini. Over time, expansions reached London suburbs, providing thousands of people with easy access to the city. By 1902, the District Line had extended to Upminster in the east of London. In 1990, the Hammersmith & City Line took over parts of the Metropolitan and District lines, and since 2012 has extended to span between Hammersmith and Barking.

Whilst these new railways were a great success, they did not provide access to the heart of London. As a result, there was still a great deal of congestion in the city centre. Proposals for underground tracks in this area were aplenty, but the “cut and cover” method of constructing the tunnels was too disruptive and expensive.

In 1843, French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), proved it was possible to tunnel underneath London. The Thames Tunnel was the first underwater tunnel in the world, although it was only suitable for pedestrians. Unfortunately, the method of construction was expensive and time-consuming, taking over 20 years to complete. They needed a more practical solution.

Peter William Barlow (1809-95), the designer of the first Lambeth Bridge, patented a method of tunnelling using a circular cast-iron shield, which he commissioned his pupil James Greathead (1844-96) to build. Work on a railway tunnel between Great Tower Hill and Pickle Herring Stairs near Vine Street began in February 1869, opening in August the following year.

Steam-powered lifts either side of the River Thames took passengers down to the newly built City and South London Railway (C&SL) to a single carriage that could carry up to 12 passengers. The train was pulled from one station to the other by a cable firstly powered by steam then by electricity. Unfortunately, the tunnel was a commercial failure and closed in December 1870, only four months after opening.

Rather than closing the tunnel completely, they converted it into a foot tunnel, which people could use for a ha’penny. Charles Dickens Jr (1837-96), the son of the famous author of the same name, commented, “there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty’s lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value.” This description and stories that Jack the Ripper frequented the tunnel put people off using it. Even fewer pedestrians walked the Tower Subway after the toll-free Tower Bridge opened in 1894, causing it to close to the public in 1898.

Although the tunnel has been out of bounds since the end of the 19th century, it is still used today as a means of carrying water mains and telecommunication cables. A small round building near the Tower of London marks an entrance to the tunnel, constructed in 1926 by the London Hydraulic Power Company. 

Demands for more underground railways after the success of the Metropolitan and District lines prompted engineers to have a second attempt at constructing a deep-level electric railway. James Greathead improved his tunnelling shield to make wider tunnels, which he used to dig the second City & South London Railway (C&SLR), the first successful “tube” train.

On 4th November 1890, Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910; later Edward VII) opened the C&SLR to the public. Trains of three carriages carried up to thirty-two passengers from Stockwell to King William Street (now Monument), stopping at the Oval, Kennington, Elephant & Castle, and Borough along the way. Although the Tower Subway used electricity to pull the cable, the new railway was named the first electric railway in England. Rather than using cables, a live rail beneath the train provided power.

Unlike the Tower Subway, the new railway was an instant success. Nevertheless, as with all new ventures, it had its share of problems. Designers of the underground carriages saw no need for windows, only including a narrow band of windows for ventilation. Punch magazine dubbed it the “sardine box railway” and the public nicknamed the carriages “padded cells”. Nonetheless, the railway was well-received, but the company underestimated the amount of electricity needed to power the trains.

In 1896, the C&SLR extended the tunnel to Bank, but it was struggling to cope with the number of passengers. At the same time, it also failed to make much of a profit. Proposals for other underground lines began to dwindle due to the uncertainties this provoked, but two years later the London & North Western Railway backed the opening of a short track between two stations.

The Waterloo & City Line became London’s second deep-level underground line or “tube”. Known colloquially as “the drain”, it took passengers into the City of London from the mainline station at Waterloo. Despite being only 1.47 miles long, it continues to be the second most used of all London’s underground lines. Since Bank station is in the heart of the financial district, the line tends not to run on Sundays or Bank Holidays.

Plans were underway to build another tube line, meanwhile, the original C&SLR chose to extend the railway to the north and south of London. In February 1900, stations opened at London Bridge and Moorgate, and in March, Clapham Road and Clapham Common. Later that year, the track extended to include Old Street, Angel and City Road (closed 1922).

During the 1890s, Parliament approved several plans for underground railways, but the majority fell through due to lack of funds. Eventually, after ten years of planning, the Prince of Wales opened the Central London Railway on 27th June 1900. For the first time, passengers could travel directly under the centre of the city between Shepherd’s Bush and Bank. Popular stations on the line included Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street, Oxford Circus, British Museum (now closed) and Post Office (now St. Pauls). In 1909, Liverpool Street Station joined the line.

Nicknamed the Twopenny Tube after the cost of a ticket (approximately 91p today), the CLR was popular with shoppers and commuters alike. When Queen Victoria (1819-1901) passed away in 1901, crowds wanting to get a glimpse of her funeral procession filled the trains. The useful transport links encouraged people to move to the capital, and by the end of the year, London was the largest city in the world with a population of 6 million.

One of the lines proposed in the 1890s was the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (CCE&HR), but there were not sufficient funds. The situation changed in 1902 after American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905) purchased the company. With his money, the CCE&HR came into existence, and Yerkes also purchased the Metropolitan District Railway, replacing the steam-powered engines with electric trains.

Following the success of the new railway, Yerkes purchased the underfunded plans for the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (B&PCR) and Great Northern and Strand Railway (GN&SR). The two railways subsequently linked, forming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (GNP&BR). The railway opened in 1906, running through 22 stations from Hammersmith in the west to Finsbury Park in the north of the city.

Yerkes’ final purchase was the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (BS&WR), running from Paddington to Elephant & Castle. By now, the majority of the underground railways belonged to Yerkes’ company Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL). In 1908, the UERL published the first map of the underground network, thus developing the “underground” brand.

The lines continued to extend until the First World War, which put a temporary halt to the proceedings. Work continued after the war under the direction of UERL until 1933, when the public corporation formed the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB). The LPTB purchased all the underground railways from UERL as well as tramway companies and bus operators.

Under London Transport, some of the railways joined up to form a single line. The Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, for instance, connected with the City and South London Railway to form the Northern Line. Others railways shortened their names, such as the Bakerloo Line and Picadilly Line. These changes made mapping the underground system more manageable, which Henry “Harry” Beck (1902-74) achieved in 1933.

Older maps of the underground, drawn geographically, became confusing to read as more stations joined the lines. Beck’s version used a non-geographic linear diagram, with equally spaced distances between stations. This also made the maps easy to edit when lines grew to include more stops. Beck colour coded each track to make reading the map as simple as possible: red for the Central Line, green for District Line, brown for the Bakerloo Line, purple for the Metropolitan Line, black for the Northern Line, dark blue for the Piccadilly Line and turquoise for the Waterloo & City Line. After several edits over the decades, the current underground map resembles Beck’s original idea.

Following the outbreak of World War Two, some of the underground lines were closed to the public. The Northern Line tunnels temporarily closed between the Strand (now Charing Cross) and Kennington for use as flood barriers. During the Blitz, many stations became makeshift air raid shelters. Approximately 175,000 Londoner’s slept in the stations each night during the summer of 1940.

The British Museum used the tunnels between Aldwych and Holborn as a safe space to store some of their most valuable items, including the Elgin Marbles. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) used Down Street, a disused station on the Piccadilly Line, as a bunker until his Cabinet War Rooms were ready. He reportedly nicknamed the shelter “The Barn”.

After the war, the British Transport Commission, created by Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967), focused on repairing the war damages to the transport system. In 1949, the Circle Line became an official line on the Tube Map, appearing in yellow. In the same year, constructors submitted proposals for a new track to alleviate congestion on other lines.

The Victoria Line (light blue), named after the last queen, was constructed during the 1960s, making it the first entirely new underground line to open in 50 years. The government approved the track to run from Walthamstow to Victoria station, although later amended the plans to include Brixton. Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) formally opened the line on 7th March 1969 by travelling from Green Park to Victoria, making her the first reigning monarch to use the Underground.

Tragedy struck the London Underground on 28th February 1975 when a train failed to stop at Moorgate Underground Station. Forty-three people died as a result of the train ploughing into the wall. Investigations proved there was nothing wrong with the train, so the crash was deemed to be caused by the actions of Leslie Newson, the 56-year-old driver. Unfortunately, Newson died in the crash, so it is impossible to ascertain the reason for the collision. A post-mortem revealed nothing was physically wrong with the driver at the time of the accident. Since the incident, all underground lines use a device that prevents trains crashing into walls at the end of the track if a driver fails to activate the brakes.

Before the Victoria Line opened, proposals were submitted for a new line to take over part of the Bakerloo Line between Baker Street and Stanmore. Further designs extended the track as far as Cannon Street, passing through Bond Street, Trafalgar Square, Strand, Fleet Street and Ludgate Circus. Due to be named the Fleet Line, construction began in 1971 and continued until 1979. During this time, the queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, prompting London Transport to rename it the Jubilee Line.

In 1999, the Jubilee Line extended to Stratford as a way of marking the upcoming millennium. The stations within the new section of the track are unique because they are the only platforms with doors that open when trains arrive. The Jubilee Line is appropriately coloured silver on the underground map and runs between 27 stations.

Since its beginnings, the London Underground continuously expands and develops to keep up with the present day and the demands upon the service. Plans are in place to extend some of the underground lines to provide the suburbs with easy access to the city. Next year, the Northern Line is due to open a new stretch between Kennington and Battersea Power Station.

Between the opening of the Metropolitan Line in 1863 and the present day, London has changed dramatically. Without the London Underground, it is hard to imagine how the city would function. Many cities around the world have followed suit, creating an underground metro system, but London’s continues to be the most famous. This is helped, in part, by its iconic logo, the roundel.

The London Underground logo is over 100 years old, beginning as a humble bar and circle on platforms in 1908. Comprised of a red disc and a blue horizontal bar, the signs helped passengers distinguish the name of the station from the surrounding advertisements. Although the lines were owned by different companies at the time, they agreed to use the symbol and refer to the entire system as the Underground.

In 1914, the Metropolitan Line opted to use their own logo on publicity items, such as maps and pamphlets, rather than the generic roundel. They chose to keep to the same colour scheme but swapped the circle for a diamond.

Before other lines had the opportunity to propose individual logos, publicity manager, Frank Pick (1878-1941) commissioned calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) to design a company typeface. To suit the new lettering, Johnston tweaked the proportions of the bar and switched the solid disc for a hollow red circle. The new symbol was registered as a trademark and began to replace the old signs in the 1920s.

In 1924, Frank Pick commissioned the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) to redesign the underground stations to incorporate Johnston’s logo. Roundels appeared on walls, windows and posters on the platforms and outside the station, a three-dimensional version appeared on Venetian masts or flag poles.

Holden also helped to design bus stops, using a version of Johnston’s logo on bus stop flags and shelters. For buses, the roundel was printed only in red to help people differentiate it from underground stations. In 2000, Transport for London (TfL) formed to manage all forms of transport in London. The roundel became the identification of TfL with alternative colours adopted for different services. The Overground service, for instance, is recognised by the colour orange, whereas trams are green, river services blue, Docklands Light Railway turquoise and the upcoming Elizabeth Line purple.

The London Underground serves over one billion passengers a year and continues to be one of the busiest cities in the world. The underground system has extended to include parts of Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire as well as the City of London. Newer sections of the service tend to be above ground, ironically making the London Underground only 45% underground. The system covers 250 miles of track and 270 stations, only 29 of which are south of the River Thames.

Next time you travel on the London Underground or see or read anything about it, bring to mind its history. Marvel at the workmanship that went into building the extensive system. Thank Harry Beck for creating a readable map and Edward Johnston for his instantly recognisable logo. Be grateful to our forefathers for having the insight to create something so vital for the everyday workings of the capital city. Also, take note of these fun facts:

  • Upminster Bridge is the only station to have a red phone box
  • Mile End to Stratford is the longest underground section between stations – 1.8 miles
  • The longest overground section is between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer – 3.9 miles
  • The distance between Covent Garden and Leicester Square stations is the shortest at 285 yards, taking 37 seconds to travel
  • The only place to hear the original “Mind the Gap” announcement is on the northbound platform of the Northern line at Embankment station
  • At St James’s Park, one of the roundels is spelt incorrectly
  • Victoria is the busiest station on the network
  • Roding Valley is the least used station
  • Turnham Green was used as a test station for the automated ticket barriers that were introduced in the 1960s
  • Kew Gardens is the only station that has a pub directly attached to it
  • A statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is located at Paddington station, as is a statue of Paddington Bear
  • Aldgate station is built on top of a plague pit where thousands of bodies were buried in 1665
  • King’s Cross and Waterloo tie for the station with the most escalators – 20
  • Angel station has the longest escalator
  • The Northern line at Waterloo is the deepest part of the Underground – 21 metres below sea level
  • There are only five stations that fall outside of the M25: Amersham, Chalfont & Latimer, Chesham, Chorleywood and Epping
  • Amersham is the highest station above sea level – 150 metres
  • Gants Hill station and Wanstead station were used as a munitions factory during WWII
  • There is no platform seven at Stratford station
  • The longest journey you can make without getting off the train is between Epping and West Ruislip on the Central line – 34.1 miles
  • Arsenal station was originally called Gillespie Road until it was renamed after the football club in 1932

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