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