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The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever

The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever

by Christian Wolmar

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Since the Victorian era, London's Underground has had played a vital role in the daily life of generations of Londoners. In The Subterranean Railway, Christian Wolmar celebrates the vision and determination of the nineteenth-century pioneers who made the world's first, and still the largest, underground passenger railway: one of the most impressive


Since the Victorian era, London's Underground has had played a vital role in the daily life of generations of Londoners. In The Subterranean Railway, Christian Wolmar celebrates the vision and determination of the nineteenth-century pioneers who made the world's first, and still the largest, underground passenger railway: one of the most impressive engineering achievements in history.

From the early days of steam to electrification, via the Underground's contribution to twentieth-century industrial design and its role during two world wars, the story comes right up to the present with its sleek, driverless trains and the wrangles over the future of the system. The Subterranean Railway reveals London's hidden wonder in all its glory and shows how the railway beneath the streets helped create the city we know today.

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The Subterranean Railway

How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever

By Christian Wolmar

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2004 Christian Wolmar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84887-253-0



Underground railways were invented by a man born in the eighteenth century. Charles Pearson, who first set out the idea of running railways under cities, took his first breath in October 1793, at the height of the worst excesses of the French Revolution and more than two decades before Napoleon met his Waterloo.

As ever with history, there are various theories about who really was the first to conceive of an underground railway with the aim of alleviating the growing problems of congestion on London's streets. But Pearson has by far the best claim. It was Pearson, the City of London solicitor, who first set out his notion in a pamphlet in 1845, suggesting a railway running down the Fleet valley to Farringdon that would be protected by a glass envelope making it 'as lofty, light and dry ... as the West End arcades'. The trains were to be drawn by atmospheric power so that smoke from steam engines would not cloud the glass. This, of course, was not the scheme that was eventually built, but Pearson's concept was certainly the kernel of the idea that was to become the Metropolitan Railway two decades later along broadly the same route.

And it was Pearson who masterminded the financing of the Metropolitan which saved the scheme at the eleventh hour. Indeed, Pearson was a serial promoter of such undertakings, supporting several similar projects in the 1850s, and thanks to his perseverance eventually got his way. While the importance of Pearson's role is open to debate, it is difficult to argue against the proposition that without him, London might not have pioneered a transport system that transformed urban living. One could go further. Without Pearson metro systems might never have been developed, because the advent of the motor car in the late nineteenth century, followed quickly by electric tramways and the motor bus, could have resulted in the bypassing of the underground railways as a solution to city traffic problems given the expense and disruption of their construction as happened in most cities in the US. Paris, after all, was not to get its first Métro line until 1900 and the New York system did not open until 1904. Both learned much from the mistakes and tribulations of London's pioneers.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, London metamorphosed from a busy commercial centre into the world's first megalopolis. It was not surprising, therefore, that it would be the first to have underground railways, but it is, perhaps, remarkable that it beat its French counterpart by thirty-seven years. Whereas previously London's rural surroundings had never seemed very far away, now the sprawling slums were interspersed with elegant Georgian squares and swathes of little factories and warehouses which had sprung up in the capital as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. Greater London's population in 1850 had grown to 2.5 million from just under 1 million in 1800. The Georgian enclaves which had sprouted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on fields, snapped up cheaply by eager speculative developers, had enabled the relatively well-off to enjoy a new type of suburban living, away from the throng of the city. These areas, such as Camberwell, Kennington, Islington and Mile End – all fashionable again now as they were built by what Simon Jenkins calls 'men of taste and discrimination' to high standards – were within a mere hour's walk of the City in those days before traffic lights, congestion and pedestrian barriers.

Picture, for a moment, the London when Pearson's idea for underground railways first emerged. As one historian, Hugh Douglas, eloquently put it, 'towards the middle of the [nineteenth] century, London was dying – slowly, painfully and with a great deal of protest. No physician had to be called in to diagnose the trouble; it was all too apparent to those who lived there, for, wherever they went, they encountered the great thrombosis of traffic which clogged the highways that were the veins and arteries carrying the city's blood.' The cause of the clogging of the arteries was too much affluence and good living. London – indeed, the whole country – was prospering mightily. Britain was becoming the hub of an empire and her capital was emerging as the richest city in the world. With the huge increase in population, nearly a quarter of a million people were daily coming into the City to work.

The turmoil on the roads was, however, more like a Third World, than a Western, city today. There were wagons whose drivers walked beside the horses, blocking a large part of the roadway; and large advertising vans pulled by horses whose very purpose – to be seen by as many passers-by as possible – meant their progress was sloth-like. Costermongers with carts and animals being driven to market ensured that speeds in the central area rarely rose above walking pace. The bridges were particular bottlenecks and rain would add to the chaos by turning the roads into muddy quagmires.

More and more housing was needed as increasing numbers of jobs were created in the burgeoning factories and workshops, and, most important, in the offices of the City where the demand for clerks, before the days of typewriters, was almost unlimited. Demand for transport soared. No longer did people work within the district where they lived. The first commuters were hardy souls who had walked from areas of low rent to commercial districts, but as London spread, this was no longer possible. Successive new transport methods were introduced throughout the Victorian era in attempts to cope with the demand, starting in 1829 with the omnibus. George Shillibeer opened the first service using twenty-seater carriages from Paddington to the Bank of England, anticipating the same route that the first Underground railway would take thirty-four years later. Although Shillibeer's pioneering status can be questioned, as his omnibus service was little more than a stagecoach which made a shorter journey with more stops, the introduction of his service was a momentous event in the history of London's transport. However, it was not for the masses. The fare of one shilling to travel from Paddington to Bank was expensive and would have deterred all but the wealthiest of potential commuters – in contrast the workmen's trains of the Metropolitan Railway would, three and a half decades later, offer a whole week's travel for just one shilling.

Horses, which from 1870 also pulled trams along iron rails, remained the mainstay of much of the transport system until the turn of the century; oats and hay were as important a source of energy as coal. The rich had their own horses and carriages, a phenomenon which, rather like the growth of the private car a century later, was a major contributor to the congestion problem, but it was damned expensive as the horses required looking after, feeding and grooming. And what came out of the rear end of horses remained a major problem: 'The best estimate is that by the 1830s, English towns had to cope with something like three million tons of droppings every year' and three times that by the end of the Victorian era. And, contrary to those nostalgic pictures of old crones rushing after carriages to pick up fresh manure, the stuff was virtually worthless, barely five shillings a ton to the farmer. Therefore it was dumped in vast dung heaps in the poorer areas of town, contributing greatly to the squalor, stench and unhealthiness of Victorian London.

With the arrival of the omnibus, London grew at an even greater rate. The censuses of 1841 and 1851 show that during this decade alone an extra 330,000 migrants had flooded into the capital, making up more than one sixth of the population. These incomers were partly attracted to London by the prospect of golden streets, but mostly they were fleeing from rural areas where the crisis in agriculture had reduced employment, or from Ireland where the appalling potato famines had led to emigration on an unprecedented scale. London's rate of growth was to continue and the capital, boosted by the burgeoning wealth of the empire and, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century, an economy that was almost continually expanding, became a vortex, sucking in an ever greater proportion of the nation's population. It was the most exciting city in the world and everyone wanted or needed to live there. While it was inevitable that the transport system had to grow to accommodate this multitude it was no means certain that underground railways would become the chosen solution.

However, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, none of the alternative forms of transport were particularly enticing. Apart from walking and the new omnibuses, there were the hackney cabs, which were expensive, at eight pence per mile, and uncomfortable, and the drivers would often go by circuitous routes to boost their income. So as more and more omnibuses, carriages and hackney cabs piled onto London's roads in the early decades of the 1800s, it is easy to see how the idea of digging big holes under the city to transport the masses gradually began to be put forward and grudgingly accepted. Nevertheless, it took a massive leap of imagination to adopt such a radical solution and it is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which the notion of building railways under cities was radical and far-sighted.

In the mid 1840s, when the concept of an underground railway was first being elaborated, the railway age was a mere fifteen years old. It helped, of course, that the railways were also a British invention. The first locomotive-hauled railway linking two major cities, the Liverpool & Manchester, had only begun operating in 1830. As freight was the initial raison d'être for the construction of railways, London came rather late to the new technology, several years after the industrial heartlands of the north of England, where the need to move coal and other primary material more quickly than by canal led to a rapid burgeoning of the railway system. The iron road was, however, still unproven and evolving.

When in 1837 the first major line out of London to the north was completed, with Euston as its terminus, the developers of the railway did not bother to build many stations on the southern sections of the line around the capital. Other lines were also completed without serving the capital's hinterland. This was partly because the railways reached open countryside within a mile or two of what was then a compact city, but it also represented a failure of imagination by the railway companies. They saw their role as straddling the country and carrying people long distances, rather than linking the capital with outlying villages, and failed to recognize that such short journeys were a potentially lucrative market. So the Great Northern, for example, had just four stations in the eighteen miles between its grand terminus at King's Cross and Hatfield – Hornsey, Southgate (now New Southgate), Barnet (now New Barnet) and Potters Bar. On the Euston line, the first stop was Harrow and on the Great Western it was initially West Drayton. Despite the railways' dramatic effect on the country, as one historian puts it, 'until the 1860s, and arguably until the end of the century, their least important impact was in providing transport within London itself'.

With few trains, and omnibuses slow and expensive, walking continued to be the preferred method of travel for the majority of Londoners. And even when the first suburban London railway was built, the London & Greenwich, the developers, insufficiently confident about their own project, provided a walkway alongside, charging users a small toll. The London & Greenwich opened in 1836 and was a remarkable engineering achievement as, to save on land, it was built on 878 arches, which remains to this day the longest set in the country. The grandly named 'pedestrian boulevard' next to the line soon disappeared as more tracks were added to the railway, which became the main artery linking the centre of London with its southeastern suburbs.

As an urban railway for people making short journeys, the London & Greenwich was a precursor to the Underground. The experiment of running short-distance trains in an urban context proved successful despite doubts as to both the viability of the technology and the extent of the potential market. The line was soon carrying 1,500 people per day at fares of one shilling for 'imperial carriages' and half that for 'open cars' on trains that ran every quarter of an hour throughout the day. Initially the line struggled to make a profit, given the high cost of constructing all those arches, and it was not until a system of local railways centred around London Bridge emerged over the next couple of decades that shareholders began to get an adequate reward. By the middle of the 1840s, with other companies running tracks on the line, 5,500 people were being carried daily and holiday times proved highly lucrative as people used the line for day trips out of London. Had north London developed such an extensive system so early, today's Underground map would look very different and much less dense. But it was no geographical accident. Property was cheaper in the southern suburbs, which meant that they grew more quickly, thus creating a larger potential market for local rail services. The terminus at London Bridge, too, was on land that was much less expensive than property on the City side of the Thames, where it would have been unthinkable to carve out huge swathes of the estates owned by powerful aristocrats antipathetic to the new iron roads. In South London the land was the property of the Church, and the bishops who managed it – mostly the dioceses of Winchester, Rochester, London and Canterbury – were relatively welcoming to rail schemes. The bishops had also allowed cheap houses to be built on their land whose occupants were too poor to resist demolition, unlike the more affluent landlords north of the river.

So a pattern familiar to today's Londoners was set, providing the answer to that oft-asked question as to why only the northern half of the capital is well served by the underground network: more suburban lines were built on the surface in south London than in the north, obviating the need for underground railways. It was not until the invention at the end of the nineteenth century of tube railways, which ran deep into the London clay, that the underground system was to reach across the Thames. And even then, as we shall see, the geological conditions favoured underground railways north of the river.

The first railway through north London was something of an oddity, as it followed an orbital rather than a radial route. Originally intended primarily for goods, the North London Railway opened in 1850 between Fenchurch Street and Islington and was extended, in the following year, to Hampstead Road (Chalk Farm), via Bow, from where a spur went deep into London's Docklands. Within a few months, 7,500 people were using the quarter-hourly service every day, even though the line pootled aimlessly around north and east London before diving into the City. By linking lots of other railways, it demonstrated the enormous latent demand for rail services which was to be the spur for the creation of the Underground.

Of course there were also other social forces which created the conditions that enabled Pearson's concept to come to fruition. The phenomenon of travelling long distances to work, mostly on foot, had begun: as early as 1836, 175,000 people crossed London and Blackfriars bridges daily, most paying tolls. While there were also poor districts in growing industrial areas such as Spitalfields and Shoreditch in the East End, the slums of central London remained the worst in the capital until the second half of the century. Censuses reveal that a modest-sized house in areas such as Seven Dials or the southern end of Baker Street might be crammed with thirty or forty people.

There was a growing clamour among the political classes to clear the slums and improve transport communications. The railways fulfilled, at least in part, both roles. Although railways would be banned by a Parliamentary commission from reaching the centre of London, they were driven through the poorest parts of the capital outside the central area with little regard for the local inhabitants, while the richer estate owners were able to ensure that their property was not breached. In the middle years of the century the development of the railways transformed London. As Simon Jenkins puts it,

the coming of the railways to London from the mid-1830s onwards dealt the metropolis a bigger, and certainly more lasting, blow than anything since the Great Fire. Like the Great Fire, the railways shattered both the living and working arrangements of hundreds of thousands of Londoners. Like the Fire, they ate up vast quantities of labour, material and capital, and destroyed acres of the metropolis in the process. Most important of all, like the Fire, they spun the population of London ever further from the

While this process was initiated by the suburban railways, of which the London & Greenwich was the pioneer, the Underground was to play a major part, with whole sections of London owing their existence to its arrival. Gradually the elements which made a London underground railway feasible were coming together. The relative popularity of the London & Greenwich showed that railways could successfully be used for short journeys and it stimulated a host of other such projects; employment was increasingly rapidly, creating, as we have seen, the notion of commuting; the continued growth of the City was leading to more and more congestion; and it was apparent that the horse was both an inefficient and an expensive source of power. Soaring land values and the vested interests of the major estate owners made surface developments in the centre of London prohibitively expensive and prompted a plethora of schemes for creating railways underneath and through London.


Excerpted from The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar. Copyright © 2004 Christian Wolmar. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christian Wolmar is Britain's foremost writer and broadcaster on transport matters. He writes regularly for a variety of publications including the Independent, Evening Standard and Rail magazine, and appears frequently on TV and radio as a commentator. His other books include The Great Railway Revolution, Blood, Iron and Gold, Fire and Steam and Engines of War.

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