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Underground to Everywhere: London's Underground Railway in the Life of the Capital

Underground to Everywhere: London's Underground Railway in the Life of the Capital

by Stephen Halliday

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Halliday describes its designers as well as the historical role it has played in London.


Halliday describes its designers as well as the historical role it has played in London.

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The History Press
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Underground to Everywhere

London's Underground Railway in the Life of the Capital

By Stephen Halliday

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Stephen Halliday
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9551-4


Terminal Connections

Utopian and one which, even if it could be accomplished, would certainly never pay ... The whole idea has been gradually associated with plans for flying machines, warfare by balloons, tunnels under the channel and other bold but hazardous propositions of the same kind ... an insult to common sense.

(The Times, 1861, referring to the Metropolitan Railway)

The line may be regarded as the great engineering triumph of the day.

(The Times, 1863, referring to the Metropolitan Railway)

The Metropolitan Railway

Plans for a sub-surface railway to provide a link between the City of London and main line stations to the north had been in existence for several years. The Great Western Railway was particularly concerned that Brunel's terminus at Paddington, opened in 1838 on what was then the fringe of the built-up area, was too far from the City for its passengers' convenience. In 1854 a bill was presented to Parliament, the cumbersome title of which reveals its purpose: 'The Metropolitan Railway, Paddington and the Great Western Railway, the General Post Office, the London and North Western Railway and the Great Northern Railway.' The plan, originally devised by a financier called William Malins, was to link Paddington, Euston and King's Cross by a railway running beneath the Marylebone–Euston–Pentonville road, picking up passengers from each station. The inclusion of the General Post Office secured the support in Parliament of Rowland Hill MP, who in 1844 had invented the penny post. A former chairman of the Brighton Railway Company, Hill was an enthusiastic advocate of rail transport and was concerned about the delays to the post caused by London's chronic traffic.

In 1854 a parliamentary committee considered the plan and, in particular, looked at the problems posed by steam engines in long underground tunnels. John Fowler, engineer to the projected line, had asked Robert Stephenson to design a locomotive that could run the length of the proposed railway on heat and steam built up in the open air before entering the tunnel. To reassure the committee Fowler produced as a witness Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself, who insouciantly declared, 'I thought the impression had been exploded long since that railway tunnels require much ventilation', adding, enigmatically, 'If you are going a very short journey you need not take your dinner with you, or your corn for your horse'.

Over the next four years the project underwent several changes of name, directors and route, the one constant factor being John Fowler, who remained the very well-paid consultant engineer to the company. By 1858 the Fowler Railway Project, its title mercifully shortened to the 'Metropolitan Railway', had in effect absorbed the plans for Pearson's 'Arcade Railway' referred to in the introduction. It combined the two schemes into a single line beginning at Bishop's Road, near Paddington, which would pick up passengers from stations at Edgware Road, Baker Street, Great Portland Street, Euston Square and King's Cross before turning south along Pearson's proposed route to Farringdon. There would be connections to the Great Western tracks at Paddington and the Great Northern tracks at King's Cross, so that the underground line could accommodate trains from these railways as well as offering its own shuttle service. The presence of Great Western trains meant that the tracks had to be laid to accommodate the company's broad gauge (7ft) rolling stock as well as the standard gauge (4ft 8½in) stock of the other services. There would also be a connection with the new Smithfield meat market for goods trains.

In 1858 The Times reported another meeting at the London Tavern, chaired by the Lord Mayor and addressed by Pearson and by Lord John Russell, MP for the City of London. Their speeches prompted much cheering and some bold resolutions, but this time they also produced some money. Earlier in the year, William Malins had been replaced as chairman of the Metropolitan Railway by the stockbroker William Wilkinson, who enjoyed good City connections. The time was right. Much of the land through which the projected line would run was derelict and could be acquired at a reasonable price. In a few years' time it would be built upon and prohibitively expensive. Baron Lionel Rothschild reminded the meeting that land was changing hands in the City for as much as £1 million an acre. Pearson had earlier urged the Metropolitan Railway directors to 'Tell the Corporation that if they do not come forward to help you, you will wind up the affair and that will be the end of it'. Following the meeting the deal was done. The Metropolitan Railway purchased the Fleet Valley land from the City for £179,157; in return the City Corporation subscribed £200,000 to the company's capital. The Great Western subscribed £175,000. The remainder of the capital, some £475,000, was raised from civil engineers like Morton Peto and Thomas Brassey, who hoped to gain contracts, as well as from the Great Northern and Metropolitan Railway shareholders.

The new company moved into offices at 17 Duke Street, Westminster, the former home of I.K. Brunel. In February 1860 work at last began on the railway, watched with a mixture of curiosity and disdain by the press and the public. One observer recorded: 'A few wooden houses on wheels first made their appearance; then came some wagons loaded with timber and accompanied by sundry gravel-coloured men with picks and shovels.'

The Times was more astringent, describing the scheme as 'Utopian and one which, even if it could be accomplished, would certainly never pay'. The writer added, with unconscious foresight, that 'the whole idea has been gradually associated with the plans for flying machines, warfare by balloons, tunnels under the Channel and other bold but hazardous propositions of the same kind'. The newspaper thought it 'an insult to common sense to suppose that people would ever prefer to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London'.

The line was built by the 'cut and cover' method. A trench was dug, mostly along the line of the Marylebone–Euston–Pentonville roads, with appalling effects upon traffic. Once the line was built, the trench was covered over and the traffic resumed its normal, congested course. Benjamin Baker, who had joined John Fowler in designing the system, described some of the problems encountered in constructing the world's first underground railway at the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1885. Baker and Fowler later collaborated on their most celebrated railway project, the Forth Bridge. The construction of the railway was closely followed, especially by the Illustrated London News, which took many opportunities to publish engravings of the work in progress. On 15 February 1862, it published an illustration of the cutting as it passed 'the summer residence of Nell Gwynne'. A more sombre note was sounded the following June when the Fleet sewer burst in upon the workings, and the newspaper marked the occasion with a scene of devastation on its front page and a vivid description of the event:

A warning was given by the cracking and heaving mass and the workmen had time to escape before the embankment fell in ... the massive brick wall, eight feet six inches in thickness, thirty in height and a hundred yards long, rose bodily from its foundations as the water forced its way beneath ... The scene was, indeed, well worthy of a visit.

Several inspection visits were carried out before the line officially opened, some of them arranged for publicity purposes. There exists a photograph of Gladstone on one of these occasions, looking distinctly out of place in an open goods wagon at Edgware Road in May 1862, shortly before the Fleet burst. On another such inspection visit, reported in the Illustrated London News on 6 September 1862, the newspaper's correspondent described the curious sensation of agreeable disappointment – the open cuttings being more extensive, and the tunnels better lighted and ventilated, than was expected.

'The great engineering triumph of the day'

On 9 January 1863 the line was formally opened by the directors. Shortly before the opening they had referred to arbitration a late request for extra payments in connection with the opening by their engineer John Fowler, who was gaining a reputation for being distinctly acquisitive. The previous week the Illustrated London News had announced the event and devoted a full page to illustrations of each of the seven stations served by the new route. A ceremonial tour of the new line was undertaken by the directors and about 700 guests. Sir Rowland Hill was among the guests but the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, was not. He had been invited but the 79-year-old statesman had declined, saying that he hoped to remain above ground a little while longer. He died two years later. Another absentee was Charles Pearson; he had lived to see his idea taking shape but had died the previous September before it was completed. A banquet was held at the Farringdon Street terminus at which an atmosphere of mutual congratulation prevailed. The Metropolitan Police band played, speeches were made and toasts drunk to the manifold virtues of the City Corporation, the civil engineering profession in general and to John Fowler in particular. The Times, whose earlier scepticism was forgotten amid the enthusiasm of the occasion, declared:

The Metropolitan Railway has at length become 'a great fact' and, we may add, a great success ... the line may be regarded as the great engineering triumph of the day ... ingenious contrivances for obtaining light and ventilation were particularly commended.

The 'ingenious contrivances' consisted of lengths of cutting open to the sky (still a characteristic of much of the Metropolitan and Circle Line, for example at Farringdon) and coal gas lamps in huge globes hanging from the station roofs. Robert Lowe MP, Gladstone's future Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the principal speech, in which he expressed his confidence that the new line would form the basis of a 'Circle' of such railways within the metropolis. This would follow, but not until another twenty-one years had passed.

In his speech, John Fowler predicted that the 'ingenious' design of the locomotive would ensure that neither smoke nor steam would be emitted in the tunnels. In this he was radically wrong. In 1861 Robert Stephenson had delivered an experimental engine ordered by Fowler. It cost £4,518, about twice the price of a normal engine. It was tried out over a 7-mile stretch of the Great Western, but at the end of the run it was in such a poor condition, dangerously overheated and emitting steam from every orifice, that it had difficulty limping back to its depot. The Metropolitan Railway directors agreed to pay Stephenson for his engine and promptly attempted to sell it to the Great Western. Instead, the line was worked by tank engines designed by Brunel's collaborator, Daniel Gooch MP, who neatly diverted the exhaust steam via a prominent pipe into a cold-water tank beneath the boiler. However, although this disposed of most of the steam it did nothing for the smoke, which was released unimpeded into the tunnels.

Forty-five passenger coaches, made of teak and supplied by the Great Western, offered first-, second- and third-class compartments, lit by coal gas carried in collapsible bags on the roofs of the carriages. The opening of the line had been delayed by the Chief Inspector of Railways, Colonel Yolland of the Royal Engineers, who was concerned about some of the finer points of the signalling equipment – though he appears to have overlooked the problems that could arise from the combination of bags of gas and locomotive sparks within a tunnel. Happily, no accidents occurred as a result of this hazardous arrangement and the line enjoyed an excellent safety record during its days of steam.

The Illustrated London News also gave generous coverage to the public opening of the line on 10 January 1863. It was estimated that 30,000 people used the line on this first day, becoming the first paying passengers to use an underground railway service anywhere in the world. The crush of passengers was such that, for much of the day, the trains filled up at the terminus stations at each end of the line, Bishop's Road (Paddington) and Farringdon, and it became impossible to board the trains at intermediate stations.

The Great Western Withdraws

The enthusiasm of the crowds who attended the public opening was matched by the numbers who used the line in the months that followed. Fares were, according to class, threepence, fourpence and sixpence for full single journeys; fivepence, sixpence and ninepence return. In the first six months almost 30,000 passengers a day used the line and the service had to be increased to a frequency of ten-minute intervals at peak times and fifteen minutes at others. To supplement the service, the Great Western brought in extra rolling stock and standard, non-condensing steam locomotives, causing two railwaymen to be removed, choking, to University College Hospital. Perhaps as a result of these extra services, problems quickly arose in the relationship between the Metropolitan Railway and its biggest shareholder, the Great Western, which had provided the locomotives and rolling stock for the trains. The locomotives were named after autocrats (Czar, Kaiser, Mogul) and unpleasant insects (Locust, Hornet, Mosquito). The Great Western had backed the line because it wanted to gain access to the City for its main line passengers from Bristol and elsewhere. It had little interest in the Metropolitan's 'shuttle' service between intermediate stations and was consequently reluctant to devote more of its rolling stock, locomotives and staff to increasing the frequency of this service when the Metropolitan asked it to do so. The Great Western was also nervous about the Metropolitan's connections with other railway suitors so, when the Metropolitan Railway directors announced, in July 1863, that they were about to create a connection at King's Cross that would enable the Great Northern to run trains direct from Hatfield and Hitchin to Farringdon, the Great Western took what it assumed would be decisive pre-emptive action. Its directors announced that they would withdraw all Great Western services in two months, leaving the line bereft of trains. They also refused to sell to the Metropolitan Railway the stock they had been using. In a series of hastily arranged meetings throughout July, the Metropolitan Railway directors arranged to borrow some locomotives and rolling stock from the Great Northern and to purchase eighteen tank locomotives and thirty-four passenger carriages. As a result of this swift action, the Metropolitan was able to begin running its own services in August, well within the two months' notice served by the Great Western. By October peace had been restored. The Great Western sold its shares in the Metropolitan (at a profit) and resigned itself to the fact that it would now share the line not only with the Metropolitan's own services but also with the Great Northern, whose services began to run through to Farringdon from Hatfield and Hitchin via King's Cross in October 1863.

The directors of the Metropolitan showed some enterprise in securing revenue from sources other than fares. In March 1863, two months after the line opened, an advertising agent called James Willing paid the company £1,150 for the right to sell books and place advertisements on the stations. The experiment must have been a success because in 1866 he paid over £34,000 for the right to continue the arrangement for another seven years. He renewed the contract at regular intervals until 1907, when it passed to W.H. Smith. In 1864 Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond, who had made a fortune selling refreshments to gold prospectors on the Melbourne to Ballarat Railway in Australia, signed an agreement to run refreshment rooms on Metropolitan stations, paying for this privilege 10 per cent of the takings, or at least £4,000 per annum.

Whatever Became of the Earth?

A few weeks after the line opened, the general manager of the Metropolitan Railway received a curious message from the manager of White's, that most exclusive of London's gentlemen's clubs, situated at the top of St James's Street: 'To save further heavy wagering within the precincts of the club, the manager would be grateful if you would inform him of what became of the earth removed from the tunnels.' The reply read, 'Tell the manager to go to Chelsea and see for himself.' The excavated earth had been dumped on a greenfield site off the Fulham Road called Stamford Bridge. In 1905 it became the home of Chelsea Football Club, the embankments of earth being used to form terraces for spectators.

Another curiosity of the line's construction was to be found in Bayswater at 23 Leinster Gardens, where a false house façade was created to conceal the trains running behind the neighbouring dwellings.


Excerpted from Underground to Everywhere by Stephen Halliday. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Halliday. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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

Stephen Halliday is the author of The Great Filth and Newgate.

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