The Need for a "Subterranean Railway"

decorative initial 'T'he automated "Mind the Gap" announcement on the London Tube dates from the late 1960s (Martin 220), but the underground railways themselves were a Victorian invention. Eric Hobsbawn reminds us that by as early as 1850, our overground railway network was well established:

Between 1820 and 1850 some six thousand miles of railways were opened in Britain, mostly as the result of two extraordinary bursts of concentrated investment followed by construction, the little "railway mania" of 1837-7 and the gigantic one of 1845-7. In effect, by 1850 the basic English railway network was already more or less in existence. [88]

The great rail termini were dispersed around the capital itself. As a result, by the early Victorian period, more and more people were pouring into London, with their onward journeys into different parts of the city still ahead of them. The congestion of the roads at that time was as much a matter of concern for the Victorians as it is in our own age.

A City Thoroughfare, by Gustave Doré, 1872. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them, and for more information where available. All but two are already on the Victorian Web.]

The City of London's lawyer, Charles Pearson (1793-1862), was also worried about Londoners themselves: "A poor man is chained to the spot. He has not leisure to walk and he has not money to ride to a distance from his work" (qtd. in Martin 22). With remarkable foresight, he had started formulating the idea of an underground railway from as early as 1839, when he first took up his appointment. He envisaged

a railway in a wide, covered-over cutting. It would connect a giant half-underground station at Farringdon with stations all over England. It would also connect — at cheap ticket prices — Farringdon with new estates of cottages for artisans and clerks which he said ought to be built 6 miles north of London. The appeal of Farringdon was that this slum-ridden area was being redeveloped by Pearson's new employers, the Corporation of London. This was in conjunction with the transfer of the livestock market at Smithfield (the one to which the cattle had been driven via the china shops of Oxford Street) to uncluttered Islington. [Martin 22]

In 1845 Pearson produced a pamphlet outlining what must then have seemed a fantastic vision. To make it easier for travellers to reach their destinations within the metropolis, he suggested "a railway running down the Fleet valley to Farringdon that would be protected by a glass envelope," utilising "atmospheric power so that smoke from steam engines would not cloud the glass" (Walmer 8). By no means unpractical, Pearson pursued his dream through various stages and versions, not to mention vicissitudes, organising the funding of the project as it eventually took shape, and saving it from a last-minute collapse:

in 1857 he joined forces with the promoters of the Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to Farringdon Street, which was in financial doldrums with no work started; the City took £200,000 in shares in 1859 (which it later sold at a profit), and Pearson's skilful advice and lobbying were largely responsible for the work coming to fruition, four months after his death. [Robbins]

The Metropolitan Railway Company, which had been established in 1854, would open what was then known as the Metropolitan District Railway on 10 January 1863. It was a truly pioneering endeavour, the first of its kind in the world.

Down and Under, Up and Over

The Underground Railways. Stoker. “Wery sorry to Disturb yer at Supper, Ladies, but could yer oblige me with a Scuttle o' Coals for our Engine, as We've run short of 'em this Journey!” Punch 24 (1853): 124.

John Fowler (1817-1898), whose later works would include the Forth Rail Bridge, was the engineer in charge. The line was less than four miles long to begin with, and was close to the surface, in what was essentially a covered cutting. Instead of passing through a cylindrical structure far below the surface, passengers travelling in the "cut-and-cover" lines were being propelled along only just below it, through something very like a long tunnel on a mainline railway.

A Punch cartoonist imagined a stoker popping up through the floorboards to beg for some coal. But, as far as possible, cuttings were routed under existing roads. Gangs of toiling navvies made Pearson's dream come true by digging up the surface, laying the tracks just below it, covering them over with a brick-lined tunnel, and laying the road back on top again. Outside built-up areas, the train was brought above ground. Even so, it was a massive project. Again, contemporary periodicals give an idea of how novel it all was, and how formidable the obstacles. Fun magazine's jokey guide to the new system described the amount of tunnelling involved as

a bore to which the Thames tunnel was a more fleabite — there were water-pipes and gas-pipes to be avoided as carefully as their respective rates are by the wary householder; and there were huge sewers to be diverted — and such diversion is not child's play. However, even these odorous currents were got over by the engineer-in-chief, being made to run in FOWLER (but infinitely sweeter) receptacles. [Note the punning reference to the chief engineer!]

When completed, the Metropolitan Line from Paddington (Bishop's Road) in west London to Farringdon Street, connecting the terminus of the Great Western Railway with the city, would run ten times as far as the original stretch, travelling from Aldgate to Amersham with thirty-four stops. Still, only six miles of it would actually be underground. At Amersham the train is not only out in the open, but 490 feet above sea level — higher than Whitestone Pond, Hampstead, often described as the highest point in London itself (Mason 240). The first deep line, the City and South London, would not be completed until 1890 (Wolmar 5). Even today, a little less than half of the so-called "Tube" is above the ground.

The Opening of the Metropolitan Line

Left: The Metropolitan Railway, London, before its official opening. 1862, with Gladstone himself, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the right of the man wearing a white hat. Right: "The Guide to the Metropolitan Railway." Fun (1866).

On 10 January 1863, the very first day that the Metropolitan Railway opened to the public, around 30,000 travellers tried the new form of transport (Wolmar 41). One contemporary report estimated the number of passengers as about 25,000 by 6 p.m., so this sounds quite feasible; but even higher figures are given by the London Transport Museum: "almost 40 000 passengers were carried between Paddington and Farringdon, the journey taking about 18 minutes" ("Public Transport"). At first, the trains were lit by gaslight, flickering yellow in the thick air:

the novel introduction of gas into the carriages is calculated to dispel any unpleasant feelings which passengers, especially ladies, might entertain against riding for so long a distance through a tunnel. Yesterday [i.e. 10 January 1863], throughout every journey, the gas burnt brightly, and in some instances was turned on so strong in the first-class carriages, in each of which there were two burners, that when the carriages were stationary, newspapers might be read with facility; but, in motion, the draft through the apertures of the lamps, created so much flickering as to render such a feat exceedingly difficult. ["Underground Trains, 1863"]

While (according to the same source) second-class passengers had "leathered" seats, and first-class passengers had arm-rests, the rest were less comfortable. Entering at the ends of the carriages, these passengers sat on benches down the sides, or packed into the middle. Smoking was prohibited at first, but then provision was made for it, by popular demand: it would not be completely banned on underground trains until after a fire at Oxford Circus in 1984 (Martin 40).

The Workmen's Train, by Gustave Doré, 1872.

This could make the experience positively nightmarish, as an American writer R. D. Blumenthal found when he travelled by tube to Moorgate Street:

The compartment in which I sat was filled with passengers who were smoking pipes, as is the British habit, and as the smoke and sulphur from the engine filled the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the oil lamp above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat. I should think these Underground railways must soon be discontinued, for they are a menace to health. [qtd. in Woolmar 113]

This account is often quoted. Still, whatever the quality of the air and other discomforts, Pearson had been right: people used the new mode of transport because it was much easier and quicker than plodding into town through muddy or dusty streets, or waiting in a jumble of horse-drawn carriages on the roads.

Far from being discontinued, underground travel soon became part of city life. As early as 1866, it was seen as serving two distinct purposes, for business and pleasure: "Business, as a rule, goes Eastward, with the sun, to its office in the City. Pleasure, as it flows, runs Westward, like civilization, to the various sights of London in the immediate neighbourhood of the line — to the delirious dissipation of the British Museum, the statuesque repose of Madam Tussaud’s, or the instructive walks of botany and zoology in the Regent's Park" ("The Guide to the Metropolitan Railway").

Up to the Present

Left: James Henry Greathead, belatedly commemorated in a bronze statue of 1994 in Cornhill, by James Butler, RA (b. 1931). Right: Workmen working underground within a travelling shield. Source: "Construction of the Central Line."

With such a demand, the system was bound to grow. But it could only do so by criss-crossing the city under its buildings, and passing under the Thames as well. James Greathead (1844-1896) was the engineer who made this possible. Often called the father of the Tube, Greathead was just fifteen when he arrived in England from South Africa. He trained with an experienced older man, Peter Barlow (1809-1885; brother of William Henry Barlow), and became his assistant, adding sharp steel cutting blades to Barlow's huge cylindrical Travelling Shield. Moving forward below ground under pressure, this forced its way through the London clay, with a small team of workmen inside removing the loosened clay and fitting new sections of tunnel into place one after another: "This speeded up the tunnelling and was the basis of future shield technology" (Halliday 47). The real "tube" had arrived. In 1886, using compressed air with an improved version of Greathead shield, the first of the two tunnels of the new City and Southwark subway, passing more than a hundred feet below the Thames, was completed in an amazing fifteen weeks (Birse). Perhaps understandably, some early passengers were wary of travelling under the water. Pretending to prefer the fresh air, they would get out at London Bridge, and walk across the Thames instead.

The South Kensington Tube Station, first opened in 1868, though this entrance "arrived" in 1907.

The Northern Line has the lowest level station, not close to the Thames but at Hampstead, where the platforms are over 190 feet down. Trains on this level are smaller than those on the cut-and-cover lines, to fit into the smaller tunnels. The first completely deep-level line, then called the Inner Circle, was finished in 1884. Six years later another great milestone was reached when the City and Southwark line, then known as the City and Southern line, and later part of the Northern line, became the world's very first underground electric railway. When Charles Yerkes (1837-1905), a Philadelphia-born businessman, set up the Underground Electric Railways of London Company in 1902, the network began to come together in the form we know today.

Other big cities started following London's lead. Liverpool's Mersey Railway, going under the River Mersey, opened in 1886. The Glasgow Subway came ten years later, in the same year that Line 1 in Budapest was completed. The Paris Metro opened in 1900. Work began on the New York Metro in 1904. And so it went on, long after the pioneering Victorian age. Meanwhile, London's own network grew and grew, especially under the charge of Frank Pick (1878-1941), whose flair for design led to the familiar tube roundel. The world-famous tube map, with its distinctive colours for each line, was created in 1932 by the engineering draughtsman, Harry Beck (1902-1974). The Victoria and Jubilee lines had to be added later.

The London Tube in Context

Stone plaque outside Baker Street Station, beside the Marylebone Road, commemorating the opening in 1863 of the Metropolitan Line that runs just below it. Source: author's photograph.

London's tube was the first. No one can beat it in that respect. But it is neither the longest nor the most heavily used now. Shanghai's is the longest, despite the fact that construction only began in the later twentieth century, followed by Beijing. As for passengers, the Moscow subway is thought to carry the most, with around nine million passengers a day (Smith 188), though Tokyo probably carries a similar number. The Moscow subway also, surely, has the most elegant stations, complete with chandeliers. Yet no one wants a station like Oxford Circus to be more crowded. As it is, this station has to be closed when the platforms get too full. Speaking of crowded platforms, Londoners owe a special debt to our historic Tube. Its underground spaces made excellent bomb shelters, and helped countless Londoners survive the air raids of World War II.


Birse, Ronald M., rev. "Greathead, J. H. (1844-1896)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 August 2016.

"Construction of the Central Line of the London Underground." British Library. Web. 1 August 2016. (Photograph described as "Public domain.")

"The Guide to the Metropolitan Railway." Fun. 15 September 1866. Transcribed on the Victorian Web.

Halliday, Stephen. Making the Metropolis: Creators of Victoria's London. Derby: Breedon Books, 2003.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Martin, Andrew. A Passenger's History of the Tube. London: Profile Books, 2012.

Mason, Mark. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground London: Random House, 2013.

"Public Transport: Part Two: Underground." London Transport Museum. Web. 1 August 2016.

Robbins, Michael. "Pearson, Charles (1793–1862), lawyer and urban reformer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 August 2016.

Smith, P. D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

"Underground Trains, 1863." British Library. Web. 1 August 2016 (includes brilliant audio-visual material on the construction and opening of the Metropolitan Line).

Wolmar, Christian. The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built, and How It Changed the City Forever. London: Atlantic, 2004.

Created 1 August 2016