When most people think of the Tube, they envisage it in its modern form, under the authority of Transport for London, with uniform signage, overcrowded trains and platforms, and lots of people frantically checking the iconic Tube map that shows the miles and miles of tunnels and tracks passing through central London into the suburbs. Few people think of the history of the Tube, or realize just how long ago the concept of an underground railway in London was first thought of and implemented.
I must admit that I used to be one of those people. I had a vague idea that the Tube already existed at the beginning of the First World War but that was about it. However, over the past few years I have come across several items relating to the London Underground Railways and so have learnt a lot about their history. Cataloguing with the Tower Project is always an educational experience since many of the books are on topics about which the cataloguers know nothing. Sometimes, the research involved in providing proper subject headings for books means that we end up knowing far too much on some topics – don’t get me started on paper bag cookery (yes, really) or the New York air brake…
The first and earliest item relating to the Tube to fall into my hands was a small pamphlet extolling the virtues of the Metropolitan Railway, published in 1868. It states that “Of all the marvels of which the City of London can boast, perhaps the greatest is the Metropolitan Railway, familiarly known to the million as the “Underground.”” The Metropolitan Line is the oldest of the London Underground lines; building began in 1860 and, in 1863, the first 3 3/4 miles of track were opened. The service proved so popular that the line was soon extended. In the first five years of its existence alone, over 81.5 million individual journeys were taken on the Metropolitan Railway.
Where the shoals of passengers come from, who have occupied the line in an increasing ratio ever since [its opening] , it would seem impossible to calculate, as the omnibus and carriage traffic do not seem to have decreased.
By 1905 the number of underground railways had proliferated and there was concern about the air quality in the tunnels. The Public Health and Sanitary Committee of the Southwark Borough Council commissioned a report on the chemical and bacteriological condition of the air on the City and South London Railway (now part of the Northern Line). It was concluded that adequate means of ventilating tubes and carriages needed to be found as a matter of some urgency if a rise in serious illness among Underground passengers was to be prevented. The problem of ventilating the deep tunnels and trains and keeping them cool is one that still occupies engineers today.
The item that really caught my fancy, however, is entitled “Underground aids to travel” and includes a London Underground Railway map from 1911 (image below, click on it for an enlarged version). Everyone is so familiar with the modern Tube map, first designed in the early 1930s, that seeing this geographical rather than schematic map is a bit of a shock. When I am on the Tube I don’t really think about the geographical space linking the stations (which is probably why I know pockets of London quite well but have no idea how to get from one part to another without the Tube!). This map shows the underground railways in their actual locations and makes it obvious how popular and how profitable the Underground must have been for it to have been extended so far since its beginning with under 4 miles of tunnels fifty years before. It is also interesting because it reveals the reason for the odd routes that some of the lines take through the city. I have always wondered why the Northern Line has two branches: here it can be seen that what is now the Northern Line used to be two separate railways before the City & South London Railway and the Hampstead Railway were combined.
An advert inserted into a 1911 London guidebook praises the Underground as “The quickest and cheapest method of travelling” and to a great extent that is still the case, although sadly nowadays the price of a ticket has risen beyond the standard twopenny fare which gave the Central London Railway (now the Central Line) the wonderful nickname of the “Twopenny Tube.” This nickname soon led to the other underground railways becoming known collectively as the Tube, although the name Underground also remained (and remains) current. The individual railways continued to belong to a combination of different companies until they, with the independent bus and tram companies, were finally merged into the new London Passenger Transport Board (London Transport for short) in 1933. This combination led to the development of a more unified network for the Tube, with the individual railways being renamed ‘lines’. London Transport has existed in various guises over the past decades and is now known as Transport for London or TfL.
One wonders what the early visionaries, inventors and engineers of the Metropolitan Underground Railway would make of the current extensive Underground system, the thousands of commuters and tourists who use it every day and the incessant beep of the Oyster card readers. Given the iconic place of the Tube and all its branding and design features and the fact that the Underground is still considered one of the greatest marvels that the City of London can boast, I like to think that they would be very proud of what they started, in 1863, with under four miles of tunnels and tracks…