Today, London Underground (the Tube) is a massive transport network, with 11 lines spanning 402km of tracks and 270 stations. It transports up to five million passengers every day, making it one of the largest rail networks in the world. As it opened in 1863 during the Victorian era, it is also the world’s oldest underground.
When the first underground railway in London opened 155 years ago, it was a product of the growth of the sprawling metropolis that London had become. The population of the capital had grown rapidly, from around one million in 1800 to 2.35 million by around 1850.
Areas that were once outlying rural districts became part of the expanding suburbs of London. One problem was that the workforce needed to be quickly and efficiently transported from their homes to the workplace and horse-drawn carriages were too expensive for the working classes to use on a daily basis.
Early transport systems
Existing modes of transport were inadequate and transport chiefs looked for ways of moving the city’s population about more quickly and efficiently. Residents needed to travel further as the city expanded and traditional means of transport, such as hackney carriages and stagecoaches, couldn’t meet people’s needs.
Initially, in 1829, 20-seater horse-drawn omnibuses appeared on the streets and by the 1850s, there were around 1,300 on the streets. The earliest were launched by entrepreneur George Shillibeer. They were successful in that they covered 150 routes.
However, the cost of travelling was still relatively expensive – the cheapest fare was sixpence and the most expensive a shilling. As a result, it was largely the middle classes who used the omnibus service on a regular basis.
In addition, six additional railway stations were built outside the centre of London – Euston, Waterloo, Paddington, London Bridge, Bishopsgate and King’s Cross. The new omnibuses served the rail stations.
The London and Greenwich passenger line was completed in 1836, running along a four-mile stretch between Greenwich and London Bridge. Trams were up and running by the 1870s.
Birth of the Underground
The real transport revolution came when work began on the Metropolitan Railway – the network of underground railways that has become today’s London Underground. Originally nicknamed the “train in a drain”, the Metropolitan Railway was to change transport forever in the capital.
The idea of an underground system was first suggested in the 1830s, but various reasons prevented it from coming into fruition. These included the cost and a lack of interest at the time from the established railway operator. In the mid-1850s, the Metropolitan Railway was given permission to start building the first line, costing £1 million pounds.
Construction work began in 1860: took three years to complete, with the first line opening in 1863. A steam-powered locomotive ran from Paddington to Farringdon Street – a distance of around 3.8 miles.
Among the VIPs who travelled in open carriages to inspect the work, prior to the line’s official opening, was the future Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer. The line’s official launch on 9th January 1863 was attended by a large gathering of 600 Parliamentarians, stakeholders, rail officials and executives.
The rich, important and famous people of London were invited to ride on the first train from Paddington to a luxurious banquet at Farringdon Street Station, where officials made speeches and there was a performance by the Metropolitan Police Band.
Rail system expands
The new line, with steam locomotives pulling carriages that were lit by gas lights, proved so popular that it was soon carrying around 26,000 passengers a day and city chiefs had extended it to Moorgate in the heart of London by 1865. The rail companies began to extend the underground network quickly to ensure financial viability.
The press reported how the number of omnibus passengers had decreased right away, so fares were reduced to try and attract the public back, but the Underground was here to stay.
An article in the John o’ Groat Journal in January 1863 described the new service as having “spacious and handsome carriages” that allowed passengers to be “most comfortably and elegantly seated.”
The gas lighting was very popular, as it enabled passengers to “read a novel or newspaper with perfect ease”, while the smooth travelling on the broad-gauge rail tracks “makes one forget one is on a train,” according to the writer. There were “no sulphurous fumes” and the system was “perfectly safe.”
An article in The Times a few weeks later echoed these positive views, stating the threats of “steam, smoke and sewerage” (and even warnings of rats and bandits in the tunnels) had been “dispelled by the result.”
Travelling by rail in March 1863, the Prince of Wales endorsed the new Underground. With no pomp and ceremony, he was said to have blended into the background, travelling incognito, and even buying a copy of Punch magazine from a news stand prior to his journey.
He was sitting in a first-class carriage when the guard asked to see his ticket, having no idea of his identity! The prince was described by onlookers as an “unaffected young fellow” who didn’t mind being asked for his ticket.
The rail lines spread further outwards, with the Circle Line constructed by 1884, the Northern Line by 1890, the City and Waterloo lines added by 1898 and the Central Line opening in 1900. This coincided with electric trains gradually replacing the steam trains from 1890 onwards, to further improve efficiency.
As London continued to expand, so did the Underground network. More suburbs were built in the early 20th century. Housing developments sprang up to the north-west of London, extending into Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. As the city expanded, so did the ever-lengthening Metropolitan Line.
The whole construction process went relatively smoothly, apart from causing disruption to residents whose properties had to be demolished to make way for the development. It also had a temporary detrimental impact on businesses in the area during the construction phase.
However, this was a small price to pay for building the new transport system, which was fairly close to the surface, so that travelling underground wasn’t too unpleasant.
Today, the London Underground is an integral part of city life. Without the 155-year-old Victorian invention, 21st century London wouldn’t be able to function. It’s been estimated that the cost of building an equivalent rail system today, at modern prices, would be a staggering ₤129.3 billion, so we have plenty to thank the Victorians for!
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