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South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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2 March 2012
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150 YEARS OF LONDON UNDERGROUND

Oliver Green

13 February 2012



On 13 February, we welcomed Oliver Green, past head curator of the London Transport Museum and Barry Le Jeun, Chairman of the Friends of the LTM. Oliver gave a presentation on the growth of London's transport infrastructure over the last century and a half, with a particular emphasis on the underground railway system – a system which now handles 1 billion passenger journeys per year, more than all the rest of the UK's railways put together.

The story started in the first few decades of the 19th century, a period of rapid expansion of London as the main line railways connected London with the rest of the country, and London itself expanded out into the surrounding countryside. As early as 1829, George Cruickshank (the illustrator of many Dickens' books) produced a cartoon, “London Going Out of Town”, lamenting the march of bricks and mortar into Islington. This was the same year as the first public bus service started in London connecting the canal wharfs at Paddington with Bank. The next few decades saw much disruption as the main-line railways brought their lines to the then boundaries of the city – being prevented from going further both by the costs and the disapproval of Parliamentary and the City Fathers. The resulting chaotic horse-drawn intra-city transport was illustrated in contemporary cartoons. It was not unusual for those travelling on the new railway line to find it took them as long to cross the City as it took to get from their homes in Brighton. There were plenty of ideas around for improvements to London's Transport network but most were impractical for economic or technical reasons, e.g. the use of pneumatic propulsion.

The solution was championed by Mr Pearson, Solicitor to the City of London, who established the Metropolitan Company in 1860 with the aim of improving the transport, while improving the economic prospects of the City and demolishing and replacing the slums. While he established the company and saw the start of the building work, he didn't live to see it completed. He recruited John Fowler as engineer, then relatively young, but ultimately to become one of the most influential in UK railway history. Fowler used tried and trusted technology for the Metropolitan. The cut-and-cover technique was used to build the line under the main roads, with tunnelling only used in penetrating the rising land under Mount Pleasant. The line was completed in an astonishing two years, with only one serious accident when the Fleet sewer broke through the workings and ruined the cutting walls between Kings Cross and Farringdon. That aside, nearly all the remaining civil engineering infrastructure is still as originally built 150 years ago. Oliver showed some original photographs of Kings Cross taken at the time of construction of the line (remember photography had only just been invented a couple of decades earlier). Noticeable by its absence was St Pancras Hotel and Station – not due to arrive for another five years. The Kings Cross Metropolitan station (originally located roughly where the Thameslink station used to be until a few years ago), and most others on the line, were built as miniature mainline stations with overall glass roofs on iron framework. Only Baker Street and Gower Street were fully enclosed. The line opened on 10th January 1863 and proved an immediate success. The only real problem was with the rolling stock, especially with the problem of smoke from the locomotives. Initial trials of a fireless locomotive which used pre-heated hot bricks to boil the water, proved unsuccessful. The resulting prototype became known as “Fowler's Ghost”. The GWR leased the company more traditional locomotives and stock for the opening of the line, but this relationship broke down after only one year and the company had to go the GNR for a further stop-gap before they could procure their own stock. The latter came from Beyer-Peacock of Manchester and included provision of condensing apparatus to recover steam from the exhaust. Unfortunately, while slightly more practical than “Fowler's Ghost”, this too wasn't very successful and for much of the time they worked without it. The result, of course, was a stifling atmosphere of damp smoke throughout the system. The engines, themselves, were powerful and well able to handle the rapid acceleration and braking called for in operating the line. Most worked through to the end of steam operations on the inner city lines in 1905, when they were then reallocated to the outer-suburban services. Only No 23 still survives, it having been banished to the Brill branch.

Meanwhile the Metropolitan-District company had started building the southern part of the system along the Embankment. Oliver pointed out it is a myth that this project showed how good the Victorians were at coordinating big public works. In fact it was only after the great London engineer Joseph Bazalgette had completed the grand sewer under the newly completed Thames Embankment that the Metropolitan-District came along and dug it all up again to build their line. The first part of this line was opened in 1868 but the North and South components were not joined up to form the Circle until the late 1880s, mainly because of the expense of building the lines in Central London. In order to expand their systems at lower cost, they expanded outwards, creating both the West and North-West suburbs.

By the end of the 19th century the first Tube lines were making an appearance, the City and South London being the first, opening in 1890 and running from Stockwell to Monument. Its construction, and those which followed, were made possible by the invention of the tunnelling shield by James Henry Greathead. Building the line was one thing but the question was “what should power the trains”. Steam haulage was out of the question in the deep tunnels and cable haulage was the first thought. However, experiences with this form of locomotion were not positive, the first such line in London, the Highgate Line, went bankrupt. Ultimately, electric traction was chosen, and the contract went to the Hopkins Brothers company which had a licence from Thomas Edison's company in the USA. The trains were assembled by Beyer Peacock and were formed of a locomotive and 3 carriages. Despite Punch satirising it as the “Sardine Line” and the carriages being colloquially referred to as “padded cells”, the line was a success. However, the locomotives were underpowered and there was insufficient electrical generating capacity to power them and the other ancillaries, such as station lighting. The latter still had to be powered by gas. The technology involved was then cutting edge, so much so that following a visit to the Stockwell power station, H.G. Wells came back home to write his novel “Lord of the Dynamos”.

The next Tube was the Central Line. They were the first company to introduce multiple units, so avoiding the need for locomotives to run round at the termini. Their advertising was all intended to pacify the travelling public and “avoid anxiety” over all the new technology. They pitched their service at men commuting into the City and also women paying visits to the Central London shops and theatres.

Then, onto the London scene came one of the most controversial characters – C.T. Yerkes. He was a US entrepreneur who had developed the electrified elevated lines in Chicago. Despite some shady deals over there, involving bribing city officials, he moved over here and developed the London Tube system as a means of transforming the citizens lifestyles. He set up a system of main and subsidiary companies, persuading banks to invest in a selection of the latter. This allowed great freedom for him to move money between the various companies to enables the projects to go ahead. The first such project was one to build the Lots Road power station in Chelsea which was sold to investors as being big enough to power multiple tramways and Tube lines. He started the building of the Piccadilly, Hampstead (Northern) and Bakerloo lines. He died in 1905 before these were complete, but by then he had also bought up the District Line and standardised on the 4-rail system of running lines we know today. His combined system issued its first branded “Underground” map in 1908.

Subsequently, Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield) and Frank Pick were the “formidable pair” who, as transport managers, developed the system to form London Transport. George Gibb had replaced Yerkes as Chairman and Managing Director on loan from the North Eastern Railway as a temporary measure. He recruited Pick from his parent company and gave him responsibility for marketing. Stanley replace Gibb when he returned to the NER. Despite the company's finances looking shaky, Gibbs decided to make further substantial investment and expanded the system even further. In 1920, they went further, building on the Metroland idea developed by the separate Metropolitan Company. That company had used a somewhat suspect method to build speculative houses on spare land which, strictly speaking, it should have sold back to the original owners. Stanley and Pick put forward a proposal to the government to build “homes fit for heroes” next to lines they would build, all financed by government guarantees. As a result, the City and South London expanded and joined the rest of the system as the Northern Line. In addition there was further investment in the system. In 1928 Piccadilly Circus station was completely rebuilt and was so impressive that, when a Russian delegation came over in 1930, they returned to convince Khrushchev, then party-leader for the Moscow Metro, that they must have a system bigger and better! The Piccadilly Line, meanwhile was extended north and west with newly-designed, standardised stations, many forming integrated transport centres with the Company's buses. With nearly 60 stations on the system, it was getting difficult to find one's way round, so Harry Beck's geometric route map, produced at this time after two year's of development, was a real boon. The decade ended with the introduction of the 1938 Tube stock and the second world war, the former being the standardised layout for all subsequent designs, and the latter putting a temporary stop to any further development while Londoners took shelter in their Tube. It wasn't just civilians who used the Tube for wartime purposes, many government bodies did so too, including the regional defence and control centre. At the end of the war, the country was broke and the planned extensions to the Central and Northern Lines were only partly completed. The next major extension had to wait until the mid 1960s with the building of the Victoria Line. The following decade saw the extension of the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow and the start on the expansion of the Jubilee Line. We have since seen the re-invigoration of East London catalysed by the Docklands Light Railway. While not part of London Transport, the next decade will see the completion of Crossrail, so it is clear that the period of railway construction in London is nowhere near an end.

Together with the current director and head curator of the LTM, Oliver is co-authoring a book on the history of London Transport which will be published this Autumn in preparation for next year's celebrations. The celebrations will start in January 2013, although the full programme still awaits confirmation.

Following Oliver's talk, Barry gave a short over-view of the work of the Friends of the London Transport Museum. They currently have some 2500 members and are actively involved in the funding of various projects, including the Q-Stock restoration now underweigh at Acton and a 1897 coach being rebuilt at Boston Lodge workshop. The latter should be ready for the celebrations next year. They also cover non-rail transport, and have several bus restoration projects in hand, including one to rebuild a B-Type bus in the form used to ferry troops to the First World War front line.

Funding comes from subscriptions and from sale of redundant items recovered from London Transport, for example old signs which are first offered to the Museum with any surplus going for sale by the Friends. The Friends also occasionally buy items on the open market which the Museum needs to fill a gap, such as posters. Volunteers from the Friends act as coordinators and guides at some of the open days, e.g. at Acton and Aldwych, including the operation of the miniature railway at the former. Members also take part in visits and help out at the Museum, e.g. in helping with the cataloguing of the collection of documents.

We aim to hold some joint events between the FLTM and FNRM- SoE Group in the coming months.