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The Tube: A History of the London Underground

The Tube: A History of the London Underground

The world’s first underground railway, the London Underground was constructed as a response to the city’s rapid growth during the 19th Century.  Today, it is the 11th-busiest subway system on the planet with 1.379 billion passengers using it from 2016-2017.  Its tunnels stretch for 249 miles throughout London, often overlapping and giving passengers plenty of options for getting from one place to another.  The history of the Underground, its tunnels, and the people connected to it, is truly fascinating.  We hope that as you partake of this article, you’ll submerge yourself in the history and lore and discover more than you knew about the Tube.

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th saw a shift in Britain’s population from the farms of the countryside to the factories of the cities.  Being the capital, London saw one of the largest influxes of new citizens, with the population of Great London tripling from 1,011,157 to 3,094,391 between 1801 and 1861.  The increase in population also led to an increase in the amount of road traffic as residents of Outer London traveled to Inner London for work and back home each day.  At the same time, the nation’s seven major railways met in London bringing in, even more, people and upwards of 200,000 people were crossing into the City of London each day.

The solution proposed was railways that would run steam trains underground to help move the city’s new residents.  By the 1850s, the groundwork had been set to create the system that the city would require.  The first steam-powered railway trains were running across the country by the 1830s, linking Britain in an unprecedented manner. From 1825 to 1843, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Thomas Cochrane had developed the tunneling technology that built the Thames Tunnel, enabling transportation of goods and people under the river and further linking the two sides of the city.  Around this time, City Solicitor Charles Pearson had begun to argue for an underground transportation system and supported several schemes to have one built, including one in 1846 that included a central railway station that would be used by multiple railways.  However, in that same year, the Royal Commission denied his plan.

Pearson pushed for his underground railway again in 1852 and this time found limited success with the creation of the City Terminus Company, which ran a rail line between Farrington and King’s Cross.  Unfortunately, while the scheme had the support of the city, the railway companies weren’t interested, and it wouldn’t be until the creation of the North Metropolitan Railway.  The Bayswater, Paddington, and Holborn Bridge Railway Company was the impetus behind the Met’s creation, which connected the Great Western Railway at King’s Cross to the City Terminus Company’s rail line, which the railway company had acquired.  The company’s attempts to get a bill through Parliament were often met with resistance until Royal Assent was given finally in 1854, by which point the company changed its name to the Metropolitan Railway and its plans extended to include the London and North Western Railway as well as the Great Northern Railway.

Despite the difficulty in getting the funds raised due to the ongoing Crimean War, the Metropolitan Railway first opened in 1863, transporting 38,000 people on its first day and borrowing trains from other railways to assist.  The first year saw a total of 9.5 million passengers, a number that increased to 12 million in the following year.  This success meant that many new companies petitioned Parliament for new underground railways and the District Railway soon followed.  The two networks together would eventually form the basis of the Circle Line as well as parts of the Piccadilly Line and the District Line.   The rivalry between the two railways’ owners, James Forbes and Edward Watkin, meant that the process of linking the two took twenty years and the lines continued to experience problems until the railways were amalgamated in 1933.

Over the next few decades, other lines would form from the various railway companies, including the Hammersmith & City Line (formed out of the Metropolitan Railway), the Northern Railway (formed by the City and South London Railway as well as Charing Cross, Euston, and Hampstead Railway), and the Waterloo & City Line (established by the London and South Western Railway).  At the same time, steam engines started to give way to electric railways, though some steam engines would continue to see use even into the 1960s.  The Underground Electric Railways Company of London, founded by American transport magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, was established in 1902 and provided power to many of the electric railways.  Digging technology also advanced to permit even deeper tunnels than that sub-surface lines that were first built.


The Metropolitan and District Railway lines were essentially created by digging trenches and putting a roof over them, so the first legitimately underground was the Northern Railway, which opened in 1890.  This line ran from Stockwell to King William Street and later expanded Moorgate, Euston, and Clapham Common.  Meanwhile, CCE & HR established the Hampstead Tube, and by the late 1920s, the two integrated into what we know as the Northern Line.  Meanwhile, the Waterloo & City Railway opened in 1898 and named after its two stations.  Two years later, the Central London Railway opened running a line from Shepherd’s Bush to Bank.  The Baker Street and Waterloo Railway opened in 1906 as one of the subsidiaries of the UERL and became known by its more popular name of “Bakerloo”.  In the same year, the UERL formed the Great Northern, Piccadilly, & Brompton Line that ran from Finsbury Park to Hammersmith.

A couple of major changes took place shortly afterward.  The first, led by UERL publicity officer Frank Pick, was a clear brand for the company’s lines.  Borrowing from the London General Omnibus Company, Pick developed the roundel symbol for the UERL that would become synonymous with the Underground.  He also introduced common signage and advertising throughout the lines that would become the basis for all other underground railways in the city.  It wouldn’t be twenty-five years between the creation of Pick’s branding scheme that order would come to the chaos of London’s fractured subterranean transport system when the London Passenger Transport Board was established in 1933.  The Board effectively merged the city’s transportation networks, including the underground railways, into a single entity that became London Transport.

Another major change for the Underground occurred two years prior in 1931 when former UERL employee Harry Beck would produce his first design of the Underground map that would become the standard layout.  Before Beck’s map, diagrams of the underground railways tended to be geographical in nature and looked like a plate of brightly-colored spaghetti rather than an easily-understood interface.  By “straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distance between stations”, Beck created a map that was simple and elegant, better understood by consumers than previous models.  Beck attempted to sell it to the UERL in 1932, but the company wasn’t interested.  When he tried again in 1933, the UERL bought it off of him for £10 (or roughly £600) today.  When the firm became part of London Transport, the map went with it and was altered several times over the decades, but Beck’s initial design remained the basis for every subsequent version.

Beyond transport, the Underground found another use during the early 1940s when it became a key part of the city’s war efforts.  While people had taken shelter in the Underground’s tunnels during the first bombing raids of World War I, there was an increased use of the disused tunnels as air raid shelters from 1940 to 1945.  Additionally, the government made use of the Underground tunnels to store national treasures and as administrative offices for themselves and for the military.  Some Tube stations even became small factories churning out munitions and airplane parts for the war.  In many ways, the Underground network became its own small city during World War II.

Following the war, Clement Atlee’s Labour government came to power, and a wave of nationalising industries caught London Transport in its wake, incorporating the body into the British Transport Commission in 1948.  The BTC ignored some of the maintenance needs of the aging Underground system but began construction on two new lines:  the Victoria Line and the Jubilee Line.  As the city had stopped growing due to the Green Belt that engulfed it, the two new lines would be focused more on alleviating current congestion rather than extending the network to new destinations.  The Victoria Line opened in 1968, and the Jubilee followed in 1979, the latter named after Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.  Beginning in 1969, the iconic phrase “Mind the Gap” could be heard over the stations’ PA systems.  The automated message was devised after it became too difficult for station staff and train drivers to verbally remind the passengers themselves, choosing a short phrase to save on costs.  Sound engineer Peter Lodge recorded the phrase himself (as well as “Stand clear of the doors”) after the original actor hired wanted royalties for his work.  Other actors were later recorded saying the phrase, including Emilia Clarke, Phil Sayer, and Oswald Laurence, whose voice had been used since 1969 and was restored to Embankment Station on request of his widow so that she could continue to hear his voice.

Eventually, the administration of London Transport was turned over the Greater London Council, which instituted a system of fair zones in 1981 to help lower the rates on its buses and underground trains.  In the ensuing years, London Transport introduced the Travelcard and the Capitalcard.  1984 saw the Underground become part of London Regional Transport under the Secretary of Transport, which would be a prelude to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government dismantling the Greater London Council in 1986 and moving many of its responsibilities to the government or borough councils.  The 80s also saw one of the worst disasters in the Underground’s history when a fire started on one of King’s Cross station’s wooden escalators as the result of a still-lit match.  The fire led to the deaths of thirty-one people, and the subsequent report led to new safety regulations.

Moving onto the 1990s, many of the trains received a fresh coat of paint after it proved difficult and costly to remove graffiti.  In 1990, the Hammersmith & City line was crafted out the Metropolitan Line, which had been part of since the railway was created over a hundred years prior to this.  Extensions continued in anticipation of the new millennium and, at the same time, the return of a centralised London Government meant another change in administration for the Underground.  Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government meant to create a new governmental organization for the city’s boroughs and crafted the Greater London Authority, which took effect in 2000.  At the same time, it created a new transportation body in Transport for London.  TfL helped to create a public-private partnership in which TfL ran the trains while private companies helped to upgrade the lines.

Despite this, the government retained control of the Underground until 2003 when it returned to local control.  The Oyster card was introduced that same year along with busking in designated areas.  As the decade went on, the Overground was introduced to relieve congestion along with new lines and stations, and the Overground has been credited as one of the causes of East London’s revitalisation.  Crossrail then became the city’s next great innovation, meant to further relieve congestion of the lines, running between the home counties and through the city.  In honour of the Queen’s long reign, it was renamed as the Elizabeth Line, a name that will go into use in 2018 along with a purple roundel rather than the usual red.  Last year, the London Underground moved to being open twenty-four hours per day on the weekends, mirroring the practises of other major world cities.

The first and one of the largest metro subway systems in the world, the London Underground continues to have a major role in the city.  It is part of London’s history, and its changes continue to reflect the change in the metropolis itself.  The next time you find yourself on one of the Underground’s trains, reflect on everything the system has been through over 150+ years and how you travel the same path as millions.



The Tube: A History of the London UndergroundLondontopia – The Website for People Who Love London

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