Museum guide

London Transport Museum explores the heritage of London and its transport system, and the stories of the people who have travelled and worked in the city over the last 200 years. Here is a glimpse of the stories you will encounter in your journey through the Museum Galleries.

19th Century London and Victorian Transport

The London of 200 years ago was a compact city where most people got around on foot. Streets were often crowded with pedestrians, with only a wealthy few able to travel by horse. The River Thames provided a faster way of getting around. Watermen carried people in small rowing boats called wherries. These were eventually displaced by paddle steamers which, by the 1850s, were carrying several million passengers a year.

Two Parisian imports changed the nature of vehicle traffic on London streets: the cabriolet and the omnibus. Light horse-drawn cabs, which could be manoeuvred down London's maze of streets, became fashionable among rich Londoners. English coachbuilder George Shillibeer launched London's first 'hail and ride' bus service in 1829. From 1870, horse-drawn trams on rails challenged the supremacy of the horse bus. Trams ran earlier in the morning and were cheaper than buses, giving working-class Londoners their first access to affordable public transport.

Railways too played their part in shaping London's development. The railway boom of the 1830s and 1840s saw routes to London created from every direction. Soon railway stations and depots were a presence right round the heart of London.

World's First Underground

Main line railways made it easier to get to London, but also contributed to the growing congestion on the streets. In 1860 work began on the first attempt to solve the problem: an underground railway. The Metropolitan Railway was designed to link three of London's main line termini with the City. The track was laid mostly in a shallow cutting excavated along the street, which was then roofed over. This method was known as cut-and-cover construction. The first section of the Metropolitan opened from Paddington to Farringdon on 10 January 1863. A second underground line, the District, began operating five years later. The two were eventually linked to create the Circle line in 1884.

The early underground was a huge engineering achievement and very well used, but had one big disadvantage. Its steam locomotives created a permanent sulphurous fug in the stations and tunnels. The only surviving steam engine from the 1860s, Metropolitan number 23, is on display in the Museum. 

Digging deeper and the pioneer Tube

The cut-and-cover method used to construct London's early underground lines was expensive and disruptive. Deeper tube lines would minimise congestion at street-level but to take the underground any deeper, engineers had to overcome three technical barriers. They needed a safe, reliable means of tunnelling through the London clay, a way to move passengers up and down at deep-level stations, and a clean alternative to steam power for the trains.

These barriers were eventually overcome in 1890 when the world's first electric railway, the City and South London Railway, opened between Stockwell and King William Street in the City, with passengers travelling in primitive 'padded cell' coaches. More deep Tube lines followed, though the remaining challenges were not technical but financial. American entrepreneur Charles Tyson Yerkes - who made a fortune running street railways in Chicago - stepped in and made the Underground an attractive proposition for investors. 

Growth of Suburbia

After the 1860s, the expansion of local rail lines, underground and eventually Tube services, led to the growth of railway suburbs at the edge of London and beyond. Developers built new housing estates near rail or underground stations, and suburban communities quickly grew up around them, with electric trams and motorbuses making the new suburban lifestyle more appealing and convenient.

Many ordinary Londoners bought suburban homes which offered a more comfortable lifestyle than the inner city and the Metropolitan Railway, pushing overground out into London's north-west, became a successful property developer in its own right. The company built housing estates on land alongside the rail lines, creating a commuter area dubbed 'Metro-land'. Posters and a glossy annual guide were designed to attract new home buyers and promote the suburban ideal. 

On the Surface 1900-1945

In 1900 virtually every vehicle on the streets of London was horse-drawn. More than 300,000 horses were needed to keep the city on the move, hauling everything from private carriages and cabs to buses, trams and delivery vans. Early mechanical vehicles were unreliable and short-lived. Electric tramways had been introduced in a number of American and European cities in the 1890s, but London itself did not have a single tram line until 1901 when the first electric tram opened in Shepherds Bush.

By 1914 trams were running down nearly every high street in London, carrying 800 million passengers annually. While horses continued to be used for most goods delivery, horse buses and horse trams had disappeared in London, and motor taxis heavily outnumbered horse-drawn cabs. In public transport the electric motor and petrol engine were now in the ascendancy. In the 1920s buses were the most popular mode of transport. Covered top decks and pneumatic tyres made buses more comfortable, and many new routes were introduced to link up London's new suburbs. By 1930 electric trolleybuses, powered using the same overhead lines as trams, began to replace trams and Londoners were making 1,958 million bus journeys annually, more than double than in 1921. 

The move from horse-drawn vehicles to motorized ones was not without issue, bringing with it a dramatic rise in fatal road accidents in the Capital. There were 186 road deaths in 1901, but this leapt to 1362 people killed in 1929. Not until 1934 were compulsory driving tests and an urban speed limit of 30mph (48kmh) imposed on drivers. Important innovations in the 1920s and 1930s continued to improve safety, comfort and efficiency for people travelling around London. 

London by Design

As London's transport system grew in complexity, Londoners wanted better coordination of services. But the competing interests of the many private and public transport operators posed a challenge.

London Transport was created in 1933 to bring all the services under one public authority, and it was Frank Pick, London Transport's new Chief Executive, who had the energy and vision to devise a creative solution. Pick's mantra was 'fitness for purpose' and he believed that good design was essential to London Transport's identity as an efficient company. The Museum's design gallery shows how this unique design culture was developed across the company's entire range, from vehicles and architecture to information signs and publicity. 

In keeping with this modern approach, London Underground became a leading patron of modern art, commissioning posters from both established artists and talented newcomers. London Transport Museum holds a unique archive of more than 5000 posters and works of art covering a century of graphic design. A changing selection is on display in the Museum and you can browse the entire collection online. 

London Transport at War

Through both the First and Second World Wars, London's transport system and its staff played an important part in keeping the city moving. Their contributions went well beyond the normal call of duty. During the First World War, drivers took buses to France, transporting troops to the Western Front. Women worked as 'conductorettes', making their first forays into the male preserve of the bus garage.

Women played a much larger role during the Second World War, replacing male staff who had joined the armed forces. Many women took factory jobs doing war work, including aircraft construction as London Transport facilities were turned to the war effort. Amazingly, the Tube was able to keep running throughout the war, despite providing an underground home every night for thousands of Londoners during the Blitz.

On the surface after 1945

After the Second World War London's surface transport services were badly dilapidated, but carried more passengers than ever. From the 1950s buses were in decline. A low priority for government spending, they were also less efficient due to escalating car-based congestion. The now iconic Routemaster entered service in 1959, replacing trolleybuses. Previous diesel buses had already replaced London's trams. In the 1990s London's bus use increased for the first time in 50 years, due to improved service. At its peak in 1950, London Transport had 100,000 staff and was London's biggest employer. Direct recruitment of women and Afro-Caribbeans meant its large workforce reflected the city's diversity.

Transport Futures

London is set to grow and prosper in the future, with an increase of more than 800,000 people and over 900,000 extra jobs forecast by 2025. This means a projected increase of four million journeys in the city every day.

The challenge is to improve London's public transport system in order to accommodate this growth, but at the same time manage overcrowding, reduce traffic congestion and cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. 'Coming Soon to London' is a Museum display that features some of the most important transport projects expected before 2025.

London Transport Museum aspires to be a centre for debate about transport futures and the environment. Climate change is the biggest single challenge facing London, and all of us as individuals, companies and global citizens have a role to play in tackling it.

'Green Futures' is an interactive space in the Museum which allows you to explore different scenarios for London's future, according to how we manage our carbon footprint. See how the individual choices we make today could affect the rate of future