Public transport in Victorian London: Part Two: Underground
Simple name : Fact sheet
Collection : Information
Reference number : 2008/1999


In addition to London's continued growth, the advent of the new railway termini in the 1850s brought more people into the capital. Traffic congestion became a serious problem and one solution was the construction of the first underground railways.


In 1846, a Royal Commission decided that new railways should not be allowed to enter the City or West End. The result was that the mainline termini formed a ring around the City. The area within was crowded with slums and choked with traffic. By the 1850s, the railways were carrying large numbers of people into and out of London. As traffic grew, crossing London became a nightmare. It could take an hour and a half to travel five miles from Paddington to Bank by horse-drawn omnibus. Numerous schemes were proposed to resolve these problems, but few succeeded.

The Metropolitan Railway

Amongst the most vocal advocates for a solution to London's traffic problems was Charles Pearson, Solicitor to the City of London. He saw both social and economic advantages in building a railway that would link the mainline termini together and clearing the slums of the Fleet Valley at the same time. His idea was to relocate slum dwellers to new suburbs built to house them, and to provide cheap rail travel for them to get to work. In 1851 Pearson submitted a grand plan to Parliament. It was rejected, but coincided with proposals from another group of entrepreneurs for a connecting line under the New Road, which had Parliamentary approval. The two concerns merged and established the Metropolitan Railway Company in August 1854. The company constructed an underground railway, which ran for three miles under the New Road, from the Great Western Railway's terminus at Paddington to the edge of the City at Farringdon Street, via the Great Northern Railway's terminus at King's Cross. They had difficulty in raising the capital for such a radical and expensive scheme, not least because of the scare stories printed by, and derision from, the press. Objectors argued that the tunnels would collapse under the weight of traffic overhead, buildings would be shaken to their very foundations and passengers poisoned by the sulphurous emissions from the locomotives. However, Pearson and his partners persisted. The Great Western Railway (GWR), aware that the new line would finally enable them to run trains into the heart of the City, invested almost £250 000 in the scheme. Eventually the £1m capital was raised over five years. The chosen route ran beneath existing main roads to minimize the expense and inconvenience of demolishing buildings. Originally scheduled to be completed in 21 months, construction took three years. The line was built just below street level using a technique known as 'cut and cover'. A trench about ten metres wide and six metres deep was dug, and the sides temporarily shored up with timber bracing. Brick walls were then constructed, and the cutting roofed over with a brick arch. A two-metre deep layer of topsoil was laid on top and the road above was rebuilt. Where there was insufficient depth for a brick arch, iron girders were used to support the road.

The world's first underground railway, the Metropolitan, opened on 10 January 1863 and was immediately popular. On its first day almost 40 000 passengers were carried between Paddington and Farringdon, the journey taking about 18 minutes. To dispel any fears Victorian passengers might have had about travelling underground, stations were designed to make use of natural light and carriages were brightly lit with gas lamps, the gas being stored in rubber bags on the carriage roofs. By the end of its first year of operation 9.5 million journeys were made. Even as the Metropolitan began operation, the first extensions were already being authorised; these were built over the next five years, reaching Moorgate in the east and South Kensington and Hammersmith in the west. The line was designed to accommodate the broad gauge trains of the GWR, as well as the standard gauge of the Metropolitan Railway. However, after only a few months of running their trains along the new line, the GWR withdrew and all Metropolitan trains ran on standard gauge rails. The original plan was to pull the trains with steam locomotives, using firebricks in the boilers to provide steam. These engines were never introduced, and specially designed locomotives were fitted with water tanks in which steam could be condensed. Despite the existence of ventilation shafts in the tunnels, the smoke and fumes remained a problem. However, such discomfort did not dissuade the public from using this new method of travel.

Underground rivalry

A flurry of interest in the underground railways followed the opening of the Metropolitan and 250 different schemes for London were presented to the 1864 session of Parliament. The Metropolitan District Railway Company, headed by John Fowler, was granted approval to work with the Metropolitan Railway to form an 'inner circle' linking the capital's mainline railway termini. The first section of the District Railway opened in 1868, but the Inner Circle was not completed until 1884.

Friction between the two companies arose when the District introduced its own trains in 1871 to escape its financial responsibilities to the Metropolitan. The election of bitter rivals James Staats Forbes and Sir Edward Watkin as chairmen of the two companies made this corporate animosity worse, as the two men had differing styles and visions. Watkin saw the Metropolitan as a mainline railway, and made no secret of his ambitions, which included building a link to France through a Channel tunnel. The line was gradually extended to Harrow and beyond. Forbes favoured shorter extensions largely constructed in partnership with other companies such as the London and South Western Railways. Rivalry and legal action continued between the two companies throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The Circle was completed largely as a result of Government pressure.

Going deeper

By the 1880s, congestion on London's streets had worsened; the existing underground lines formed a circuit around the centre of the capital and extended out into the suburbs, but did not cross the city. Many more people had moved into the surrounding suburbs and travelled into London each day to work. The 'cut-and-cover' method of construction was not an option this time; it was too expensive and disruptive. The only alternative was to build lines deeper underground in order to travel beneath the centre of the capital. Despite great difficulties, the engineer Marc Brunel had proved that tunnelling through the soft, blue clay that lies beneath London was possible. Originally intended for road traffic, the Thames Tunnel eventually opened for pedestrians only in 1843, and was converted in 1869 to carry the East London Railway between Whitechapel and New Cross.

In 1870, another tunnel was opened under the Thames, from Tower Hill to Tooley Street. The Tower Subway was constructed by the engineer Peter Barlow. He had patented a cylindrical, iron tunnelling shield, which was an improved version of Brunel's original rectangular shield. He contracted a former pupil, James Greathead to carry out the work. The tunnelling shield Greathead used was seven feet in diameter and closed at one end. In the centre of the closed end was a small watertight door, behind which two miners could remove the soil by hand. The entire shield was forced forward into the space by means of huge screw jacks. The newly dug section of tunnel was then lined with cast-iron segments to form a cylinder, or 'tube'. Although the construction was successful, the problem of how to power a railway to run through the subway led to its financial failure. A steam locomotive was out of the question in such a confined space, and the only other solution at the time was to haul the carriages with cable traction.

This proved unreliable and the railway closed in November 1870, after only a few months' operation. Despite the venture's failure, the technology had been successfully developed for deep-level tunnelling.

By the 1880s, electricity offered a clean and efficient way of powering the railway. It was the development of a reliable electric motor, and a means of transferring the power from the generator to a moving train, which made possible the construction of the world's first deep-level electric railway, the City & South London. The line was designed by James Greathead for cable traction, but electricity was finally chosen for motive power. The method of construction was similar to that used for the Tower Subway, although Greathead improved Barlow's tunnelling shield and made the tunnels larger (10 ft/3 m diameter). The City & South London Railway opened in 1890, and ran from King William Street in the City to Stockwell. Hydraulic lifts were installed at the stations to transfer passengers between street and platform. Trains were made up of three carriages and hauled by electric locomotives. The carriages were narrow and furnished with tiny windows just below the roof, because it was thought that passengers would not want to look out at the tunnel walls. Guards at the end of each carriage called out the names of stations, and opened and closed the gates for passengers. The railway was extremely busy during the rush hours, prompting Punch magazine to christen it the 'sardine box railway'. The line was not without its problems, mainly caused by cramped tunnels, under-powered locomotives and a power supply that had difficulty in coping with the volume of traffic. Although the City & South London Railway was a technical success, it did not make a profit at first. Consequently, whilst many proposals to build more 'tube' railways followed, it proved very difficult for companies to raise the money to build them. It was not until 1898 that the Waterloo & City Railway was opened. Then, in 1900, the Central London Railway, known as the 'Tuppenny Tube', began operation using new electric locomotives. It was very successful and soon after new railways and extensions were added to the growing tube network. By 1907, the heart of today's Underground system was in place.

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