Yerkes, Charles Tyson
Simple name : Online essay
Collection : Information
Reference number : 2008/696


Yerkes (pronounced like 'turkeys') was born in Philadelphia to a Quaker family in 1837. He was to be the powerhouse behind the electrification of the District line and construction of the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern lines in London that formed the core of the modern Underground network.

Yerkes began his business career as a clerk in a grain commission house. He became a broker when he was 21 years old. A year later he married Susanna Guttridge Gamble. At first the confident young man made a fortune as a dealer in bonds. However his luck turned following the Great Chicago fire of 1871, and he lost his money when insurance companies all over America defaulted on the damage to the large commercial district. Following this, Yerkes was imprisoned for some months, reputedly for embezzlement. In 1882 he moved to Chicago where he developed the tramway and suburban railway systems, through astute and convoluted business tactics. By this time he had divorced his first wife and married Mary Adelaide Moore, a Philadelphia beauty. Yerkes' ruthless business methods became increasingly disreputable. He was forced to leave Chicago, having failed to renew franchises on his railways. He made for New York, taking with him his fortune of $15 million - in cash. It was while living the high life in New York, that he was contacted by R W Perks, the ex-solicitor for the Metropolitan Railway, who persuaded him to finance the electrification of the District Railway in London.

By 1898 Yerkes had bought a large interest in the District Railway, which was in bad condition and urgent need of renewal. Yerkes believed electrification would substantially improve the line's performance.

He was also interested in the as yet unbuilt deep-level tube, the Charing Cross Euston & Hampstead Railway company (C.C.E & H.R, now part of the Northern line). He obtained parliamentary authorisation to build the line. In September 1900 he paid £100,000 to the company: he became its chairman, and Perks a director. Yerkes saw an opportunity in extending the line to Golders Green, which was in open country and ideal for suburban development. By March 1901, Yerkes had control of the District line. Forming the Metropolitan District Electric Traction Company (M.D.E.T) in July of that year, Yerkes raised £1 million to invest in the company. Most of this capital was found in America. London still did not trust the returns on investments in electric Underground railways. The M.D.E.T. acquired control of the Brompton and Piccadilly tube as well as the C.C.E&H.R. in September 1901. The third tube line Yerkes had in his sights was the half-finished Baker Street & Waterloo (now known as the Bakerloo) line. It was acquired by the M.D.E.T. in March 1902.

In order to buy the Piccadilly line, Yerkes used his ruthless dealing skills to outmanoeuvre J Pierpont Morgan, another American industrialist trying to make a fortune constructing the London Underground system. To raise more capital, a syndicate backed by financier Sir Edgar Speyer was formed to deal in shares for a new company, the Underground Electric Railways of London (U.E.R.L). This later became known as the Underground Group. In 1902 the U.E.R.L acquired London United Tramways. This new company, just like its owner, Yerkes, was treated with suspicion in London's financial circles. Yerkes still had to convince his backers that his method of electrification was the way forward. He wrote letters to The Times questioning the adoption of a rival system. 'To take a system which has not been thoroughly tested ... is a species of business recklessness which I do not wish to try'. Yerkes eventually won the debate. Finally on 28 March 1905 the first successful trial run of an electric train took place from Mill Hill Park (Acton Town) along the southern section of the Inner Circle. The electrification of the line was completed on 1 July 1905.

Yerkes died in 1905 in New York, his fortunes in disarray. Although he was financially ruined, his legacy was great: U.E.R.L. became the Underground, taking over the Central London and the City & South London Railways as well as the London General Omnibus Company, the main bus company. This in turn became the core of London Transport.

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