The 19th century saw an explosion in population in London. The city grew severalfold and became the largest city in the world.
With so many people and the city growing so rapidly, transportation became a huge problem.
One solution was to provide the new technology known as locomotives in the city. However, building train tracks would require a great deal of land which simply didn’t exist.
The solution to their problem lay under their feet.
Learn more about the London Underground, its origin, and its growth on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
If you could pick a city to embody an entire century, the city that embodied the 19th century would have to be London.
London began the century with a million people. According to some, it was the first city to have a population of a million people since Rome in its heyday.
London wasn’t just the world’s largest city at the start of the 19th century, it may have also been one of the fastest-growing large cities in the world. While it entered the century with a million people, it exited the century with six and a half million people, becoming the first city in the world to have a population of two, three, four, five, and six million.
This incredible size and growth placed enormous strains on the city. One of the biggest issues was transportation.
By the mid-19th century, there were seven new-fangled railroads that had stations connecting London with the rest of Britain. However, all but one of those stations were actually not in London proper but were outside the city.
Getting into the center of the city was difficult. Every day, an estimated 20,000 people walked on foot to get to the City of London, which, if you remember back to my episode on the history of the city, is the confusing name for the traditional center of metropolitan London.
The streets were crowded, congestion was a problem, and the heart of London was far from the railroad network.
This disconnect between the center of London and the rail lines led many railroads to try to build lines into Central London, and all of them failed, having been rejected by parliament. In fact, in 1846, the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Railway Termini banned the construction of rail lines and stations in central London.
However, around the same time, one man, an attorney named Charles Pearson, advocated the creation of an underground railway that would connect the railway lines to the city center.
After several years of difficulty, in 1854, a royal charter was given to the Metropolitan Railway Company to connect Paddington to Farringdon, which was eventually extended to connect the Great Northern Railway at King’s Cross.
The estimated cost of the project was £1 million at a time when £1 million was a lot of money.
Construction on the railway finally began in March 1860.
The construction of the underground railway was done via a method known as cut-and-cover.
A ditch that was 33 feet 6 inches, or 10.2 meters, wide was cut. The sides of the ditch were supported with brick retaining walls, and a brick arch then covered the track. Once the arch on the top was build, the entire thing was covered back up with dirt, and the leftover dirt was removed by a crude conveyor belt.
There were two rail lines in each tunnel 1.8 meters or 6 feet apart from each other. The rails themselves were dual gauge rails to support the different gauges used by the Great Northern and Great Western Railways.
The Metropolitan Railway opened on January 9, 1863. It was the world’s first underground railway, and it was rightfully considered a marvel of engineering.
The entire route was only 3.75 miles or 6 kilometers long, with seven stations along the route. Paddington, Edgeware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road, Gower Street, Kings Cross, and Farringdon Street.
The route was a huge hit. 38,000 people rode on the railway on its opening day, and in the first year, it carried 9.5 million passengers.
Here, I should note that this was literally just an underground railway. The trains at the time were coal-burning steam locomotives.
If that seems like that might be difficult to operate in a tunnel, you would be correct.
The engines had special condensers built in to allow most of the escaping steam to condense as a liquid. Holes were put in the tops of the tunnels to allow smoke to vent from the tunnel.
The stations were often incredibly smokey, but passengers were willing to put up with the smoke for the convenience of taking the train.
The location of these openings became contentious because people didn’t want to have them next to their properties.
The success of the Metropolitan Railway led to a flurry of applications from other railway companies, all wanting to make their own underground routes in the city.
The Metropolitan immediately began extending its route, and approval was given for other railways to try to complete a circle with the Metropolitan Railway.
In 1865, the East London Railway purchased the Thames Tunnel, the world’s first tunnel to go under a river and one of the most impressive engineering feats of the era. In 1869, the East London Railway converted the tunnel to a railway tunnel.
The District Railway opened in 1868, with the Metropolitan Railway operating the trains on its tracks.
Over the next several decades, there was growth, with new stations and lines being opened almost every year. All of these lines were created via the cut-and-cover method.
One of the biggest innovations took place in 1869 with the construction of the Tower Subway.
The Tower Subway was a pedestrian tube under the Themes that was dug using a tunneling shield. This allowed for the creation of tunnels dug directly underground without having to cut a ditch into the surface. This was a very less invasive method of tunneling that didn’t disturb the city above.
More importantly, it allowed for tunnels to be dug much deeper than before.
These deeper tunnels had a problem, however. They couldn’t easily just create ventilation holes for smoke from the trains to escape.
This problem was solved in 1890 when the City and South London Railway opened up the first deep tunnel that operated between Stockwell and King William Street. This train avoided the problem of exhaust because it was electrified.
The electrified railways were a huge improvement over the smoke-filled tunnels and stations that the rest of the underground train network had.
The success and obvious advantages of electrification led to a new rush to electrify all of the underground lines in London in the first years of the 20th century.
While electrification solved the problem of smoke, there was still another problem. All of the underground railways in London were run by a hodge podge of different companies.
This set off a spate of mergers and acquisitions.
In 1902, the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, or UERL, was formed. It was informally known as the Underground Group, it was initially a holding company for three deep tube electrified lines. It was formed by an American financier named Charles Yerkes.
In 1908, the first Underground signs began appearing, which was an attempt to create a unified system for all of the underground railways. This was also the year the classic round underground symbols first appeared.
In 1911, the first escalator appeared at the Earl’s Court station.
By the end of the First World War, all of the railways in London had merged or had been purchased by the UERL, save for the original Metropolitan Railway.
This left two major players in the London underground railway business. This finally came to a head in 1933 when the two companies were merged into the public London Passenger Transport Board, which included all surface transportation as well.
The London Passenger Transport Board allowed for a continuous single underground system that could be used all over London.
1933 also saw the release of the famous tube map created by an English draughtsman named Harry Beck, which he began back in 1931. If you are ever in London today and see a map of the tube system, it is based on the original one developed by Beck.
The brilliance of Beck’s underground map was that he realized passengers didn’t want the map to be accurate. It didn’t have to follow the landscape of the exact route directly.
Passengers just wanted to know how to get from one station to another and where to change trains. Each line was also given a unique color.
It was an incredibly easy-to-understand map that could be easily updated as new lines were built or expanded.
Today, on every official tube map, in the lower right-hand corner, you will see the phrase, “This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck.”
During the Second World War, the underground found a new use that it hadn’t been initially designed for….an air raid shelter.
During the London Blitz, many people in the city found shelter in the deep tube stations. In August 1940, as many as 175,000 were finding shelter in the underground every night.
Despite the shelter offered by the underground stations, six of them suffered a direct hit, resulting in a total of 94 deaths. The worst of the incidents took place on October 14, 1940, when a 1400 kg bomb hit the road outside the Balham station, causing the road to collapse on the station, killing 68 people.
In 1943, the worst disaster of the war occurred when 173 people were killed in a stampede trying to enter the Bethnal Green station.
Some underground tunnels saw other uses during the war. One was used as an underground aircraft factory, some were used to store artifacts from the British Museum, and Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet used another.
After the war in 1948, the entire Underground system and all transportation in London was nationalized.
Beginning in 1952, the first cars made out of aluminum were put into service, retiring the wood-bodies cars that were previously used.
Extensions of lines and the creation of new lines slowed down dramatically after the war. Much of the system had already been built by this time, and costs were significantly higher.
The Victoria Line was opened in 1969, and in 1977, the system finally reached Heathrow Airport via the Piccadilly Line, making it easy for visitors arriving by air to reach the city center. In 1979, the Jubilee Line was opened.
The most recent addition to the underground was Elizabeth Line, which opened in 2022.
Today, the London Underground is one of the most extensive subway systems in the world. It consists of 11 different lines, connecting 272 stations, and consists of 402 kilometers or 250 miles of track.
Every day, on average, 3.15 million passengers take the underground for over a billion passenger trips every year.
On a personal note, the London Underground is, without question, my favorite subway system in the world. In many cities like Rome, New York, and Bangkok, I scrupulously avoid getting the subway. In London, it is my preferred method of travel.
It is one of the few systems in the world where you can start your trip in a 150-year-old red brick tunnel in one station and then end your trip in one of the most modern subway stations in the world.
It is especially convenient if you are flying into Heathrow, where you can take the express train to Paddington station and get wherever you need to go relatively quickly.
Of course, if you ever take the underground, please remember to heed the advice that was added to all tube stations in 1968 and mind the gap.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener Lord MDB over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
One of the best!
One of my favorite podcasts. Gary has been my travel companion for the past year as I’ve attended medieval reenacting events in the Society for Creative Anachronism all across the US South. As such, since I’ve just joined the competitionist club, I propose opening a club office in the Kingdom of Meridies.
Thanks for all your hard work, and we look forward to many more excellent topics to come.
Thanks, Lord MDB! Please send my regards to Her Majesty Ysmay of Branston and His Majesty Timothy of Long Bennington. I salute you and your Creative Anachronistic brethren and raise a smoked turkey leg in your honor.
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