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London Underground began with the Metropolitan Line in 1863

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the London Underground first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Metropolitan Railway opens,  picture, image, illustration

A station on the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 by Pat Nicolle

Snorting, plump-bellied horses clattered along the London streets. With their harnesses jingling and the springs of their carriages creaking, they paraded through the busy thoroughfares with the dignity of true, thoroughbred carriage horses.

Clearly, they were the lords of the highway. And their fashionable passengers sitting in open carriages behind them, dressed in their finery for all to admire, oozed with aristocratic refinement.

At intervals, however, a horse’s well-fed, dappled belly found itself poised over one of a number of holes, covered with gratings, that had begun to appear in the road. And at regular periods, there would be an eruption like a miniature volcano from the hole. Thick, sooty smoke, scalding steam and showers of sparks would belch forth from it.

If an unfortunate horse happened to be passing over the hole at the exact moment of the eruption, it received a hot blast on its belly that made it bolt in terror. A gentle jaunt became a steeplechase, and the passengers found their sedate carriage transformed into a rocketing projectile.

Meanwhile, just below the road, the device which had caused the horse’s discomfiture would be spinning along the track of London’s first underground railway. The culprit was a steam locomotive which created a great deal of smoke. To enable this to escape, “blow holes” were cut in the tunnel roof, and the resulting eruptions frequently caught horses unawares.

However, even the horses got used to it in the end, and the problem was later lessened by the introduction of improved locomotives.

Nevertheless, Londoners were pleased with their underground railway. It had been opened in 1863 and ran for 3 ¾ miles from Bishop’s Road, Paddington to Farringdon Street in the City.

It was needed even in those days when traffic congestion was starting to be a problem. In the first few months, it carried more than 26,000 passengers a day.

The building of the section of Underground we know today as the Metropolitan was the result mainly of the far-sighted influence of a man named Charles Pearson, who persuaded the City Corporation to buy shares to the value of £200,000. The total cost of the line was £950,000 and, with the blessing of Parliament, work began in 1860.

It was a cut-and-over construction, not a tube tunnel. An army of men appeared in the streets and began to dig what was really a vast trench. The operation resulted in chaos along the route for traffic and pedestrians. The mud was said by residents to be indescribably thick and smelly. Houses had to be shored up with timber when the trench came close to them.

But, gradually, work progressed and the trench began to get its roof which was, in many places, the roadway for surface traffic.

The trench had to be 28 ft. 6 in. wide to allow for mixed gauge rails. That means that there were three rails, the outer ones giving the Great Western Railway’s broad gauge of 7 ft. 0 in.

The road above was supported by a brick arch resting on low side walls, giving the completed trench the appearance of a wide, low tunnel.

Danger to buildings above was not always averted. Damage to one church building cost the promoters nearly £15,000. But the actual construction of the trench itself was fantastically cheap by modern standards – £50 a yard.

When the time came to experiment with trains, the great worry was ventilation. The smoke from steam locomotives would, it was feared, practically suffocate the passengers. So a special locomotive was built.

The idea was to get a sufficient head of steam before the 3 ¾ mile journey began, damp down the fire and use the stored up steam to drive the locomotive.

Fowler’s Ghost, as it was called after its inventor, cost £4,500. It ran well on test as an ordinary engine. But as a fireless one, it threatened to blow up. The trials were unsatisfactory and it eventually went for scrap.

Being blown up was regarded as worse than being partially suffocated, so the next contender for the honour of being the first underground locomotive was a more orthodox 2-4-0 tank design. On trial, it pulled a 36-ton train from Farringdon Street to Paddington in twenty minutes.

Although the most expensive coke was used to fire the locomotives, ventilation soon became a problem. The blow holes were an attempt to solve this, and 4-4-0 tank engines designed by Fowler, which came later, helped to clear the air further. As the Underground was extended, sixty-six of these locomotives came into being, and they operated until electrification.

The success of the new Underground encouraged scores of promoters with scores of ideas for extensions and new lines. By 1864, it was necessary to appoint a Parliamentary committee to wade through the applications and sort out the tangle that threatened to give London a crazy warren of tunnels.

Without this kind of planning, many of London’s amenities would have been ruined. For instance, one line open to the sky that would have run right across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park from Paddington to South Kensington was banned.

A different route was found, but at one point the cutting would have disfigured an attractive row of houses. To avoid this, false fronts were erected. These look like houses, but behind the front walls there is nothing but railway.

This section from Paddington to Gloucester Road was opened in October, 1868, and was then extended to South Kensington.

On Christmas Eve, 1868, the District line was opened from South Kensington to Westminster Bridge, after a panic in which 3,000 men worked day and night to get the line open for the Christmas traffic.

By 1870, the line had been extended along the Embankment to Blackfriars, and in the following years much of the central section of the District line was brought into operation.

But the proposed Circle line was causing trouble, because of the high price of land in the City. Eventually, Parliament authorised two companies to build it and operate it jointly.

Despite bickering and rivalry between the two companies, the Circle was completed in October, 1884. Operating brought more problems, and one legal action between the two companies was not settled for nineteen years.

The approach of the twentieth century brought a new attitude to the problem of underground transport – the tube. And the tube, as distinct from the trench method which was only at basement level, meant digging tunnels deep down in the earth.

Efforts to build such tunnels for any considerable length had failed almost completely before 1818, when Marc Brunel patented a tunnelling shield. Development of this shield made the London tube railways a possibility.

It was first used to construct a tunnel beneath the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping. This was the first tunnel for public traffic ever to be driven under a river. It was also proof that the London tubes could be built, as we shall see next week.

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