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London’s underground

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Transport, Travel on Sunday, 31 January 2016

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This edited article about the London Underground Railway originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 944 published on 23 February 1980.

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Whole streets were closed and excavated during the building of the London underground railway. Picture by Harry Green

“I do not understand why men should wish to build a road down into Hell to meet the Devil,” roared the vicar to his congregation. “My friends, mark my words well. The advent of this railway will hasten the end of the world.”

The vicar, Dr. Cummings, was not alone in his distaste for the form of transport that was being advocated. Many churchmen feared God would wreak his vengeance on the human moles involved in this work of the Devil. Property-owners thought their buildings would fall as a result of all the excavations taking place. In fact, some of these fears may not have been groundless, for many buildings had to be shored up with timber while the work was in progress.

Anyone visiting London during 1861 could well see the reason for people’s concern. In the vicinity of King’s Cross, gangs of workmen were furiously digging up the streets. Great yawning holes marked where the road had once been, leaving only a small area over which carriages and pedestrians had to make their way as best they could.

Some parts of the road were closed completely to allow the men to dig their holes. Once the holes were completed, with the mud piles high on either side, much to the annoyance of pedestrians, the men started shoring the sides of the hole. Then the upper part of the holes was enclosed in a brick arch. Once this was completed, the earth was replaced over the work, the surplus earth carted away, and the road relaid so that everything looked as it had before. But there was one main difference. Eighteen metres below the new road surface lay a long tunnel that stretched between Paddington and Farringdon Street, a distance of about six kilometres.

The person chiefly responsible for this undertaking was Charles Pearson, a city solicitor. Since 1843, he had been suggesting that London should have an underground railway system. He suggested that a trial section should be constructed along the valley of the River Fleet, which had been arched over and converted into a sewer. It would use trains powered by atmospheric pressure. In spite of Pearson’s pleas the plan was never followed up, but he continued to campaign for this new form of transport.

The idea was not, however, entirely new; for what can possibly be regarded as the first underground railway was started in 1770 at East Kenton Colliery near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The railway, used to carry coal trucks on simple wooden tracks, consisted of a single tunnel, which can lay claim to being the first railway tunnel.

Eventually people began to listen to Pearson’s ideas and in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in London, when British pride in its engineering feats was at its height, a committee was set up to examine Pearson’s suggestion.

It was decided that the project was feasible, Parliament approved the idea, and work began on raising the money required to put the project in hand. In March, 1860, Pearson saw the results of his incessant campaigning as work began on the new underground railway.

Just 19 months later, work had progressed so well that test runs were made on 28th November, 1861, on part of the line that had been completed. These proved so satisfactory that work continued in earnest, and it was confidently predicted that the complete line would be open for public use by May, 1862. In fact the work had been completed by that time and a successful test run along the whole length of the line took place on 24th May, 1862. Pearson was jubilant, but only a month later his joy turned to dismay.

From King’s Cross to Farringdon, much of the line was left in an open cutting as it did not run beneath a road. This section of the line, however, also had the only true tunnel on the line. This was the Clerkenwell Tunnel. Work on this 666-metre tunnel began in November, 1860, and was completed in May, 1862.

The line was now almost ready for use; but shortly after the construction of the Clerkenwell Tunnel, the River Fleet burst through the brick wall of the cutting near Farringdon Street, flooding the line all the way back to King’s Cross.

When told of the accident Pearson immediately asked “How serious is it?” “The tunnels are filled to a depth of over nine feet,” the engineers replied. “It is going to take a long while to get them cleared.”

It took even longer than they envisaged, and it was not until August that they were able to report that all the damage caused by the water was finally repaired.

By the end of the year the line was ready for its grand opening. This took place on 9th January, 1863. The first passenger-carrying train carried the directors of the railway company, principal shareholders and specially invited guests.

The following day the public were allowed to try the new service for themselves. It proved to be a great success. The line was soon carrying some 26,000 passengers each day, much to the annoyance of those who had predicted that anyone travelling on this “sewer express” stood the risk of being attacked by rats. It was a success that, unfortunately, its instigator was never to see. Charles Pearson, the man who had been largely responsible for the creation of this new form of passenger transport, his work completed, died just four months before the opening of the new line.

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