The London Underground opens
In an age of rapid technological change, with railway mania at its height, it is surprising that the Tube took so long to get off the ground – or under it. In a capital already suffering horrendous traffic congestion, and the soft and stinking problems associated with thousands of horse drawn vehicles, the idea of underground railways was first mooted in the 1830s. But though the idea was attractive, the obstacles were significant.
As the railways developed almost uncontrollably in Britain, one problem was the diverse nature of the industry: bitter rivals had little time for one another, and though the benefits of linking the various lines at the London hub were obvious, so were the conflicts and the arguments between the companies.
Official support, or at least acceptance, of the concept came relatively early, Parliament in 1854 passing an act enabling the building of the first line, from Paddington via King’s Cross to Farringdon Street.
Money, as ever, was another difficulty. Great Western Railways agreed to back the scheme, with conditions attached, and another obstacle was addressed with their collaboration – they would design special engines to reduce the smoke output of the underground trains. At first the underground also banned smoking in the system, but this was over fire concerns rather than pollution danger.
In 1859 the financial barrier was overcome when Charles Pearson, Solicitor to the City of London Corporation, pushed his employers into funding the development. Pearson’s winning argument was that the network envisaged would allow slums to be cleared, opening up space in the centre, and moving the workforce to healthier, airier suburbs brought within easy reach of the City by the new trains.
John Fowler was appointed as the engineer to oversee the building of the system, and finally he was able to begin construction work in February 1860.
The first line was opened on January 10 1863, just under four miles of track between Bishop’s Road and Farringdon Street, created by the cut-and-cover method of digging up streets: digging down, roofing over the giant ditch created to make a tunnel, and then covering it over again. Though the network was eagerly anticipated, the construction work created enormous problems with traffic while it was undertaken.
Other events added to the ill-will generated by the new scheme: many buildings had to be demolished to make way for it; the Fleet Sewer collapsed into the workings at one point; and railway navvies were never greeted with open arms for all the pioneering work they did.
Within a short time the line was carrying 26,000 passengers a day – compare that with the 3 million carried daily now. But the Metropolitan Railway was a success from the outset (in spite of Great Western for a time backing out in a huff within months of the opening), and there are now more than 250 miles of underground line serving 275 stations.