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The First Underground Service in London is Opened

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 10 Jan

The First Underground Service in London is Opened


  -  10th January 1863  - 


Due to the massive population explosion in London became difficult to navigate and congested – no change there. Central London was a no-go area for trains which all stopped at the West End or the City due to earlier government decisions. Something was needed to link the mainline stations of Euston, King’s Cross and Paddington to alleviate the congestion in the capital.


In 1845 Charles Pearson was the man with the vision to come up with the idea of a subterranean railway or ‘Trains in Drains’ as he called it. John Fowler was the engineer designated to come up with the solutions of how this could be achieved. It had only been in 1830 that the first over line passenger train services were opened.


Parliament approved the underground scheme in 1853 and the money would be raised by Pearson from private investors in the City. The new company would be called the Metropolitan Railway. The first excavations then took place in 1860 when thousands of poor residents were displaced by the newly built trench. The system used was the ‘Cut and Cover’ method where a trench was excavated and then roofed over with a device strong enough to support  the load above the tunnel. This method was not used for long. New, smaller, roughly circular tunnels took its place and this is where the word ‘Tube’ comes from.


The first line was to run from Paddington to Farringdon and would be known as the Metropolitan line. On 9th January 1863 there was a celebratory dinner in Farringdon before the official opening the next day which was to be led by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. The Prime Minister declined to take a journey in the tunnel. He was 80 years old and said he wanted to spend as much time as he could above ground! Sadly, he died 2 years later. Another absentee from that first trip was Charles Pearson himself who had died the previous year.


30,000 passengers used the train on the first day alone and 11.8million in the first year despite the poor, smoke-filled conditions. Drivers were allowed to grow beards in the rather futile attempt to protect them from the worst of the conditions. To improve conditions smoking was banned until an MP complained that on all over land trains there were smoking carriages. The ban was overturned and was not re-established until 1985. The line was especially popular with poorer workers who were given a special low fare if they travelled before 6am.


Five years later, in 1868, the second line was opened that ran along the Victoria Embankment from Westminster to South Kensington. This was called the District Line and was designed by John Wolfe Barry, who also designed Tower Bridge. The next idea was to link the two with a new line that was to be called the ‘Circle Line’. This was designed by John Fowler, who also designed the Forth Bridge. This was to be the last of the Underground routes made using the ‘Cut and Cover’ system.


Due to the hostility between the owners of the Metropolitan and District Lines this was not completed until 1884. James Forbes, who ran the District line, was allowed to send his trains anti-clockwise and Edward Watkin, who owned the Metropolitan Line, sent his trains clockwise around the Circle Line. They both refused to sell tickets for each other’s trains which led to complications and, on occasions, double prices for travellers. In the early years of the twentieth century the underground gradually came under one organisation and then became nationalised.


There are now 11 lines, 270 stations and 250 miles of track, of which just 45% is actually underground. In 2007 one billion passengers used the network. The first line, the Metropolitan, is now part of the Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines. What started as a ‘hair brained scheme’ became the first underground system in the world now copied by most major cities around the globe to take traffic off the streets and cut pollution and congestion.

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