When the Metropolitan Railway Line opened, in January 1863, the original intention of the line’s engineer, Sir John Fowler, had been to power the trains by compressed air.
Unfortunately a major flaw with this was that the compressed air continuously leaked through the tunnel joints making this method of powering the trains unworkable.
With no back up plan in place, the Metropolitan Railway was forced to borrow steam engines and rolling stock from the Great Western Railway and continued to use them until August 1863 when they two got into a dispute over the frequency of the service and the GWR withdrew its stock. This forced the Metropolitan Railway to borrow limited stock from the Great Northern Railway in order to operate any semblance of a service.
However, the fact that the line was planned to run with smokeless trains meant that the tunnels and stations had little ventilation with the result that passengers were soon complaining about the horrendous travelling conditions in the tunnels.
By the 1880’s conditions were once more being compared to the fires of hell!
In 1887, journalist Ralph David Blumfield noted in his diary:-
“I had my first experience of Hades to-day, and if the real things is to be anything like that I shall never again do anything wrong. I got into the Underground Railway at Baker Street. I wanted to go to Moorgate Street…the smoke and the sulphur fill the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the gas lamps above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat. I should think these Underground railways must soon be discontinued, for they are a menace to health…”
It’s interesting to note that, those of you who will be travelling to our Jack the Ripper nightly tour on the Hammersmith and City Lines from Baker Street Station will be travelling in the exact tunnels that Ralph Blumfield complained about in his 1887 diary entry!
Obviously, something had to be done to alleviate the dreadful conditions on the line and the Metropolitan Railway proposed creating more ventilation openings from the tunnel to the streets above.
Although some openings were made from the tunnel to the streets, further problems arose when, in a wonderful example of the future colliding with the past, this solution was opposed by the local councils on the, not unreasonable, grounds that the escaping steam from the trains would frighten the horses!
Furthermore, the young men of London found that these blow holes from the railway below offered an unforeseen diversion in that it wasn’t unknown for the escaping steam to lift the skirts of ladies walking over or near them.
In 1897 a Board of Trade Committee was set up to look into the problem of the smoke-filled tunnels, only to be told by the Metropolitan Railways Manager that there was no problem. On the contrary, he assured the Committee, the fumes were beneficial to the health of those who travelled through them. Great Portland Street Station, which was notorious for the noxiousness of its air, was, he said, “Actually used as a sanatorium for men who had been afflicted with asthma and bronchial complaints.”
Locomotive driver Mr A. Langford assured the Committee that he was in extremely good health, despite his thirty four years of driving trains through the tunnels.
By contrast, the Committee also heard of a chemist who was doing a roaring trade by treating those in distress after having travelled on the line with his special tonic which he called “Metropolitan Mixture.”
In the end, the Committee ruled that there was a problem and recommended the construction of more ventilation shafts along the length of the line. But, before these were constructed, the line was electrified and the problem alleviated.
The warnings about the construction disturbing the devil, the comparisons to hades and the other supernatural scaremongering about the new Underground railway system segued nicely into reports that began to circulate in the 20th century that at least one of the stations on the new line was haunted.
In our next instalment we’ll take a look at some of the ghosts on the Underground system.
Until then. Mind the Gap!