It’s Hell Underground

We tend to take the London Underground very much for granted today. Take our nightly Jack the Ripper Tour, for example. Night after night tour participants descend into the depths beneath different parts of London and, generally speaking, in less than an hour, they pop up outside exit four of Aldgate East Underground Station ready to follow in the ripper’s footsteps through the back streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

How many of us ever stop to consider the remarkable feats of engineering that have enabled us to travel conveniently through the marshy depths of London’s subsoil and, in some cases, to even pass under the River Thames?

Well, over the next few days, I thought we’d take a look at how the London Underground came in to being whilst, in addition, revealing some of the more unusual facts and stories connected with the system that makes getting about London such a doddle!

Right up until the mid-19th century London was still a City that was, more or less, laid out according to its medieval street pattern and was, at the same time served by medieval amenities.

Although the sub-street train system had been in existence for 25 years at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, it was still commonplace for many who worked in central London, but who lived in the suburbs, to actually make their daily journey to work on foot.

When the idea of a subterranean transport system was first mooted, it met with mixed reactions. Some people were intrigued by the novelty of it. Many writers were convinced that it, quiet simply, wouldn’t work as people would be reluctant to travel at speed beneath the ground.

 The Times, for example, painted an alluring picture for its readers warning them of “dark noisome tunnels…passages inhabited by rats, soaked with sewer drippings and poisoned by the escape from gas mains…”

It went on to opine that it was an “…insult to common sense to suppose that people …would ever prefer… to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London…”

Sir Joseph Paxton, the man behind the design of the great glass structure, or Crystal Palace, that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, had, in 1855, proposed the building of a 12 mile long line that would link London’s mainline railway stations. Although it would be above ground, it would be encased in a glass arcade around which would be constructed houses and shops.

It would be called, he proposed, “The Great Victorian Way” and would, so Paxton enthused, be so pleasing to the residents that it would be “almost equal to going to a foreign climate [and] would prevent many infirm persons being obliged to go into foreign countries in the winter.”

Parliament, whilst observing that the proposed scheme possessed “many features of remarkable novelty..”, turned it down on the grounds that the estimated cost of some £34 million was, to say the least, a little on the steep side.

It would be another five years before Charles Pearson, who was the Solicitor to the City of London, and the Member of Parliament for Lambeth, would set in motion the construction of the first London Underground Railway which ran from Paddington to Farringdon.

Pearson had first proposed his “Arcade Railway” as long ago as 1852.

Initially his proposed scheme met with local opposition. Dr. Cuming, a local preacher had, for example, addressed a meeting at Smithfield – close to Farringdon, the proposed terminal for the new railway – and warned attendees that the end of the World would be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into the “infernal regions” and disturbing the devil! 

Notwithstanding the colourful scaremongering by the likes of the redoubtable Dr. Cuming and The Times, Pearson, quite literally, ploughed on and, in 1860, work began on the new Metropolitan Railway Company’s new line.

The chosen method of construction was called “cut and cover” and it involved digging a deep trench, laying two tracks, side by side, bricking them over to form a tunnel and then replacing the ground above.

It was a massive engineering undertaking and, for the next three years, the everyday lives of those who lived along the route of the construction between Farringdon and Paddington were massively disrupted.

Inevitably, there were several accidents during the construction of the line. In May 1860 a Great Northern Railway train overshot the platform at King’s Cross and nosedived into the workings of the tunnel. In May 1861 the construction at Euston collapsed and caused a considerable amount of damage to neighbouring properties.

Then, in June 1862, following a heavy rainstorm, the Fleet Sewer – which incorporated the Fleet River – suddenly burst and flooded the excavations.

But, gradually, all the obstacles were overcome and the new underground railway was completed. On 9th January 1863, The Metropolitan Railway, Paddington and The Great Western Railway, The General Post Office, The London and North Western Railway and The Great Northern Railway was opened with great fanfare.

Thankfully, its somewhat cumbersome original title was shortened to the lest tongue twisting Metropolitan Railway!

It’s opening ceremony was attended by a vast cross section of the Victorian great and good of the day, with one notable exception – The Prime Minister Lord, Palmerston. He had been invited, but had declined to attend on the grounds that, at the advanced age of seventy years old he “hoped to remain above ground a little longer”!

The other notable absentee from the opening ceremony was the man who had conceived and driven the project through, Charles Pearson. He had died in September 1862.

Praise for the new line was fulsome and universal. Even The Times, which had been critical of the project for so many years was forced to revise its opinion and concede that it was “the great engineering triumph of the day.”

The first public journeys on the new line took place on 10th January 1863, on which day 38,000 people travelled on it.

But soon conditions were arising that seemed to prove the naysayers right about their initial concerns.

In the next instalment we’ll look at how people soon did believe that they were travelling into the jaws of hell whenever they travelled on the new Metropolitan Railway.