Episode 88. The World’s First Underground Railway

London’s Underground railway is not only the oldest system of its kind, it’s also the world’s most famous. The Tube, as it’s also known is more than just a way of getting around the capital, it is also a symbol of the city. More than four million people use it everyday.

On Tuesday this week more than 130,000 passengers piled aboard the first trains running on the new £18.9bn Elizabeth line within hours of its launch. Transport enthusiasts gathered at Paddington station and Abbey Wood, in south-east London, to be on the first morning services.

The Elizabeth line is believed to help transform life and travel in London and the South East and will increase central London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent.

With history being made this week I thought it would be the perfect time to look at London’s very first underground line and that means going back to Victorian London, Lord Palmerston is prime minister and Charles Dickens is alive.

Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).


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Episode 68: London’s First Railway

The world’s first underground passenger railway line

London’s Underground railway is not only the oldest system of its kind, it’s also the world’s most famous. The Tube, as it’s also known is more than just a way of getting around the capital, it is also a symbol of the city. More than four million people use it everyday.

On Tuesday this week more than 130,000 passengers piled aboard the first trains running on the new £18.9bn Elizabeth line within hours of its launch. Transport enthusiasts gathered at Paddington station and Abbey Wood, in south-east London, to be on the first morning services.

The Elizabeth line is believed to help transform life and travel in London and the South East and will increase central London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent.

With history being made this week I thought it would be the perfect time to look at London’s very first underground line and that means going back to Victorian London, Lord Palmerston is prime minister and Charles Dickens is alive.

Victorian London’s roads were heavily congested, the railways stopped on the fringes of the West End; Euston, King’s Cross, Paddington. What was needed, the solution? – the tube.

The world’s first underground passenger railway line, running Bishops Road (later to become known as Paddington) and Farringdon Street (later to be known as Farringdon) in the City. Opposite the Elizabeth line entrance is the Metropolitan Railway’s 1922 station entrance to Farringdon station where you can still see the old name for the station ‘Farringdon and High Holborn’ on the signage. This entrance leads down to the tube platforms where the first ever underground journey terminated on the 10th January 1863.

Original Paddington Station entrance on Praed Street


Original Farringdon Station

The Paddington station building was located on the road bridge carrying Bishop’s Road (now Bishop’s Bridge Road) over the mainline tracks of the Great Western Railway (GWR). The original Farringdon Street station was only a temporary station and in 1865 it moved to the building it occupies to this day.

Where did they begin to dig the underground tunnel?

Problems with regards to the route and raising capital for this world first held up the project. It was not until January 1860 that earth was excavated. The first shafts were dug in King’s Cross and, the earliest mention we can find is the south-eastern corner of Euston Square on what was then called Seymour Street (now known as Eversholt Street).

The Metropolitan Railway route to Farringdon Street was laid as a mixed-gauge (broad-gauge and standard-gauge) spin-off of the Great Western which it contracted to operate its services. The first trains were of broad-gauge type but the MR’s management soon fell out with the senior company and moved over to standard gauge, using borrowed stock. The broad gauge rails were removed in 1869.

Metropolitan Underground Railway stations. Unknown (illegible), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Penny Illustrated Paper describes the new underground railway’s location:

The line commences at the terminus of the Great Western Railway, at Paddington… It proceeds under portion of the South-Wharf road and Praed-street, crosses under Edgware-road, and leaves Chapel-street almost intact; it then runs under Marylebone and Euston roads to King’s-cross, the whole of which distance is under ground. From King’s-cross a cutting has been made along Bagnigge-wells-road and Coppice-row, and its termination south is at Farringdon-street, where the principal station for the east end is situated.

Sir John Fowler was Chief Engineer of the world’s first underground railway. London roads were slashed open, the River Fleet diverted & controlled, tenements flattened and water & gas pipes dodged. Teams of navvies worked 24hrs a day using a ‘cut and cover’ method. 

Cut & cover is clever. The track was pretty shallow by today’s standard. Trench was dug from above ground rather than by tunnelling, brick walls built , the roof made from iron girders & brick arches. Smoke & steam ventilation systems were installed, then the trench back-filled and compacted. It also tried to follow the paths of the roads above to minimise disruption.

Charles Pearson Public domain via Wikicommons

Charles Pearson is credited with proposing the first serious scheme for London’s first Underground. He was a lawyer who campaigned against the death penalty and for the suffrage campaign.Pearson worked as a Solicitor to the Corporation of the City of London and MP for Lambeth. He saw hoards of rail passengers arriving and the congestion of horse-drawn carriages, & campaigned for an underground transport solution. Over the next decade many rival schemes were proposed. Most people ( and here I mean men) agreed that London needed some sort of subterranean railway to relieve the traffic. How best to do it was the challenge. Pearson remained at the forefront of the campaign. It was his influence which was instrumental in gaining planning permission. Parliament approved the idea in 1853.







Collapse of the metropolitan railway cutting. Omage: public domain via wikicommons

The world-first wasn’t without its setbacks including fatal injuries, sewage flooding, wall collapses & buildings being damaged. The media dubbed  the project, ‘the drain’ but good engineering prevailed. The flood happened in early 1862, when the sewer burst and leaked effluent at a rate of several gallons a minute, or maybe a disaster in June when a section of sewer fell in, causing a tide of sewage to sweep through the ground on the west side of Farringdon Road, leading to the vault holding the bodies cleared from Ray Street burial ground breaking open.

Initially, these early underground railways used steam trains.  A trial run took place in May 1862, with Prime Minister Gladstone & wife on board in an open-top carriage. A newspaper reports of a dinner for Metropolitan Underground Railway ‘labourers & navvies’ in August 1862, held in a spot at the end of Euston Road & Gower St. It would be another eight months until the line officially opened. 

This steam operated line ran nearly four miles between Bishops’s Road, Paddington and Farringdon Street. Bishop’s Road occupied an awkward position between the main line station and the Great Western Railway coal depot alongside Paddington canal basin, further restricted by an approach road to the Great Western goods depot. Bishop’s Road bridge was partially demolished to make room for the station building, set back behind a forecourt for cabs and omnibuses. 

Numerous workers lost their lives during the construction of the London underground, some had nothing to do with the work required. In May 1862, before the line had opened, James Driscoll was working on an iron girder spanning the line near King’s Cross. He became embroiled in an argument with a fellow worker, 34 yr old Edward Gregory. The two men exchanged blows before Gregory “took hold of Driscoll, and flung him with great violence into the cutting below, a distance of fifty feet”. Driscoll was taken to the Royal Free hospital suffering compound fractures to both legs and several wounds to his upper body but later died of shock following amputation. A trial ensued and Gregory was found guilty of manslaughter, therefore becoming the first person to be convicted of taking another life on London’s underground network.


VIP Pre-Party

Jan 9th 1863. The night before the line opened to the public 600 guests were carried in 2 trains from Paddington to Farringdon Street, passing through glorious new stations. (79 yr old PM Palmerston declined, saying he preferred to stay above ground as long as he could!). The night before the grand opening, a 600-person celebratory banquet was held at Farringdon (January 9, 1863), to show off the new track to celebrities and politicians of the day. Charles Pearson was toasted. He had died before seeing his grand plan for London’s first Underground Railway come to life.


The world’s first day of the tube 

The public took to their first Underground Railway with an enthusiasm that overwhelmed the line. 

An estimated 38,000 people travelled on the line that day, with a total of 225,000 experiencing the Tube during its first week.

The immense public interest was unsurprising as the building project had captured the imagination of the whole city.

A 13-year-old boy, writing about his first trip on the Tube, in 1863, said: “It was still a public wonder. It had been projected and talked about for many years, and during construction had kept well in popular view, especially when the Demon of the Fleet Ditch (in reality the little River Fleet) had broken into and flooded the half-finished tunnels on more than one vexatious occasion.”

By the end of January 1863 there were 225,000 passengers a week, staff had to be doubled, the timetable speeded up. And London’s commuters never looked back…

Two other familiar Tube problems manifested themselves early on – at the end of January 1863 John Rice, from Euston Road, became the first man to be charged with theft on the new railway when he allegedly picked the pocket of a young woman.

Then towards the end of February  of the same yer one of the first recorded letters of complaint about the Underground appeared in the newspapers; one Irving Courtenay unhappy about an obvious defect in the new system, namely “the very short time allowed at the stations of the ingress and egress of passengers from the trains.” Some things never change.

The early underground was a huge engineering achievement and very well used, but had one big disadvantage: its steam locomotives created a permanent fog in the stations and tunnels. 


There’s even a plaque at Paddington reminding people of this world-first. It says :

“Beneath this roadway runs the world’s first underground passenger railway. It was opened for public traffic by the Metropolitan Railway Company on 10 January 1863.

Erected by London Transport in 1963.”

The only surviving steam engine from the 1860s, Metropolitan number 23, is on display in the Museum of Transport which, incidentally, is offering free admission this bank holiday weekend.

A second underground line, the District, began operating five years after the opening of the first. The original plan was for the two companies to cooperate, but they fell out and did not complete the Inner Circle linking all the main line termini until 1884.

In 1868 the line extended from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage. In 1892 the line extended even further to Aylesbury and in 1904 the Uxbridge branch opens. 


What was the experience like for passengers?

Well, that depended on the class of customer you were and when you travelled.

If you were a working class man then your working day started before 9am. The first train at Paddington Bishops Road would leave at 08:05. In 1864 MR began running two early morning before 6am at a return fare of threepence, later reduced to twopence which roughly speaking was a farthing a mile so it was a bargain. Other London railways followed suit, some voluntarily, some stipulated by Acts of Parliament. By 1914 1,966 designated early trains were in service each weekday across the London network; in effect, a new fourth class. 

The train timetable was published in the newspapers including the Clerkenwell News 

On the first day of opening 10 January 1863 by 11am the tube platforms were so crowded that no one was allowed on and ticket inspectors stopped taking payment for passengers travelling between King’s Cross and Farringdon Street.

One newspaper of the day reported: “At this point, during the morning, the crowds were immense, and the constant cry, as the trains arrived, of “no room”, appeared to have a very depressing effect upon those assembled.” 


Lighting on the Tube

The Metropolitan Railway operated almost entirely in tunnels so the pressing issue of lighting was a concern from the oft. Gas lamps were fitted into the carriages, with two in each of the first class carriages. The Daily Telegraph remarked that the lamps in the first class compartments burned so brightly “that newspapers might be read with ease” an impressive feat indeed given that Victorian newspapers used considerably smaller print than nowadays which also had a tendency to smudge. 

At first the MR used coal gas. Along the roofs of the carriages were rubber bags contained an iron-topped wooden box. The rubber compartment was kept under constant pressure from the weight of the iron trellis work on the top section which created, in effect, a squeeze box. In 1876 this coal-gas method was eventually replaced by oil-gas lighting developed by Julius Pintsch in Prussia. The compressed oil gas was stored in a large steel container and kept in the guard’s van of each train. From there pipes ran beneath the floor of individual carriages. It was this system which became the standard system to be used not just on London’s underground but also across Britain’s railways. The gas could be distilled from oil shale or imported crude oil. The Great Eastern built an oil distillery works at Stratford, now replaced with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Not only were the works distilling oil there were immense workshops, erected by the Eastern Counties Railway Company, for the repair and construction of their carriages and locomotives. There’s a plaque to Stratford Works. 

Along a newly-constructed underground railway a steam train, belching smoke and carrying the great and good of London’s society, including then chancellor William Gladstone, pulls into the very first Tube stop in the world.


Railway Doors

For those of you who have seen an old movie featuring the romantic steam trains will no doubt be familiar with how doors were opened. Railway doors were opened and closed by handles on the outside of the carriage which meant, come rain or shine, the window needed to be lowered in order to reach it. It also presented a problem; the doors were too-easy to open whilst the train was in motion. 

In the mid 1860s the Metropolitan Railway introduced a design of door which had rounded upper corners in an attempt to keep them clear from the incurving tunnel wall should the door be open whilst the train is in motion. The scene of time-poor London commuters springing from the opened door before the decelerating train had stopped at the station was commonplace until about the 1930s when compressed air (pneumatic sliding doors) became the norm for opening Central London carriage doors. Gone are the days where one could do something similar on a Routemaster bus. *sigh*


Additional Income Streams

Money wasn’t solely made by ticket sales. The MR pushed out to Harrow-on-the-Hill and rural Buckinghamshire. It secured development clauses of freehold land along the route. Developments grew, and MR managed its holdings. After 1919 the owner-occupiers provided the line with continuing reward in the form of new traffic.



Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond were two Londoners who had joined forces in Australia where they had leased a hotel grill-room in Melbourne. After running two of Melbourne’s theatre cafes and arranging the first All-England cricket tour to the southern hemisphere in 1861 from Liverpool on Brunel’s  SS Great Britain) they headed home to London. They took the contract to operate the Metropolitan Railway’s refreshment rooms at Farringdon Street station. The longest journey times on the MR were 18 minutes. Their success would depend on attracting non-rail travelling Londoners. Messrs Spiers and Pond produced their own biscuits, cakes and ices. Journalist and social critic John Mayhew seemed to be a fan. In 1865 he observed the [produce to be better and cheaper than other railway refreshment bars and counted up to 400 people dining at Farringdon Street refreshment bar in a single day. By that time Messrs Spiers and Pond had also taken on the refreshment bar at Victoria. They later developed their business to include the gorgeous Criterion in Piccadilly. A number of outer London railway contracts enables them to create the luncheon basket on the Midland Railway. You might have seen John Betjeman’s 1973 film Metro-Land which opens in the panelled Chiltern Court restaurant, Spiers and Pond were the caterers and flourishing. You can still enjoy the space as it is now the Metropolitan Wetherspoons pub, part of the 1920s mansion flats above Baker Street Station. A place I know all too well from my student guide days.

In the 1870s the new development of refrigeration allowed meat from the New World, Australia and New Zealand to be brought to the British market. The meat was placed in hampers and canvas before being placed under tarpaulin in open wagons and transported. bags. London road networks were struggling under the increased pressure. By the mid 1860s a four-acre underground meat depo was built underneath the New Smithfield Market in the City of London. Hydraulic lifts were used to move the cargo from the depot to the market buildings above.

What’s the got to do with the London underground? I hear you ask.

Good question. The depot was served via the Metropolitan Railway. The entry to the depot can still be spotted on the south side of the line between Farringdon and Moorgate station. 

The technology for the safe tunnelling of tubes deeper below London had been developed by 1870, but the first successful tube railway was not practical until electric power and safe lifts were perfected in the late 1880s. There was interest in this novel mode of transport, but investors were still cautious. The next Tubes did not open for nearly 10 years. Later schemes also struggled to raise money but were helped by the intervention of an American financier. These new linked lines opened in 1906-7, completing the core of the modern Tube system. 

In 1908, the separate companies started to work together to promote the system as a coherent network under the UndergrounD brand. Gradually most of the companies merged and the network expanded, as the population of London soared. The station architecture of the 1930s is highly regarded. 

Farringdon Station has changed beyond all recognition – today it is a bustling transport hub carrying millions of passengers every year and now that the new Crossrail link had opened (originally intended to open in 2018) it is set to become one of the busiest stations in the country.

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