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The London Underground (AP images)
The London Underground (AP images)

The problem with cities is they’re full of obstacles. Never mind the buildings; the vehicles, the grot and the slops, the signs and the spectacle; there’s a human wall everywhere, and traffic everywhere else. This was just as true back in the 14th Century as it is today, although there was a lot more in the way of grot.

By the 1800s, London was undergoing a rapid growth spurt, thanks largely to the expansion of the British empire and some massive leaps in the fields of engineering, electricity and transport in general, and because of this, they decided to tackle this problem head on. A solution to the problem of getting from one part of the city to the other had now became tantalisingly possible: an underground network of trains! Can you imagine such a thing? Special trains that can go backwards as well as forwards, maybe even powered by electricity one day!

A method of skipping from Baker Street to King’s Cross without stepping in manure or getting run down by a hansom cab, why, such a thing would be the wonder of the age!

This recreation of a steam train passing through Baker Street took place in December 2012

And indeed it was. The first stretch of the London underground, which ran from Farringdon in the east, the financial district, to Paddington station in the west – thus allowing Londoners the chance to commute from outside the city and cross to their place of work with ease and efficiency – opened on January 9, 1863.

Other lines soon followed, and those unheard of electric trains arrived in 1890, crossing that original stretch (now called the Metropolitan Line) to the north and south, and in all directions between. The city at the heart of the Victorian empire could now be crossed at previously unimaginable speeds and with relative ease.

Lord Ashfield hands over the silver key to Col. Moore Brabazon at the opening of the Northern line in 1926 (AP Images)

Of course, the more complicated the network became, the harder it was for commuters to find their way about, so a map had to be constructed that made sense of where everything was below ground. And to do this, designer Harry Beck decided to abandon the geography above ground. His clean, colorful version of the tube map remains a British design classic.

During the Second World War, when London was subjected to nightly air raids from the German air force, the tube stations were used as bomb shelters, keeping whole communities safe while carnage rained down above.

1940: Londoners take shelter in the London Underground during the Blitz (AP Images)

Things soon returned to normal, however. Here’s a scene from 1955, in which you can see people reading the papers on their way to work, and smoking. It’s incredible to think that smoking was only banned on the underground as recently as 1984, although it was only enforced fully in the overground stations after a horrific fire at King’s Cross station in 1987.

Passengers on the underground in 1955

Of course now the idea of an underground railway is no great surprise, with most major cities adopting something like the Tube, to some degree. But that doesn’t detract from the achievement of the Victorian engineers in creating something that is still – with minor modifications here and there – in almost constant use.

The fascinating thing to note is that the same vintage of engineers, while working on the plans for the Underground, were also creating the London sewage system, which finished construction only two years after that first stretch of train line opened.

So, within a 10 year period, the wall of humans AND the grot and slop had both been effectively flushed away. Nice work, the Victorians!

For more astonishing old pictures of the Tube, check out this gallery in the Guardian.

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Filed Under: London Underground
By Fraser McAlpine