First Underground Railroad Opens in London Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As traffic in London grew ever more intolerable, a search for a practical proposal for a rail line led to the creation of a four-mile-long line that ran underground. The London underground, known as the Tube, connected the terminals of the major northern and western rail lines that served England’s capital.

Summary of Event

During the mid-nineteenth century metropolitan London was home to nearly two million people. By the 1840’s and 1850’s the problem of traffic in London’s center was growing desperate. In addition to the city’s denizens were the tens of thousands who commuted daily via the increasingly crowded suburban rail lines that stretched from deep in the countryside to within a mile or so of the city center. London;underground railroad Underground Railroad, London [kw]First Underground Railroad Opens in London (Jan. 10, 1863) [kw]Underground Railroad Opens in London, First (Jan. 10, 1863) [kw]Railroad Opens in London, First Underground (Jan. 10, 1863) [kw]Opens in London, First Underground Railroad (Jan. 10, 1863) [kw]London, First Underground Railroad Opens in (Jan. 10, 1863) London;underground railroad Underground Railroad, London [g]Great Britain;Jan. 10, 1863: First Underground Railroad Opens in London[3620] [c]Transportation;Jan. 10, 1863: First Underground Railroad Opens in London[3620] [c]Engineering;Jan. 10, 1863: First Underground Railroad Opens in London[3620] [c]Architecture;Jan. 10, 1863: First Underground Railroad Opens in London[3620] Pearson, Sir Charles Fowler, John

Charles Pearson, who served as the solicitor of the city starting in 1839, suggested as early as 1837 a central terminal into which all of this traffic would flow. This idea, however, was rejected by city authorities, who wanted to keep London free from what they believed would be a nuisance and free of the anticipated high price tag for the project. Some of the fifteen regional lines moved their terminals very close to the city center, but this did not solve the problem. In 1829, horse-drawn omnibuses began moving people along regular routes, but these were slow, expensive, and unreliable. Horse-drawn trams, which moved along rails, first appeared in 1861, but even they could not manage the huge crowds of commuters at the beginning and end of each working day.

In 1846 a royal commission was tasked with developing proposals for a line that would skirt the northern precincts of the city. With the opening of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851, Londoners began to dream of technological solutions of great beauty as well as utility. In the same year the City Terminus Company tried to get traction for an underground line that would effectively link the Great Western and Great Northern lines’ termini and the lines themselves with appropriately gauged track, but funding failed. Two years later the North Metropolitan Railway (NMR) was chartered by Parliament to link the general post office with the major rail termini along a four-and-one-half mile route to Paddington Station. After further negotiations and planning a new company was formed and chartered, and the Metropolitan Railway replaced the NMR in 1854.

Proposals for laying out the line, or additional lines, began to appear in late 1854. Sir Joseph Paxton Paxton, Joseph , architect of the Crystal Palace, had suggested a grand railroad under an iron and glass Glass;and London Underground[London Underground] arcade 72 feet wide and 102 feet high, to be dubbed the “boulevard under glass” or the “grand Victorian way.” William Moseley, who designed mental hospitals, had suggested the “crystal way,” a continuous shopping mall under glass under which twin tracks would run from Cheapside to Oxford Circus. John Pym Pym, John had proposed the “super way,” iron tubes elevated above the streets on masonry piers running from Tower Bridge to Westminster.

Late nineteenth century underground railroad station.

(George L. Shuman & Company)

As responsibility for these projects shifted from the Commission of Woods and Forests to the Metropolitan Board of Works, a less-utopian project emerged. Pearson Pearson, Sir Charles guided the plan that was agreed upon in 1859 by the Metropolitan Railway Company and the City Corporation. Despite fears of suffocation, excessive vibration, and tunnel collapse, the two entities decided on a fully underground system running about four miles, with convenient passenger stations along the route.

Responsibility for engineering, excavation, and construction fell into the very competent hands of John Fowler Fowler, John , who designed the “cut-and-cover” system. Instead of tunneling beneath the streets, laborers with three-story-tall machines dug great ditches deep into the earth, reinforcing the sides with heavy retaining walls, and supporting surrounding buildings with massive timber buttresses. Once the excavations had permanent walls, vaults of concrete and masonry arced across the great openings, shutting out light but allowing the surface roads to be reconstructed and used again. The tracks, which could accommodate both wide and narrow gauge trains, were placed atop deep beds of gravel, which dampened their vibration. Once the ditch was covered, workmen could work twenty-four hours per day, their work illuminated by gas light Gas lighting;and underground trains[Underground trains] . Lighting;gas

Others had dug in these areas before, leaving telegraph, water, gas, and sewer lines just beneath the surface. These lines had to be carefully dealt with, and the Board of Works wisely used the dig as an opportunity to lay down new and larger sewer pipes. For efficiency the line could not adhere strictly to street lines, so large numbers of lower-income people were simply moved out of their housing—some thirty-seven thousand people between 1859 and 1867—to accommodate construction. To those who considered this a useful step in ridding London of its poorer residents, critics responded that the displaced working classes merely moved to other parts of the city, increasing population density elsewhere.

The project did not proceed without incident. The most serious accident occurred on June 15, 1862, near King’s Cross. The Fleet River broke through the tunnel walls and flooded a section, collapsed another part, and caused pavement to subside. The rubble threatened to block the sewer, which would have led to huge amounts of raw sewage flowing into the streets.

As the early stages of the line neared completion, Parliament began passing “workmen’s fares acts,” which ensured that the railroads it chartered provided some low-fare travel and, from May, 1864, early morning runs that catered to the low-income laborer.

On January 10, 1863, the line opened between Paddington and Farringdon Roads Stations. The evening before, about seven hundred honored guests enjoyed a banquet at the Farringdon Road Station, which was converted into a nine-hundred-foot-long dining salon. Opening day saw the stations packed with more than thirty thousand passengers. Great Western, which provided all the steam engines and rolling stock to Metropolitan, added cars to accommodate the traffic. The cars were crowded and the air was stuffy and reeking of gas, steam, coke, and people, but the project was a success, at least in the short run.


After the Metropolitan Railway’s initial success, ridership fell off precipitously. Fares, which were set at three, four, and six pence according to class of car, soon amounted to only two thousand pounds per week. In July the Great Western backed out of its commitment as lessors, leaving Metropolitan to shift for itself. Nonetheless, the line continued to grow and improve. Trains ran every ten minutes, and telegraph linkage meant that stations could readily communicate among themselves.

Despite the initial drop in traffic, by year’s end ten million rides had been taken, which increased to twelve million rides the following year. In 1863 the company reported £100,000 in tickets and posted a 5 percent dividend to investors. With expansions of the lines to form the Circle Line, which was completed in October, 1884, and ran for thirteen miles with twenty-five stations, ridership expanded tenfold.

Ongoing improvements included electric lighting Lighting;electric , which helped clear the air, advertising in the cars and the stations, and automatic “next station” indicators. The underground not only connected one part of the city to another, it also freed citizens, rich and poor, to move into the countryside, if only for a day. It relieved much of the surface congestion in the city and operated safely with few accidents and no deaths in its first forty-four years.

As residents gained mobility neighborhoods could once again specialize, adding to economic efficiency in the provisions of goods and services. With the contemporary sewer projects and construction of the Embankment and the Houses of Parliament, the underground helped transform London into a modern city.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmonds, Alexander. History of the Metropolitan District Railway. London: London Transport, 1973. The standard treatment of the development and expansions of the line.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emmerson, Andrew. The Underground Pioneers: Victorian London and Its First Underground Railways. Harrow Weald, Middlesex, England: Capital Transport, 2000. A popular history of the project. Well illustrated with contemporary prints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halliday, Stephen. Underground to Everywhere: London’s Underground Railway in the Life of the Capital. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2001. Explores the history of the vast underground network of London. Published in association with the London Transport Museum. Includes colored maps and other illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Alan A. London’s Metropolitan Railway. North Pomfret, Vt.: David & Charles, 1986. A well-focused study of the underground and its history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pike, David L. Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. A well-illustrated study of the artistic and literary culture spawned by underground structures such as the London underground railroad.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Douglas. The London Underground: A Diagrammatic History. Harrow Weald, Middlesex, England: Capital Transport, 2000. An excellent source for contemporary maps and charts relating to the project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolwar, Christian. The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How It Changed the City Forever. London: Atlantic, 2004. A study of the underground’s construction and how it dramatically changed life in the City of London.

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Categories: History