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10 January 2009

On this day in history: First underground railway opened, 1863

By the 1850s many of those commuting into central London by rail had to continue their journey by road because all but one of metropolis' seven railway termini were outside the City of London. Consequently, the idea of connecting London's major stations to the City with an underground railway grew in popularity, not only to alleviate the increased traffic congestion on the roads but also to make rail travel via London easier. In 1852 the Solicitor to the City of London, Charles Pearson, helped set up the City Terminus Company having been a vocal supporter of a number of proposals for underground railways, including one in which he suggested that the vehicles be pushed through the tunnels by compressed air.

Pearson failed to find any funding for his plans; however, the Bayswater, Paddington and Holborn Bridge Railway Company had more success. Founded in 1853, its directors secured funding from the Great Western Railway (GWR) and acquired the City Terminus Company. Later that year they received the approval of a Royal Commission for their plan, resulting in the passage of an Act of Parliament in the following year.

This act authorised the construction of an underground railway between Praed Street in Paddington (near the GWR's London terminus) and Farringdon in the City of London, to be known as the Metropolitan Railway. Although not a director of the new company, Pearson continued to promote the scheme, even managing to secure some £200,000 funding for the railway from the City of London Corporation. In February 1860 construction work finally began.

The work did not go smoothly: the cut-and-cover method favoured of tunnel construction by the chief engineer, John Fowler, involved digging up the streets that the line would follow causing a great deal of traffic congestion. At one point the Fleet Sewer burst filling the recently dug tunnels with London's effluence. Nevertheless, the work was completed in less than three years.

On 10th January 1863, the world's first underground railway opened to the public. On the previous day, the directors of the company travelled with several hundred invited guests in two trains from Paddington to Farringdon Street station where they had an elegant lunch. The line proved to be a great success with an average of over 25,000 passengers using the railway each day, but sadly Pearson was not one of them as he had died in September of the previous year.

You can read the Guardian's account of the Opening of the Metropolitan Railway to the public on the newspaper's website.


Paul Baines said...

It was a great achievement it's just a shame they've done very little to it since - no I jest (but not that much) - it maybe the first but most certainly not the best. I cannot imagine what the cost of such a venture would be these days - however if one looks at the Japanese system at least it is far cleaner and more efficient. Don't worry just speaking for all the London commuters who have the same concerns. Very informative post though - thank you for taking so much time and trouble to write it.

Stepterix said...

Thanks for the comment, Paul. I have used the tube regularly over the years and agree that much of it is in dire need of repair. But considering that much of it is Victorian technology, it has stood up to the test of time pretty well. Nevertheless, I prefer to walk around central London after discovering that things are much nearer than I thought.