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10 January 2011

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.

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