Londoners have always had a love-hate relationship with their Tube. Alfred Leete’s classic 1927 poster ‘The Lure of the Underground’ shows passengers being sucked magnetically from the London street into a Tube entrance (looking suspiciously Paris Metro-like). Leete was one of numerous commercial artists that the railway companies serving London, marketing
themselves collectively as London Underground, drew on during the early years of the 20th century to promote trips to the Zoo, to the Cup Final, to the British Museum … or just to ride on the Tube.
The earliest of those railway companies, the Metropolitan Railway, which first took Londoners underground in January 1863, even changed the shape of London, building suburbs in its image and along its routes. In 1915,the publicity department of the company dreamed up the name ‘Metroland’ to describe the green fields and hills of Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, through which the new lines snaked. Between the wars, the Metropolitan set up a new company to develop housing, shops and new suburbs along the lines, and that countryside was soon peppered with hundreds of identikit semi-detached-lined streets. It was a peculiarly English vision: a sentimental, tamed and cosy view of where town met country. Of neatly swept streets, roses in every front garden, and father returning home from the Underground station, pipe in mouth and Evening News under his arm.
But modern passengers, squeezed into a London Overground carriage with on room to breathe (how can a new line fill up so quickly?) may have difficulty seeing London metro travel as a leisure activity. And for citizens of the Victorian East End,the construction of the Underground wasn’t remotely idyllic. Viewers of the quasi-historical BBC drama Ripper Street a couple of weeks ago were treated to a fairly accurate take of the East Enders experience during the construction of Whitechapel station in 1876. By the time the City & South London Railway (now part of the Northern Line) was built in 1890, tunnelling technology had progressed to allow deep tunnelling of ‘tubes’ through which the trains could pass. It was swiftly followed by the Waterloo and City Railway (now Line) in 1898 and the Central London Railway (Central Line) in 1900. Disruption at ground level was now relatively slight. But in the early days, all the railways were built by ‘cut and cover’, which was as brutal as it sounded. A railway line would be
scoured through the London streets, to below surface level, then a cover put over the top, with buildings atop that. Along the District Line as it snakes out from Whitechapel to Bow Road, houses, shops, offices and roadways sit just a few feet beneath the railway lines beneath.
The disruption was appalling, and the slums of the East End were frequently cleared with little thought as to where the residents would go. As with the clearing of the Jago at the turn of the 20th century, it usually meant their being squeezed into an even-more crowded and noisome rookery just down the road. And the engines, steam-powered in those days of course, had to release smoke and steam into the streets above at regular intervals. To East Enders, it must have seemed that a hell had been created in their midst and beneath their feet.
It wasn’t planned either. Early maps of the Underground show just how lopsided development was – a result of a rash of companies all competing for the best routes. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that an Act of Parliament brought all the lines and companies together under one transport board. So a 1908 map sees the centre of London and the East End poorly served, while the companies are driving ever further north and west, to Highgate, Golders Green and Kingsbury (with the ambitious Metropolitan eventually ending up in rural Amersham). And the East End’s first Underground line originated in similarly haphazard fashion. The Thames Tunnel, built by the Brunels between 1825 and 1843 was, famously, an engineering masterpiece but a financial disaster. But in 1869, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway repositioned the failed foot-and-horse tunnel as a railway to link the docks at Rotherhithe with those at Wapping. The spacious tunnel had plenty of room to run trains through (and no need for new cut-and-cover construction of course). In 1876, the line was driven from Wapping to Shoreditch, running along the bottom of an old dock, with cover put over the top. From Shoreditch a line was run to the Great Eastern Railway at Liverpool Street. New stations were opened at
Shadwell and Whitechapel.
But the East London Line was marooned from the rest of the network by the inability of the District and Metropolitan Railways to join their services together in the eagerly awaited ‘inner circle’. City financiers and politicians watched with increasing frustration as the two big companies pushed further into the suburbs while leaving the City and West End underserved: the District Railway ended at Mansion House, while the Metropolitan frustratingly terminated at Aldgate, and no way to get between the two. So in 1874, a group of City men formed the Metropolitan Inner Circle Completion Railway Company and built a joint line to connect the two, with new stations at Cannon Street, Monument, Mark Lane, Tower of London, Aldgate East, St Mary’s and Whitechapel. From St Mary’s, the line curved down to join the East London Railway just south of Whitechapel. The East End was on the Tube map at last.
You see the slightly schizophrenic nature of the early Tube (part Metro system, part suburban railway) in the District Railway extension of a few years after. In 1902, it hooked up with the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway at Whitechapel. Now it ran trains all the way out to leafy Upminster, in the depths of the Essex countryside. The District even ran excursions out to East Enders favourite Southend-on-Sea, with passengers changing at Barking. And in 1946, it was joined by the Central Line. Driving out from its old terminus at Liverpool Street the line (recoloured red from its original blue) ran through Bethnal Green, joining the District at Mile End, before leaving the East End at Stratford. The furious pace of building would now slow, for a half century or so, before the Jubilee Line broke ground at Canary Wharf. And in 2010, the East London Line would be lost to the Underground once more, being subsumed into the new London Overground network.