Discovering the Origins of the Tube: The Lifeblood of London

Oliver Green and Benjamin Graham


This is an excerpt from the new book, London’s Underground: The Story of the Tube, by Oliver Green (author) and Benjamin Graham (photographer), published in September 2019 by White Lion Publishing. Printed with permission.


The London Underground, now popularly known as the Tube, has its origins in the Metropolitan Railway, which opened in January 1863. It was the original urban metro, the first passenger-carrying underground railway in the world. The Metropolitan Railway originally used steam locomotives to pull gas-lit wooden carriages over a 6 km (3.75 miles) sub-surface route between Paddington and Farringdon, now part of London Underground’s Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines. Much of the hardy Victorian infrastructure survives in everyday use.


Construction of this original line took less than three years and the working railway proved an immediate success with passengers. In the first year of operation, 9.5 million journeys were made on this short subterranean railway. The Times newspaper, which had referred to the Metropolitan Railway skeptically as a ‘bold but hazardous proposition,’ was soon referring to it as ‘the great engineering triumph of the day.’



London was then the greatest city in the world, with a rapidly growing population of more than 3 million people. Traveling up to the metropolis from every part of the country had been revolutionized over the previous twenty-five years. The capital already had nine main-line termini for trains arriving from every direction, and more were planned. However, most of the stations were some distance from the city center and they were not connected.


The Metropolitan Railway was a novel attempt to solve a slightly different transport problem: how to get around or across the congested city quickly and conveniently. At the Parliamentary Select Committee on Metropolitan Communications in 1855, one witness who gave evidence complained that it took longer to get across town, navigating the crowded streets from London Bridge to Paddington, than it did to travel up to London by train from Brighton.



Some might argue that the situation has not improved much, but the growth and development of London’s underground railway system over more than 150 years have been phenomenal, and it is now impossible to imagine life in the city without access to its rapid transit below the surface. From the original seven stations, the London Underground has expanded to serve 270 stations across Greater London and is closely integrated with other rail-based modes of transport in the city region, complementing the Docklands Light Railway, London Trams, London Overground, Crossrail (the Elizabeth line) and a vast network of suburban rail lines.


Today, there are eleven electric Underground lines, each identified by their own color on the official Tube map. The tracks cover 402 km (250 miles), thus making London Underground the third longest metro system in the world and the largest in Europe. In the twenty-first century, the network carries record numbers of passengers, with up to 1.4 billion passenger journeys made each year, more than the total for the entire national rail network.



The population of Greater London has increased to more than 8 million, and the use of the Underground system has grown rapidly too, as more people travel greater distances into London to work, for leisure or to visit from overseas. London is now a world city, an international metropolis that everyone wants to experience, and nearly all of those travelers use the Tube as part of their journey.


It is no exaggeration to describe the Underground as the lifeblood of the city. Over a period of more than 150 years, its look, design and engineering have become a unique part of London’s character. As the system developed, steam trains gave way to electric power, deep Tubes succeeded shallow covered cuttings, and lifts and escalators were installed for vertical transit – all innovations that we now take for granted. Before long, the Tube had its own distinctive typeface, devised in 1916 by calligrapher Edward Johnston, who also developed the famous bar-and-circle symbol. Later, in 1933, came Harry Beck’s brilliant diagrammatic map, based on electrical circuit diagrams, which wildly distorted London’s geography but made Underground travel far less daunting. Even seventy-five years ago, this carefully devised travel aid made using the Tube simple and straightforward in a way that the New York Subway and the Paris Métro are not.



Between the wars, a complete corporate identity and a consistent design style – covering everything from trains and station environments to communication systems – evolved, led by London Underground’s inspired managing director Frank Pick and consulting architect Charles Holden. Their distinctive ‘London look,’ which became unique to the Tube in the 1930s, was further developed and adapted in the post-war years, although innovation and spending were constrained by austerity. New technology was applied sparingly, for example on the computer-controlled Victoria line in 1968 and later with the high-tech design style of the Jubilee line extension in 1999. All this makes the twenty-first-century Underground and its characterful, changing environment far more than a basic urban transit system. It represents and serves London in so many ways and has its own image and style; city life without it is almost unimaginable.


The evolution of the London Underground has often been inconsistent and even haphazard, as has the city’s own development. Different political and financial pressures, changing economic circumstances, war and austerity, and a management culture ranging from ambition to neglect have made it a bumpy ride. The need to improve the Underground environment and the capacity of the Tube will always be a challenge as the capital moves on.



A fascinating characteristic of London’s Underground is its ability to showcase a rich and unique 150-year heritage within a progressive metro system, which continues to grow and modernize without destroying or discarding its past. Traveling on the Tube is like a journey through a complex archaeological time trail, fascinating but often frustrating, and difficult to explain and untangle.


This book combines a guide to London Underground’s history and evolution with a photographer’s view of the system today. It is not always a comfortable journey, but sometimes it is worth stopping to admire what has been achieved rather than rushing through the crowd. The Tube always has been, and still is, quite a triumph.


This is an excerpt from the new book, London’s Underground: The Story of the Tube, by Oliver Green (author) and Benjamin Graham (photographer), published in September 2019 by White Lion Publishing. Printed with permission.


Author Bio:


Oliver Green is a transport historian who has written widely on the history of public transport in London, and in particular on the art and design of London Transport. He is the former head curator and now research fellow at the London Transport Museum. Oliver is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (FRSA), a museums advisor to Arts Council England and lectures regularly to societies and museums including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Photographer Bio:


Benjamin Graham recently won Landscape Photographer of the Year, and spent a great deal of 2016 waking up at the crack of dawn to picture London Underground stations at their quietest and arguably most majestic. His dramatic photography reveals the unique architecture of the Tube in all its splendor.



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Photographs by Benjamin Graham; other images provided by White Lion Publishing.
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