Ticket, Brandy, Pistol: All you need on the first Tube ride

On 9 January 1863 was both a day of celebration, and sheer relief. 650 of the great and the good travelled three and a half miles by underground railway, from Paddington to Farringdon Road, stopping to admire all six intermediary stations before lunching at Farringdon Station to mark the completion of what, two decades before, had seemed nothing more than fantasy: a railway under the earth. Palmerston, the Prime Minister, had refused the invitation, saying that he thought it prudent, at the advanced age of 79, to stay above ground for as long as possible. (Allegedly. Almost as many bons-mots are attributed to Palmerston as they are to Churchill. And some of them are even true.)

Most Londoners thought the day would never come. When the Great Northern Railway arrived at Euston in 1850, a few visionaries – or fantasists – had seen that, in the world’s most densely populated city, underground was the only way to go. As with HS2, from the beginning the political will was there, but money was harder to come by. It was 1859 before Charles Pearson, solicitor to the Corporation of the City of London, persuaded his paymasters to invest in the project, and building began.

London had been a building-site for most of the century. If it was not gas-pipes being laid for street-lighting, it was Bazalgette’s great sewer, or water-mains, or new bridges, or streets. But what followed was worse than anyone had imagined. The word ‘Underground’, despaired the Daily News, implied ‘mole-like secrecy’, but ‘this is a great mistake.’ Just as Crossrail today has devastated whole neighbourhoods, nothing was more visible to Victorian Londoners than the installation of the supposedly invisible tube. (And while Crossrail – theoretically – will take eight years, construction of the underground continued for three decades.)

The first Metropolitan Railway used the ‘cut-and-cover’ system: a trench was dug, the railway was inserted and then the ditch was covered up again. Endless streets were therefore boarded off, or narrowed to a single pathway for carriages and pedestrians alike, for years at a time. For the creation of the District line, Parliament Square was one great pit for much of the 1860s, resembling some hideous natural disaster.

Certainly enough disasters, natural and man-made, occurred along the way. In 1860 a locomotive exploded, killing two; in 1861 there was a landslide; and in 1862 the Fleet River, long covered over and filled with sewage, ruptured. The western embankment of the new railway, its brickwork eight feet thick, was tossed up in the air by the power of rushing water, and a hundred feet of wall was carried away in an instant.

Meanwhile, the poor were more permanently disrupted. Where possible the railway lines followed the roads, but often whole neighbourhoods were demolished. As usual, the poor suffered the most. Compensating large tenement-owners was cheaper than compensating individual homeowners, with less chance of vexatious lawsuits. (The Duke of Buccleuch’s claim for compensation when his house was razed to make way for Bazalgette’s sewer took eight years to grind its way through the courts.) Theoretically the railways were obliged to declare how many people they displaced, but without oversight their reports were plainly fiction: a mere 307 people, they claimed, had been made homeless between Paddington and Farringdon Street, whereas contemporary observers put the number at closer to 12,000 for just half that distance. Between 1850 and 1900, as many as 100,000 people may have been evicted, their homes destroyed.

In 1848, a Royal Commission had drawn a line around central London, into which the railways would not be allowed to stray. Instead of one or two mainline stations in the centre of the city, therefore, as in most European capitals, London is ringed by terminals. A mere ten years later this seemed like the natural order of things, and so the first underground silently follows this path: its later extension followed the border too, creating the loop we know as the Circle line.

Then as much as now, great civic projects routinely overran. One newspaper wrote in exasperation in 1862, the opening ‘was fixed for May last; then it was positively promised for the 1st of October; and, finally, for the 1st of January next.’ It wasn’t quite the 1st, but on 10 January 1863, the public was finally allowed to see what all the fuss was about.

As with the overground, the underground trains had first, second and third-class carriages, all lit by gas. Fares were 6d., 4d. and 3d., and 30,000 people were happy to pay that the very first day. By evening Farringdon station was so crowded, it looked like the opening of a West End play. Nearly a quarter of a million more travelled underground the following week, and by the 1870s the Metropolitan line alone was carrying 48 million passengers annually.

Not that it was always, or even often, an enjoyable experience. An American tourist was at first disappointed: it would be no more exciting than going through a tunnel, he grumbled. But he soon realized that, between the smoke from the steam-locomotives and the lack of ventilation, a voyage underground ‘was more disagreeable than the longest tunnel the writer had ever passed through’, and the foggy, smoggy London air above was, by contrast, as limpidly pure as that found on any Swiss alp. For below-ground, travellers’ mouths filled with the taste of sulphur, breathing was difficult. In 1867 a woman’s death was attributed to ‘natural causes, accelerated by the suffocating atmosphere of the Underground Railway’.

‘First’ is not always best. Other undergrounds learned from London’s early foray, and even today some of London underground’s problems arise from those first designs. Air-conditioning requires larger tunnels than the early engineers could have foreseen. And later systems were designed for electricity, not steam-power. (Glasgow and Liverpool’s Mersey Railway were exceptions.) Most countries, too, relied on central planning, whereas in Britain, private development rather than state control produced a spaghetti-bowl of lines.

By the 1880s, Punch magazine satirically recommended that essential equipment for any tube voyage include smelling-salts, a fan, potted shrimps, a brandy-flask, a pistol and a lamp. There was, however, no mention of a map: such were the constant additions to lines that it took over four decades for one to become available.

Finding your way, therefore, was a challenge. Station staff were just as bewildered as passengers. ‘If they do attempt to advise you, take some other ticket than the one recommended’: the odds are against them being right, claimed a west London resident. He added: ‘How many Kensington stations there may be…I do not know; but I know…that the officials always send you to the wrong one… All very well to say that we should look at the map at home and ascertain our route: firstly, there is no map.’ (After that ‘firstly’, pragmatism suggests he needed to go no further. Harry Beck’s iconic diagram, still the basis for us today, did not appear until the 1930s. The special Johnston typeface designed for clarity and reading at speed, and used across the underground came earlier, in 1916.)

Yet to the pioneers who had dreamed of an underground world, and then made those dreams concrete, these were details. They were men who failed to be daunted. Explosions, floods, wars, they overcame them all. A route was blocked by a canal? They re-purposed it as the bed of the new District line. Rivers were in the way? They moved them. (The Westbourne was culverted, and is still visible over the District and Circle line platforms at Sloane Square station.)

And so the oldest underground in the world, a matter of compromise, and patching, and scrabbling, is today still the third largest system in the world (surpassed only by Beijing and Shanghai), carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year.

On that triumphant 9 January 1853 at Farringdon Station, toasts were made to Charles Pearson, that forward-thinking solicitor, who had not lived to see his dream a reality. Let us hope that next Sunday, when the newly restored Met Steam Locomotive No. 1 runs along the original route, glasses will be raised once more to the man who, as his project neared its brilliant conclusion, rejected a cash bonus from the Metropolitan Railway Company: ‘I am the servant of the Corporation’, he said; ‘they are my masters and entitled to all my time and service.’

We shall not see his like again.

Sunday Times, 6 January 2013