Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 32 - 1863 - The First Underground

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Metropolitan Railway - Sir John Fowler - Forth Bridge - Special engines for underground - Broad-gauge - First gas-lit carriages - Great Western Railway - Edinburgh Exhibition, 1890 - Supine Museum authorities - M.R. quarrels with G.W.R. - Great Northern called in - Boiler explosion at Bishop's Road - Metropolitan work their own line - R. H. Burnett.

ONLY a few days later, March 14th, 1863, on my thirteenth birthday, I made my first journey on the Underground - the Metropolitan Railway - which had been opened on the previous January 10th. and was still a public wonder. It had been projected and talked about for many years, and during construction had kept well in popular view, especially when the Demon of the Fleet Ditch (in reality the little river Fleet) had broken into and flooded the hall-finished tunnels on more than one vexatious occasion. I had kept my small eye on the proceedings and read the accounts of the opening with great interest and admiration for the talented engineer, Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Fowler, destined to become even more famous in later years by the share he bore in the design and erection of the great Forth Bridge.
    Little did I, the small boy of 1863, realise that, in the unfathomable future that lay before me, I should one day come to know the eminent engineer and talk over with him the early days of the Metropolitan Railway in the beautiful mansion he built for himself at Braemore near Ullapool, right away in the Scottish Highlands, where, as he once remarked, not an ounce of chalk was to be found unless it were in his own and other (if any) billiard-rooms; and that I should be one of the very few to travel with him and his renowned co-worker, Sir Benjamin Baker, in the first train [-253-] that ever crossed the Forth Bridge from end to end - a pug engine and one 3rd class coach. Were these future events already on the cylinder of the Ages to be reeled off when reached by the inscrutable and inevitable stylus of Old Father Time? Quién sabe?
The limits of the Underground were at first Farringdon Street and Bishop's Road, Paddington, immediately alongside the terminus of the Great Western Railway, the intermediate stations being as at present. Although laid with the mixed gauge of the standard 4 feet 8½ inches and the Brunel broad-gauge of 7 feet, it was originally worked exclusively on the latter, the G.W.R. providing Locomotives and carriages comprising new features. The engines were arranged to condense the steam they used, or the greater part of it, cold water being carried for the purpose in special tanks, which Sir Daniel Gooch, the designer, placed under the boilers, putting the cylinders outside (an almost unparalleled thing on the broad-gauge), to make room for them. For many years the resulting hot water was discharged on the completion of each journey at Farringdon (subsequently also at Moorgate Street and the Mansion House) and replaced by cold. So long as this plan was followed the tunnels were comparatively fresh and clean, but after the Inner Circle was completed and engines ran right round, this frequent change and waste of water was found irksome and expensive and was discontinued, fresh water only sufficient for boiler requirements being taken. This got hot before use, and so ineffective for condensing. The foulness of the tunnels in the later days of steam was quite avoidable, but the Companies found it cheaper to defy public opinion than to trouble about the necessary precautions.
    I discovered many things worthy of attention at Farringdon Street terminus when I started for Bishop's Road. It was my first introduction to the broad-gauge I bad read so much about; the form of Daniel Gooch's special engines was quite novel and a bit grotesque; the carriages were gas-lighted - the first example of the kind in the world, I believe - the necessary gas being carried compressed in reservoirs on the roofs - or "rooves," as I once beard them termed by an [-254-] official; and I found that seats were provided in the guards' compartments for any overflow of passengers. Of course I immediately constituted myself an overflow for the occasion and travelled in the front guard's van, whence a splendid view was had of the engine foot-plate and its grimy occupants as well as of the line and signals ahead. These signals were worked on the block system on a special plan devised by Mr. C. E. Spagnoletti, the Telegraph Engineer of the G.W.R., who, in after-years I came to know quite well and had the pleasure of entertaining at the Edinburgh International Exhibition of 1890 - twenty-seven years ahead. The stations were visible from afar, owing to the patch of light they threw across the cavernous track, and the shining rails sometimes revealed curves which to my inexperienced eye appeared dangerous - alarmingly sharper than any on the Greenwich Railway.
    In the afternoon I returned from Bishop's Road and was lucky enough to encounter yet another experience. The up-platform projects beyond the down and from its extremity a view is had of the G.W.R. main-line and its entrance to Paddington Terminus. To this point I of course gravitated while waiting for my train. Scarcely had I got there when some broad-gauge carriages began to defile before my gaze, pushed from behind by an invisible engine still under the adjacent station roof. They passed slowly, up to eight or nine in number, and then came a low tender followed by the biggest locomotive I had ever seen, carrying on its arched frame, beneath the 8-feet driving wheel splasher in large brass letters, the name Lord of the Isles. I had read of this machine - how it had taken a gold medal at the 1851 Exhibition and how it was often employed in running the Queen between Slough and Paddington; and it was certainly somewhat of a chance that it should be the very first to greet my introduction to the G.W.R. main line, more especially as, twenty-seven years later, my own name, by a vagary of fortune, was to appear on that same frame in juxtaposition to the brazen cognomen.
    In 1890, as a Member of the Engineering Committee of [-255-] the Edinburgh International Exhibition, I was delegated to organise the Railway Annex designed to form a prominent feature of that fine show, and in that capacity arranged for exhibits from several leading railways, and amongst them was the Lord of the Isles from the Great Western. A broad-gauge engine had never been seen in Scotland, and it was thought, rightly as it turned out, that she would prove an attraction. The engine came by the Caledonian Railway, dismantled and loaded on several trucks. She was consigned to me and my name had been affixed by the careful packers to the various parts. A gang of fitters came from Swindon to put her together, with a foreman who told me that his father had turned the Lord's crank-axle when she was built in 1851. Although nearly forty years had elapsed and in the Annex she stood in proximity to express engines of the largest and most modern types, the Lord of the Isles was inferior to none in size, showing how very far ahead the Great Western Railway, thanks to the broad-gauge and the talented foresight of Daniel Gooch, its first locomotive designer, had been in the early days of railways.
    The abolition of the broad-gauge in 1892 induced me to make an effort to preserve adequate mementoes of it in the South Kensington Museum, and I addressed a letter to the National Observer of June 11th, 1892, suggesting that the Lord of the Isles and the North Star, the engine which had taken the first train out of Paddington when the G.W.R. was opened in 1837, should be given to the Museum by the Railway. The letter interested Professor A. C. Elliott, D.Sc., Professor of Engineering at the University College, Cardiff, and Sir Edward Reed, lately Chief Naval Constructor, and our joint representations induced the company to present, and the museum authorities to accept, the North Star and a comprehensive selection of other broad- gauge plant. The company preferred not to give Lord of the Isles as they intended (they said) to preserve her themselves at Paddington.
    The museum people wrote in February, 1893, that the mementoes "would be placed in the Museum as soon as arrangements could be made for their proper display." [-256-]  That time never came. They would not receive and store them in a temporary shed or under tarpaulins in the grounds, where there was plenty of room, and in 1906, after thirteen years of official procrastination, it was suddenly announced in the Press that the Great Western Railway were breaking the engines up, as the room they occupied at Swindon was wanted. Had it occurred to either party to notify the original movers in the matter arrangements would certainly have been made to store the machines. In fact, as soon as the breaking-up news appeared, I wrote to Swindon offering to buy both engines at their scrap value, but was informed that it was too late. An unfortunate lapse on the part of the Museum officials! It was bad business for the G.W.R. also, as the American Railway Museum Authorities at Chicago would have given much more than break-up price for such famous specimens of early railway days.
    The working of the Metropolitan Railway by the Great Western Railway endured but a short time. The companies quarrelled over the latter's subscription to the capital needed for the extension to Moorgate Street that public opinion immediately demanded, and on August 10th the G.W.R. withdrew their engines and carriages and left the Metropolitan to work their own local services. This they commenced to do on the 4 feet 8½ inch gauge the next morning by the aid of engines, to which condensing gear was fitted in a hurry, lent by the Great Northern Railway. On May 9th, 1864, one of these locomotives burst its boiler when just starting with a train from Bishop's Road, causing wide-spread destruction to the station, but nothing very serious by way of personal injury. The enginemen had narrow escapes, and an omnibus in the Harrow Road, 200 yards away, was nearly hit by the dome of the boiler which had been sent skyward like a rocket.
    A train arrived at the opposite platform at the instant of the explosion and in it was Mr. H. H. Burnett, who had Just been appointed Locomotive Superintendent to the Metropolitan, he having been actively concerned in the building of the engines they had ordered for themselves from Beyer, Peacock & Co. Seeing a train starting and possessed by a [-257-] natural curiosity about the locomotives used by his new employers, he lowered the window of his compartment to have a look. At that moment, when he was only some sixteen feet away from the Great Northern engine, its boiler exploded, and he thought the end of the world had come. Fortunately it was the top plates that blew out and the destructive force and escaping steam were directed upwards through the station roof, which then arched right over the permanent way.
    Burnett was afterwards Locomotive Superintendent to the New South Wales State Railways. He remained in the business all his long life, but no boiler of his ever exploded. The Paddington blow-up was, after all, a blessing in disguise, for it demonstrated, as nothing else could have done, what a devil it is that lurks in every steam-boiler and how thoroughly the fetters which keep the demon within bounds must be forged.
    Many years afterwards Mr. Burnett became one of my best friends-although, strange to relate, we first got acquainted through taking opposite sides in a newspaper controversy - and his death in 1916 hit me hard. It is said that new friends are never made late in life, but this experience surely discredits that sardonic allegation - or, peradventure, constitutes the proverbial exception that proves it.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924