Victorian London - Transport - Railways, Underground - Opening of (Metropolitan Railway)


IT is curious that upon the same round, or rather upon and under the same road, should have been commenced the two greatest innovations of town travelling. "On July 4th, 1829," as Mr. Shillibeer once stated in his evidence before the Board of Health, was started by the witness the first pair of omnibuses from the City, along the New Road, to the "Yorkshire Stingo." The way had hitherto been traversed by mail or hackney coaches, and the adventurous travellers in those days would de- vote the whole of the fore or afternoon to the journey, thinking more of it than now-a-days we think of going to Brighton. Shillibeer had much to contend with, and was regarded in the light of an upstart adventurer; so much so, that, to give an air of respectability to the thing, he provided periodicals for the company to read during the long journey, and his two first conductors were the sons of "British naval officers." These were succeeded by "smart young men" in velvet liveries, who have been, in their turn, supplanted by the ordinary conductor, or "cad."
    The first omnibuses were called "Shillibeers," and held but one (the driver) outside, and twenty-two inside. They were somewhat longer and narrower than our present vehicles. The New Road fare was, for the whole distance, 1s., for half 6d. ; from which we suppose that a halfway house was made somewhere about the "Belvidere," in the then pleasant and genteel Pentonville, or at the " Angel" in Islington. The name of " Shillibeers" is still retained in New York, and with us the vehicle, under its Latin name (omnibus, for all), has so far proved a benefit, that by it a new class of trade has been established, and upwards of 40,000 horses are demanded to work 4000 omnibuses. The horses require millions of money for their keep, stabling, and tending. Each omnibus travels between forty and fifty miles a day; and in 1855, Mr. John Timbs, F.S.A., calculated the re- ceipts of the fares as three millions sterling. In 1862 it must be very much more. Each omnibus pays, he says, about £108 yearly duty. Truly, Shillibeer deserved well of the people and government.
    Under this very " New Road," once lined with citizens' villas and pleasant suburban boxes, with pretty gardens, of which but few now remain, a new mode of locomotion has just been established, by boring a tunnel under the whole distance; and on Saturday, August 30th, a number of gentlemen, shareholders, and others, of which the writer was one, started on the first complete journey. Most Londoners will remember that for the last two years the New Road has been blocked at various portions by gigantic hoards, at which, during day and night, steam engines were at work aiding the "navvies" in pulling up to the surface huge loads of gravel or of London clay. The public understood that these places were the shafts, sunk for the purpose of proceeding with a subterranean railway, which, having for its purpose the connection of the various huge lines running to the north, south, east, and west of England, would greatly facilitate the transmission of passengers through London, and relieve the streets of the enormous traffic. As the undertaking was one of great difficulty and cost, many prophets started with the positive assurance that it would be a failure ; that it would never be commenced, or if commenced, never finished ; that London would be undermined, blown up, or collapse on each side of the tunnelling; and that these and half a dozen other evil presages would turn out true. It is with some pleasure, therefore, that, in duty to the public and the contractors, Messrs. Jay, and Smith and Knight, we have to record the complete success of the work, so far as engineering goes, and to assure our readers that this most gigantic engineering work has been quietly and successfully carried on in London, in spite of immense difficulties, of shifting grounds, swelling clay, falling houses, bursting drains, and continued incursions of the Fleet Ditch—a small and extremely unpleasant London river of historical and poetical celebrity, the course of which has more than once been turned, and which is now carried over the railway.
    So far back as April 12th of this year, a portion of the journey had been performed. Messrs. Smith and Knight's share of the great work appears to have turned out a profitable one. They commenced the railway at Paddington, and carried it on to King's Cross, and the fine gravel which they took up in tunnelling is said to have been extremely valuable. On the other hand, Mr. Jay's portion which he chose himself has been found full of difficulties, from the nature of the soil and the settled portion of the town beneath which it ran. However, now all difficulties are overcome, although, in order to make travelling comfortable, or even possible, new engines had to be invented, which are smoke-consuming and steam-condensing ; whilst, to light the carriages, portable gas has to be employed. Both of these improvements arc found to work efficiently. The engines are of Fowler's patent, improved by Gooch. The carriages are wide, high, and commodious, and lighted on each side by the compressed gas, so that one can very well read a newspaper by the light. The ventilation in the tunnel is very complete, and there is not the slightest smell, pleasant or unpleasant ; indeed, the atmosphere, from the constant current of air, seems better than the ordinary atmosphere of the city.
    On the Saturday afternoon named, the eager shareholders and public flocked to the Victoria terminus, and after some little delay mounted the carriages, first class, second class, and trucks, that had been prepared for them. In about 700 yards, all tunnel, passing under the old part of Clerkenwell and Bagnigge Wells, the graveyard of the paupers and their workhouse, passing huge black boxes full of bones, which were being care- fully and decently removed to some suburban cemetery, we reached Frederick Street, where there is an open cutting, and thence to the first station at King's Cross. Much gratified surprise was expressed at the height, width, and convenience of the carriages, much at the pleasant atmosphere of the railway, and when we reached Gower Street station, much more at the pretty and even airy aspect of everything around us.
    Although we were upwards of forty feet below the earth's surface, we found that it was as light as day daylight in fact being shed down upon us by ingenious contrivances in the forecourts of the houses and the street pavements. Skylights are constructed horizontally from sidings of thick glass on a level with the pavement, and beneath these sidings a handsome cutting lined with white tiles admits, and at the same time reflects and multiplies the light ; and to the vaulted station itself huge oval eyelet holes, lined also with Minton's tiles, admit both light and air. The effect is very soft, cool, and even rural. Descending thither from a broiling day in the hot streets will be a pleasant change enough, whilst in winter the change will be varied by the passengers being protected from the cold winter blasts. The Portland Road station differs from that of Gower Street by being lighted by two large glass domes on a level with the street, and a flat skylight. Baker Street station is a reproduction of that of Gower S elegant, and economical ; a sufficient regard being had to simple ornament and durability. Edgware Road station, near Praed Street, is lighted horizontally, as the railway then comes upon the open, many houses having been taken down for the purpose. After a safe journey, in which there was certainly something novel, curious, and encouraging, passing in and out the deep shades thrown by the side lights in the tunnels, under the roar of a million passers-by, under gas-pipes and drains, houses and streets, without much noise, save of the cheering of the passengers, without inconvenience, smoke, smell, or dust, with no oscillation, and with perfect safety, we again returned, riding in the open trucks, admiring the stanch brick work of the tunnels, the fine spring of the arches, and the clean way in which all the work was done, and emerged from the regions of the earth pleased with the journey and satisfied of the future success of the undertaking, which will surely pay the shareholders, as it has been constructed, it is said, under the estimate of £1,500,000.
    Of the utility of the Metropolitan Railway few can doubt. Perhaps the most objectionable objects about London are the railway vans of the large carriers, piled with goods to an enormous height, drawn by gigantic horses at a great rate, and driven by reckless men, who appear impressed with the idea that they are always too late for the goods train. Almost every day an accident is reported in the papers, caused by one of these vans, which occasion not only death but continued obstruction in crowded thoroughfares. By communicating with each railway, and combining all, an immense saving of time in carrying forward the goods will be effected ; whilst such heavy goods as are delivered in the city will be carried forward to the central city terminus, thus avoiding all the traffic complained of. Passengers from the Great Western. or Great Northern to the City can also be carried into its midst without exchange of carriage, and clerks and city men dwelling in the suburbs may run up to town and out of it at a penny each journey, if they start early enough. Another branch will carry meat to the new market in Smithfield, and a third heavy goods to a city terminus at Finsbury. A great many omnibuses may therefore be spared, which can be used for other traffic, and the main arteries of the city will be left more free. Should these expectations be realized, as we have reason to believe they will, the Metropolitan Railway will not only be an eminently successful undertaking, but also a great national benefit.  

Leisure Hour, 1862

    Yesterday the Metropolitan (underground) Railway was opened to the public, and many thousands were enabled to indulge their curiosity in reference to this mode of travelling under the streets of the metropolis.
    The trains commenced running as early as six o'clock in the morning from the Paddington (Bishop's-road) station, and the Farringdon-street terminus, in order to accommodate workmen, and there was a goodly muster of that class of the public, who availed themselves of the advantages of the line in reaching their respective places of employment. At eight o'clock the desire to travel underground in the direction of the City began to manifest itself at the various stations along the line; and by nine it became equally evident to the authorities that neither the locomotive power nor the rolling stock at their disposal was at all in proportion to the requirements of the opening day. From this time, and throughout the morning, every station became crowded with anxious travellers who were admitted in sections; but poor were the chances of a place to those who ventured to take their tickets at any point below Baker-street, the occupants being, with but very rare exceptions, "long distance," or terminus, passengers. This circumstance tended to increase the numbers at every station every minute, until there became sufficient to fill any train of empties which might be sent to overflow; and we believe we are correct in stating that ultimately a number of the Great Western narrow gauge carriages as well as engines, were brought into requisition, and by this means the temporary wants of the public were accommodated. Possibly the greatest point of attraction, if the collection of numbers may be taken as any criterion, was King's cross, which is certainly the finest station on the line throwing even the termini into the shade. At this point, during the morning, the crowds were immense, and the constant cry, as the trains arrived, of "No room", appeared to have a very depressing effect upon those assembled. Between eleven and twelve, at this station, and continuously for the space of an hour and a half, the money takers refused to take money for passengers between King's-cross and Farringdon-street, but they issued tickets between that station and Paddington, and many, whose destination was City-wise, determined to ride on the railway on its first day of opening, took tickets for the opposite direction, in order to secure places for the return journey. At twelve o'clock the clerks informed the public, who were certainly then assembled to the number of some 500 or 600 at King's-cross, that there were enough people at Paddington to fill four trains in succession; and that, therefore, their instructions were to issue no Farringdon-street tickets for an hour. This announcement had the effect of getting rid of very large numbers. Whilst, however, all the tendency of the traffic was towards the Farringdon-street terminus during the morning, the public were enabled to proceed westward with but little inconvenience. Towards afternoon, however, the tide set in the other way, and the approaches to the trains at Victoria-street can be compared to no other than the crush at the doors of a theatre on the first night of a pantomime. Between one and two o'clock thousands of anxious travellers by the new route were collected outside the Victoria-street terminus, and when the outer doors were opened, which was only at intervals, the rush was tremendous, and on reaching the ticket office the difficulty of exchanging cash for a ticket was an equally difficult task. The platform gained, the next grand struggle was for a seat in the incoming and presently outgoing train. Classification was altogether ignored, the holders of No.1 being obliged to be compelled to go in No.3 or not at all, and vice versa. Hundreds on each occasion, however, had to be left behind, to take their chance of the next train in rotation. Once in motion, all appeared to be right, the riding very easy, and a train which left Farringdon-street at 2:15 reached King's-cross station at 2:18 (a little over a mile), bringing up at the platform in three minutes. Gower-street was reached at 2:25, Portland-road at 2:30, Baker-street at 2:36, Edgware-road at 2"42, and the terminus at Paddington at 2"48; thus performing the journey in 33 minutes, including stoppages at the various stations. There were other journeys performed which were longer, reaching over 40 minutes, but the time above specified may be taken as about the average time of the running of the trains throughout the day. With regard to this point, however, the time occupied yesterday in the running of the trains from terminus to terminus can scarcely be taken as a fair criterion of what may be the actual time when the excitement of an opening day is over, and the line shall have sobered down to its ordinary traffic. The excitement of the public to get places, and the running about of officials at every station to each carriage to see if there was a seat for one here and for two there, no doubt took up more than half the time which will be occupied by the stoppage of a train at each station on ordinary occasions.
    Of the general comfort in travelling on the line there can be no doubt, and the novel introduction of gas into the carriages is calculated to dispel any unpleasant feelings which passengers, especially ladies, might entertain against riding for so long a distance through a tunnel. Yesterday, throughout every journey, the gas burnt brightly, and in some instances was turned on so strong in the first-class carriages, in each of which there were two burners, that when the carriages were stationary, newspapers might be read with facility; but, in motion, the draft through the apertures of the lamps, created so much flickering as to render such a feat exceedingly difficult. The second-class carriages are very nicely fitted with leathered seats, and are very commodious, and the compartments and arms in the first-class render overcrowding impossible.
    There is one point to which attention was attracted as being adverse to the general expectation, and that was that it was understood that there was to be no steam or smoke from the engines used in working this tunnel railway. All we can say is, that on one of the journeys between Portland-road and Baker-street, not only were the passengers enveloped in steam, but it is extremely doubtful if they were not subjected to the unpleasantness of smoke also. This may have arisen from the circumstance before alluded to, that in consequence of the extreme pressure upon their resources, the workers of the metropolitan line were compelled to avail themselves of locomotive as well as rolling stock of the Great Western, and that it is only a temporary inconvenience.
    Up to six o'clock the computation was that somewhere about 25,000 persons had been carried over the line, and it is gratifying to remark that, notwithstanding the eagerness of the public to get into the carriages, even when the trains were in motion, no single accident, of any kind, was reported.

Times, January 11th, 1863

The Metropolitan Railway was fairly opened to the public on the 10th inst. and it was calculated that more than 30,000 person were carried over the line in the course of the day. Indeed, the desire to travel by this line on the opening day was more than the directors had provided for; and from nine o'clock in the morning till past mid-day it was impossible to obtain a place on the up or Cityward line at any of the mid stations. In the evening the tide turned, and the crush at the Farringdon St. station was as great as at the door of a theatre of the first night of some popular performer. Some lightening of the pressure was obtained by the Great Western lending some of their engines and carriages supplemental to the rolling stock of the company. Notwithstanding the throng, it is gratifying to add that no accident occurred, and the report of the passengers was unanimous in favour of the smoothness and comfort of the line.

 Illustrated London News, Jan. 10th 1863

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here