An old advertisement for an art exhibition which took place in August 1978, still stuck to brickwork at Baker Street tube station, 2016
January 10th 2013 is an extremely important date in the capital’s history, for it marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the London Underground; the world’s oldest subway system.
First opened to the public on the 10th January 1863 as the Metropolitan Railway, the pioneering line originally ran between Paddington and Farringdon; a distance of 3.75 miles.
Although the original route and tunnels are still in use today (now occupied by trains running on the Circle, Hammersmith and City and of course the Metropolitan lines), passengers travelling on the Underground during its earliest days would have undergone a very different experience indeed.
Being the mid-19th century, trains were powered by steam and, despite a special engine design and the inclusion of regular ventilation shafts, clouds of choking smoke still swirled within the dingy tunnels.
As with main-line services of the time, the carriages were designated into first, second and third class. The coaches themselves were wooden and lit by atmospheric gas-lamps; a health and safety nightmare by today’s standards.
Some idea of how these pioneering locomotives would have appeared whilst in service can be seen in the following BBC clip:
Carrying tens of thousands of passengers on the first day alone, the revolutionary underground railway proved popular with Londoners from the outset and has remained packed ever since.
Being a totally new concept there were naturally one or two teething problems; the main ones being summed up in the Times just ten days after the Metropolitan Railway opened.
The main issue was clearly that of smoke which, despite the best efforts of the skilled railwaymen, still managed to accumulate and create discomfort.
Those who suffered most were the engine drivers, who complained of “pains in the head from working the trains”; an apparent result of the build-up of sulphurous fumes- a phenomenon which the early railway staff quickly nicknamed “choke-damp.”
Porters and signalmen were also prone to feeling ill from smoke inhalation; so much so that in the first few days of service, several of these workers were “carried away insensible from the effect of noxious vapours.”
However, the report also suggested that staff’s weakened state may have been caused by “exhaustion from long hours of work” and “that, owing to the pressure of traffic, the men had not really been able to leave for their meals.”
Shame these early tube workers didn’t have Bob Crow around to fight their corner!
Just like today, the prospect of anti-social behaviour on the underground network was a concern in Victorian London.
On April 2nd 1863, when the Metropolitan line had been open barely three months, a letter appeared in the Times from an anonymous, “occasional traveller” who wished to bring to light the details of a rather humiliating situation which he’d experienced whilst using the new subterranean line.
The passenger describes how, travelling between King’s Cross and Portland Road (now renamed Great Portland Street), he took a seat in a third-class carriage…
“When a somewhat powerful man entered, and after pushing and showing by gestures he wished for my seat, remarked it was no matter to him, if I did not like to move he should sit on my knee which he accordingly did”!
Unable to summon help at King’s Cross, the commuter resigned himself to “nursing my amiable companion until we reached the Gower-Street station [now Euston Square]…I contrived after some difficulty to get out and immediately sought the guard.”
Sadly, the poor victim of the unprovoked knee-sitting was unable to find anybody willing to help and, after much buck-passing, was eventually granted an audience with the stationmaster- who simply said by way of consolation,
“That there were a number of persons continually travelling on the Metropolitan Railway for no other purpose than annoying the passengers.”
Certainly something to bear in mind next time you find yourself on a crowded tube with rising blood pressure!
The infuriated Times correspondent concluded that,
“If such excuses as these are to be accepted for allowing insulting scoundrels, thieves, or persons guilty of any other crime to escape scot-free, the Metropolitan Railway is likely to become, instead of a great public benefit, a disgrace to the metropolis.“
150 years on, I think we can safely say that the occasional traveller’s fears have been proved unfounded!
Happy birthday, London Underground.
There’s no doubt about it… Baker Street, which stretches from the south-western corner of Regent’s Park, down to Portman Square (just north of Oxford Street), is one of London’s most famous roads.
Baker Street is Born
Descriptive as it may sound, the name of the road has nothing to do with buns, cakes or loaves of bread… the name actually refers to William Baker, an entrepreneurial builder who originally began laying out the street in 1755.
The strip of land upon which William built was (and still is) part of the ‘Portman Estate’; a substantial plot which was first acquired by Sir William Portman of Somerset; a 16th century Lord Chief of Justice who died in 1557.
In those long-gone days, the area would have been open fields, and it is believed Sir Portman kept goats here to provide milk for his poorly wife. He also used the land as a resting point to facilitate the transfer of cattle between London’s markets and his numerous estates in the West Country.
Baker Street Underground
At the northern tip of the famous road- just up from Sherlock Holmes’ supposed home (more of which later) we have Baker Street tube station which was opened in January 1863 by the Metropolitan Railway.
The section of the Metropolitan Line which Baker Street station serves is the oldest underground railway in the world, the earliest trains being steam-driven, puffing and belching their way beneath the streets of Victorian London.
Construction of the pioneering route was rapid, taking just two years to complete. However, it also involved horrendous levels of disruption. Homes in slum areas were ruthlessly swept away and some 12,000 Londoners- all of whom lay at the bottom of the social ladder- were made homeless, with zero compensation being offered.
Despite being some 150 years old, Baker Street station today remains one of the system’s most important interchanges. To celebrate its 120th anniversary in 1983, its oldest platforms were restored to make them look as close as possible to their original 1863 incarnation.
Electric trains finally appeared on the Metropolitan line in 1905.
A few years later in 1912, the Metropolitan Railway built themselves an impressive new headquarters on Allsop Place; a quiet backwater off of Baker Street, overlooking the bowels of the station.
Still in use as offices today, this old HQ is now grade II listed… and contains one or two surprises.
If you look towards the building’s upper floors, you’ll spot some authentic railway paraphernalia bolted onto the façade- including buffers and coupling chains!
As the 20th century and the wonder of electricity progressed, Baker Street became a vital hub for the concept known as Metroland; the process which saw the rapid development of suburbs such as Wembley, Harrow, Uxbridge and Rickmansworth, all of which burgeoned during the inter-war period thanks to the Metropolitan Railway’s ever expanding tracks.
Out in leafy Metroland, smart new homes (typically in the mock-Tudor style) were built for the City’s commuters, who now had the means to work in the capital’s heart by day and retire to the quieter outskirts by night. Metroland had a huge impact on the capital, forging much of what is now modern-day North-West London.
The great poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman was heavily influenced in his work by a yearning nostalgia for Metroland- his following poem, Baker Street Buffet being a perfect example (please click to enlarge and read)
Lost and Found
Adjoining Baker Street station there sits a real treasure trove of quirkiness… London Transport’s Lost Property Office which has been at the location since 1933.
Anything left behind by those travelling on London’s trains, tubes, buses or taxis eventually ends up here (providing somebody honest hands it in to the nearest TFL employee of course).
As a London cabbie, one of my duties is to take a quick glance into the passenger compartment every time a customer exits the vehicle- you’d be surprised how often people forget their precious belongings.
Usually, a quick check and a toot of the horn is sufficient enough to reunite passengers with their forgotten wares. Sometimes however, lost property may not be noticed immediately or its unfortunate owner may disappear before you have a chance to call them back.
When this happens, we cabbies have to present the property to the nearest police station as soon as possible, where it is logged and passed onto the Baker Street office (to date, the most valuable item which has been left behind in my own cab was an Apple laptop!)
Over at Baker Street, using a specially designed programme called Sherlock, staff at the lost property office catalogue each item and carefully stow it away amongst the labyrinth of shelves.
The system works well, often re-uniting owners with their goods… inevitably however, many things are never collected and, over the years, an incredibly bizarre collection of forgotten items has accumulated!
A park bench, a lawnmower, urns containing ashes, false teeth, a theatrical coffin, voodoo masks, WWII gasmasks, a puffer fish… even human skulls can all be found languishing in the depths of Baker Street’s lost property office. The following short clip from a recent BBC documentary provides an insight into the institution’s packed basement:
Outside the Lost Property Office, the windows of the depository act as a kind of mini-museum, displaying some of the more interesting finds. Most of the objects are from very distinct eras, their appearance providing an interesting insight into the recent social history of London’s inhabitants.
Working at the Lost Property Office sounds like it can often be quite a surreal experience. In his excellent 2011 book, Londoners Craig Taylor interviewed Craig Clark; one of the office’s administrators who had this nugget to share:
“We occasionally get drunks come in, or crack heads… once these two guys came in and said they had lost a swan. I think they were hallucinating”…
Baker Street & The Beatles
Another famous Baker Street building stocked with quirky items- but now sadly demolished- was the Beatle’s Apple Boutique.
Opened in December 1967, the Apple Boutique stood at 94a Baker Street, on the corner with Paddington Street.
By this point of course, the Beatles had achieved immense fame and wealth, providing them with the freedom to pursue other business interests outside of their music.
The Apple Boutique was a rather bohemian store which Paul McCartney summed up as being “a beautiful place where beautiful people could buy beautiful things.”
Responsibility for designing the shop’s stock (which mainly consisted of fashionable clothes and accessories), fell to three Dutch designers who’d formed a creative collective known as ‘The Fool’. The entrepreneurial Fab Four handed The Fool £100,000 for the project and also commissioned them to paint a psychedelic mural on the building’s exterior.
No planning permission was granted for this vivid painting however, and many of Baker Street’s more traditional shopkeepers quickly kicked up a fuss. Consequently, the mural was painted over a few months later and replaced with a minimalist, white colour scheme.
Unlike their music and record sales, the Beatle’s Apple Boutique proved to be an utter financial disaster…
The main problem was shoplifting. With the shop’s groovy vibe and laid-back attitude, many visitors and staff treated the premises like a hippie commune, where the concept of actually handing cash over to ‘The Man’ just wasn’t considered cool!
During its short life, the boutique lost some £200,000 through theft.
Such losses were unsustainable and in July 1968, after just seven months, the shop closed down. By this point, the Beatles simply couldn’t be bothered anymore- and decided to give all of the remaining stock away for free in a last minute bonanza- even the shop’s fittings and carpet were considered fair game!
A rare insight into the Apple Boutique can be seen in the following clip from the 1968 film, Hot Millions, staring Maggie Smith:
Today, at the opposite end of Baker Street, a distant cousin of the Apple Boutique can be found in the Beatles Store which sells merchandise and memorabilia related to the Fab Four.… and is clearly a lot more efficiently run than its 1960s predecessor!
Being such a renowned address, Baker Street has attracted many illustrious residents over the years.
One of the earliest to set up home was William Pitt the Younger who, in 1783 at the tender age of 24, became Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister.
Despite his young age, William proved a popular and extremely able leader- so much so that, twenty years later in 1804 and in the face of the growing threat from the Emperor Napoleon, he was asked to step in as Prime Minister for a second term.
Once Pitt accepted the offer, removal wagons turned up at his Baker Street home to cart his property off to another famous London address- 10 Downing Street.
Pitt the Younger died in office two years later, aged just 46 and now lies in Westminster Abbey.
Another famous Baker Street inhabitant was Sarah Siddons.
Born in Brecon, Wales in 1755, Sarah Siddons first came to London in 1775 at the age of 20.
After several years of struggle, she managed to establish herself as an actress, first appearing at Dury Lane as Isabella in ‘Fatal Marriage’. Sarah’s acting abilities quickly gained her great fame- her most noted role being that of Lady Macbeth in 1812.
In the 1920s and bearing the famous Baker Street resident in mind, the Metropolitan Railway named one of their handsome new electric locomotives after the actress.
When this engine first began running, it pulled luxurious Pullman carriages to and from the suburbs and even boasted a dining car… classy commuting indeed!
Today, the Sarah Siddons locomotive can occasionally be spotted in use at special events on the Metropolitan Line.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Baker Street was home to the grandfather of science fiction- Herbert George Wells…
During his long career, H.G Wells penned many classic, often ground-breaking tales, envisioning everything from Invisible Men to an alien invasion of Victorian England.
H.G Wells lived at Baker Street’s Chiltern Court between 1930 and 1936, during which time he wrote his prophetic book, The Shape of Things to Come; a work which accurately predicted the outbreak of WWII and makes prophecies which stretch way into the distant future; all the way up to 2106.
In 1936, H.G Wells’ chilling predictions were adapted into a bold film.
An Ode to Baker Street… Gerry Rafferty and one of London’s Greatest Songs
In the 1970s, a small flat on Baker Street was home for a time to Gerry Rafferty; a Scottish-born musician who had spent part of his early musical career busking on the London Underground.
Gerry’s experiences of the area led him to write one of the most famous songs ever inspired by London… Baker Street, which was released in 1978.
A shy, reclusive man, Gerry was plagued by severe alcoholism throughout his life- a battle which he sadly lost in 2011 when his life was taken by liver failure.
His tragic addiction to drink was described up by his Italian partner, Enzina Fuschini…. “he felt he was under some sort of evil spell. He felt crippled by it… I saw a man in despair.”
In hindsight, Gerry Rafferty’s ode to Baker Street, with its lyrics alluding to drinking to forget and attempting to give up the booze is a melancholy insight into the great musician’s troubled soul.
Gerry’s masterpiece, along with images of Baker Street as it appeared in the late 1970s, can be viewed in the clip below: