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!