On January 10, 1863 the first section of what would become the London Underground was opened under the name Metropolitan Railway. It linked Paddington Station and Farringdon Street via Kings Cross and was made possible through financial backing from the Great Western Railway and the tireless campaigning of Charles Pearson, solicitor to the City of London Corporation.
Pearson noticed the increasing traffic congestion in the city and the need for a rapid transit system to enable commuters to travel in from the fast-growing suburbs. As early as 1845, he published a pamphlet calling for the construction of an underground railway. Ini 1854, a Royal Commission was set up to examine proposals for new railways in London. Pearson submitted his own proposal, and on August 7, 1854, it was decided that an underground railway would indeed be built.
Over the next several years the project suffered from delays. Pearson threw his weight behind it wholeheartedly, using his influence to help move it forward and helping to raise the £1 million needed to finance the railway. He even persuaded the City of London to invest; after the railway opened, they sold those shares at a profit. Work on the railway finally began in 1860, under the direction of chief engineer John Fowler, and wrapped up three years later, after eradicating some of the city’s worst slums and tunneling under many of its busiest streets.
Sadly, Pearson wasn’t around to see the railway open. He died of dropsy on September 23, 1862. The Metropolitan Railway, the first underground railway system in the world, was carrying more than 26,000 passengers a day within months of commencing operations. The grateful railway company gave Pearson’s widow a pension of £250 a year, after Pearson himself had refused any reward for his services in getting the railway built.
The Underground spread rapidly, and soon there was a rival company, the Metropolitan District Railway, which began operations on December 24, 1868. Several other companies began building and operating underground lines throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and eventually there were six separate companies operating lines, which caused passengers some inconvenience, as you can imagine. An American tycoon by the name of Charles Yerkes started buying up railway lines in the early 1900’s and eventually formed the Metropolitan District Electric Traction Company (MDET) which, two years later, became the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL). UERL dominated underground railway construction into the 1930s. In 1908, to increase passenger numbers, the various underground railway companies agreed to start branding the entire transport network as “The Underground”. The Underground’s distinctive logo was designed by Edward Johnston in 1913, and the now-iconic Tube map was designed by Harry Beck and first distributed in 1933.
Also in 1933, the various transport companies (including the Underground, bus, and tram companies) were merged to form the London Passenger Transport Board. It was eventually renamed London Transport and was an unsubsidized, self-supporting public corporation. London Transport was nationalized in 1948 and was put under the control of the government after it was replaced by the London Transport Executive. After several more name changes, the Underground and all the other means of public transport in the city came under the command of Transport for London in 2000.
Today, the Underground has 270 stations; the busiest one, Victoria, serves 78 million people a year. It’s served as a model for similar transit systems all over the world and helped link outlying suburbs to the city, enabling people to move out of overcrowded, unhealthy slums to (what used to be) cheap housing outside the city limits. And who knows how long it would have taken if it wasn’t for Pearson? Thanks, Charles!