Monday, April 1, 2013

Going underground

It's amazing how much time you can spend in a place and know nothing about it at all.

I lived for years in London and often used the Underground every day, but it wasn't until reading the book London Under by Peter Ackroyd that I realised it is the oldest underground rail system in the world. Makes sense really, but I never thought of it.
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde used the tube to travel from Sloane Square to his job on Woman's World at the bottom of Ludgate Hill – which is a stone's throw from where I was based in London.

Its instigator, Charles Pearson, came up with the idea in the 1830s because of congestion. (There had been other major subterranean explorations, including tunnels under the Thames that were barely used and became a hang out for ne'er do wells, so it wasn't a totally original idea.)

His first plan was to link King's Cross with Farringdon Street. Jokes were published in satirical magazine Punch as a result, but more serious objections included the risk it would be used by Fenians and other terrorists; which it was, of course. But not just on July 7, 2005 – the first was in 1881.

Still, Pearson persisted and the first shafts were dug at Euston Square and Paddington in January 1860. Because a 'cut and cover' process was used, whole streets were closed to traffic. Later tunnels were bored beneath the earth, but they still generally followed the road plan so as not to compromise the foundations of old buildings.

Following the path of the buried River Fleet – by then a running sewer – presented a few problems, with heavy rains causing a whole section to collapse. But that was nothing compared to the destruction caused by the project itself; about 1,000 homes were destroyed along the Fleet valley, displacing some 12,000 people, none of whom received any compensation.

Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone and his wife were among those invited to inspect progress in spring 1862 and on January 9, 1863, the railway was formally unveiled.
Charles Pearson

Pearson died a few weeks before the event.

Ventilation was a major problem in the early days and on its first day of being open to the public, two were hospitalised lack of oxygen. Later guards and porters petitioned the company, asking they be allowed to grow beards as a protection against sulphurous deposits.

Still it was a major success, carrying about 30,000 passengers a day, so trains were lengthened and intervals decreased.

First class carriages had mirrors and carpets.

The first fatality was in 1864, when a woman, who'd been drinking, rushed down the steps to catch a train and fell on the line.

Soon London was consumed with underground fever; 53 projects were put forward. The different names of lines relate to the company that built each line – i.e. Great Western, Great Northern, Great Eastern railway companies; another revelation!

Ackroyd's research on the subject (and throughout the whole book) is meticulous; he managed to track down a report by Henry Mayhew in 1865 after he travelled on the Tube interviewing passengers. He spoke to one labourer who used to walk 6 miles a day to work; now he could travel in comfort. He lived in Notting Hill 'almost in open country' and thereby saved himself two shillings a week (10p) in rent.

Guards used to stand at the ends of carriages to announce station names and call out warnings, such as: "Beware of card sharks on this train!" and "It is forbidden to ride on the roof!"

The trains on the Stockwell Line of 1890 were the first to be powered by electricity – and the first without different class carriages. When the Central Line was opened in 1900 it was known as the "Twopenny Tube" because of the flat price of tickets. Other persisted with luxurious extras, and in 1910 a sixpenny ticket got you on the first class Pullman cars of the Metropolitan Railway, with morocco armchairs, mahogany wall, electric lamps on side tables and green silk blinds covering windows. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served.

In 1911 the first escalator was introduced at Earls Court station. A man with a wooden leg was employed to ride up and down the escalator to show nervous passengers it was safe. Apparently the promotional literature boasted: "A boon that the mere man will appreciate is the fact that he will not be prohibited from smoking, as in the lift, for the stairlift is made entirely of fireproof material." Hmmmm - tell that to the families of the 27 people who died in the escalator fire in King's Cross in 1987.

Using a rotary excavator to dig tunnels was faster but created its own problems, such as high atmospheric pressure, so that workmen actually suffered 'the bends', more normally associated with deep-sea divers. With lines up to 221 feet below the surface, heat has become an issue over the years, too. Ventilators are used but even so the average temperature of the deep-level tubes is now 30 degrees Celsius. To protect the Tube from the constant threat of flooding, many hundreds of pumps discharge 6,600 thousand gallons of water each day.

But the lines continued, and even now the Tube only closes between 1am and 5am.

When the Inner Circle was completed, it took 70 minutes to journey around the circuit by steam train; 100 years later the trains are only 20 minutes faster.

The official name The Underground' was chosen by the companies involved in 1908 (other options were Tube and Electric) and the bull's eye logo was first used.

The Victoria Line came later – in the 1960s – and in the course of its construction fossils buried 50 million years before were discovered. It was followed by the Jubilee Line; in 1999 excavation for its southern extension uncovered pieces of Neolithic pottery and Roman tiles, a 12th Century quay, a 13th Century gatehouse and a 14th Century wool market. Under Southwark High St it found an older street, dating from AD 60, lined with houses of clay or timber; ruts were found in the street, made by carts and chariot wheels.

When the line went out to stratford it unearthed an Iron Age settlement and a Cistercian monastery of the 12th century. "It's chaotic down," the architect of the Jubilee Line extension said. "You can't believe what's going on."

In 2007 the system carried 1 billion passengers, all following the crazy Tube map, which was created by Underground employee Henry Beck in 1931, probably inspired by his work devising circuit in the signalling department.

So much history and fascinating trivia – and that's without even touching the above-ground stations.....

London Under, Peter Ackroyd. Published by VintageBooks/Random House in 2012. 

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