Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Unofficial London - Going Underground.

How did the London Underground get nicknamed 'The Tube'?
Why did the underground frighten horses?
What is the origin of the announcement: "Mind the gap"?

 In this, the third post on my exploration of the area around Bank station, London, I focus on some startling facts about the history of the underground.
Mind the Gap.
My day out in London started at Bank tube station. What surprised me as I emerged up onto street level was the amazing historic buildings within sight of the station: The Bank of England, The Royal Exchange and the Mansion House. Apparently the Victorian engineers were also overawed, and afraid of being sued by wealthy property owners if their tunnels caused subsidence.
The Bank of England -
neighbouring Bank Tube station.
Their solution was the divert the route of the tunnels to avoid going directly beneath these important buildings. This meant around Bank, there are some of the sharpest bends in the tube network, and some speculate that one particular sharp turn was to avoid tunnelling through the Bank of England's vaults. All this meant that long curved platforms were necessary, which led to substantial gaps in places between platform and carriages. It is because of this that often repeated public announcement, "Mind the gap" first came into being.

The Royal Exchange - across the road from Bank tube station.
Bringing the House down.
Work on the tube network began in 1860 and the stretch of the Metropolitan line between Paddington and Farringdon, was opened on 9 January 1863 to become the world's first underground railway.
To minimise costs and because no one had ever undertaken such a thing before, the initial method of construction was to dig a deep trench, lay down the track, then build a brick arch over it to form a tunnel and then cover everything over. This worked well when the proposed route lay parallel to road, but between Paddington and Bayswater, houses were orientated the wrong way, at ninety degrees to the direction of the track. In addition, on Leinster Gardens, two grand houses stood in the path of excavations.
Leinster Gardens - the fake facade is behind the silver car -
note the blocked out ground floor windows.
The solution was to demolish the houses to allow excavation of the tunnel, then rebuild the facades to conceal the hole behind, which as left open, to allow the train drivers to vent their engines steam - much to the alarm of horses passing by on the road.
Leinster Gardens from the air (courtesy of Bing maps)
Note the fake facade and tube lines beyond.
Because the system was built as cheaply as possible, rather than design new locomotives, pre-existing steam engines were used. Of course, the underground tunnels soon filled with thick coal smoke, as The Times commented:

"A journey from King's Cross to Baker Street is a form of torture which no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it."

In counter-attack the underground's marketing people quickly came up with a story that the smoky atmosphere was actually beneficial to asthmatics! But this propaganda didn't convince the train drivers who grew thick beards to try and filter out the soot. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the engines were modified so the exhaust could be collected and vented in a big blast when the trains passed close to the surface.
The Tower subway carriage of 'Tube'-
Claustrophobic, hot, gloomy and smelly.
The Tube under the Thames.
In 1870 the first deep level stretch of the underground was dug between Tower Hill and Tooley Street and passed under the Thames. Because there was no way to ventilate the tunnel as it ran under the river, and so rather than use steam engines, a special windowless carriage was developed, hauled through this section by a cable. This became known as 'The Tube' - a name which stuck for the rest of the network.
The section of the network was, by all accounts, not a good place for a claustrophobe to visit as recorded by Charles Dickens, jr:

"..there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty's lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value."

Traversing this section sounds deeply unpleasant: the tube was hot, humid, the cable mechanism very noisy, the travelling compartment windowless with gloomy gas-lights and to top it all - the carriage frequently got jammed in a dip in the middle of the route. After just three months the train was scrapped and the tunnel converted to pedestrian use.

 I went down and down between two dingy walls until I found myself at the round opening of the gigantic iron tube, which seems to undulate like a great intestine in the enormous belly of the river.
Contemporary account by Edmondo De Amicis.

Statue of J H Greathead, near Bank station.
The Second Tunnel under the Thames.
James Henry Greathead along with another engineer, Peter Barlow, developed a device that successfully drilled much larger bore tunnels. Their device consisted of an iron cylinder, just over 7 ft in diameter, fitted with screw jacks that allowed it to be inched forward. As the labourers excavated beneath the safety of the shield, so the device was advanced and a permanent lining of cast iron segments fitted in place behind them. Over time Greathead refined the device to include the use of compressed air and hydraulic jacks, which are now standard features of tunnel construction.

Widget says: "Does this lead to a tunnel - and are there
cat biscuits at the end of it?"
And finally, a Victorian wonder the underground system may have been, but sometimes it seems as though it's still stuck in Victorian times - with the heat, congestion and general state of decay. What are your impressions of the underground: a system to be proud of or something to be tolerated?


  1. Hi Grace. Having not lived in the UK for some time and mostly in cities without an underground I think the tube is a wonder.

    1. You are right, Ruby, it's an incredibly useful system, but desperately overstretched at times. Come to think of it, I used to live in Glasgow and there is an underground system there - I think it used to be nick-named the 'Clockwork Orange' - because it went round in a circle and the trains are orange.
      G x

  2. Honestly Grace, You have the most interesting and enlightening posts! Having only ridden the underground as a tourist - I thought it completely amazing! Much more personality than a NY subway.

    1. Thank you, TJ! What a lovely compliment. Come to think of it - a poster on the underground inspired "Eulogy's Secret" - but that's another story for another time.
      G x

  3. Very interesting post and photos, Grace. I enjoyed riding the tube when I visited London. Loved how when I emerged there was another famous sight I wanted to see.

    1. I must admit, Gerri, I'm surprised by all the positive comments the underground is getting. Perhaps, I'm a little jaded when it comes to travel around London - agree about the famous sights though... too easily taken for granted.
      G x


Due to the amount of SPAM I have been forced to moderate comments. If you are a spammer - please go away! You comment will not be posted and you are wasting your own time.