A listener to BBC Radio Bristol wants to know: When was the tube in London built? What was the first tube station, and is it true it was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father? What a lovely question!
The London Underground as an integrated system did not come into existence until 1933. Before then, the lines that form the network today were all privately financed and owned railways, some sharing stations and ticketing, and some not.
The ‘tube’ as it is generally known consists of two distinct types of train. The first line, which opened in 1863 was the Metropolitan Railway between Bishops Road—next door to Paddington Station—and Farringdon Street in the city. It did not use tunnels, but rather a method known as ‘cut and cover’; a trench was dug, usually along a street, the rails were laid along the bottom, and the roof was covered over. Essentially, the train travelled just below ground level covered by a series of arches with frequent openings for ventilation, because until the 1890s, it was operated using steam locomotives.
The first tube proper, where a tunnel was dug deep underground, was on part of what is now the Northern Line between a now defunct station King William Street—near London Bridge—and Stockwell. It was finished in 1890, and operated using electric locomotives, the first underground train to do so. Trains designed to run in the deep tunnels, ‘Tube trains’, are smaller than those on the Metropolitan and other cut and cover lines, and have a nearly circular cross-section. Metropolitan Line carriages are virtually indistinguishable—apart from seating—from suburban and main-line trains.
So where does Brunel senior come in? He was Sir Marc Brunel, a French ex naval officer, who fled the French Revolution for America because of his Royalist beliefs. He came to England in 1799 to be reunited with his sweetheart Sophia Kingdom, an English girl he had met in Rouen. Their son, Isambard, was born in 1806.
In 1825 Sir Marc started work on a tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping. This was around a mile and a half downriver from London Bridge, which was at the time the last crossing on the river. Anyone wishing to cross further downstream was obliged to use a ferry. A bridge could not be built because of the height needed to accommodate the masts of the sailing ships, so Sir Marc opted for a tunnel to meet a substantial anticipated demand. The work was difficult because the ground consisted of gravel, sand, and mud, liberally laced with London sewage and other detritus… There were frequent cave-ins, when the river broke through and flooded the tunnel. Isambard was co-opted to the project, and very nearly drowned during one of the inundations. He was pulled unconscious from the water, and was very lucky to have survived.
In 1843 the tunnel was finally completed after eighteen years work, including seven years when the money ran out and work just stopped. It was opened for pedestrians only; the original plan had been to provide ramps for horse-drawn traffic, but these proved to be too expensive. Access was via two great spiral staircases. The toll was one old penny, and in the first year two million people made the crossing. As well as a river crossing, the tunnel was used for fairs and other entertainments, and soon earned a reputation for disgraceful goings-on…
The tunnel was finally sold for £200,000 to the East London Railway in 1865, and opened to rail traffic four years later using steam locomotives. The East London Railway became the East London Branch of the Metropolitan Line. Today, it takes the ‘London Overground’ under the river, and at Wapping Station it is possible to see parts of the original tunnel.
So, although Sir Marc Brunel did not design the first station, he did build the very first tunnel to be used on the London Underground system, many years before the next one was dug. Since he died in 1849, he had no idea at the time that he had done so.
And as a rather satisfying coda, the Paris 'Metro' is named after the Metropolitan Line on the London Underground, an extension to which ran through the very first tunnel on the system, a tunnel designed and constructed by a Frenchman, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel.
NB. Persons of a deeply masochistic temperament can hear me talking about this to John Darvall of BBC Radio Bristol, today, 31 March, just after 1:20 PM ...
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs