Features History

EC1 and the birth of London Underground

The tube is 160 years old this year – and Farringdon can claim to be one of its birthplaces.

By EC1 Echo

An old photograph of an open rail carriage filled with top hatted men and women with shawls sits at a train platform
London Metropolitan Railway construction
Photo: London Metropolitan Archives

The London Underground – the oldest underground railway in the world – celebrates its 160-year anniversary this year – and EC1 is a vital node in that timeline. For it was in January 1863 that the Metropolitan Railway took its first ride from Paddington and Farringdon.

It was as the picture above attests, a forgotten world of top hats and open carriages. As these cars were drawn by steam trains, belching smoke into the air, huge chimneys had to be constructed. They can still be seen in a few places including Britannia Street in King’s Cross – big brick shafts about three or four metres wide. This segment of the Underground system is one of the shallowest in London, due to the “cut-and-cover” tunnels, and there’s a sense of it above the street too. 

The London Underground was a technological marvel as well as being a world first. But the pollution levels would not pass muster in our own age. The smoke from the trains affected the drivers and staff, who complained of sulphurous fumes causing what they called “choke-damp”. The gas lighting didn’t help. And there were incidents, too, like on 2 April 1863, a few months after opening, when an indignant letter in The Times brought attention to an antisocial incident, where a “powerful man entered, and after pushing and showing by gestures he wished for my seat… if I did not like to move he should sit on my knee which he accordingly did”. The trains braked a lot, making for a traumatic ride, and in 1897 it was reported that an entrepreneurial pharmacist had created a ‘Metropolitan Mixture’ to ease the respiratory trauma of a tube ride. 

It’s a long way from Farringdon’s whispering latest innovation, Crossrail and the Elizabeth Line. But it testifies to a sense of innovation and as well as a special 160 year roundel, called Love the Tube, there’s a programme of activities throughout 2023.

Further details of the Underground anniversary celebrations can be found here: tfl.gov.uk/Tube160 

Picture of Farringdon Underground courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives. This image is available to view on the London Picture Archive website along with 250,000 historical images and maps of the capital at www.londonpicturearchive.org.uk. Located in Clerkenwell, LMA is London’s historical archive, providing free access to millions of documents, maps, films and images from 1067 to the present day. The current exhibition, Magnificent Maps of London is open normal hours and will also open on Sat 11 February and Sat 11 March.

This article is from the February/March 2023 edition of Ec1 Echo. Click here to download your copy.

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