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Gillian Tindall On The Elizabeth Line

May 25, 2022
by the gentle author

Bookings for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOURS are now open for June & July

Novelist & Historian of London Gillian Tindall, author of A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey, introduces the Elizabeth Line.

The Elizabeth Line, through the heart of Central London and out a long way on both sides, opens this week. Thus, with its promise of streamlined trains and light-filled stations, one more chapter will be added to the saga of London’s subterranean passageways – yet even this part of the story is already over a hundred and fifty years old.

London’s first Underground railway had its ceremonial opening early in 1863. A party of top-hatted movers-&-shakers went on a trip in open wagons, and to a grand dinner on tables laid out next to the tunnel at Farringdon where the line terminated. The very same month, the first manuscript version of what became Alice in Wonderland was produced, illustrated by the Lewis Carroll himself and called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Carroll, for all that he appeared to be a shy and unworldly academic, had tapped directly into the feeling of the times. For this first Underground – arriving long before New York’s Subway or the Paris Métro – aroused not just a lot of public interest but also anxiety.

Tales of secret underground passages as routes for smugglers, criminals or escaping members of persecuted royal families, had always been the stuff of romantic and scary stories, yet railways themselves had only arrived in London over the previous twenty-five years, so they still seemed new and invasive. They also made the capital a dirtier place. Consequently, it was not surprising the the City Corporation refused to let any of the train companies build a main station right in the centre, which is why Euston and Kings Cross, soon to be joined by St Pancras, stood glaring wistfully across the main road that separated them from Bloomsbury. Twenty years before, a railway line to and from the docks had been allowed to insert itself into Fenchurch St in the far eastern corner of the City, near the Tower, but nothing had yet been allowed in from the north.  Broad St Station was soon to be built, well outside old London wall, but in 1863 no Liverpool St Station was there yet, just a terminus up at Shoreditch where the contested Bishopsgate Viaduct still stands.

So the point of the new Underground line, snaking from Paddington along to Kings Cross and then down the path of the Fleet river to what became Farrington Station, was to bring trains as near as possible to the City without actually entering its fiercely-guarded square mile. This first Metropolitan Railway was the brain-child of the City’s official Solicitor, Charles Pearson, a man of advanced ideas. Its trains were, of course, to be pulled by steam engines – it would be thirty-odd years before the electric tube became a possibility – so there was no difference in kind between trains shuttling back and forth along the new line and the ones carrying passengers much further out to the north and west. The idea of City workers being able to ‘commute’ (then an unknown word) from homes in the country began as an idealistic notion in Pearson’s active imagination.

The new line functioned like a branch of the main lines, diving down into a tunnel, or rather into a series of tunnels interrupted by openings to let the steam out and the air in. Unlike a modern tube, which is constructed by deep boring, it was built by cut-and-cover, with the whole area of each section laid bare for the track-laying and then roofed over again when complete. These hugely disruptive works were sited wherever possible along existing roadways, mainly along the Marylebone-Euston Rd.

Naturally, people living near the route fussed that all this digging might make their houses unstable. When Crossrail was first announced, the very  same anxieties surfaced though – like the other deep tube lines – it is unlikely to cause a tremor even in the deepest foundations. The real losers in the eighteen-sixties were the poor living in ancient and ramshackle houses alongside the Fleet. At the time, Punch was full of jokes about slum dwellers gleefully leasing out their cellars for the trains, but – in fact – these houses were demolished and only the landlords got any compensation. It would be many years before anyone showed concern about dispossessed tenants, although one journalist, John Hollingshead, wrote more imaginatively – “the ancient ways upon which our forefathers stood, made bargains, drank, feasted, and trained their children, are to be deserted, closed, built upon, transformed or utterly destroyed… plastered over with the bills of some authorised auctioneer to be sold as ‘old rubbish’… carted off in a hundred wagons leaving not a trace behind.”

Most of the criticism of the line, before it opened, centred on the issue of smoke. Surely, it was said, people would be asphyxiated in the tunnels, and chemists’ shops along the route would be besieged by white-facing, gasping travellers seeking restoratives? There was also a more fundamental criticism of digging down into the earth, traditionally regarded as the domain of the Underworld. Even some clergymen joined in this fear, suggesting that the Almighty might be minded to punish both railway developers and users for such feckless, Devil-tempting behaviour. And when a shored-up embankment gave way near Farringdon six months before the line was due to open, spewing out Fleet waters mixed with dead bodies from a pauper graveyard, the religious constituency felt entirely justified.

However, once more money was raised, the line opened almost on time, ran without a hitch and was a success with customers from the beginning. The Illustrated London News wrote – “the tunnels, instead of being close, dark, damp and offensive, are wide, spacious, clean and luminous, and more like a well-kept street at night than a subterranean passage.”

London took the Metropolitan line to its heart and, within a couple of years, the network was expanding – into what became the Circle line round inner London, and eastwards to Moorgate and Liverpool St on the same trajectory that Crossrail is taking today. It also linked up with the London, Chatham & Dover line, London’s first ever railway, via an obtrusive viaduct across Ludgate Hill obscuring the view of St Paul’s – the viaduct remained there till 1990. The City fathers do not seem to have realised that by keeping railway stations at a distance from the sacred heart of the capital they might be creating other eyesores.

Charles Pearson died just before his great project opened but, if he came back now, I think he would be delighted to see that his dream of a central interchange is at last being realised in Farringdon. For a long time, it was an old-fashioned and little-regarded station on an ageing minor line, with buddleia sprouting from its sooty walls as if the Fleet river were trying to reclaim its lost bed. Farringdon Station has doubled in size to carry the Elizabeth Line as well as the north-south railway line through London to Brighton, offering a direct route to five different international airports – Stansted & Luton in the north, City Airport to the east, Gatwick in the south and Heathrow in the west. The narrow rabbit-hole really has turned into Wonderland, of a kind.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground tapped into the fascination with subterrannea

The Fleet seen from the back of the Red Lion

Back of the Red Lion seen from the Fleet

Works on the Fleet tunnel February 1862

Collapse of the Fleet tunnel, June 1862

The first trip on the Underground, 1863

The railway viaduct that obstructed the view of St Paul’s Cathedral until 1990


You may also like to take a look at

Bob Mazzer on the Underground

Phil Maxwell on the Underground

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 25, 2022

    Fascinating, including the illustrations. As a child growing up in Chelsea through the 1950s, they were so much part of my life, although rarely rode on one. Saw Sloane Square Station daily as I went to school or to Church on a Sunday, and South Ken whenever I visited the Museums with my older siblings. Just took them for granted back then, the same as Red buses which I also rarely rode on.

  2. Arvind Pradhan permalink
    January 1, 2023

    Excellent history of London. Ms Tindall has supreme talent of making urban history so interesting. Since I read her City of Gold, actually many times, I have become a fan of hers.

    It is my project to read all her books.

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