The Underground Railway in Victorian London

David L. Pike, American University

When the first urban underground railway was proposed by Charles Pearson for London in 1843, inspired by Brunel's Thames Tunnel (which opened that same year), it was roundly ridiculed. Among other possibilities, Pearson proposed “a majestic eight-track 'covered way'--which he imagined as a cheerful arcade--running the length of the Fleet Valley from King's Cross to Holborn-Cheapside”. (Traffic congestion and insalubrious slums were to be eliminated in the same movement. Early opposition to the plan invoked mythic, social, and material versions of underground space.  Doctor Cumming took the theological aproach: “Why not build an overhead Railway? . . . It's better to wait for the Devil than to make roads down into Hell.” Punch dubbed the proposal “The Sewer Railway” and imagined the tunnels running past the cellars of respectable houses, delivering coal, much too close for comfort (Trench and Hillman, 131-32).  Henry Mayhew was more indulgent, “smil[ing] at the earnestness with which he [Pearson] advocated his project for girdling London round with one long drain-like tube, from one end of the metropolis to the other” (Ibid. 131).  The need for new urban transport was acknowledged, but the representational forms did not yet exist to make any significant portion of the public comfortable with it.  As Sir Joseph Paxton, architectof the Crystal Palace, commented in his proposal for a ground-level alternative to the Underground, “People, I find, will never go much above the ground, and they will never go under ground; they always like to keep as much as possible in the ordinary course in which they have been going.”

The Thames Tunnel had proved that Paxton was partially wrong: the middle-class Londoner was quite willing to go underground in the capacity of a tourist in search of a novel sight.  Early depictions of the Metropolitan look very similar to those of the Thames Tunnel; borrowing the conventional iconography, they promised stations “open, or covered with a glass roof” or “commodious, airy, and well-lighted with gas,” as in the illustration of the Baker-street station, hich shortens the platforms to the length of a drawing-room, inhabits them with well-dressed men and women decorously arranged in scattered groups, shows a bright exit light at the end of the tunnel, and sketches in the locomotive on the scale of a model train.  As with the Thames Tunnel, however, the cut-away view equally stresses the subterranean character of this space, although here it is only a short and civilized staircase that separates the station from the street above. The respectable Londoner, it was thought, would never venture underground unless persuaded that it was a safe and familiar space. Paxton was correct as regarded everyday behavior; the middle-class Londoner still considered the underground in general as the province either of a separate population of persons habitually suited to it, whether workers or criminals, or of a hidden infrastructure not suitable for any persons at all.

What is striking is how quickly, once it was finally built, the Metropolitan Railway was assimilated into the urban imagination of London, especially given the myriad discomforts of its first decades. While the nearly ten million persons carried during the first year of its opening in 1863 could be attributed to the same technological novelty that led so many visitors to Brunel's tunnel, the numbers steadily increased, and the system was rapidly expanded. As we are informed by an aside in John Galsworthy's novel The Man of Property (1906) about 1887 London, “(. . . everyone today went Underground)” (269). The early railways cloaked their novelty in classical garb, remaining firmly nineteenth-century in their public presentation of industrial technology.  The new locomotives were given mythological names: “Jupiter, Mars, Juno, Mercury, Apollo, Medusa, Orion, Pluto, Minerva, Cerberus, Latona, Cyclops, Daphne, Dido, Aurora, Achilles, Ixion, and Hercules” (Barker & Robbins, 124).  The necessity of using steam locomotion until electrification at the turn of the century made the experience smoky, noisy, suffocating, and malodorous.  Control was not wholly taken over the environment until the 1920s and '30s, when filtered, ozonized air was injected into the system (Trench & Hilllman, 147).  As the poet John Betjeman described it in retrospect, the Central Line, “was . . . regarded as a sort of health resort, because it was ventilated by the Ozonair system, which was meant to smell like the sea, and certainly did smell of something.” In the fifty years before that movement to a sanitized underground, the discomfort was tolerated just as it was in the streets above.

The discomforts were readily admitted, but made no difference to the trains' popularity. An entry from R. D. Blumenfeld's Diary from 23 June 1887 stressed the atmospheric nightmare of the underground journey:

I had my first experience of Hades to-day, and if the real thing is to be like that I shall never again do anything wrong. I got into the Underground railway at Baker Street. I wanted to go to Moorgate Street in the City. . . . The compartment in which I sat was filled with passengers who were smoking pipes, as is the British habit, and as the smoke and sulphur from the engine filled the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the oil lamp above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat. I should think these Underground railways must soon be discontinued, for they are a menace to health.
While probably an accurate depiction of the state of the Underground, Blumenfeld's description equally adapts the common trope of the infernal industrial city to this new space. The same trope could also be applied humorously, as in the 1891 burlesque, Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the poet, now a suburban jingle-writer, makes the trip by Underground into “Little Hades,” changing lines at “Baking Street.”  The pun compresses the infernal comparison and the literal reality of Blumenfeld's account into the name of the station.

In the eyes of Galsworthy's omniscient narrator, the same experience resembled the detour through a derelict arcade. Soames Forsyte embarks at Sloane Square, with his fellow passengers, “bolting like rabbits to their burrows. . . . And these shadowy figures, wrapped each in his own little shroud of fog, took no notice of each other. In the great warren, each rabbit for himself, especially those clothed in the more expensive fur, who, afraid of carriages on foggy days, are driven underground” (266-67).  In another well-used trope, fog describes both exterior and psychological space; the underground may provide shelter from the one but not from the other.

Such a perspective from above incorporated the Underground into the metaphorical framework of the infernal city; other voices employed the same trope to protest from below against the ramifications of the increasing exploitation of the space beneath the city. One critic complained of the new “Railway Mania” that “London is to be burrowed through and through like a rabbit-warren, and its main thoroughfares and rivers bridged over in every direction . . . . If London is to be cut up in such style, London will have to move elsewhere” (qtd. Barker & Robbins, 148). Unlike Galsworthy's inclusive use of the natural image of the warren, this critic sees the warren as a nuisance threatening the stability of the human-occupied ground above.  Modernization meant a stratified city; the backward-looking thinker could only conceive of London in horizontal fashion. The playwright and novelist George Sims, for example, saw in the Underground a new source for the mysteries of which Modern London (ca. 1906), like its Victorian predecessor, continued to be full:

The series of diabolical crimes in the East End which appalled the world were committed by a horrible maniac who led the ordinary life of a free citizen.  He rode in tramcars and omnibusses. He travelled to Whitechapel by the underground railway, often late at night. Probably on several occasions he had but one fellow-passenger in the compartment with him, and that may have been a woman.  Imagine what the feelings of those travellers would have been had they known that they were alone in the dark tunnels of the Underground with Jack the Ripper!
The modern devil rides the Underground, but he is now disguised as a commuter, leading “the ordinary life of a free citizen.” He is neither high, singled out by his carriage, nor low, distinguished by his disreputable appearance. If the Underground sanitized the underworld, colonizing it for the world above, it equally gave birth to a new underworld, all the more pernicious for being unrecognizable as such.  No longer as clearly marked as the traditional urban underground--sewers, arches, rookeries, dens--the Tube was instead, like its newly adapted denizens, a potentially duplicitous space.  Note that in order to render it as a sinister space, Sims has recourse to a contemporary strategy, that quintessential trope of the turn-of-the-centuries urban mysteries, the uncannily empty city. The Underground Railway literalizes the image of the empty city; the innocuous passenger beside one is cast in the image of one of Feuillade's serial Vampires, ready to strike at any moment out of the most harmless of appearances.

The Underground Railway is the only thing that was new in Sims's rather tired collection of tropes of urban mysteries; it provides a framework for his rational, documentary approach to the turn-of-the-century city, “the romance of reality.” In a passage soon to be echoed by the German sociologist, Georg Simmel, Sims observed that, “In the 'buses and the trams and the trains the silent passengers sit side by side, and no man troubles about his neighbour. But the mysteries of modern London are represented in the crowded vehicle and in the packed compartment” 11). Such encounters are threatening only by night; by day they provide the thrill of brushing directly against the faits divers of the day's papers.  Sims reported leaving the Old Bailey, getting into a third-class carriage at Farringdon Street, and recognizing the two women sitting nearby:

No one took any notice of them. But what objects of interest they would have been to the other passengers had the identity of one of them been known! She was the affianced wife of a young man who had that day been condemned to death for the barbarous murder of the woman to whom he was already married. The girl who was sitting with her mother in the crowded compartment of the Metropolitan Railway had just parted with the man who had murdered another woman to make her his wife, and had that day been sent to the gallows.(11)
This could just as easily have been a crowded city square or omnibus in the Victorian city, but it is significant that Sims chose the Metropolitan as setting for both of his anecdotes. Until the inclusion of advertising and subway maps, there was nothing else to look at in the Underground except the passengers. The first tube train, the Central& South London Railway (1890), did not even include a pretence of windows; hence the coaches' nickname of “padded cells.” The underground continued to be defined as what one could see, but instead of the hidden spaces of the metropolis, it was the hidden interiors of the apparently blank and empty spaces around one that either frightened, intrigued or went wholly unnoticed.

The fantasy of the empty city reflects the emptying out of both its literal and its metaphorical undergrounds, its sources of disease as well as of difference.  The Underground replaced one type of underground space--the space of poverty, slums, crime--with another--a space increasingly sanitized and middle-class.  As Passingham put it in 1932, the Underground Railway destroyed “Dickens' London” and replaced it with the garden cities in the suburbs (32). It was the most effective instrument of Metropolitan Improvement thus far.  The likely demographic effects of the construction of the Underground Railway had been remarked from the beginning.  The Rev. William Denton, vicar of St. Bartholomew's in Cripplegate, published a pamphlet entitled Observations on the Displacement of the Poor by Metropolitan Railways and Other Public Improvements (1861), where he argued that investors were particularly enamoured of the project because, “the line will pass only through inferior property, that is through a densely peopled district, and will destroy the abode of the powerless and the poor, whilst it will avoid the properties of those whose opposition is to be dreaded - the great employers of labour” (qtd. Trench & Hillman, 139). The Underground displaced the lower depths from representational space just as it did from the physical space they occupied in the city. Where they did remain in force, it was in ever more exposed positions, as in the multitude that crowded the benches of the newly completed Embankment Gardens each night.

Whereas the earlier mystery may have required a slight movement in space, Sims's version necessitated only the purchase of a third-class ticket.  As there was less and less of any real distinction between one sort of space and another, the Underground Railway asserted its character as an above-ground space by equating itself with the main-line railroads, separating its passengers into various classes. This was not enough, however, since the Underground wasurban and short-range, and hence theoretically open to all manner of people. Special third-class, “workers'” trains were run early in the morning and late at night (Bobrick 102). Doréincluded an engraving of such a scene, sketched at Wapping Station, at the entrance to theconverted Thames Tunnel, in London: A Pilgrimage, as part of his thesis of the separation of London into two cities. The workers appear hunched and anonymous; while the lights and indication signs denote a normal space, the omnipresent round hats and uniform character connote a factory train or, more likely, a giant mining train. But physical separation was in fact more difficult than Doré portrayed it to be, as workers tended to accumulate in the station in anticipation of the late night return train, “in such large numbers and were such a constant source of annoyance by expectorating all over the station and smoking very much with short black pipes,” complained one contemporary, “that we felt we had far better let them go home” (qtd. in Barker & Robbins, 118). It became progressively more difficult to maintain that there was anything but a superficial difference between Doré's automata-miners and Galsworthy's rabbits in their warren; only the price of the ticket and the wrapping of a “more expensive fur” allowed one space to be distinguished from the other. The numbingly inclusive postwar phrases of middle-class monotony, “Métro boulot métro dodo” and “Tube work tube bed,” were already present many decades earlier in all but name.

The low-level Tube railways, emerging into the turn-of-the-century city and wholly underground in specialized carriages, took a different strategy than the earlier, cut-and-cover Underground lines. As Eric Banton wrote in the article, “Underground Travelling London,” in Sims's four-volume compendium, Living London (1901), the “tube railways have revolutionized the Londoner's idea of railway travelling.” Banton put a positive spin on the leveling effect of the Tube. Rather than a negative experience for the “retiring man, looking for an empty carriage,” the roomy, forty or fifty-person subway cars had taught him “to tolerate the presence of his fellow creatures” (62-3). The City magnate, rather than upset with the single-class Tube trains, had learned to mingle with the hoi polloi, assuaged by “the cheapness of the fares” (63); the Central Line had rapidly taken on the nickname of “Tupenny Tube.”  Conversely, “The office boy, finding that hese trains have no third-class carriages, has sat down in great content beside the City magnate, and still the heavens do not fall!” (63).  Rather than stress their resemblance to the nineteenth-century surface transport and customs, as with the Victorian underground, the Tube trains were presented as something desirable--cheap, safe, efficient--and their underground nature stressed as utopian instead of threatening--the image of a future in which social distinctions would no longer exist. It is a mild and sanitized utopia, bereft of any threat of real change. The vision of toleration went no further than the ability of the different classes to sit beside one another without the heavens falling; by contrast, the old-fashioned underground had always been predicated on the fact that the fall of the heavens was either imminent or had already occurred.

The same space that regimented the daily routine--the City magnate, the office boy--still offeredthe traditionally liberating space of the underground to those not subject to that routine. Just as Sims could find himself next to the lover of a condemned man or even Jack the Ripper himself, the same carriages that shuttled commuters endlessly back and forth could contain in their seats other passengers on a different itinerary.  The poet, John Betjeman, for example, devoted his school holidays between 1916 and 1921 (ages 10 to 15) to the goal of memorizing the entire system. Rose Macaulay's novel, Told by an Idiot (1923), described the possibility of endless amusement offered by the perpetual motion of the Circle Line. While most passengers would probably view such a possibility as nothing short of infernal, for Imogenand Tony, Macaulay's pair of young teenagers, it constitutes a liberation of the magination:

They knew what they meant to do.  They were going to have their money's worth, and far more than their money's worth, of underground travelling. Round and round and round and all for a penny fare.... This was a favourite occupation of theirs, a secret, morbid vice. They indulged it at least twice every holidays.  The whole family had used to do it, but all but these two had outgrown it. . .
Sloane Square. Two penny fares. Down the stairs into the delicious, romantic, cool valley. The train thundered in. Inner Circle its style. A half empty compartment; there was small run on the underground this lovely August Sunday. . .
And so on, past King's Cross and Farringdon Street, towards the wild, romantic stations of the east: Liverpool Street, Aldgate, and so round the bend, sweeping west like the sun. Blackfriars, Temple, Charing Cross, Westminster, St. James's Park, Victoria, SLOANE SQUARE. O joy! Sing for the circle completed, the new circle begun.
“Where great whales come sailing by,
Sail and sail with unshut eye,
Round the world for ever and aye.
Round the merry world again. Put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. Round and round and round. What a pennyworth! You can't buy much on an English Sunday, but if you can buy eternal travel, Sunday is justified.
The shared experience transforms the underground railway into a microcosm of the world. The idiosyncracy of the “secret, morbid vice,” the slight thrill of illicitness, the necessity to change cars when the conductor begins eyeing them after they have exceeded the limit allowed by their ticket, remind us that the traditionally utopian underground space is always represented as contrary to the norms of the world above.  Although the world above was extending itself rapidly into the world below in the 1920s, it remained susceptible to the imaginative practice of détournement.

One would expect the excursion on the Circle Line to have been difficult to enjoy to this degree before the electrification of the Underground in 1905, but Macaulay sets this journey in 1901, and implies that in earlier years, when the Inner Circle was more novel (it was completed in 1884), the circuit had appealed to the entire family, and not just its youngest representatives. By 1901, however, the now mature Phyllis prefers the Central Line, “It's cleaner. . . . It takes you where you want to get to; that's the object of a train” (200). If the representation of women in other fiction of the time is any indication, Phyllis may not have been entirely truthful in her assertion of “the object of a train.”  In many novels of society, the Underground figures as a slightly risqué--and consequently alluring--space for the woman with a reputation to uphold. In Anthony Trollope's words in The Way We Live Now (1875), “That afternoon Hetta trusted herself all alone to the mysteries of the Marylebone underground railway, and emerged with accuracy at King's Cross.”  The Underground inaugurates a rare descent into subterranean space in Henry James's oeuvre in his short novel, A London Life (1898). The visiting American, Laura Wing, agrees to allow an English acquaintance to take her on a tour of London:

Mr. Wendover called for his cicerone and they agreed to go in a romantic, Bohemian manner (the young man was very docile and appreciative about this), walking the short distance to the Victoria Station and taking the mysterious underground railway.  In the carriage she anticipated the inquiry that she figured to herself he presently would make and said, laughing, “No, no, this is very exceptional; if we were both English - and both what we are, otherwise - we wouldn't do this.”
The ironic tone should not distract the reader from the fact that the Underground journey in fact initiates Laura into a new perspective on life, including the discovery that her sister is conducting an illicit affair. It is a properly genteel way, in other words, to introduce another stratum of London life into the propriety of the society novel.

A similar scene in H. G. Wells's 1909 novel of a milieu at the other, lower extreme of the middle classes, Tono-Bungay, paints a most likely more realistic portrait:

One night I was privileged to meet her [Marion] and bring her home from an entertainment at the Birkbeck Institute. We came back on the underground railway and we travelled first-class - that being the highest class available.  We were alone in the carriage, and for the first time I ventured to put my arm about her.
“You mustn't,” she said feebly.
“I love you,” I whispered suddenly with my heart beating wildly, drew her to me, drew all her beauty to me and kissed her cool and unresisting lips.
“Love me?” she said, struggling away from me, “Don't!” and then, as the train ran into a station, “You must tell no one. . . . I don't know. . . . You shouldn't have done that. . . .”
Then two other people got in with us and terminated my wooing for a time. (107)
The first-class Underground could be simultaneously a space of propriety and one of transgression, by turn private and public.  There is, however, nothing particularly subterranean about the scene Wells gives here; it could as easily have occurred in a deserted street, a drawing room, or an empty restaurant. As in the case of James's pair, this couple is struggling not with a threshold encounter with something alien, but with its own middle-class values.

The London Underground found a ready place in high and middle-brow literature from the outset, from Trollope and James to Ford, Galsworthy, Wells, and Shaw.  In later years, it found its artist in Henry Moore's Tube-shelter sketches and its poet in Betjeman. As perhaps the most celebrated public works project in a city notorious for its laissez-faire urban development, it was an important symbolic representation for the world's largest city.  Moreover, as opposed to the sewers, it was completed long before the all-important Parisian competition, the first proposals for which also date from 1843, but for which no agreement could be mustered until the last years of the century.  The construction of the Underground within the rapidly changing space of the 1860s was partly responsible for the easy entry of the system into the symbolic vocabulary of London culture. Like the Thames Tunnel in London, and like the arcades in both cities, the London Underground mixed old and new architectural forms and technologies in such a way that the Metropolitan and District Lines impressed themselves immediately into the experience of the inhabitants as simultaneously necessary and novel. By the end of the century the novelty had worn off, and, as the reactions of Macaulay's family suggest, it is quite possible that, if they had not been themselves been electrified in 1905, the two lines, along with the Inner Circle formed by them, would have disappeared, faced with the competition from the new, electrified tube-trains (Howson, 20).

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