January 10th – Mind the Gap! The London Underground opens for the public

The famous London Underground roundel

The famous London Underground roundel

On this day in 1863, the London Underground, then known as the Metropolitan Railway, opened for the first time to the public. The ‘Underground’ or ‘the Tube’ is oldest operating subway system in the world, well ahead of New York City (1868 elevated, 1904 underground) and Paris (1900). An icon of London, the Underground is as evocative as the Big Ben or double decker buses of the British capital.

As the centre of the burgeoning British Empire, there was a desire amongst city planners to alleviate the chaotic traffic that existed on London’s roads. In 1854, a decision was made to construct the ‘Metropolitan Railway’, linking various railway stations together (Paddington Station/Bishop’s Road –> Edgware Road –> Baker Street –> Portland Road –> Gower Street –> King’s Cross Station –> Farringdon Street), at a total length of 6 km.

By the end of 1862, work was completed on the Metropolitan Railway, at a cost of £1.3 million. On January 10th, 1863, the Metropolitan Railway was opened to the public to great fanfare. On the opening day, 38000 passengers were carried on the system. By the end of the year, 9.5 million passengers were carried, and by two years, 12 million passengers. Over time the underground railway network would expand from the original 6 km track to become the London Underground that we know today.

Here are some interesting facts about the London Underground and its history:

  • The first subway trains moving on the Metropolitan Railway

    The first subway trains moving on the Metropolitan Railway

    The first trains running on the system in 1863 were powered by steam. Powered by coal, it made for smoky journeys underground. The first electric train began running in 1890, however steam-powered trains remained in use until the 1960s!

  • Prime Minister Gladstone’s funeral procession went through the London Underground. Following Gladstone’s death in 1898, many called for a public funeral to be arranged on his behalf. Gladstone’s coffin was moved through the London Underground on a train towards Westminster Abbey, with Edward VII and George V serving as honorary pallbearers. It is fitting that Gladstone took the Underground to his own funeral, as Gladstone was one of the first individuals to ride on the system (1862), before the Underground opened for the public.
  • The London Underground system served as a massive air-raid shelter for Londoners during the Blitz (1940-41) by the German Luftwaffe. Thousands of Londoners would descend into the Underground at night, leading officials to install bunk-beds in the Tube and handing out numbered tickets to the system to prevent overcrowding. Trains would continue to run as Londoners sought shelter, some even delivering food and tea to those seeking shelter. Underground lines not used during the Second World War were converted to factories for aircraft production, and even storage space for precious items evacuated from the British Museum!
  • Some icons of the London Underground came about through the system’s history. The famous red circle roundel first appeared in 1908, the Tube Map (based on electrical circuits, originally deemed too radical for Londoners to comprehend) in 1933, and the “Mind the Gap” warning first heard on trains in 1968.
  • For a look at the London Underground through its 151 years of existence, take a look at this collection of photographs documenting the Tube’s history. Fascinating! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/picturegalleries/9791007/The-history-of-the-Tube-in-pictures-150-years-of-London-Underground.html
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