London Underground: History of the world’s oldest underground railway

London Underground - A 1938 carriage. Credit: TFL from the London Transport Museum Collection
London Underground - A 1938 carriage. Credit: TFL from the London Transport Museum Collection

Rush hour in London is a hectic affair, so why not take time out to explore the history of the world’s oldest and most famous underground network? 


London’s Underground railway is not only the oldest system of its kind, it’s also the world’s most famous. The Tube, as it’s also known, travels both geographically and metaphorically right into the heart of London, through its soil and its soul. More than just a way of getting around the capital, it is also a symbol of the city.

When was the London Underground built?

The first line from Paddington to Farringdon opened in 1863. It was the brainchild of Charles Pearson, who perhaps deserves the same level of fame as that other Victorian railway genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The tunnel was a cut-and-cover affair where ground was scraped out and then a top put back on for the street to run over. The trains ran just below the surface and, even today, if you’re in basements near the line you can feel the rumble of trains below your feet. Those original trains were, incredibly, driven by steam – the stodgy air and piquant smell would engulf the tunnels. The original point of this Metropolitan Railway was to link the mainline railway termini of London that ran lines north – Euston, St Pancras, King’s Cross – and then push on towards the City to allow commuters to reach their workplaces.

When were the first electric trains?

Electric trains followed and so did deep level ‘tube’ tunnels from which the system got its nickname. The City and South London was the first, running from Bank down towards Stockwell in south London and passing safely below the River Thames. At the turn
of the 20th century, American financier Charles Yerkes came to London to put his mark on the system, grouping some of the private companies that ran lines into the Underground Electric Railways Company of London.

In the 1930s London Transport took over – a public organisation that would manage and run the entire system for the good of Londoners rather than profit, and this arrangement continues to this day. Massive expansion took place under the leadership of Frank Pick, with new Piccadilly, Central and Metropolitan line stations to serve (and in some cases create) new suburbs. The Tube expanded the city’s reach – the new northwestern suburbs in the bordering counties of Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Hertfordshire were even christened ‘Metro-land’.

Who designed the London Underground map?

Design became a way to unify the Tube and brand it for a modern world. Charles Holden designed many of the new stations, including the spellbinding Southgate with its electrical conductor sculpture on the roof, and the clean concrete lines of Cockfosters, 30 years ahead of its time. Many other Underground stations, including Piccadilly Circus and Baker Street, are design classics, and protected as listed buildings. Top artists of the era designed posters for London Transport, such as Man Ray – whose vision of the LT logo as a planet debuted in 1938. Harry Beck, meanwhile, was an electrical draughtsman who dreamt up the clean, simple lines of the Underground’s famous map, which came out in 1933.

World War Two and the London Underground

The Tube was also where Cockneys sheltered from the Luftwaffe’s bombs during the Second World War. In the 1960s the Victoria Line was built as a fast, automated new line through London and, in 1999, the Jubilee Line extension opened, giving the city a high-tech Tube line that stretched east into Docklands and featured an array of architecturally interesting new stations, such as the ones at West Ham and Bermondsey.

Today, 1.34 billion journeys are made annually on the London Underground’s 402km of track. Every day you’ll find it packed with commuters during the morning and evening rush hours – more than 95 million passengers use Waterloo Station every year alone. But the beauty of the system remains – if you look for it.

London Transport Museum

A great place to do this is at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, where you can see vintage carriages, posters and paraphernalia, before taking tea in the café on seats upholstered with retro Tube seat fabric. The London Transport Museum Depot in Acton, meanwhile, also hosts two open weekends every year, in March and September, during which fascinating artefacts and old trains can be glimpsed.

Harry Beck's Underground Map. Credit: TFL from the London Transport Museum Collection
Harry Beck’s Underground Map. Credit: TFL from the London Transport Museum Collection