What Was It like to Ride the Victorian London Underground?

History Hit

2 mins

30 Oct 2018

The City and South London Railway, the world’s first deep-level underground “tube” railway and the first electric traction railway opened on 4 November 1890. The new line ran through two tunnels, serving six stations over a length of 3.2 miles between the City of London and Stockwell.

The Tube – Victorian style

The Metropolitan Railway became the world’s first underground railway when it opened between Bishop’s Road (Paddington) and Farringdon Street in 1863. It was built using the “cut and cover” method where a deep trench is dug and the tunnel built in to it before being covered over.

A picture of a City & South London Railway train from the Illustrated London News, 8 November 1890.

The City and South London Railway was excavated using a tunnelling shield, as proposed by South African engineer James Henry Greathead. The tunnelling shield protected workers while they dug out and supported the tunnels using pre-cut sections of tunnel wall. This method was first developed in 1818 by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel used a tunnelling shield in the construction of the Thames Tunnel in 1825.

Given the difficulty of providing sufficient ventilation for the deep-level tunnels, the use of steam locomotives to haul trains was unfeasible. Instead Greathead initially intended to use a cable haulage system to pull the carriages through the tunnels. But when the Patent Cable Tramway Corporation went bankrupt in 1888 electric traction became the favoured method. The carriages would be pulled by electric locomotives powered through a third rail supplied by a generating station at Stockwell.

“Padded cells”

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Each train comprised of three carriages, each capable of carrying thirty-two passengers. For the first time, passengers would not be split into First and Second Class but all ride together. The carriages were designed with small, thin windows located high up. What could there be to look at in a tunnel? But passengers found them claustrophobic and referred to them as “padded cells”.

The railway was officially opened by Edward, Prince of Wales (Edward VII), by switching on the electric current using a golden key. In its first year, 5.1 million passengers used the new line.

The City and South London line was extended several times and today forms the Bank Branch of the Northern Line.

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