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Working the London Underground: from 1863 to 2013
By Ben Pedroche
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Ben Pedroche
All rights reserved.
CONGESTION, CUTTINGS AND COVERS
The problem of congestion on London's streets in the mid-nineteenth century was the result of a huge swell in population, and the success of the City of London as the financial capital of the British Empire. The roads and passageways in and around the City were packed with commuters. The wealthier workers arrived via the various new railway terminus stations. The poor tended to live on the outskirts of the Square Mile, in some of London's most notorious Victorian slums.
The mainline railways had connected other parts of the country to London, but restrictions on building lines directly through the metropolis meant there was no way of travelling across central London and on to the City. London's first generation of commuters was therefore required to walk or use early forms of public transport such as horse-drawn cab. There were many different proposals put forward for how the problem could be solved. Many were frivolous, and almost all were outlandish. Ideas included a proposal by Joseph Paxton, engineer of the Crystal Palace, who designed plans for an elevated railway enclosed inside a glass arcade.
Another of the novelty ideas was an atmospheric-powered railway proposed in 1845 by a man named Charles Pearson. A solicitor by trade, Pearson had a vision that a new inner-city railway could have a far deeper social benefit for the people of London than simply providing a quicker way from A to B.
Building a new railway, Pearson argued, would mean that people would no longer need to live close to where they worked, in cramped and dirty streets. His proposal was to connect many of London's railway termini via a new line that would allow commuters to interchange between the two and therefore travel directly to their place of work from further afield. Building the railway would also be a chance to clear slum areas, as they would no longer be needed.
It was a noble idea, but one that failed to gain much interest. Investors could see the potential of connecting the mainline stations, but Pearson's social reforms held little sway with the profit-driven mentality of the moneymen. Railway building in central London would also be problematic, requiring huge disruption and heavy costs involved with having to buy land and offer compensation to property owners. It was for these reasons that parliament had previously passed legislation blocking any such railways, and that the mainline stations tended to merely circle the outskirts of the city.
Pearson was able to solve all such potential problems with his revised solution. He now proposed that his new railway should instead be constructed below ground. It was perhaps the most eccentric of all the proposals so far, but in fact made perfect sense. Building at the sub-surface level would avoid major disruption above ground, and therefore avoid the restrictions on building railways through the centre of London and in the City.
The concept again failed to gain investors, but Pearson was able to attract the attention of some of the mainline railway companies, who could see the potential for increasing their own passenger numbers.
After several years of appealing to investors, and the lengthy process involved in gaining the necessary powers, the new railway was finally approved in 1858. It was to be known as the Metropolitan Railway (MR), and would become the first of its type anywhere in the world.
CONSTRUCTING THE METROPOLITAN: THE WORLD'S FIRST UNDERGROUND RAILWAY
With the finances obtained and permission to build the railway officially granted, attention turned instead towards how exactly the world's first underground railway would be built. It was a radical new concept with little in the way of any previous engineering project to learn from. Pearson's visionary plan for a sub-surface railway was innovative, but it would be nothing without a solid plan for how to design and construct it.
What was needed was an engineer capable of making it a reality, and the man selected for the job was Yorkshireman John Fowler. He had earned the respect of his peers through his work on several major railway construction projects across the country, but his employment in 1853 as chief engineer for the Metropolitan Railway was to be the defining achievement of his long and distinguished career.
Fowler was the driving force behind the decision to build the new railway using a method known as 'cut-and-cover', which had many distinct advantages. The basic concept was simple but effective. The railway would be constructed by digging up main roads, so that a trench could be built under them (the cut). The tracks would be laid inside the trenches, with the walls supported by brick. Once built, the trenches would then be roofed-over, and the road rebuilt on top (the cover). Stations would also be built along the route, either within the cuttings or above them.
Although there were genuine tunnels already in existence in London well before the 1860s (see later section), it was far from a perfected construction method. Cut-and-cover would mean that Fowler's railway would only need to go a shallow distance below the surface, without having to venture too deep into the underworld.
The biggest advantage of cut-and-cover was that the route of the railway could simply follow the direction of major roads, in particular parts of the New Road. Originally a turnpike opened in 1756 from Paddington to Moorgate; the section followed by the new railway is today the Marylebone Road and Euston Road.
Knowing that there would be nothing but a road above their chosen route allowed the railway to avoid having to purchase large areas of land in order to demolish existing buildings that would need to be cleared. It would be necessary for the route to leave the path of the New Road after King's Cross and on towards Farringdon, but it was still the most cost-effective method overall.
The next task was to tender contractors suitable to manage such a large job, and to deliver the construction on schedule and budget. The decision about whom to hire was left in the hands of John Parson, whom Fowler had made construction manager.
Two different companies were selected in 1859: the section from Paddington to Euston Square would be handled by a firm named Smith & Knight. The part of the route between Euston Square and Farringdon would be the responsibility of a contractor named John Jay.
A LIFE OF TOIL: THE HARD-WORKING NAVVIES
With the engineer in place, the cut-and-cover method opted for and the contractors hired, it was time to find the workers that would be needed to build London's first underground railway. It would be a mammoth task, demanding the use of hundreds if not thousands of men.
Fortunately for the owners of the Metropolitan Railway, there was a particular breed of labourer that could be relied upon for such a job; an infamous workforce usually referred to collectively as 'navvies'.
History tends to remember the great individuals who engineered the nation's railways, but the navvies have mostly been forgotten, despite the huge impact they had. They were a people with a long heritage of constructing the railway network across London and the whole of Britain, taking on the back-breaking work involved with laying miles of track, building bridges and tunnels, all while living with their entire families in squalid conditions.
The term 'navvy' derived from the word navigator, which itself was used to describe those who worked on navigable canals across the country, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Navvies had built the nation's canal system virtually by hand, including London's own Regent's Canal.
These huge gangs of men were willing to settle wherever there was work. Then, when the job was done, they would simply up sticks and move on to wherever else they were needed. It's estimated that more than 200,000 navvies worked across Britain in the nineteenth century, mostly agricultural labourers from Ireland and Scotland, or tin miners from rural Cornwall.
When the mainline railways arrived en masse in the 1840s, and with the work on the canal system largely complete, the navvies were able to serve the major railway companies as a ready-made workforce that could be used to construct their various new lines.
The appeal was obvious for both sides. For the navvies, railway construction was regular work and surprisingly well paid for the time. For the railway companies, the navvies satisfied a demand for huge amounts of manpower that could be exploited by the offer of a generous but still relatively cheap rate.
The navvies were also fearless, paying little regard to the common dangers involved with building a railway. The railway companies therefore didn't feel obliged to provide the men with accommodation, basic facilities or even safe working conditions. There would also be no compensation payouts for injuries or deaths suffered on the job. For the average hard-working navvy, the dangerous nature of the jobs they were employed to do was nothing more than an occupational hazard and a risk worth taking.
When time came for construction on the Metropolitan Railway to begin in 1860, the navvies were the perfect solution to how the company could go about completing the huge job of digging up London's roads and building a railway underneath them.
Taking into consideration the fact that this major new project involved the digging of long trenches through clay, it was a job that more closely resembled the canal work undertaken by the first generation of navvies than general railway construction work out in the open.
It would be perhaps naive to suggest, however, that these men were being employed for any specific expertise or engineering prowess. They were there for their brute force and determination for getting the job done. They would be building the new cut-and-cover trenches by hand, using nothing more than simple tools like pickaxes and shovels.
The only major downside a company faced when employing the navvies was the reputation that seemed to follow them around. If these were men that worked hard, then they played even harder, with tales of legendary sessions in local pubs that would usually result in drunken behaviour and fights.
It's likely that the navvies saw this as the only logical way in which to unwind after working all day in such dangerous circumstances, and the decent wage rate also gave them enough spare change to afford it. Whatever the justification, they would often cause havoc whenever they moved to a new area for work, and London didn't escape the mayhem.
In the three years it took to complete the first stretch of the Metropolitan Railway, hundreds of complaints were made to the press by local residents across the city. Later, when the Metropolitan District Railway (MDR)was being constructed, the navvies found themselves working their way through some of London's most affluent areas. Their presence and behaviour was no doubt the cause of much stress for the well-to-do residents of places such as Notting Hill and Kensington.
Work commenced on the 31/2-mile railway in early 1860. The line would run from Paddington to Farringdon (named Farringdon Street on opening), with five stations along the way. Shafts were dug at Paddington, Gower Street (now Euston Square) and King's Cross between January and March. From here, the navvies were able to dig the trenches into which the railway line would sit. It was a labour-intensive task that involved hammering away at the London clay in conditions that were cold, wet and dark. Up to 2,000 navvies worked in two shifts, day and night.
The building process itself involved bricklayers, carpenters, those skilled in working with metal, and various other roles. Contemporary illustrations show men working with the most basic of tools. The cuttings were dug completely by hand, with most of the clay and earth removed by wheelbarrow. Mechanical equipment was sparse, with the only real exception being a series of wooden cranes used for lifting timber, and a basic rig of pulleys that could assist with the removal of soil from the new cuttings. This could then be removed from the site by means of a basic temporary railway.
Away from the various construction sites, there were others hard at work elsewhere in London. There were millions of bricks to manufacture, and timber and iron to be prepared.
The cuttings were dug to a depth of around 16ft below ground. Once each new section of trench had been excavated, its sides were lined with three layers of brick. Timber and iron girders were then used to construct a roof over the cuttings, with extra thickness usually applied for sections of the line directly under roads. The cuttings were built to a width of approximately 28ft, as they needed to be wide enough to accommodate two tracks of mainline railway-sized rolling stock. As a result, even when covered over, the cuttings resembled rectangular boxes rather than the more genuine tunnels that would later come to define most of the Underground network.
In addition to the painstaking work of digging, lining and then covering the trenches, the navvies also had to manoeuvre their way through water mains and gas pipes almost everywhere they dug. Such obstacles often had to be moved and reconfigured entirely, adding delays and further expense to what was already shaping up to be a difficult job.
There was one particular section of the new railway that was required to be built as a conventional railway tunnel however, just after the route deviated from the New Road. King's Cross St Pancras Underground station is today located below the two mainline railway stations in its name. But the original station opened by the Metropolitan Railway was located further east, between what is now Gray's Inn Road and Pentonville Road/King's Cross Road.
Beyond the platforms, much of the new railway cutting was left uncovered, as it was not necessary for a road to be built on top. Just after, below what is now Wharton Street, the navvies constructed the 728-yard-long Clerkenwell Tunnel. Although still built in much the same way as the cutting sections, existing buildings above it were maintained. This not only upped the ante for the workers in terms of danger, but also required some intricate design work from Fowler and his team of engineers.
In 1868, when this section of the railway was widened to allow for better interchange with various mainline railways (see later), the Clerkenwell Tunnel portal close to Farringdon was adapted to include a complicated gridiron structure that allowed the original line to run above two additional tracks after both sets had emerged from the tunnel.
It's interesting to note that today Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City and Circle line trains travel through the original and now disused King's Cross Metropolitan Railway platforms. They are easy to spot from a passing train, and it's also possible to peer through a fence and down onto the platforms from St Chad's Place. More of the open cutting section can also be seen by looking over a brick wall on Swinton Street.
In today's workplace, where health and safety plays a frustrating but necessary part in our working lives, it's hard to imagine just how dangerous building the Underground network could often be for the thousands of men that made it.
History dictates that the navvies were a hardened bunch of men, but accidents were common, and there were several deaths during the three years it took for the Metropolitan Railway to be completed. One particularly horrific incident occurred just a few months into construction in 1860, when two men died as a result of a boiler explosion in one of the steam engines being used to haul wagons full of excavated earth.
Remarkably, there were no deaths at all in perhaps the worst accident during the entire project. Where the line veered away from the New Road after King's Cross, down towards Farringdon, the route instead followed the path of the Fleet Valley. It was formerly home to the infamous and highly polluted Fleet River, which was buried below ground as a primitive sewer in various different stages during the mid-eighteenth century. Working so close to the buried river meant that the workers had to be extra careful when digging cuttings in this area, especially as the new railway was set to cross the former river three times. Disaster struck in 1862 when the sewer walls burst open, causing considerable damage to the Metropolitan's works in Clerkenwell, creating setbacks and the need for much work to be recompleted. A section of the New Road also collapsed during construction, but workers managed to escape serious injury.
After almost three years of delays, financial struggles, accidents and backbreaking work, the new Metropolitan Railway was finally completed in December 1862. It opened for passenger use in January 1863 and was an immediate success, with more than 40,000 Londoners from every different social class experiencing this new Victorian curiosity on its opening day. Charles Pearson had died the previous year, and never got to see his pioneering railway in full service.
THE DISTRICT AND THE INNER CIRCLE RAILWAY
The cut-and-cover method of construction remained in use beyond completion of the first section of the Metropolitan Railway. The relative success of the Metropolitan had resulted in several similar railway proposals, and by 1864 a new company had arrived on the scene: the Metropolitan District Railway, referred to simply as the District.
Excerpted from Working the London Underground: from 1863 to 2013 by Ben Pedroche. Copyright © 2013 Ben Pedroche. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
PART 1 BUILDING THE LONDON UNDERGROUND,
1 Congestion, Cuttings and Covers,
2 Going Deeper: Tunnelling the First Tube Railways,
3 Charles Yerkes and the Twentieth-Century Railway,
4 A New Generation,
5 Modern Challenges and Future Expansion,
PART 2 MAKING THE LONDON UNDERGROUND WORK,
6 Keeping the City Moving,
7 Maintenance and Upgrade,
8 Women on the Underground in Wartime London,
9 Disaster and Triumph,
References and Further Reading,