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People Who Shaped the London Underground

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Since the opening of the world's first underground railway line between Paddington and Farringdon Street on 10 January, 1863, the London Underground has slowly grown and changed to form the sprawling public transport system which exists today. Over this time, many people have helped shape the entity known as the Underground in various ways, and this entry looks at just a few of them.

Marc Brunel and James Greathead

Between 1825 and 1840, Marc Isambard Brunel built the first tunnel under the river Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe, a feat which had previously been thought impossible. However, the tunnel was only accessible through the construction shafts and was rather dank, and so in 1865 the tunnel was bought for use by the East London Railway company, later to become part of the Metropolitan Railway and eventually the East London line. In this way, Brunel actually constructed the oldest part of the London Underground 20 years before the opening of the Metropolitan line between Paddington and Farringdon Street.

Brunel's legacy was actually twofold, as in order to construct his tunnel he collaborated with Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, to create a tunnelling shield. The shield acted as a protective temporary support which was divided into small sections so that the workers could safely dig away at the dangerously unstable rock ahead of them. However, the design was of rectangular shape, and so the tunnels it created were unstable in places and prone to collapse.

Brunel's tunnelling shield was much improved by civil engineers Peter W Barlow and James Henry Greathead when in 1870 they constructed the world's first deep-level tube, the Tower Subway, which for three months ran a cable car service under the Thames between Tower Hill and Vine Street. The new circular design used for the tunnelling shield allowed the tunnel to be completed at a fraction of the cost of Brunel's tunnel. This success began Greathead's long career in deep-level tunnel digging, and he improved on Barlow's design, making it larger and more efficient.

Greathead went on to be the chief engineer of the City & South London Railway, which originally ran between Stockwell to King William Street and was completed in 1890, and now forms part of the Northern line. Before his death in 1896, he also began work on the Central London Railway between Shepherd's Bush and Liverpool Street which now forms part of the Central line. Greathead was also consulted on the construction of the 1898 Waterloo & City Railway, which eventually became part of the London Underground in 1994. The Greathead shield was also used in the construction of the other deep-level Underground lines in London, including the Post Office Railway.

Charles Yerkes

Charles Tyson Yerkes was born in Philadelphia in 1837, and worked his way up from a job as a broker to own his own financial company. He was jailed for bankruptcy when the 1871 Great Chicago Fire led to a financial crash, but moved to Chicago in 1881 after having made his fortune on the stock markets. He became famous in Chicago for battling against the Chicago City Council to improve the city's public transport, but was eventually defeated despite much progress.

Yerkes then moved to London, where he purchased several struggling railway companies and in 1902 formed the Underground Electric Railways of London Company (also known as the Underground Group). The lines involved were:

  • The Metropolitan District Railway - now the District line, this cut and cover line had already expanded to reach from Whitechapel to Ealing Broadway, with the main branches to Wimbledon, Richmond and Edgware Road already in place. After being bought by Yerkes, the line was extended, mainly along existing mainline tracks, to Upminster in the northeast, and to South Harrow in the northwest to join with the Metropolitan line to Uxbridge. The latter line now forms the overground section of the Piccadilly line between South Ealing and Earl's Court.
  • The Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway - unbuilt in 1902, this line was originally planned to be built between Charing Cross and Hampstead, calling at Oxford Street, Euston Road1, Seymour Terrace2, Chalk Farm, Belsize Park and Hampstead. It was eventually built to reach the stations now known as Embankment, Golder's Green and Archway. Application for a side spur from Euston towards St Pancras was rejected, although this branch now exists due to the railway's later integration with City & South London Railway in 1926 to form what is now the Northern line. The railway finally opened in 1907.
  • The Great Northern & Strand Railway and the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway - these were also unbuilt in 1902, and Yerkes combined them to form the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, the basis of what is now the Piccadilly line. The line opened in 1906 between Finsbury Park and Hammersmith, also incorporating the Metropolitan District Railway's unfulfilled plans for a deep level tube between South Kensington and Earl's Court.
  • The Baker Street & Waterloo Railway - this line was also unbuilt in 1902, and was planned to be built from Elephant & Castle to Baker Street. Surprisingly, it opened without any substantial changes to the plans, and now forms the oldest part of the Bakerloo line.

Sadly, Yerkes died in 1905 and did not get to see the completion of his ambitious schemes. He did however leave behind a legacy which would help bring about the London Underground as we know it, with the Underground Group growing to encompass the Central London Railway and the City & South London Railway, which were respectively the precursors of the Central line and the Bank branch of the Northern line.

After these acquisitions the company owned all of the tube lines present at that time, with the exception of the Metropolitan Railway, which consisted of the modern-day Metropolitan, East London and Hammersmith & City lines as well as the Northern City Line suburban railway, then part of the tube. As part of the nationalisation of the railways in 1933, the London Passenger Transport board was formed and took control of the Underground Group and the Metropolitan Railway to form one large government-owned tube.

Leslie Green

Leslie Green was an architect in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was employed by Yerkes' Underground Group to design stations on the three as yet unbuilt lines that Yerkes had recently acquired3. Yerkes adopted a typically Edwardian design, with the surface buildings mostly consisting of a two-storey, flat-roofed steel frame covered with 'ox-blood' red terracotta tiles. At platform level, the stations would have tiling incorporating the station name, as is apparent at Arsenal station, which bears its previous name 'Gillespie Road' in its Leslie Green tiling.

Green's famous red tiling can still be seen on many surface buildings, although some stations were designed as subways, some stations already existed and were merely added to, and some of the Edwardian buildings have been demolished to allow rebuilding and changes from lifts to escalators. Leslie Green designed stations on the following sections:

  • Between Finsbury Park and Earl's Court on the Piccadilly line.
  • Between Paddington and Elephant & Castle on the Bakerloo line.
  • Between Charing Cross and Euston and on the branches up until Archway and Hampstead on the Northern line.

Edward Johnston

Edward Johnston was born in 1872 and originally intended to study medicine in Edinburgh, but dropped out and headed to London where he became one of the foremost calligraphers of the early 20th Century. Johnston was commissioned by Frank Pick (see below) in 1916, and is possibly most famous for having designed Transport for London's sans-serif typeface, which is now used on most Tfl signs and maps. Since its creation, the typeface has been adjusted to include lower case letters, and Tfl hold the intellectual rights to the modern version, New Johnston.

Johnston is also famous for creating the Underground's famous roundel or 'bull's-eye', which is now seen on every platform where it bears the name of the particular station. Johnston designed the roundel by taking the symbol of the London General Omnibus Company, a red circle with a blue bar, and adding the word UNDERGROUND to it in his newly designed typeface. The roundel was adopted by the London Underground in 1919 and has been used ever since.

Charles Holden

Charles Henry Holden was born in Bolton in 1875, and despite a difficult childhood he eventually secured a job as an architect with the help of his brother-in-law, a land surveyor. He had designed several major projects by the time that the 1926 Northern line extension from Clapham Common to Morden was being planned, and so he was employed by Frank Pick (see below), to design both these stations and a new headquarters for the London Underground above St James Park tube station.

Most of the new tube stations had to be designed to fit in very little space, but Holden still succeeded in making the ticket offices seem spacious by making them double-height with glass fronts. Like Green, he used a trademark style, in this case using white Portland stone to build solid looking structures with a large window and the famous Underground roundel above the main entrance. With the exception of Morden, all of these stations are now Grade II listed buildings.

The extension of the Piccadilly line in the early 1930s gave Holden and Pick the opportunity to design 18 more stations, and this led to the development of some of the finest public architecture of their time. All of the stations between Cockfosters and Manor House were opened in the early 1930s and were designed by Holden, and some stations, such as Arnos Grove and Southgate, are now listed buildings. At the same time the Piccadilly line took over the District line between Ealing Common and Northfields, and new stations such as Park Royal and Sudbury Town were also designed by Holden, as was Gants Hill on the Central line extension.

Harry Beck

With the creation of the London Underground in 1933, there now existed a network of eight different lines - five from Yerkes' Underground Group, and three more from the Metropolitan Railway Company:

  • The Bakerloo Line
  • The Piccadilly Line
  • The Edgware, Highgate & Morden Line
  • The Central London Railway
  • The Metropolitan District Railway
  • The Metropolitan Railway
  • The East London Railway
  • The Northern City Line

Despite tube maps having slowly evolved from the first geographically accurate spaghetti-like representations of the Underground, the maps were still quite confusing and made it difficult to plan a journey using the now government-owned lines. It took Harry Beck, an electrical draughtsman from Finchley who was at that time temporarily employed by the London Underground Signals Office, to create the simplified version we see today.

Beck's Map

Using his knowledge of sewer maps and electrical diagrams, in which connections and components are given more precedence than their locations and the distances between them, Beck created a diagram of the London Underground in his spare time. Like the maps of Fred H Stingemore, a previous designer and draughtsman for the Underground, the lines outside central London were compressed, and all ground-level detail except for the river Thames was removed. However, Beck created a much neater map, with the railways being depicted as running in straight vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines and stations being marked with neat dashes on each of the coloured lines. Beck did not go to great pains to represent the closeness of stations, but instead used hollow diamond shapes to show interchanges and allowed himself plenty of room for the station names. Interestingly, he also decided to change the colour of the Piccadilly line from light blue to the dark blue seen today, despite there being no light blue Victoria line at the time.

The map was released in 1933 with a note requesting public feedback on its usefulness, but to Beck's delight it soon became clear that the map was very popular. Beck went on to update the map as the Underground expanded, despite various attempts by other to take over his role. Beck was also asked to make various changes, including the labelling of each line with station names, which caused great congestion on the map but was used between 1940 and 1945. In 1949, Beck began to use the white circle interchange symbols seen today4, and meanwhile the Circle line was created and added to the map.

Beck continued to design the Underground map until 1960 when he fell out with the publicity officer, H F Hutchinson, who was averse to Beck's overly rectangular design and wanted to draw the next map himself. Despite the fact that some of his changes remain even today, Hutchinson's map was unpopular, as in some places the writing was cramped and the map unclear. However, Beck had now been ousted, and would not get to add the Victoria line to the map as he had been hoping to. Paul E Garbutt restored some of the shapes from Beck's map in 1964, and created the famous 'vacuum flask' shape of the Circle line. Beck was still not completely happy with this map, but his contributions were rejected. Beck continued to sketch new versions of the map until he died in 1974, and a commemorative plaque now exists at his home station, Finchley Central.

Frank Pick

Frank Pick was born in Lincolnshire in 1878, and studied Law in London before starting work for the North Eastern Railway. Here he worked as an assistant to the manager Sir George Gibb, who took Pick with him when he moved to manage the late Yerkes' Underground Group. Pick was responsible for the Underground posters which encouraged more passengers onto the tube, and commissioned both Edward Johnston in 1916 and Charles Holden in 1921 (see their sections above). Pick was eventually put in charge of the entire London Underground when it was nationalised in 1933, but declined both a Knighthood and a Peerage.


Many others have also been responsible, both directly and indirectly, for the ways in which the London Underground has changed over the years. The 1935-40 Northern Heights plan might have gone ahead had it not been for Hitler's ambition to cross Europe, selfishly disrupting the construction projects of North London so that only the lines from Archway towards Mill Hill East and High Barnet were ever finished. Margaret Thatcher's government has since also been blamed for preventing the extension of the Northern line. However, there have at least been the carefully planned Victoria line and the Piccadilly5, Jubilee6 and East London7 line extensions, and future expansion of the Underground is almost inevitable.

Overcrowding due to the relentless increase in the population has always been the driving force for change in the past8, although the successful bid for the 2012 Olympics to be held in London has allowed Ken Livingstone to draw new lines on the Underground map like a giddy little schoolboy9. Another important influence was the anonymous smoker who in 1987 discarded a match which led to the King's Cross fire and 31 deaths, and later to much-needed smoking bans throughout the London Transport system. Finally, on a most bitter note, there were the bombings on the London Underground in 2005 which have led to the ever-heightened security we see today.

1Later renamed Warren Street.2Opened as Mornington Crescent.3These were the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway and the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway - see the section on Yerkes for more details.4Due to a printers' error, the Metropolitan line on the 1949 map was shifted slightly down and to the right, leaving a gap between the interchange circles of various stations. However, this was sorted out the next year to give a map quite similar to the ones used today.51977 extension to Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3, 1986 extension to Terminal 4, 2006 extension to Terminal 5.61999 extension from Green Park to Stratford.7Vast extensions to the north and south between 2005 and 2010.8As has the decrease in population - both Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809 - 1898) and philanthropist Dr Thomas Barnado (1845 - 1905) required extra room to have their coffins transported by tube.9Although in reality, only the ones that aid tourist movement will probably be built.

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