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UNDERGROUND: How The TUBE Shaped London

Jeffrey Syken

Great Britain may have had an empire upon which the sun never set in the 19th Century, but it would be hard to be convinced of its greatness if you lived or worked in the dirty, crowded, noxious crime-ridden capital: London. The principal city of the far-flung British Empire was concentrated in the City of London with the River Thames forming a north-south divide serving the “Pool of London” – at the time the greatest port in the world. Narrow streets teeming with people, horse carts/buses, wagons, cabs and even flocks of sheep made getting from one place to another an ordeal, to say the least. In the mid-1830s, the first suggestion of an underground railway was voiced, but nothing would happen for nearly twenty years.

Begun in 1825 by engineer Marc Brunel and completed in 1843 with the able assistance of his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Thames Tunnel was the world’s first sub-aqueous tunnel joining Rotherhithe to Wapping on opposite shores of the Thames. Though it took eighteen years and a fortune to complete and served only pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages at first, it proved that despite the difficulties encountered, geographical obstacles like rivers could be overcome with tunnels (in 1869, the Thames Tunnel would become part of the East London Railway which linked Whitehall and New Cross). The stage was now set for a true underground railway to serve London. Conceived in 1851 and not completed until 1863, the Metropolitan Railway (a.k.a. “The Met”) would be the world’s first subterranean railway serving Paddington at its western-end and Faringdon Street at its eastern-end, with five stations in between.

The Met would be the world’s first true underground railway which Londoner’s labeled “The Tube” almost immediately (due to the cylindrical shape of the iron tunnels). It was served by “smokeless” condensing steam engines but even so, the atmosphere in the stations was less than pleasant. Despite its shortcomings, the public flocked to the Underground for relief from the overhead traffic. Additional lines would follow using deep tunneling techniques rather than the Met’s “cut and cover” technique (which caused terrible surface congestion). In 1890, the City & South London Railway introduced electric locomotives to the growing network. In the years that followed, existing lines would be expanded and new lines created. London Underground currently includes eleven lines, with 270 stations. The latest – the Crossrail project, will link Berkshire and Buckingham-shire via Greater London to Essex with 42 km (26 miles) of new tunnels. Though it’s no longer the largest and/or busiest “subway” system in the world, it was the first setting standards still followed (and admired) around the world.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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