Art Culture > History > 150 years of the London Underground Innovation, Royals and Rihanna Date posted: January 17, 2013

150 years of the
London Underground Innovation, Royals
and Rihanna

150 years London Underground history and events calendar for 2013

Since it’s grand unveiling back in 1863, the London Underground has carried millions of passengers from A to B, blurring the lines of technology, public transport and cultural icon.

Swide have already been getting excited with the celebrations that are happening throughout 2013, including the ‘Poster Art 150 – London Underground’s Greatest Designs’.


The above film ‘Underground’, released in 1928, stands as the first time that the London Underground ever featured in and was to inspire many of those that followed it. Fast forward 85-years and it’s the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ that sees the Tube being used like we’ve never seen before, plowing through a wall and roughing up the secret agent’s suit a little. Quite a feat, for a transport system that has become one of the nation’s icons, don’t you think?


It was on January 9 1863 that the world’s first underground train was made operational; pulling out of Paddington station to embark on its first passenger journey, a 3½-mile journey to Farringdon… and that was that, London would never be the same again. During those days it was carting a mere 26,000 passengers a day, being used mainly by workers, families and city dwellers. Since then, its carried famous faces and royalty underneath the big smoke; The Queen, Rihanna, Madonna, Paul Weller, Jessica Alba, Daniel Radcliffe, Lewis Hamilton and many more, including Robert Pattinson… Elijah Wood even picked himself up a London Underground t-shirt. That’s dedication for you.

It was a private company, the Metropolitan Railway, that undertook the project in order to link the mainline stations to the city centre’s business district of the east. The original construction wasn’t technically a ‘Tube’ as it created using a technique called ‘cut-and-cover’, whereby a trench is dug out for the railway and then covered by a roof.  Also, the carriages were vastly different to the ones that we are used to seeing today, they were similar to those that run over ground and were pulled along by a steam engine. By 1884 more than 800 trains were running and electricity was first introduced to the London Underground in 1890, connecting the City to Stockwell.


The London Underground Map before Harry Beck applied Topology.


 The first London Underground Map after Harry Beck applied Topology.

As the system continued to expand, the need of a map was becoming more and more evident and, so, the first combined map was published in 1908, by the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, showing 8 lines in total. Various formats were flung around until the late 1920s and it wasn’t until 1931 that Harry Beck designed the diagrammatic map of London’s underground, relying the topology of the railway rather than the actual location of the stations. His smart thinking gave birth to the map that paved the way today’s linear version, with emphasis paid to connecting stations, differentiating them with ticks and diamonds. It was Beck’s design that changed the tube map, making it more accessible to the public and tourists alike.

The way the London Underground was about to change dramatically.

Hop forward 8-years and prior to the beginning of World War II, the Minister of Home Security and Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, announced the war, shelter policy and that the use of any deep shelters (tube stations and tunnels included) was to be avoided. A year later, on September 21st, this policy changed abruptly due to the thousands of Londoners had who objected and had taken to using the London Underground as shelter when the sirens sounded, no matter what the government was saying. After the change in policy, 79 stations were thusly fitted with bunks for 22,000 people, supplied with first aid facilities and chemical toilets and 124 canteens were opened, all overlooked by appointed Shelter Marshals.


Although numerous people were lost when using the tunnels during the war, the highest death toll being at Bethnal Green tube Station, the London Underground was considered one of the safest means of protecting large numbers of people in high-density areas of the city. Its popularity continued to rise post-war and was soon welcoming royalty back on to its tracks. In 1969, the Queen was encouraged to drive one of the new trains between Green Park and Oxford Circle, while under the watchful eye of driver Francis Fountain. A royal behind the wheel. Brilliant.

Now, jump another 44-years later and that original 3½-mile track of the central line has grown to 42-miles, transporting millions of people a day and connecting people to a grand total of 270 stations.


The 150-year celebrations mark an incredible feat of technology, innovation and perseverance, an icon that has even seen new life being brought into the world with a total of three babies being born in the London Underground. Let’s leave it at that and not think about the number of mice and rats living down there.

If you, like me, are fascinated by the design of famous tube system, then you should get your hands on ‘London Underground by Design’ by Mark Ovenden. It features stories from Frank Pick, the commercial manager of the Underground from 1912, architect Leslie William Green and also Harry Beck, who reinvented the Tube map in 1931. London Underground by Design, by Mark Ovenden, is published by Penguin and is available from 31 January.

If you, like us at Swide, want to get involved with the celebrations of 150th birthday then you can see the events that will mark this anniversary here.

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