The Art of the Underground: 150 Years of Re-designing London
- Extra Reading
The London Underground today is one of the world’s largest and busiest urban metros. Exactly 150 years ago, on 9 January 1863, when the inaugural train left Paddington for Farringdon with invited guests, the Metropolitan Railway was hailed as an amazing pioneer. A public service began on the following day and the Daily News announced dramatically that ‘for the first time in the history of the world, men can ride in pleasant carriages, and with considerable comfort, lower down than gas pipes and water pipes…lower than the graveyards’.
The Victorian steam underground, less than four miles long with just six stations, has developed into a modern electric system covering more than 250 route miles and serving 270 stations. Last year there were over one billion passenger journeys on the Tube, more than the total for the entire UK national rail network, and the numbers keep growing. Londoners have always grumbled about it, but they could not do without it. The Underground keeps London going.
This talk looks at how this has happened and why the Underground is now the city’s greatest asset, underpinning everything else. Our Tube has shaped the capital and its development over 150 years, and rail transport will be the key to London’s future.
9 JANUARY 2013
THE ART OF THE UNDERGROUND: 150 YEARS OF RE-DESIGNING LONDON
It is great to be back at the Museum of London for this talk on a very auspicious occasion – the Underground’s birthday, strictly speaking not the Tube, as you will know. We call it ‘the Tube’ now, but the Tube has only been around technically since 1890. However, it is nice to go right back to the origins. Exactly at one o’clock 150 years ago, on the ninth of January, that very first train pulled out of Paddington towards Farringdon, just over the way. The interesting thing, and this is a sort of repeating pattern I think about railways probably and the Underground in general, is that this was the train carrying all the special guests. Although, even at that time, it would not really have taken all that long – not more than half an hour – to cover the three and a half miles up to the edge of the City at Farringdon, but because it was a special occasion, everyone was made to get out at every station to look at the wonderful new surroundings. It took them about two hours, and then they would have spent most of the early afternoon and evening having a massive lunch. I mean, it is a very City-style thing, is it not? It was only the next day that the general populace got to travel.
But they were all queuing up for that and what I am going to talk about now is what I call, “The Art of the Underground”. That is not just art in the sense of the posters and everything else that we all love from the Underground, but it is a much broader art of the Underground, which has been going on now for 150 years. It is partly about the way you create the infrastructure of a city and the way it specifically relates to London, and the particularly interesting way in which that has happened in London over 150 years, some of which has been down to engineering and some, down to finding the money, which has been a problem all the way along. Some of it has been artistic, in the broadest sense, in that I think the architecture has been, at different periods, amazing. There have been ups and downs of the Underground, but the nice thing is that we are actually on an up now, and that it is a good time to be talking about the history of the Underground because, only a few years ago, there were all sorts of problems and difficulties, and I am glad I did not have to take part in writing a 150 years celebratory book then, when the future of the Underground began to look a bit dicey.
I am not going to go into all the detail but it is to give you a feel for the way the Underground has affected London dramatically over the last 150 years, and I am surprised that it is not acknowledged more than it is. I expect all of you are great fans of London generally – I hope you are. I am very passionate about the city, and its entire history of course is very well shown in the Museum above, which is where I started my museum career. The Underground has become the sinews of the city. Frank Pick, who was the great Underground Managing Director in the 1920s, and who set the scene for the particularly high quality design style of the Underground, always referred to London’s transport system and the Underground in particular, as “the framework of the town”. What he meant was that London transport was, he believed, an art. It was “the art of creating a city for the future”, and that is exactly what the Underground has done. In all the dozens of books about the history of London, which I am sure you are all familiar with and which seem to come out with increasing regularity at the moment, I do not think that it has ever quite been recognised, that the Underground Railway is more important to London’s development in the last 150 years than anything else, and I think it is going to be the thing that holds London together for the future. So let us look back and see how it came about.
Another thing that fascinates me about the Underground, as you will be familiar with, is that you can go round it and see parts of the Underground that are almost like an archaeological cross-section through modern London because there are still parts of the Underground that look virtually as they did 150 years ago. You can recognise other bits – it forms a mosaic which supports the city and that is not just the centre of this city but it has also created the suburbs. So, in many ways, it is the essential glue and fibre that holds London together and there is no place better to start that than Baker Street.
In Baker Street station today, one of the Circle Line platforms is still unchanged from 150 years ago. One of the wonderful things about it is that even the original Victorian infrastructure was fantastically well-built because it is exactly as it is now, and people are always saying, “Well, of course, the problem with the London Underground is it is the oldest and it is just too old.” It is not too old! I mean the infrastructure still works very well indeed, and the northern part of the Circle Line is still, as an infrastructure, it has never crumbled, it has never collapsed, and it has never had to be majorly repaired. It still works, and we have always been good at doing that.
And, again, to contrast the then, now and the future, this is the other end of the original line, at Farringdon, which you will all know. It is only a few minutes’ walk from where we are now. That picture at the top left there shows the station at the late-1860s, by which time the first connection with the Metropolitan had already been built, which is now known as the Thames Link service. So that is the view looking towards the City, with the Metropolitan behind the signal-box, and a train which has probably come round on what is now the Thames Link Cross-London Line, or possibly it has come across from Moorgate because almost as soon as it had been built, the Underground was being extended. It will become a new transport hub for Central London, but it has still got elements going right back to the 1860s.
St Paul’s, of course, was always the centre of the City. The City was where the Metropolitan Railway wanted to get to – it was where everyone wanted to get to in the Victorian period because it was already the business centre of London. And there, beyond it, glimmering there that is the Shard, as it is going up, which again, as you will know, that is part of London’s future. The Shard is currently the tallest building in Europe, and that will be better linked in with the City and the other side of the river through new rail developments.
Well, as you will know, the original Metropolitan Railway was not built by tube tunnelling, although everyone does now tend to say it is all part. It is not, strictly speaking. It was built by cut-and-cover construction, and there you see, top left, the scene at King’s Cross. You can see King’s Cross Station in the middle background there, in about 1861, when they have just started construction of the Metropolitan.
St Pancras is not there of course because it was built a bit later, deliberately overshadowing King’s Cross next door.
But even cut-and-cover construction was causing quite a lot of disruption. They had to close roads where it was being built. But, when you think that the whole of that original section of the Metropolitan Railway, three and a half miles built in three years, that is pretty good-going actually, and the disruption that we see in all the construction photographs and images is no greater really than construction would be nowadays, so I think it was a fantastic achievement.
There, you see King’s Cross Metropolitan Station taking shape. It was made a bit loftier than it actually was once the trains started running. Even then, you can see in the construction, top right, and it is the sort of thing that Frank Pick looked back on in horror, the advertising merchants had been at work with fly-posters, all over the station, even before it was finished. Once it opened, it did not originally have posters. That comes much later. It is always shown, in those early lithograph illustrations, as having immensely gentile Victorian middle-class passengers, but, again, one of the great things about the Metropolitan is, right from the start, everybody went on the Metropolitan, and they had the cheap workmen’s tickets as well which were just coming in on some lines.
That is one of the original trains, which, for the first two years, they used broad-gauge Great Western Trains, which linked up at Paddington. There you can see one coming in. And that, bottom right, is Paddington. The other Paddington Station on the Circle Line bit, [Prade] Street, as it was originally known, which still has its original roof. So that is an example of where you can go back and see the original right now.
Well, the Metropolitan and the District gradually moved together to build the Circle Line, and this is another of these repeating things. Amazing though it was that they built the Metropolitan Railway so quickly in the 1860s, and then they started on a second underground, the Metropolitan District Railway, which was built along the new embankment, the idea was that these two separate companies would join their lines up to create the Circle Line, and, as is the way with big infrastructure projects, it does not always go quite smoothly. It was very expensive to do. The chairmen of the two companies did not get on, and it was 21 years before they actually completed the Circle Line. So, we got very early into that rhythm whereby big projects actually end up taking much longer than you think, costing much more than you think, and not always getting the political support that you want.
That is the view of London and its various railways, but with the Underground part, shaded in red there, as they were up to about 1890. You can see that London is already covered in railways. Railways are having a big impact. But there is nothing right in the centre, within the Circle Line.
The next big step is to go deeper, and this is the beginning of the Tube. The first Tube line, what is now part of the Northern Line, was the City & South London Railway. Again, they wanted to get to the City. It was built at deep level from Stockwell up to the City, and opened in 1890, and it was built using the then newly developed technology of using shield tunnelling. It was the way all the tubes were constructed originally. You had this circular protection, with a cutting edge behind where that guy is standing there, and men would dig out the clay, and London clay is very good for easy tunnelling, shovel it back, it would be taken back, and then another bunch of guys would create the tube by bolting together these curved segments of cast iron. Now, it is done in the same way, but with machines and with concrete lining gradually burrowing your way through. And of course, put all these rings together and you have got a tube, hence the name, and by the time the third tube had opened, which was the Central London Railway, known as the Tuppenny Tube in those days because of flat fare, you had a tube railway going right under Central London for the first time. This is the middle bit of the Central Line, which of course serves both the City, the business end, and the leisure end, if you like, of the West End, so it serves shops and the great department stores that were just opening along Oxford Street, and it runs the whole length of Oxford Street.
It had to be advertised because, although it was a great technical construction, people had to be persuaded to use the Tube. It was a bit frightening at that time, and it must have seemed like science fiction really, to be going down in electric lifts and then whizzed under London at high speed by electricity. Electricity is the key to all this because you could not have built the Tube still using the old technology of steam because the steam simply could not escape. So, everything that took place at the beginning of the 20th Century was really driven by this magical new system of electricity and it very quickly became more than simply a rather basic engineering.
The original Tube at Stockwell Station was pretty bleak, and actually this was very experimental at that stage. It has got wooden platforms and has little locomotives to pull the trains and they are not very powerful. The power station was not big enough and they could not generate enough power, although everyone was very excited about it. They actually charged people to go and see the power station, it was that exciting! Among those who visited was H.G. Wells, who was overwhelmed by the new electrical facilities – Wells actually wrote a special, rather gruesome, story called “The Lord of the Dynamos” having been to see the new Tube’s power units. But actually, the power was still a bit low, and they had to put in a new generator because the electricity was only just enough to power a couple of trains. The lighting was gas. The original lifts on the City & South London were actually water-driven, by hydraulic power.
The next stage, the Central London, which is a much grander affair, actually promoted itself much better, but they still clearly felt that they had to give you a tour. It is like those old Rupert Bear annuals where you get a picture showing you what you have to do as you go through things, such as arriving at the station, going in, buying your ticket, going over to the man, giving him the ticket, you go through, somebody takes you down in the lift and then someone shepherds you onto the train, and then, finally, you get to your destination. But they were very anxious to persuade everyone that this was perfectly safe, it was quick, it was easy and it was cheap. Advertising standards did not come into it in those days, but you can see what they were getting at.
And the next stage, just a few years later, were the next three tubes that were opened by an American-based or American-created company, the Underground Electric Railways of London, which becomes the basis of the whole thing, and their stations, on their three lines, were all much the same. This was really “Chicago comes to London”, and this changed the nature of the underground railway dramatically.
It was a company chaired by a fraudster called Charles Tyson Yerkes, who came from Chicago, where he had made a lot of money electrifying and creating the elevated railways in Chicago, and a lot of this was driven by American technology. Yerkes was also a very good salesman and he persuaded people in London that, if they helped finance his new company, he could pay for these three new lines and everyone would make money out of it. Of course, it never happened like that, but even today, people seem to think that actually, if private money goes into building underground lines, or even railway lines, they will make a profit. They never do, it just does not work like that, but people never seem to learn from history, do they?
But what Yerkes did create for London was this wonderful new system, and it was highly engineering, a lot of American technology, all driven from this enormous new power station at Chelsea, Lots Road, which has only just stopped providing all the power for the whole of the London Underground System for 100 years.
And the station designs were all very modern for the time. They are all on load-bearing steel frames, which again is a bit of Chicago technology. It is the basis of skyscraper construction and they were designed that way so that they could take the weight of the lift motors and lots of storeys above if necessary. Then they were decorated and clothed in the most fashionable style, which was of course was Art Nouveau at the time.
Leslie Green was the original designer of these stations, and that is his original sketch of Oxford Circus, top left, that watercolour. These are the features that you can still see at some of his surviving stations. Top right is Mornington Crescent; bottom right Elephant & Castle; bottom left, what was originally called Gillespie Road – that was the only case on the entire Underground where a football company managed to persuade London Underground to change the name of the station! When Arsenal were a top club in the ‘30s, they persuaded them to change the name, and it has been called Arsenal ever since. The other ones do not count of course. West Ham is in West Ham, it has nothing to do with the football club.
The Underground Electric Railways had also bought out the old District, electrified that, and they gradually began to pull together the basis of the modern Underground and in some cases, you can see the old and new together to this day. Gloucester Road Station, which you see top right, after it had just been completed for the District Railway, the 1860s, and there is the same station today, on the right-hand side – that is the District part of Gloucester Road – and on the left, you can see Leslie Green’s addition for the Piccadilly Line, which of course is right below the District at Gloucester Road.
The same happened at South Kensington fairly early on, and this is when Frank Pick comes into the picture as Publicity Officer for the Underground Electric Railways. Pick commissioned new lettering from Edward Johnston, and he got Edward Johnston to also combine his lettering, with the original symbol of the Underground, which became the iconic blue bar and red circle. They are often reconstructed now as they originally were, but that is Temple Station, top left, with the old-style Underground roundel.
Out in the suburbs, the Metropolitan line, which was not part of the same organisation at this stage, was slightly doing its own thing but gradually improving its system, and it built a new country line, which was just like an overground railway really. The bit of the Metropolitan had extended way out to Harrow and beyond, by this stage, but it built a new branch line from Harrow to Uxbridge. They had not quite caught up with the new technology. When it opened, in 1904, they had to use steam trains for the first six months because their new electric system was not quite ready, but it was after a while, and both on the Metropolitan and on the District, which had been electrified by the Americans, you got, from the beginning of the 20th Century, very American style trains as well. They look like the trains that you see in cowboy films with a clear storey roof, except they are electric.
All the undergrounds in 1908 agreed that they ought to get their marketing act together because all of them were suffering from the same problem. They had invested in building the new lines, they had invested in electrification, and they were not getting enough passengers. So, Frank Pick and colleagues devised the first free underground map. It gave the notion of an entire networked system.
By the First World War, the Underground were feeling so pleased with themselves because they recovered through all this from potential bankruptcy at the time that Yerkes left them this system. Yerkes had died, incidentally, in 1905, just before all the new tubes opened. The man who was appointed in charge was Albert Stanley, who was English-born but American-trained.
He came to London on the advice of the American people who were involved in setting up the Underground group to turnaround this problem because they were worried that the whole thing was going to go belly-up when it opened. They just were going to go bankrupt. Stanley was interesting because he actually invested in the Underground then. He managed to get the money from other means and negotiate mergers. He was a very strategic character. He eventually became Lord Ashfield and was to become the first Chairman of London Transport in the ‘30s. His right-hand man was Frank Pick, who at this stage was still doing the publicity but making a fantastic job of it and promoting the Underground in a way that the old-fashioned railways just had never quite done. So it was an interesting combination of forward thinking, American technology, and almost American style marketing techniques, and by 1915, this is just a sample of one of the publications that Pick organises, the children’s alphabet, which is full of these lovely little poems and things of the Underground such as, “U is the Underground, pride of the nation, triumph of science and civilisation”, and they clearly believed that at the time.
By the ‘20s, although the Metropolitan was still staying independent of the Underground Electric Railways, both of them were expanding out into the suburbs and they were really pioneering suburbia. In the Metropolitan’s case, of course they came up with this snappy title, Metro-Land. They launched Metro-Land actually during the First World War, which does not seem like the best time to do it you would not think, but by the ‘20s, it really took off. Metro-Land was initially a sort of promotion supposedly to encourage people just to come out and walk and go out for the day, and of course rambling was very popular in the ‘20s, but what they were really after was getting a captive market of season ticket holders who would actually live in Metro-Land in the new property developments. Of course, London’s outer areas really took off in the ‘20s. The house building was at a fantastic rate, the sort of thing that, sadly, we just cannot manage today, but London was expanding, and it was served directly by the Underground. The Underground was key to London developing in this way and spreading out over a large area, in a quite different way to cities like Paris, which are still actually quite tightly-knit, and the Metro in Paris, if you look at the maps, it does not actually go much beyond the traditional limits of Paris – it goes to all of the gates, the old gates of the city. But London was quite different; it was integral to London’s creation as Greater London, the suburban city, in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, they were also at work creating new things under the centre. The line which had opened in 1890, the original City & South London, needed upgrading fairly quickly. It was completely inadequate. So, as part of the development in the ‘20s, they not only extended out into the suburbs overground, but they rebuilt half of what was already there underground.
The publicity for the Underground was fantastic in the 1920s. Although it was not deceptive, London really was improving and they achieved a great deal, but he managed to make the engineering, which was behind all this, an exciting thing, and London became this dramatic city, driven by the new technology, beautifully engineered, and artistically advertised.
The trains as well were fantastic designs, miles in advance of anything on the mainline railways, which, at the time, were nearly all still traditional Victorian-style slam-door trains, with steam locomotives, most of them, and the Underground had got pneumatically-driven doors and it seemed like the future. It must have felt like that at the time.
Out in the suburbs, they were creating a new lifestyle. I love this picture. It is a typical scene of suburbia in the late-20s, presumably on a Saturday. There you have, in the middle – everyone, in those days, used to work Saturday mornings, at least, but they all came home from the office to go off into their suburban dream homes. There we have two guys in the middle, one of whom has already changed into his cricket whites, on the left. They are carrying their cricket bag. The guy on the right is still in his office clothes and bowler hat, but they are obviously off to play cricket on Saturday afternoon. Over on the right-hand side there, you can see mummy has brought junior along and she is carrying him to come and meet daddy off the train, and other people are going to take the buses – and there is the 142, which I think still runs from Edgware – going off into the outer suburbs. The Underground had created this mixed transport system. Albert Stanley had bought up the London General Omnibus Company and so they were beginning to integrate the services, so the buses fed the Tubes, and the whole thing was creating a new life in the suburbs for a lot of people.
Then Pick started looking more at not just the publicity but also the physical infrastructure. He was passionate about this looking fantastic, and he and Charles Holden, the architect, created this wonderful partnership, starting with the extension of the Northern Line the other way. They built the line out to Edgware and then they built the line down south to Morden. They reconstructed it all in the middle, so they created this wonderful spinal tube, which was not known as the Northern Line at the time, and I am never quite sure why not. It was called the Northern Line from 1937.
This was the beginning of the Underground, in a very obvious way, affecting the look of the whole city, which was exactly what Frank Pick wanted to do. Holden came up with a whole new architecture for transport and for the Underground in particular in London, which was unlike anything anyone had ever done before anywhere else. Pick wanted something which was not quite like what Leslie Green had done before the First World War for those original Tube stations, which did look distinctive, but they had their disadvantages. They were not, as Pick saw it, really fit for purpose. The colour, that ruby red colour, was okay during the daytime, but at night, it began to just look black.
By the ‘20s, when new technology was helping them, floodlighting had come in, and these stations on the Northern Line, running down from Clapham to Morden, are all designed on the same principle: a folding screen, and they are lit above there through daylight during the daytime; you plonk the Underground roundel in the middle, the thing is backlit as well at night, and, outside, they placed the floodlights underneath. So the whole station was white. It was all along what was essentially an Edwardian and Victorian red-brick street, but the stations shone out like little gems day and night and advertised the Tube fantastically, and as Pick wanted it to be, they were a sort of welcoming beam in the night really as well.
So there we have the new architect. He said to his friends in the Designers’ Industry Association, “We want to represent the DIA gone mad, and I have got Holden along to see that we go mad in good company!” And they did, and they created the most fantastic new architecture for London.
Having done that, Holden was given a much bigger job, right in the centre of London, because the next project, there are two prestige projects for the Underground by the end of the ‘20s, one of which is to rebuild and enlarge Piccadilly Circus, which is metaphorically and literally at the heart of London.
Holden transformed, what could have been just an engineer’s hole in the ground underneath the original Piccadilly Circus, into this wonderfully inviting new centre of London, which, even if you did not go on the Tube, down the new escalators to below, even if you just walked round what Holden called “the ambulatory”, round the outside, you had shop windows round there and it was created to look like the posh shopping streets above. This was Regent Street reproduced on the Underground and you could cross and avoid the weather and the traffic, even if you did not go on the Tube and, on the way, you could look at the showcase of Swan & Edgar’s upstairs, which had just been rebuilt itself.
That is a postcard from about 1930, showing the wonders of the new Piccadilly Circus Station, which you can still see today. There is a moving map, which you may have seen at Piccadilly Circus, within that rotunda that shows you the time in Montevideo and all sorts of odd things like that.
Originally, the escalators in the middle had a huge mural over them, which were of a world map, and also a series of things, paintings of other parts of London and the things you could get to on the Underground. The map had everything homing in from around the world on London, the centre of the universe, the centre of the British Empire and everyone came. It seemed like the next wonder of the world!
The people who were particularly impressed were the Russians. They sent a delegation of engineers over to see this new station because they were planning to build a metro for Moscow, and the engineers were so impressed, particularly by the escalators, which they had never seen in the Soviet Union – they only had elevators. They reported back to their boss who was managing, on Stalin’s behalf, the development of the Moscow Metro, and it was Khrushchev, who later became in charge himself. Khrushchev then persuaded Stalin that what they had to have for Moscow was what London had got: this fantastic underground transport system which used the latest things – it used escalators going down in the middle, instead of lifts, which they were used to – and it was built in the most aristocratic, posh part of town. What he wanted to do, and which they achieved in many ways, was to do the same thing, but on a grander scale, so that “We Communists can do it just as well as those Capitalists in London”!
The Russians actually got the London Underground to do a report for them, and Pick supervised this. He sent engineers over to look at the problems. The Moscow Metro, although it is bigger of course and it is grander in many ways than the London one, but it is based on what we had done in London, and the consultancy report that was done by London Underground for the Russians was the beginning of what later became London Transport International, and it was where the British, and the Underground in particular, advised other people on how to build their metros.
At the end of the’30s, Frank Pick received the only public decoration he ever got, the Order of Lenin, which he got from the Russians – sad but true! He ought to be much better known.
What Pick also commissioned from Holden, at much the same time as Piccadilly, was a new headquarters for the Underground. It was a growing company. It needed a new headquarters for its administrative staff, and they decided to build it on the property that they already owned, which was St James’ Park Station. So, Holden came up with this brilliant plan to straddle an existing underground station, at St James’ Park, on a very difficult triangular site, and he created what has always been known as 55 Broadway, still the Underground Headquarters today. At the time, essentially it was first skyscraper in London. There were no tall buildings in London then, and the LCC building regulations were very strict about that. This, when it opened in 1929, was the tallest building in Westminster. In fact, it was so tall that the top floor, the LCC would not let the staff use it for some years, until they changed the regulations.
But essentially, Holden came up with this combination of almost American style design, so it is stepped up to the tower at the top, and it also has a walkway through it at the bottom, which invites you into the Underground station. It has been slightly amended over the years so now you have to go round the foyer. It was a very artistic building, which was modern but also, in some ways, quite traditional – it was built on a steel frame, but it has got Portland stone cladding.
Holden, who was very keen, like Pick, on using artist designers, had sculptures put on the outside of it, which were a little controversial at the time. The upper sculptures were a bit wasted because they were too high and you could not see them without binoculars. It was the first example of a public sculpture by Henry Moore, which was also up there. But the ones that created all the trouble were the two that you could see from the street really well, and still can, by Jacob Epstein, which were figures representing night and day. Epstein, even though he had been designing sculptures for over twenty years, was still a bit of a controversial figure, and there was a huge fuss about these sculptures when they were unveiled. The popular press, “The Sun” of the day, said that they were obscene, disgusting, and primitive and people threw paint over them. It was a huge fuss and Frank Pick actually offered to resign but eventually decided against it. Nowadays, nobody gives them a second look, which is sad because they are rather nice.
Holden was designing the new stations for the Piccadilly line, which are often reckoned to be his best. This partnership of the Managing Director of the Underground, Frank Pick, and his architect created, what I think, are probably the best bits of commercial architecture in London, from the 1930s, and they are all listed buildings today and most of them have been very nicely restored. It must have been extraordinary at the time to have something like that flying saucer at Southgate, descending into the middle of what was then still a sort of village just outside London. But the Underground was very proud of these, not surprisingly, and actually some of the posters did advertise the stations rather than the destinations.
Here you are…”Come and see the latest in railway architecture”, which it was. And some of those feature; again, you can still go and see them. That wonderful art deco light there is at Bounds Green. That is Arnos Green, bottom right, and Southgate, top right.
The thing that, again from the early ‘30s, has become the most revered symbol of London’s Underground and transport system is the famous Harry Beck map, which is slightly odd in a way. Although it is, in a sense, of this artistic design of the city and the way it is represented and it is now held up as a classic of graphic design, which it is, but the interesting thing about it was it was not actually commissioned by the Underground, as is now well-known. Harry Beck came up with this idea of changing the geographical map into what is technically a diagram – it is not a map at all. And because it was getting more and more difficult to put the whole thing, this enormous system, on one little folding pocket map, he shrunk the outer areas and enlarged the centre, and colour-coded the whole thing. Everything is on a vertical, diagonal or horizontal.
The Underground were a bit worried when he kept badgering them to try this out, and they agreed in the end, and the reaction was just amazing from the public. They put a little timid notice on it saying “This is a new design for our map – we would welcome your comments”, and people thought it was amazing, and of course they have stuck with it ever since. There were attempts to change the map, even though it is very well-designed, to incorporate more and more extensions. However, you may recall, a couple of years ago, that they decided, in order to get more things in, that they would take the river off, and all hell broke loose! The Mayor had to say the next map will have the river back, which it did. So there is a map out there which came out at that time, it will be a classic of the future – the Underground map without the Thames!
And the whole look, the corporate design of the Underground, is seen, by the ‘30s, all over London, and it is reflected in the graphic design, in the posters, the use of the symbol, the use of the lettering, and the very distinctive, and yet actually not boring, architecture. Holden used to call these stations “brick boxes with concrete lids”, but that makes them sound dull. They are not dull. They are fantastic bits of modern architecture, which also have a respect for English tradition. They are European modernism plus the arts and crafts, moulded together.
These are the escalators, one of the few sets of escalators where the original uplighters, designed by Holden, survive. That is St John’s Wood. They have them at Southgate as well, and the only other one at the exhibition exits at Earl’s Court, which have now been closed, and so that is presumably going to go.
The Underground kept expanding in the ‘30s, and at that time, they were using Treasury guarantees against the money. They were allowed to in the ‘20s. They had still been a private company, but effectively, they were beginning to be subsidised by the State because the Treasury gave them financial guarantees, and the Government were happy to do that because they did not have to pay extra money but it was a way of, without actually subsidising the Underground, getting the new work done, and it had the advantage of it created jobs – it was a time of unemployment. It also helped to stimulate the wider economy because they needed steel and everything else to do it. So you almost got a virtuous circle with the extension of the Underground, and I find it interesting that we are now back to that exact situation, where the current Government are, not surprisingly, getting very keen on infrastructure projects again, and we have been there before. This is what happened in the 1920s and I do not quite understand why it does not happen again in the same sort of way of financing it. You do not necessarily have to do it by the Government underwriting the whole lot and it costing a lot of money.
The Underground, and then London Transport proceeded, at astonishing pace, to create this new extended infrastructure for London. Part of the project, the New Works Programme in the ‘30s, was to extend both the Bakerloo and the Northern Line. The Northern Line eventually came to the surface and joined up with one of the old steam railways at East Finchley, and they created a wonderful station, which is still at East Finchley, with this art deco archer, speeding the trains to Central London. That is Erika Monier’s design, which is still there, and I think it has even been adopted as a symbol of that part of North London now.
But, unfortunately, the War broke out and the New Works Programme was not completed and, of course, the Underground turned to other uses which had never been intended, like people sheltering on the Tube during the Blitz.
Highgate Station had just been completed at the time that War broke out, and it was used for a while just for shelterers, before it was even opened. Up on the surface, if you go to Highgate today, you can see above the Tube Station is the remains of what would have been Highgate high-level station, where there would have been connections to an electrified version of the old steam line, which went one way back to Finsbury Park and the other way up to Alexandra Palace, and sadly that never happened. It is an example of what has happened since the War, particularly in the ‘50s.
London Transport had gone through this wonderful period of expansion and development in the ‘30s. Frank Pick left the company in the early part of the War and he died during the War. Lord Ashfield, the former Albert Stanley, only just survived the War himself – he died just at the point when the new Labour Government, after the War, nationalised the whole of the railway system, and, unfortunately, they included London Transport in that. London Transport was swallowed up in this new monolith called the British Transport Commission and, from then onwards, there was no plan for transport really at all in this country, and there never has been ever since, not only in London but on the mainline railways.
The Underground just about managed to complete some of the things that they had started before the War such as Bethnal Green Station, which has just been refurbished and which had been used throughout the War as a shelter, and it was one of the last examples of some of those wonderful decorative features, like that fantastic roundel clock there.
Gants Hill is thought to be almost a nod back to what the Moscow Metro had done in the ‘30s, which in turn had come from London. The station has this great hall in the middle, and the platforms run either side. It is much smaller than the way they do it in Moscow, I have to say, and the Moscow ones are double-ended stations, which was not really necessary for Gants Hill and was never installed. It is still quite an impressive station and has since been improved.
Further out, you can see when the Tube trains finally got as far as Loughton, just after the War, but beyond there, for a while, and right up into the ‘50s, there were still steam trains running on these former branch lines, and the very last bit, out from Epping to Ongar, was only electrified in the mid-‘50s, and then it was closed at the end of the 1990s. You can go back there now and it has just been revitalised as a heritage railway actually, no longer part of the London Underground.
Everything slowed down in the ‘50s. To be fair, the country had other priorities than London’s transport at the time, and so the resources, which of course were in an age of austerity, tended to go into other things, like housing and the new National Health Service. The Underground spent virtually no money on capital projects throughout the ‘50s. Finally, right at the end, at the beginning of the ‘60s, they did what they had always planned to do back in the ‘30s, which was to electrify the Metropolitan Line all the way out to Amersham. There were still steam trains on the outer bits of the Met right through the ‘50s, and then, finally, they were replaced in 1961 by new electric trains. Those trains, as you may know if you use that line, have only just been replaced again by these new fully air-conditioned trains, the S Stock, on the Metropolitan Line. So those modern trains, as they were in the early ‘60s, have just gone and been replaced.
We are gradually now getting back to doing something new, but London Underground, like a lot of organisations in this country I think, got into rather an odd cycle after the Second World War, whereby new plans would be drawn up but then, characteristically, it would take at least twenty years for the Government to agree to fund it and for the thing to actually be built. That is what has happened ever since the War.
In the late ‘40s, they planned a new Tube line across Central London. It opened, twenty years later, as the Victoria Line. It took a lot of persuading of Government to actually go for that, and they just did not see an essential need to invest at that time and to be fair, I suppose London’s population was not growing as fast – in fact it was declining a bit in the ‘50s, and so there was not the current problem of intense overcrowding. But the Victoria Line was the first automatic, computer-controlled underground railway in the world – but this was the last time that the London Underground was ahead of the game internationally. Although London Transport were using the best of their technology at the time, and it was an ingenious system and it was the beginning of automatic ticket control and everything else, they had to build it to a very tight budget. With the Victoria Line, the tiles started falling off the walls virtually as soon as it opened. It just was not built to the standards that London Underground had been proud of before the War, and that was partly because they had not got the money to spend. The engineering was good, but the actual carrying out of the job was not. Even now, in design terms, it is very characteristic of the ‘60s, but it looks a bit bleak really, and it is only relieved by some of the last remnants of architectural design in those little tile panels at each station, which are rather nice but the rest of the station is sort of grey and a bit grim.
But then we get into this cycle again. It is another ten years before the next line is started, which is the Jubilee Line, but of course, as you will know, the Jubilee Line was only a really short stub end bit and most of it was actually just renaming an old line, which was the Bakerloo Line, and when the original bit opened in 1979, they did not get all the way through to Docklands, which was part of the original plan, and it took another twenty years for that to be built.
Having said that, this was when London was beginning to come up again, and the Underground, having reached this real low point, probably in the ‘80s, and the worst possible thing, which you will remember, was the King’s Cross fire in 1987, a terrible disaster, but it was a disaster waiting to happen because the Underground had just not had the resources and the money to do the running repairs and to replace equipment. It was caused, largely, by an old escalator – if you remember, somebody had dropped a cigarette on it, and we still had only just banned smoking on the Underground at that point, which, looking back seems amazing really. It is hard to believe now that it was ever allowed, but it was.
Ever since that fire, what London Underground had to do, and they had to get the money for it as well, was to create what the Managing Director in the ‘90s, Denis Tunnicliffe, used to call “a properly fit metro”. That is what they created with the new Jubilee Line. And so, suddenly, we are back to that quality design of everything which was applied to the Jubilee Line Extension in the ‘90s, and, meanwhile, the rest of the system is being cleaned up, upgraded, and it has got new safety systems. Although people sometimes say, to my amazement, “Why is the Underground so dirty?” it is not dirty – it is pin-clean these days! If you remember what it was like in the ’80s, when there was rubbish everywhere, there was graffiti everywhere, it felt threatening, it is not like that at all anymore. The problem now is it is just a bit too overcrowded but that is the latest problem that we have all got to deal with.
I have not had time to mention people really at all. What we really need, I think, for London, or what perhaps we are getting back to now, is there ought to be a plan for the future. The problem that we have had in this country and it is both on the Underground and on the mainline railways ever since the Second World War, is that there has not been a plan. We have never had a transport plan, and we really need that, and that is why I think this talk now about infrastructure needs to come back. The trouble is that politicians, inevitably, do not think beyond the next election, and that is something we have suffered from ever since 1945.
When Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, he had had an involvement in a sense with the Underground before because, when he was Chancellor, it was under his watch that Labour, surprisingly, came up with this disastrous private/public partnership scheme, which all went belly-up in the end. Lord Adonis was Transport Minister for a while and both men oversaw the launch event for Cross-Rail, which of course is now underway and is the biggest infrastructure in Europe. These guys are all part of the decision-making process, but they move on, and of course, fortunately, the private/public partnership has now been buried and everyone has forgotten about it, but it cost a fortune to do that, mainly in lawyers’ fees, even before anything new was started.
We are now, ironically, back in a situation where Boris, as Mayor, has actually, in effect, re-nationalised the London Underground because it is all controlled centrally. It is not split up into this ridiculous system of having contractors doing some bits, which did not work out cheaper or better, and we now have an integrated system again. Boris, to his credit, and Ken before him, both of them pushed very hard to get the money for new investment, both in the Underground and on what effectively is the next underground, the Cross-Rail scheme, which people are busy virtually under our feet digging away at now.
I do find it quite exciting that this is all happening now, and relieved that it is going forward, but slightly worried as to whether each of the new things will actually happen, and when it will happen, and whether I will still be alive to see it. But I think the vision of Frank Pick, that the transport system can actually help to create and stimulate the town, is happening again now, and London just in the last fifteen years has been transformed by all sorts of projects, but many of them linked to the transport system, which are really re-designing, and that is why I called it “The Art of the Underground”. We are re-designing the public realm in London, and the transport system is an essential part of that, and it is all, as Frank Pick said of London transport, it is an artwork, and I think it is going to be something that we will all feel very proud of.
But we are always a bit uncertain, are we not? I mean, it is like the Olympics: we all thought, we were not going to be able to manage it, and actually, it was fantastic, and the transport system was very central to that. So, design and planning is all coming back into the public realm now, and it is going to be good! So, I will leave you with that, and I hope that, in five years’ time, I can come back and tell you about Cross-Rail and that we will all be travelling across London on that.
Thank you very much.
© Oliver Green 2013
This event was on Wed, 09 Jan 2013
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