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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 5 (August 1, 1934)

London Underground — Travel Trials and Humours in Mid-Victorian Days

page 39

London Underground
Travel Trials and Humours in Mid-Victorian Days.

“The ‘tablet’ jumps from the footplate.”

“The ‘tablet’ jumps from the footplate.”

To those of us who are fortunate enough to take a trip to the Old Country, the London Underground Railways are as wonderful as they are bewildering.

Beneath the surface of Piccadilly Circus is another world—a city with shops and restaurants, and a booking hall as big as a theatre. Escalators descend through tunnels whose glistening tiles reflect the brilliance of a thousand lights, and advertisements rival the genius and artistry of the Royal Academy. A hundred feet down, trains of almost Pullman luxury are travelling at forty miles an hour with only seconds of time between the departure of one, and the arrival of the next; trains that flash like bright meteors through the very bowels of the earth to emerge in green fields and sunny woodlands twenty miles away.

A hundred years ago London had advanced no further in transport matters than had the Romans, fifteen hundred years before that. Thus, with the coming of the railways, in 1836, the streets soon proved hopelessly inadequate to the ever-increasing burden of passengers and goods which the terminal stations disgorged upon them.

By 1850 matters had come to such a pass that a journey from Euston to Charing Cross occupied much more time, and was a far more adventurous undertaking, than one from London to Brighton. Modern traffic congestion is as nothing by comparison—drays, wagons, carts, cabs, omnibuses and even lordly victorias, became jammed in horrible confusion; horses straining and slipping on the rough cobbles, drivers vying with each other in flights of ribald invective—descending sometimes to engage in a bout of fisticuffs—while porters and loafers sneered and jeered at their efforts, and timid ladies shrank behind the curtains of their broughams with a prayer for deliverance.

The idea for an underground railway to link up the various termini and relieve the congestion of the streets originated from the City Solicitor—a gentleman named Charles Pearson—and roundly criticised and ridiculed he was for his temerity. The idea of a lawyer daring to suggest anything so far outside his own province! He was, however, a determined fighter, and it was principally through his efforts in the face of tremendous opposition that the Metropolitan Railway was opened from Farringdon Street to Paddington in 1863.

The line was, of course, operated by steam, and engines that were supposed to consume their own smoke and steam were designed for it. To this end they burnt coke and were fitted with condensing apparatus, but by the end of the first day they had produced an atmosphere in the stations and tunnels which was an outstanding feature of London life for forty years to come!

The directors were fully alive to this defect of their railway, and did their best to make passengers comfortable in other ways; thus the carriages displayed a luxury far in advance of any other line of the time—there were mirrors and carpets, comfortable cushions, hot-water bottles and oil lamps. These latter were not quite all that they might have been, in fact they frequently went out in the tunnels, and one may picture the city man of the 'sixties, homeward bound at twelve miles per hour reading his paper by the light of a candle stuck in the window frame.

In 1868, the “Met” acquired a northern extension from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage and on this line, being single, the tablet system was adopted for the safe working of trains. For a while the tablets employed were men, and to distinguish them and ensure that the driver had the right one, they wore red and blue belts respectively. Thus the “up” train from Swiss Cottage carried a blue belt, and the “down” train from Baker Street, a red. St. John's Wood was the station where the trains were timed to pass, and here it was that the tablets changed over also—Blue Belt returning to Swiss Cottage and Red Belt to Baker Street. As the train steamed in the “tablets” would jump from the footplates and slide along the platforms until the end walls of the station checked their progress. This evolution was executed with such dexterity, and, one may be sure, with such a wealth of pungent cockney humour as to excite the greatest admiration from both passengers and railway staff. Indeed people came from miles to witness the feat, and the platforms became polished along the slide in a manner to “compare with the finest ballroom in London.” Perhaps it was this latter fact that caused the adoption of a more orthodox form of tablet, to wit, a wooden one, since one can readily
“Reading by the light of a candle.”

“Reading by the light of a candle.”

page 40
“A bout of fisticuffs.”

“A bout of fisticuffs.”

believe that painful falls were the lot of passengers who stepped unwarily upon the slide.

Three years later the Metropolitan District came into being as a separate company with an improved type of condensing locomotive. These engines could, and often did, draw twelve fully loaded coaches up an incline of 1 in 45.

The coaches were four-wheeled affairs of a certain springless rigidity and lighted by coal gas carried in long rubber bags on the roofs; they were, at a later period, equipped with a humorous gadget called a “next station indicator.” This was a name plate which worked in a slot between the compartments and was operated by the guard who pulled a string to bring the name of the next station into view, but so frequently did the contrivance get out of order, that visitors to town despaired of trying to arrive at their proper destination, and alighted at the station the name of which appealed to them most!

Twelve days at sea without a smoke! Such was the experience of the crew of a motor-boat (Auckland to Papeete) not long since. Leaking benzine was the cause of the trouble. The fumes were everywhere. They dared not strike a match! Their joy on being able to “light up” again after landing may be imagined. Even their inability to prepare hot food and drink was as nothing compared with enforced abstinence from the weed all that time. Tobacco is a boon when it's good. When it's reeking with nicotine (as so often happens) it may prove as deadly as benzine fumes. Of course the danger in the case of impure tobacco may be delayed for years. But, sooner or later “it gets there just the same.” The world's purest tobaccos are the toasted. You can smoke Riverhead Gold. Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, or Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead) without the slightest fear of consequences. Toasting renders them absolutely safe. In this respect (and in all others) they are unique. They are the only toasted brands manufactured.*

From the District also originated the legend of the Old Lady of the Inner Circle. She was very stout and the carriage doors were narrow. She discovered that she was entering the wrong train, and attempted to back out again; but those treacherous narrow doors were her undoing, and she became hopelessly stuck. The guard misunderstanding the situation and being anxious to start his train hurried up, and placing his foot where it would do the most good bundled her unceremoniously into the carriage.

At the next station she once more attempted to leave the train backwards and once more the guard assisted her to enter it; and so it went on, round and round the Inner Circle; some say for years, until the old steam trains were finally withdrawn!

Perhaps it was inevitable that an American should have come to wipe out all that was so ludicrous, so exasperating, and so piquantly Dickensian about the old underground. The Yerkes electrification took three years to complete—but once completed it obliterated overnight the old system with its leisurely traditions and “opera bouffe” atmosphere. In what other city at the close of the nineteenth century, but the capital of the British Empire would a guard, having missed the door of his van sprint through the tunnels in pursuit, and what is more, catch it up at the next station?

“The old lady of the inner circle.”

“The old lady of the inner circle.”

The last steam train left Ealing in June, 1905, and one dimly recalls being ushered into an incredibly decrepit old first class carriage. It was raining, and a sooty trickle dripped through a crack in the roof. An old gentleman, resplendent in silk hat and morning coat got in, and glancing down at the sodden cushions and up at the leaking roof, spread the pages of his “Morning Post” upon the seat and opening his umbrella sat blowing out his cheeks and staring down his nose—the very personification of the die-hard spirit of the “golden years”; the generation that laid the foundations of the most wonderful railway system in the world.