London and the life beneath its feet

Britain’s most famous transport system had a difficult start – and needed a lot of outside help

by Georgie Knaggs

The Underground recruited workers from the Caribbean after WWII. Copyright Tfl












Over a century ago, London was home to more people than any other city in the world. Fifty years earlier it had come up with a novel idea to solve its terrible traffic jams – ‘Trains in Drains’.

It was Charles Pearson, solicitor to the City of London, who promoted the idea of an underground railway system for the capital. Yet, sadly, he was never to see his subterranean railway in action, as he died a few months before its first section, the Metropolitan Line, opened in January 1863. 

At that time no one could have foreseen how many people from all around the world would be employed in building the tunnels and operating and driving the trains. Nor could they have known just how much the whole plan would rely on the energy and impetus of outsiders.

At that time, what was certain was that many, including some sections of the media, were suspicious of burrowing trains. Steam caused dirt and pollution below ground, and many feared that the trains would crack pavements and that whole buildings would collapse on to the tunnels. The result was that although the Metropolitan Line had opened, few were keen to risk putting more money ‘down the Drain’.

London and its Underground needed help. The man who rode into town was Charles Tyson Yerkes, a railway expert from America who had both the money and the attitude to get things moving.

But the city remained on edge. Yerkes was brash and had a history of run-ins with the law, which did little to calm people’s nerves. Whatever Londoners felt about trains beneath their feet, they did not take kindly to a disreputable American telling them how they should be run.

None of that bothered Charles Yerkes.

The entrepreneur set up a holding company that eventually became the ‘Underground Electric Railways of London Ltd’ (UERL), and began to acquire and modernise many of the city’s tramways and railways. Then electric trains arrived, and expansion took off. Yerkes died in 1906 but by then his company had a life of its own.

The problem was that his company, UERL,was still without the passengers it needed – something had to be done to persuade Londoners to use the Underground.

In strode another American, Albert Stanley, appointed to be the company’s General Manager. Stanley (later to become Lord Ashfield) was a different kind of American to Yerkes, and had what many saw as the ‘saving grace’ of having been born in Britain. He understood railways and how to manage the men that worked on them, and was good at spotting talent.

It was Stanley who decided that the young solicitor Frank Pick should be put in charge of publicity for the company.

Pick’s posters soon worked their magic, enticing Londoners on to the trains. His attention to detail, combined with Stanley’s business sense and management skill, won public confidence in the Underground at last, and with that came passengers and the chance for the company to expand even further. 

It has grown and changed ever since.

Related posts:

  1. Not only doner kebabs: My Turkish London
  2. A day in the life of Polish nurse Honorata Szuba

In Pictures
026_TNL Summer 2014_by Billy The Hipster

From asylum seeker to job seeker

Featured Video