Tunnelling to the future

Official seal of the Metropolitan Railway Company

The first line in the London Underground network – which was also the first underground line in the world – ran from Paddington mainline train station to Farringdon Street.  It was operated by the Metropolitan Railway Company (MRC).  The line opened in 1863 and was a great success, soon carrying over 25,000 passengers a day. Of course, as in the case of the overground network before it, this success kicked off a frenzied boom of speculation and development which lasted for several decades.

It is probably impossible to find any comparison in modern times of the immense scale of the upheaval this caused to one of the world’s most populous cities. All over London, whole streets were torn down to accommodate lines, stations and tunnels. In Dombey and Son, Dickens describes the very similar process of building the overground railway a couple of decades earlier:

Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormouseheaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking propped up by great beams of wood; Here a chaos of carts, overthown and jumbled together lay topsy turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond.  Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere, thoroughfares that were wholly impassable . . . . carcases of ragged tenements and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing.

The whole area under railway development was, according to Dickens, as “unintelligible as any dream”.  Pity then, the tenants caught up in this.  Often these were pitifully poor people, who had next to no legal protection and who were displaced en masse as residential properties were sold by landlords to the railway companies.

The legal document pictured here dates from 1867, only four years after that first underground line opened. It must be one of the earliest official Tube artefacts not held in an institutional collection. It consists of five very large sheets of vellum which fold into a neat packet.  The document is a conveyance relating to the purchase by the MRC, from two private landlords, of the leaseholds of a number of houses spread over several streets. The area concerned is that bounded by Wood Street (now Pine Street), Exmouth Street (now Exmouth Market) and Vineyard Walk in present-day London EC1. A sketch map is drawn in the margins of the document to show these streets. The area concerned is just off Farringdon Road, close to Farringdon Station, and therefore close to the birthplace of the developing network.

The "Widened Lines" in 1869.

The document does not specify the exact reason for the purchase of this area of land, other than that it was for “railway works”.  Even though the Metropolitan Railway was already open, major works were still taking place in this part of London during this period.   The tunnel between Farringdon and King’s Cross, over which this piece of land lies, was redeveloped between 1866 and 1868 to extend capacity from two to four lines.  This project became known as the “Widened Lines”, a name still in use today. It seems probable therefore that this purchase was part of that development.


This is a fascinating historical document, densely hand- written, and with enough extraneous detail to bring to mind the workings of Dickens’s Circumlocution Office. It is sealed with the beautiful seal of the Metropolitan Railway Company (pictured above) and, in a way, this wax blob sums up the whole enterprise. It is glossy and red, fat and smug and decisive – a proud testament to prosperity and the enormous engineering achievements of mid-Victorian Britain. At the same time, despite its modest size, it nicely obscures a very great deal of unpleasantness that the 19th century’s men of progress would not want you to see.

Celebrating MRC shareholders tour the new line before its official opening in 1863. (London Transport Museum)


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