Programme notes for Underground (1928)

The Underground was already 65 years old when the film was made and the busy scenes confirm it had become established as a key part of London’s transport system. Britain was a pioneer and the world’s first Underground line was completed in 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon, and became an instant success. It was a bold step as there had been doubts about whether people would venture below the city streets. The Times warned darkly that a subterranean railway would be ‘awfully suggestive of dark noisome tunnels, buried many fathoms deep beyond the reach of light’ where rats lurked and sewers stank. In fact, right from the start, people flocked onto the trains, relieved at finding a cheap and rapid method of transport, away from the overcrowded and stinking roads. This success encouraged promoters immediately to consider extensions of the system

. Between the inauguration of the first section and the Edwardian decade of the 1910s, new lines and extensions opened up with amazing regularity. There were two different waves. First, there were the sub surface lines, built by the cut and cover method which essentially means digging a hole, putting a railway in it and covering it over, although in outer London the trains mostly ran on embankments.  These spread out quickly from the first section reaching Hammersmith, West Brompton and Blackfriars by the end of 1870. All these lines were built by two rival companies, the Metropolitan Railway, and its rival, the Metropolitan District Railway which were controlled respectively by two men who were permanently at daggers drawn, Edward Watkin and James Forbes.

The next two decades would see the completion of what we now know as the Circle Line but which was initially run by the two rival companies who, curiously, had separate ticket offices at each station. The clockwise service was run by the Metropolitan and the anti clockwise mostly by the District, and the clerks in the ticket booth did not necessarily inform passengers of which was the quickest train to take! By then there were services to places as far afield as Chesham, Hounslow, Wimbledon and New Cross. The settlements served by these lines were often little more than villages – Hammersmith was known for its spinach and strawberries when the railway first came – but the arrival of the Underground ineivtably led to rapid growth as people with jobs in the very overcrowded centre of London found it was easy to commute, allowing them to live in far more salubrious and cheaper accommodation. London and the Underground therefore grew symbiotically, spurring each other on to expand further.

Beneath the city streets, by the late Victorian period, there was so much equipment relating to utilities and sewers that lines through the centre could no longer be built using the cut and cover method. Instead, Then from 1890 lines built by a completely different method of construction, cutting through the clay under London with a new type of large boring machine, the Greathead shield, started opening. The first was the City & South London running between King William Street (near Bank) to Stockwell, which now forms one arm of the Northern Line, and unlike the earlier trains which were steam hauled, they were powered by electricity, a relatively new invention.

These type of lines, too, spread quickly. The Central Railway was completed a decade later and then in a remarkable spate of building, 1906-7, three more lines were opened – the Bakerloo, a name coined by a newspaper, the Piccadilly and the Hampstead branch of what became the Northern – thanks to an American with a dodgy past, Charles Yerkes, who managed to gain control of several parts of the system. Until then, the lines had been built by several disparate private companies but in the early 1900s Yerkes consolidated most of them into one company since it was clear that a more integrated network would benefit passengers. Separate nearby stations that had served different lines were merged, too, and by the outbreak of World War One, all the lines, except the Metropolitan, and many of London’s buses services were controlled by the company created by Yerkes, the Underground Electric Railway Company, known as the Combine.

Yerkes, meanwhile had died and London benefitted enormously from the fact that his company was run by two men of vision, Frank Pick and Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield)  who did much to create today’s transport system and effectively ran the system right up until the outbreak of the World War Two. Pick was the managing director, the nuts and bolts man who ran the system on a day to day basis while Stanley was the political wheeler dealer and strategist, ensuring that the company prospered. It was during their period of control that the roundel, the universally known symbol of the system, and, later, the schematic map devised by Harry Beck, were introduced. Posters advertising the system and its benefits were produced by the top artists of the day, giving the Tube a modern and forward looking image. In the postwar period, extensions to the Tube lines were built out to places such as Hendon, Edgware and Morden.

Consequently In the late 1920s London Underground was entering its heyday and soon after the film, in 1933, this would become London Transport, a huge enterprise that as well as the Underground ran the capital’s buses, trams and even coaches that went out to many towns around the capital. It was ubiquitous, and generated the electricity for most of the system at the Lots Road power station featured in the film as well as producing its own brand of tea. It was, too, well funded, and extended yet more lines out to the suburbs, dotted with a series of wonderful art deco stations designed by Charles Holden.

The trains while quite full were nothing like as crowded as today in the rush hour. Some, such as those shown in the film, still had carriages split up into compartments, accommodating eight people sitting and several standing, while others were open plan like modern tube trains. Nevertheless, the system was established as the main way of getting round the capital for rich and poor alike. The London Underground has always been a great unifier of a great city.


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