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‘A fertile site for our imaginations’: the Tube at 150

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 28 January 2013

Gower Street station

Gower Street station

Londoners have an ambivalent relationship with the Tube and, according to contemporary accounts, this was the case from the very start.

However, in the year of its 150th anniversary, there is a renewed sense of public affection and appreciation – not least because of its sterling performance during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This was certainly apparent at a Lunch Hour Lecture by Professor Richard Dennis (UCL Geography) on 15 January, where there was standing room only and a large number of people even had to be turned away.

Rather than describing a particularly short walk, the lecture’s title, ‘Gower Street to Euston Square: a local history of the Underground’, referred to how UCL’s local station started life as Gower Street station before being renamed in the early 20th century.

World’s oldest?
Professor Dennis opened his lively talk by making the claim that Euston Square is the world’s oldest underground railway station.

The reason being that, when the Metropolitan Railway opened to the general public on 10 January 1863 – as the first underground line in the world – only two of the initial seven stations on it were truly underground: Baker Street and Gower Street. The others were, in fact, built in deep cuttings covered with glass roofs.

The reason Baker Street doesn’t qualify as the world’s oldest is that, according to newspaper reports of a trial run in August 1862, it was nowhere near as far advanced as Gower Street – which was even able to host a workmen’s banquet on its platform in the same month.

Gower Street station was built underneath Marylebone and Euston Road using the cut and cover method and, even though it was fully underground, ventilation was not thought to be an important consideration.

It’s worth stopping for a moment to consider this: you’re running steam trains on an underground railway and ventilation somehow isn’t important?

‘Colds or suffocation’
Unsurprisingly, only three days after the Underground had opened for business, it received its first-ever letter of complaint. A correspondent to the Morning Post called for fans to be installed – irrespective of the risk of spreading germs – as he believed it was a choice between “colds or suffocation”.

By 1897, the Metropolitan Railway had expanded several times and was operating 542 trains each day at three-minute intervals. This had obvious safety implications, both in terms of smoke inhalation and the fact that drivers frequently couldn’t see signals and the signallers couldn’t see the trains!

The issue of ventilation continued to plague the Underground for the rest of the 19th century and reports soon circulated of passenger deaths from the smoke – even though chemical analysis in the 1860s found that the air in the stations was no worse than that found in theatres and law courts.

Professor Dennis pointed out that the Metropolitan Railway was opposed to ventilation, not only because of the technical challenges it presented, but also because it required more land and compensation for neighbours.

In 1896, a Board of Trade Committee was formed to look into the matter more closely. JS Haldane, father of JBS (the future Professor of Genetics at UCL), was a member of the committee and took over chemical labs at UCL to carry out analysis. The committee eventually ruled that ventilators should be built but only used for five years, in a bid to compel the Metropolitan Railway to electrify the line.

Electrify or die
The Met Railway was eventually forced by economic logic to electrify. Passengers soon began to desert the Metropolitan and District lines in their thousands, opting for the tuppenny tube trains of the Central line, which were electrified.

Then, on 1 November 1909, the railway officially changed Gower Street station’s name to Euston Square – emphasising its proximity to Euston in a bid to fend off competition from the Northern line.

Euston Square Station sign

Gregory Foster, UCL Provost at the time, wrote to the railway to express his opposition to the decision, as did Francis Oliver, professor of botany, who described it as “an act of unjustifiable vandalism” that showed “a contempt for history”. Both letters fell on deaf ears.

Professor Dennis spent the latter stages of his lecture reflecting on the appearance of Gower Street in Baroness Orczy short story ‘Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway’ and several novels by George Gissing.

In summing up, he described the history of our local station as “a history of the underground in miniature” and of the Underground “as a fertile site for all our imaginations – the criminal, the horrific, the erotic”.

Anthony Asquith’s 1928 silent film, Underground, is a vivid expression of this imagination at play and provides a fitting companion piece to Professor Dennis’ lecture. The BFI has re-released it to mark the Tube’s 150th and it is on general release now.

Ben Stevens is Content Producer (Editor) in UCL Communications & Marketing.

Watch video of the lecture here:

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