“How The Tube Created London” Christian Wolmar Lecture @ The London Canal Museum

christian wolmar canal museum

Copyright Annie Mole @ london-underground.blogspot.com

In support of the Westminster Society (the charity that helps people with learning disabilities) respected transport journalist and author Christian Wolmar gave a talk at the London Canal Museum last night on how the growth of the tube network has influenced the expansion of our capital city. Also present was the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP, a junior Minister at the Department for Transport, but more on that in a moment…

Christian has written 10 books on the subject of public transit systems around the world but he based last night’s lecture, ‘How The Tube Created London’, on two of his books, “The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How it Changed the City Forever“, and “Down The Tube – The Battle For London’s Underground“. During Christian’s talk we learned, for example, that the early seeds of the underground network came from Victorian visionary Charles Pearson, who foresaw the need for a cheap and efficient way to travel around London as early as the 1840s and, with the bravado that only a Victorian entrepreneur could muster, helped raise funds which saw the first ‘cut and cover’ underground line built in just 3 years between Paddington and Farringdon and opened in 1863. Sadly, Pearson had died in the previous year so didn’t see his plan come to fruition…

We also heard about great rivals Forbes and Watkin who were largely responsible for the development and extension of several lines – the Circle, the District and the Metropolitan, and of course how those lines and the ones that followed them extended out into the countryside to be followed by housing which, Christian observed, is opposite to the way that most railways have developed across Europe and the rest of the world since. In particular, he noted that the housing areas along the Metropolitan Line remain largely unchanged from when they were originally devised – travel on that part of the network and you will still find the ‘Metroland’ echoed in Betjeman’s wonderful poems and the idyllic promotional posters of the time.

In addition to the fairly straightforward history of the network, Christian indulged the audience with a few rare nuggets of information that his research has unearthed – for example there was a big wheel built at Earls Court, rivaling the London eye in size, to entice people to move to the newly developed area. Holloway Road also sported a spiral escalator for a time, although to this day no-one has been able to determine exactly how it worked (even though its constituent parts are on display at the London Transport Museum’s Acton depot!). If you wondered why South London isn’t well served by the Underground its not because there was any aversion to building south of the river – the north side of the Thames has very solid geology made up of thick clays while in the south the ground is mostly sand and gravel, which is completely unsuited to tunneling. Also, if I asked you when steam trains last saw use on the network I imagine you’d suggest the early 20th century? Not so – the last steam-powered maintenance vehicles were taken out of service on the network in the 1970s!

After Christian’s talk there was a two-handed question and answer session with Theresa Villiers. I was a little nervous about this part of the evening, because its not unusual for people to come along to events like this with the express purpose of giving Ministers a good verbal going-over, and thats always very uncomfortable to watch. I shouldn’t have worried – I hadn’t taken into account the fact that the room would be full of railway and public transport buffs. The thrust of the inevitable questions around Crossrail and HS2 were not of the ‘not in my backyard’ nature, they were of the ‘please build them more quickly and then build even more please’ variety!

It was a fascinating evening, not least because of the setting – the London Canal Museum is one of London’s little oddities, just behind Kings Cross station, and contains exhibits dedicated to London’s extensive canal system. I should also mention that last night’s event was made possible by the Westminster Society, who have been working with people with learning disabilities for nearly 50 years. You can find out how you can help, either by donating, volunteering your time or becoming an official supporter of the organisation, on their website here. You can also follow them on Twitter.

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About The Londoneer

Pete Stean is a keen blogger, amateur photographer, singer and ham radio enthusiast in his spare time...