Happy Birthday, London Underground!

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By | From the Collections

On Saturday 10th January 1863, a few yards from where the Wellcome Library now stands, a short stretch of railway line was opened to the public.  Only a few miles long, running from the Great Western Railway’s Paddington terminus to Farringdon Street on the fringes of the City of London, it was far shorter even than the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway that had begun the railway age, never mind the long-distance lines that had opened up over Britain and the rest of the world in the subsequent thirty years.  Its significance lay not in its length but in the fact it was underground throughout most of its length, including at its stations.  (One of those original stations, Gower Street, is now known as Euston Square and lies underneath one corner of the Wellcome Trust buildings on the Euston Road.)  The Metropolitan Railway, as it then was, was the world’s first underground metro service and straphangers around the world can trace their commute to that morning 150 years ago.

There is some controversy over the precise date that should be celebrated.  No railway springs into existence fully formed, of course, and there were many trial runs before the public opening: in the Library’s holdings is a print from the Illustrated London News showing one of these that took place the previous year, in 1862.  Transport for London (TfL) have treated the 9th as the date from which it all began, but this day was marked by a ride along the line for shareholders followed by a banquet: the 10th is the day on which the public were first admitted, and took to the new invention in droves.  For anyone who uses the Underground, whether as a daily commuter or as a visitor to the city (perhaps on your way to the Wellcome Library!) it is the 10th that marks the anniversary of experiences like yours.

The Underground then, of course, was very different from today’s.  It was envisaged initially as a way of extending the surface rail network: the Illustrated London News picture mentioned above shows how rails were laid to both standard and broad gauge so that trains from other networks, such as the broad-gauge Great Western, could run onto them.  This was particularly important because, unlike today’s Underground, it was envisaged as carrying freight as well as passengers.  The clearest difference from today, however, lay in the motive power: those first underground trains were hauled by steam locomotives and descending into the stations was often compared to a descent into hell, with smoke and smells all around you.  This initial line lay near the surface, being constructed by cut-and-cover rather than deep level boring, and emerged into the light occasionally so that smoke could escape (and footplate men avoid asphyxiation: though it must still have been a horrible working environment); only when the deep-level “Tube” railways began to open in the 1890s did electric traction become usual.

If only dirt and smells were confined to the Underground’s past: however, the combination of machinery being operated, millions of people moving around, and a confined environment, has always been a recipe for dust and dirt, and remains so to this day.  In the Library holdings is a report published by the Health and Safety Executive in 1982, long after steam on the underground had puffed into history, on Dust in the London Underground, examining the places where dust built up (Highgate station is particularly prone, apparently, due to the way train motors work hard up the steep slope to the station) and its composition; in particular the amount of asbestos that might be there.

The battle to keep the system clean and working has been constant for 150 years but in other ways the Underground has changed almost beyond recognition.  As more and more lines opened, and as in the course of the twentieth century they ceased to be owned by competing private companies and merged into one huge system, the Underground took on an increasingly strong identity of its own, distinct from the surface railways that brought passengers into the city.  In the twentieth century that identity was expressed strongly by design: the pioneering station designs first of Leslie Green and then of Charles Holden, the diagrammatic map devised by Harry Beck that spawned similar versions for most of the world’s other metros, the overall design ethos instilled by inter-war chief executive Frank Pick that spanned posters, seat-cushions, lighting and even the Underground’s very own typeface (Johnston Sans).  We can take a little pride in the fact that our founder Henry Wellcome talent-spotted someone early in their career who was later to play a part in this design explosion.  Richard Cooper (1885-1957), an artist based before the First World War in Paris, was commissioned by Wellcome to produce images illustrating diseases and moments in medical history, ten of which are in the Library catalogue.  After the First World War he became a successful graphic artist producing posters for the London Underground: an example of his work is here, on the London Transport Museum website.

Posters on the Underground are reading matter for millions of commuters and a coveted spot for advertising, whether by companies or charities.  In our archive collection are a couple of files documenting how the Family Planning Association (whose papers are held as SA/FPA) sought to advertise on the Tube in 1960 but found themselves banned.  One file, SA/FPA/A23/30, shows photos of the ensuing protests ; another, SA/FPA/A17/150, includes correspondence on the controversy, with letters between the FPA and various organisations and figures of the day.  There is an early appearance by a backbench London MP who was to go on to bigger things: Margaret Thatcher, surprisingly to those who remember the social conservatism of her government, writes in favour of overturning the ban.  In contrast Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party sits carefully on the fence, refusing to commit himself either way…

Perhaps the most striking convergence of the Wellcome Library and the London Underground, however, dates from the 1990s, and is a response to the AIDS crisis.  As a way of encouraging condom use and increasing awareness of sexual safety, the group GMFA (Gay Men Fighting AIDS) handed out little folders in gay bars: they were designed to look like a holder for a Travelcard (today we would say Oyster card), identical to those many of the bar’s clients would carry in their pockets, but inside contained a condom and a sachet of lubricant.  On the front, the words London Lube stand above what looks, at first sight, like the well-known circle-and-bar London Transport logo, but on closer inspection turns out to be a blue penis passing through a red circle; on the back, a list of destinations turns out to be a set of groan-making sexual puns on station names (“Shagwell”, “Bonk” and so on), all of which are to be reached via Condom Town.  More explicit instructions as to how you might use your freebies are included inside.  It’s all quite graphic and we can’t show it to you here as there might be children reading: you’ll just have to come to the Wellcome Library to see it.  Maybe by the Underground?



1/ Illustrated London News, 1862

2/ Dust in the London Underground, 1982


Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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