IMG 6079fi 800x425 - 110 years of the Underground

110 years of the Underground

The important anniversary everyone’s missed! It may come as a surprise to find the Underground’s just 110 years old this week. How can that be? The Metropolitan began in 1863 and the City & South London Railway 1890. The huge 150th Anniversary celebrations back in 2013. How then did the ‘Underground’ not even begin until 1908??

Its a bit complicated! London’s new below-the-ground railways were always called railways. Not subways (unlike the short lived The Tower Subway of the 1860’s.) The Metropolitan’s full official title in 1863 was actually Metropolitan Underground Railway however its middle name was soon dispensed with. The District followed suit simply calling itself a railway. The City and South London too called itself a railway, and not a subway as originally planned. Quaint Britishness indeed – but also a very subtle way of avoiding extra regulations.

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The Metropolitan Underground Railway – the full title (1863) of the 1st ever line

‘The Tube’ began with the onset of the Central London Railway which soon found itself popularised as ‘The Two-Penny Tube’ (a reference to its cheap and cheerful fare.) Certainly the other lines, Bakerloo, Piccadilly, Northern also reinforced the notion this was indeed London’s new tube system.

The companies themselves loved the name ‘the tube’ but since the Metropolitan and the District (and Circle for that matter) were not even tube lines of any sort, ‘tube’ wasnt the correct description when it came to deciding upon a common identity in order to garner publicity. Mindful of the issues the City & South London had faced, the new ‘tube’ lines prior to 1908 were careful to call themselves the London Underground Electric Railways.

On 29 February 1908 (a day that exists only every four years – there wasn’t such a day this year) the eight London metro railway companies got together to discuss and agree upon a corporate name. They decided to use UNDERGROUND as it described the system in the best way possible. The idea was implemented straightaway. Stations began to appear with UNDERGROUND/UndergrounD. Almost immediately the very first network maps were created and printed to show all the lines together as part of the ‘Underground’ was produced. Previously these maps had been down to each individual company (or perhaps individual publishers) and thus didn’t show the other lines completely – or not at all.

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The first official UndergrounD map – 1908. Source: Gizmodo

By 1933 the whole system was under one umbrella, the London Passenger Transport Board and all its trains had the official ‘London Underground’ name stenciled on their sides. That has been the name by which the system is known by ever since. These days its simply ‘Underground’ but the means remains the same.

This is not a comprehensive detail on the history of the ‘underground’ or ‘tube’ maps. However it must be pointed out the notion of not calling the system ‘The London Underground’ does provoke insensibilities. Yes we all call it ‘the tube’ but the official name is ‘London Underground’ (or ‘Underground’ for that matter.) It may come as a surprise to know London Transport made an attempt to change that name. It just wasn’t well received.

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The controversial 1979 ‘London Tube’ map

That attempt took place in 1979, almost seventy years after ‘UNDERGROUND’ had been widely accepted, attempts were made to end the use of the old name and start officially calling it ‘The London Tube.’ The standard tube map, no 1 of 1979, was certainly made in this way. Yes it had ‘Underground’ towards the bottom of the page but notice how ‘London Tube’ was placed at the top in such big letters. This was indeed a huge shift.

For that reason alone the 1979 tube map stands out uniquely in the history of the London Underground. It was made especially with the introduction of the new Jubilee Line in mind and the notion everyone would start using an official new name – the ‘London Tube.’ It didn’t work.

Lots of people objected to the new system map especially the use of ‘London Tube.’ LT backtracked and consequently system maps were once again called London Underground – the name it has always been known by. That hasn’t stopped the word ‘tube’ being used. The difference is ‘Underground’ still remains the main corporate name. Anything else (including ‘tube’) is simply an add-on, a nickname of sorts.

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Journey Planner worked for a while….

Since then the network map has had ‘Journey Planner,’ ‘Tube Guide’ or ‘Tube Map’ added but LONDON UNDERGROUND is almost always at the top (just one or two exceptions) to reinforce the idea it is officially that and not ‘the Tube’ or whatever.

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The current set of tube maps (tube/overground) clearly shows how ‘London Underground’ remains the primary/establishing name. Anything else is an add-on, a buzz-word perhaps such as ‘Night Tube.’ Yes these are officially used names but they are most definitely not the business title.

2 Comments

  1. I am not a Londoner but lived in London from 1976 to 1978, when I travelled to work in South Kensington on the Circle Line from Paddington. I once referred to this line as ‘the tube’ and was told in no uncertain terms by an older colleague that the Circle, District and Metropolitan lines were not tube lines, and that this term should only be used when referring to the deep lines that had been ‘bored out’. Having left London in 1978 I have always maintained this distinction, but when I mentioned it to several Londoners recently they assumed I must have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

    This article confirms that what I was told reflected the situation at the time I lived there, when many, if not most Londoners considered there to be a clear distinction between the two main types of underground line.

  2. This distinction was still widely understood in the 90’s when I moved to London but it does seem to be disappearing. I’ve even overheard someone on the London Overground, which in your day would have mostly been British Rail, shouting “I’m on the tube” into their mobile.

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