‘Necessity is the mother of Invention’. If ever there was a phrase which summed up the London of the Victorian era, surely this one would be it. Certainly, given the many problems which confronted it during this time, it is little wonder that the 19th century city responded by becoming a febrile hub of creativity and innovation – it could hardly have been otherwise if the metropolis was to avoid falling victim to its own success.
The ever-expanding city
The root of city’s problems lay in the fact that the population of Greater London had, quite simply, exploded. From 1801 to 1850, the number of people living in the city more than doubled from one million to 2.5 million, and by the turn of the century, that number would increase to an extraordinary 6.5 million inhabitants.
Unsurprisingly, such a rapid increase put London’s already poor infrastructure under severe strain, with the most obvious problem being transport, or more precisely, the lack of it. Continuous urban sprawl had seen the city’s boundaries move ever outwards, and by the mid-1800s, once rural villages like Hampstead and Highgate had been voraciously swallowed up. As such, improved transport links became a necessity – the increased distances and the sheer volume of demand meant that traditional modes of conveyance like stagecoaches and hackney carriages would no longer suffice.
London’s entrepreneurs and civil engineers proved equal to the task. In 1829, the first horse-drawn 20-seater coach (or ‘omnibus’) was introduced. By the 1850s, some 1,300 similar coaches were in operation, many of them serving the six newly-built railway termini situated beyond the city centre – Waterloo, Euston, London Bridge, Paddington, King’s Cross and Bishopsgate. And the railways were not confined to the city’s fringes –the London & Greenwich passenger line, which ran along a four-mile viaduct from London Bridge to Greenwich, was completed by 1836. Trams were also running along London’s streets by the 1870s.
‘Train in a drain’
But it wasn’t until the introduction of underground railways that Londoners witnessed a real revolution in transport. Work began on the Metropolitan Railway – the first ‘train in a drain’ – in 1860 (pictured) and was completed in 1863. Powered by steam, the locomotive ran between Paddington to Farringdon Street, and proved so popular that it was soon carrying up to 26,000 passengers a day. By the close of 1865, the line had been extended as far as Moorgate in the heart of the City.
In order to ensure financial viability, rail companies expanded the network rapidly; soon the octopoid arms of the underground had snaked even further outwards. The Circle Line was completed by 1884, followed by the Waterloo and City in 1898, the Northern Line in 1890 and the Central Line in 1900 (to name but a few). From 1890, efficiency was improved when steam trains were gradually replaced by their electric equivalents.
Such was the success of the underground enterprise, it facilitated the building of still more suburbs. The early part of the 20th century saw the construction of ‘Metroland’, a mass of new suburbs to the northwest of the city, which extended into Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire – so named because they were served by the ever-lengthening Metropolitan Line.
Today, the London Underground or ‘Tube’ continues to be an integral part of the life of the city. Some three million journeys are made daily, across 408km of train lines serving 275 stations. Indeed, without this 150-year-old Victorian invention, the London of the 21st century would be altogether unable to function.
Sinead’s new book, A Short History of London, is now available in print or as an ebook.
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