In the centuries before the 19th century there had been little change or improvement in the ways which people travelled around. However, 19th century Britain – in particular London – witnessed a period of huge social, economic and political change and also an unprecedented explosion in the population of London – a population which would grow seven-fold from one million by the end of the century1. It quickly became apparent that new forms of public transport were necessary in order to accommodate the vast physical expansion of London which accompanied the population growth. The transport revolution hugely affected the capital and helped determine the growth, shape and status of the city as we know it today.
At the turn of the 19th century, there was no recognised public transport system. There was the horse and carriage and ferry boats but these were reserved for the rich and the rest had to get around by foot. People had to live within walking distance to their workplace and since many of the poor were directly dependent on the better off for their employment, the upper and lower classes often lived side by side on the same streets and districts. In the rapidly growing city, space became cramped and scarce. People realised that there had to be some sort of transport system that enabled them to live elsewhere and still be able to get to work on time.
The first important public transport appeared in 1829 and took the form of a horse-drawn coach – otherwise known as the omnibus. Introduced by George Shillibeer, the vehicles were drawn by three horses and could carry up to 20 passengers. It operated between Paddington and the City and the “cheap” fares cost a mere 6d (sixpence) at the most. It was so-called the “omnibus” because it originated from Paris where the omnibus meant “for all people”2. But even a sixpence was well beyond the means of ordinary Londoners and so although the omnibus and its subsequent imitators became vastly popular; it was still the preserve of the upper classes.
The number of omnibuses grew, but cheap fares and the huge costs of running the businesses forced most operators to be taken over by the London General Omnibus Company (the LGOC, which was backed by the French). By 1875, the company carried up to fifty million passengers a year3. They proved surprising resilient with the competition from the arrival of the railways and later, trams, and remained an important form of transport in London throughout the century. This was namely because they could carry passengers over short journeys and they could reach narrow streets and parts of the city where the rails and trams cannot.
Railways and steam trains were, however, the most important symbol of the transport revolution. The earliest steam-powered passenger railway in London was the London and Greenwich service, which opened in 1836, some eleven years after the first railway that was Stockton and Darlington. This led to the start of the Railway Mania where in the next couple of decades the framework of a national railway system would be built. There was little Government control over the building of new tracks, and railway companies motivated only by the commercial gains of the rails, simply proposed the laying of new tracks to be approved by the Government. By 1850, 6 000 miles of track had been laid with London being the centre of the network, connected to the Midlands, East Anglia and the South Coast4. The romance of the railways captured the imagination of the travelling and thus became a symbol of Victorian power and progress.
Railways were not initially seen by the public as commuter trains and in the 1850s, only 27 000 travelled into the city daily by trains. Railway terminals were therefore situated to link with canals (i.e. Euston and Paddington). The railway mania of the period generated so many rival railway proposals by different companies all wanting access to the heart of the city that in 1846,the Royal Commission (which was set up to deal with them) recommended that no further railways and terminals are to be permitted into the inner area of London5.
Therefore, many terminals were built surrounding the centre of London. As railway terminals inevitably create road traffic, the congestion on the roads of central London intensified. By 1865 there were even more horse-drawn buses carrying commuters to and from the terminals making some 7 000 journeys across the city centre, as well as the numerous carts and carriages delivering goods travelling through the already cramped and narrow streets, obstructing the city’s traffic flow. In addition to this approximately 200 000 people were entering the city daily on foot.
The streets were still essentially medieval and were little improved to accommodate the increased traffic; apart from those constructed in the early 1800s (Georgian London) namely by John Nash and his patron, the Price Regent, both who were obsessed in making a “more magnificent London”6. Among these road improvements were Regent Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, both created by the two enthusiasts. However, as it is the case in the 21st century, whatever and however numerous street improvements there may be, traffic simply seemed to increase to crowd the facilities designed to ease it. According to Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of Crystal Palace, the journey from London Bridge station to Paddington took longer than the journey from London Bridge to Brighton7.
The only solution to this problem seems to be to build some sort of pathway under the city floor, to divert some of the traffic away from the roads above ground and to give commuters an alternative route to travel around London. Thus, the building of the world’s first underground railway went underway. The Metropolitan Line was opened in 1863, built on the “cut and cover” principle a few feet underground under existing wide streets such as the Marylebone Road. It was also the first proper urban passenger railway and linked the major railway terminals together, that is, Paddington, Euston, King’s Cross and from 1867, St. Pancra’s and provided passengers easier and quicker access to the city. It proved an immediate success, and the Metropolitan Railway Company boasted 12 million passengers in the first year along its four mile length8. Later, a rival company built the District Line, which ran across the south of London linking some railways terminals there and also proved to be a success.
But underground tunnels and stations were lengthy and expensive to build, and both companies extended their lines towards the outer limits of London in search of more customers. The Metropolitan Line extensions went towards north west of London, into distant areas such as Harrow, Pinner and Aylesbury; the District Line extended its lines further west of London. Thus although these underground lines cannot be entirely responsible for creating new suburbs, they nevertheless played an important part in the physical expansion of London. It was not until twenty five years later in 1884 that they patched up their differences, and the Circle line was completed. The Circle line formed a ring of almost all the railway terminals around London which carried passengers directly to and from these terminals9.
While the undergrounds were being built, the rule of keeping the central London area free of railways had largely been ignored. A major railway was laid, by a new company called Chatham and Dover, which went from Blackfriars across the river Thames and straight through the City to join Farringdon Street on the Metropolitan line. This was mainly used for freight traffic then but nevertheless provided central London the only direct link from north to south and vice versa. By the 1870s, the railway network in central London had largely assumed its modern shape.
Another novelty of the transport revolution was the introduction of the horse-drawn tram. The tram required only two horses to draw the carriage which ran along smooth iron grooves on existing roads and could carry up to 50 passengers at a time. The fares were therefore a lot cheaper than those of trains and buses and also operated for longer hours than the latter; thus attracted a huge new class of passengers who could not otherwise afford the fares of most public transport before. The first tramline was introduced by an American named G. F. Train in 1861. But unlike the underground, it was a massive failure, mainly because of its route and was short-lived.
The tramline ran through prosperous and upper class districts in the West End, whose inhabitants considered themselves too superior to be in need of cheap fares and cramped seats. Afterwards, more lines opened up in the middle- and working-class districts where it eventually proved popular. However, inhabitants of central London and the West End were massively opposed to building lines in their districts as the tram carried what they thought of as unfavourable classes through their rich districts and so in 1872, the Parliament passed an act which prohibited tramlines in central London and the West End as was the case of the railways in earlier years. In doing so, trams played a role in creating a social divide between the upper and lower classes in London. But trams soon found their niche in the industry and by 1875, the trams had extended to the outer suburbs of London and were carrying almost as much passengers as the LGOC, which the owned most of the omnibuses in London10.
The transport story so far has encouraged the building of new suburbs, with their stations being the hub of new homes, shopping area, parishes, etc. Inevitably, this only renewed the traffic congestion crisis in London and new ideas were needed badly. So the next step of the transport revolution was the coming of electric and motorised forms of transport near the turn of the 20th century. After a few unsuccessful attempts, deep-level tunnelling techniques were perfected and deep-level tube rails were made possible.
The Central line was opened in 1900 and ran from Liverpool across the underground centre of the city to Shepherd’s Bush. The trains running along the line were of course electric. The Central threatened the position of established lines of the earlier period but an American entrepreneur named Charles T. Yerkes (who bought the District line) created the Underground Electric Railways London (UERL) to build new lines. So, after the success of the line, deep-level tube railways were rapidly constructed and central stretches of the lines became what is known now as Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly line. By this time, increasing scores of buses and trams were becoming electrified which gradually replaced horse-power vehicles as the years wore on.
The transport revolution left their mark on Victorian and 21st century London in many ways. In the beginning of the century, many poor districts and cramped areas were demolished in order to make way for wider, airier roads to facilitate traffic flows and were thought to be a solution for dispersing the criminal and unfavourable population that was the lower classes. In building the railways, many slums, homes of the poor, and countless buildings ands streets were destroyed in order to make way for the tracks to be laid. It changed the physical structures of London and it displaced many people from their homes, and left them to look for somewhere to live further out in the city. In facilitating the growth of London and it’s suburbs, the transport revolution encouraged the segregation of classes to different districts as far apart as the far east end and west end of London. The introduction of workman’s fares valid for travel at peak times on the railways, cheap tram fares, and high cost of omnibuses, kept the different classes to a distance, much to the upper classes relief.
Though for all its failures for improving the social situation of London, the railways and the rest of the transport story kept London viable as a commercial centre, fit for being the Capital of the United Kingdom, and gave suburbia a new lease of life11.
1 H. Clout, The Times History of London, 1999, p.84
2 Clout, op. cit., p80
3 ibid., p80
4 Anthony Gorst’s 19th Century London course lecture notes, 2003
5 F. Sheppard, London A History, 1998, p265
6 D. J. Olsen, The Growth of Victorian London, 1976, p.42
7 Barker and Robbins, 1963-74, i. 65-6; Sheppard, 1971, 138-9. In Sheppard, op. cit., p265
8 Anthony Gorst, op. cit.
10 Sheppard, op. cit., p.267
11 Port, p.283. in Anthony Gorst, op. cit.