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The London Underground: Creating the Tunnels

The creation of the London Underground was a masterpiece of civil engineering that began in the mid-19th century. Built following a suggestion made in 1845 by London solicitor Charles Pearson, it has grown into one of the busiest transport networks in the world today.

A staggering five million passengers a day are transported along the rail network's 402km of tracks, connecting 270 stations, linked by 11 lines. The Tube trains transport a total of 1.265 billion passengers some 76.4 million kilometres every year.

London Underground

© Windowseat / Adobe Stock

The Northern Line holds two records - it is home to the Underground's longest tunnel, measuring 17.3 miles and connecting Morden to East Finchley, while the deepest station, Hampstead, operates from 58.5 metres below ground.

Considering the transport network was created in the days before civil engineers had the benefits of modern technology and machinery, the magnitude and splendour of the London Underground are apparent.


When was London Underground created?

Pearson was a prominent London solicitor in the mid-19th century. Born in the city in 1793, he became increasingly interested in improving the transport system, mainly to help commuters to reach their workplace. In 1845, when he was 52, Pearson drew up what appeared to be futuristic plans for a new underground transport network.

It included a central rail station which would be accessed by a tunnel. He suggested that several different rail operators could use the Underground to help commuters reach the city from their homes in the suburbs.

Initially, his proposals were turned down, but he refused to give up and used his influential position as a solicitor to lobby for an Underground rail network. Finally, nine years after he first made the suggestion, the Royal Commission agreed to examine ideas for a new railway system for the capital in 1854.

Pearson's plans for the London Underground soon gained widespread support. On 7th August 1854, a private bill for the Metropolitan Railway was passed, enabling the construction of the railway system to commence between Farringdon and Praed Street in Paddington.


When did construction begin?

Constructing the Tube network was a massive undertaking for the engineers tasked with its completion. It was known as the Metropolitan Railway in the early years.

Prior to the official launch of the new rail network, London already had one underground tunnel that had been completed and opened in 1843 - the Thames Tunnel. The project had been led by Marc Brunel, whose son was the ultimately more famous civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

It was built to allow people to travel underneath the River Thames and was the first tunnel in history to be constructed under a river. Eventually, it became part of the London Underground network, after operating as a stand-alone tunnel.

The Thames Tunnel was considered to be Brunel's lifetime masterpiece and was a tourist attraction in its own right. When it opened on 25th March 1843, some 50,000 people walked through, paying one penny each for the privilege. During the first three months, an estimated one million people visited the pedestrian tunnel, coming from all over the world to marvel at this feat of engineering.


Who constructed the Underground?

Civil engineer John Fowler made Pearson's ideas a reality when he designed the first London Underground system. He was a skilled engineer, who had also built the Forth Railway Bridge.

Other engineers involved in the design and construction of the network included Harry Bell Measures who designed Oxford Circus Station, and architect John Wolfe-Barry, who was the designer of Tower Bridge, created most of the District Line.

Prior to the construction of the Underground, more surface railway lines and stations were built. These included the London and South Western Railway's line to Waterloo Bridge from Southampton and Richmond.

Tenders were awarded to a number of companies to carry out the work. The £229,064 contract (equivalent to £23.9 million in today's money) for the main tunnelling work went to John Mowlem and Co.


How were the tunnels built?

The building work was physically demanding for the legion of labourers toiling underground in hot and cramped conditions. The first step was to build platforms known as "staging" in the Thames, around 500ft west of Blackfriars Bridge.

Mowlem drove piles for a cofferdam into the earth. This was a watertight enclosure enabling construction work to be completed below the waterline. Next, two vertical shafts, each with an internal diameter of 16ft, were built. The depth of the tunnels was, on average, 45ft. The points at the River Thames were deeper, at 63ft underground.

The system used for the tunnels was known as the Greathead system of shield excavation. Twenty men worked on each shaft, carrying out cast iron segment lining and compressed air grouting. The excavated materials were conveyed to the staging near Blackfriars Bridge by a narrow gauge railway, using three locomotives supplied by the Siemens Company.

There was little mechanised equipment and a steam excavator was one of the few pieces of machinery used. Hard work was carried out by thousands of men, using relatively primitive equipment, including picks and shovels. Every bucket full of clay had to be transported to the surface for removal as the work progressed.

When the first Underground lines were being constructed in the late 1860s and 1870s, they connected a series of suburbs to the capital. It was an arduous process and progress seemed agonisingly slow.

Engineers developed a new underground tunnel-boring method, using a frame that allowed many labourers to bore the tunnel in individual compartments. This minimised the risk of the tunnel collapsing. The first Underground tunnels were constructed at a progress rate of only four inches per day.

Early locomotives were steam-driven and lit by gas lamps, but in 1890, electric trains were launched on some routes and the whole network was electrified by 1907.


What were the 20th-century developments?

The expansion of the London Underground continued throughout the 20th century. Construction of the Victoria Line in 1965 was captured on film by British Transport Films, giving a fascinating insight into the work going on underground. People above ground enjoyed the sunshine, having no idea of the hive of activity below them!

The progress rate by this time was around 10ft per day - a massive improvement on the four inches a day achieved a century earlier! The workforce had to carve out 23 miles of tunnel to complete the section. Huge segments of metal were then added to make the tunnel's sides.

As segments of the roof were put into place on the 21ft-diameter tunnel, the miners were referred to as "human moles", working day and night to ensure the project was finished on time, in what was described as an "oven-hot" part of London.

Tons of wet clay dug from the tunnels was hauled to waiting lorries on the surface, using a system of non-stop rubber conveyor belts. The huge chunks of clay were placed on the conveyor belt system continually and transported seamlessly to the surface to be disposed of.

The underground conveyor belt system was the same as those used in coal and other mining applications. They are known for increasing the mines' energy efficiency and reliability, while keeping maintenance costs low.


When were travolators added?

The travolators, also known as moving walkways, were provided to help pedestrians navigate the Underground safely. When the Waterloo City line was built, the platforms were a considerable distance from the surface exits. This meant passengers had to walk up and down a long, sloping tunnel.

Passengers continually complained how difficult it was to walk along the slope and from 1929, as passenger numbers began to increase considerably, there were proposals to improve this access route. The physical exertion of navigating the slope was made more difficult due to the congestion and it was becoming a hazard.

Proposals included new exits, escalators and the construction of a direct connection to the Central London Railway platform - later to become Central line. However, none of the suggestions hit the mark. Then, in the 1950s, a Speedwalk system was invented in the United States.

It comprised a continuously moving rubber belt system on which pedestrians could stand. They were transported smoothly to their destination, without even having to move their legs if they chose not to.

On 4th July 1957, British Railways commissioned civil engineering works for a sloping access tunnel, complete with two travolators, for the London Underground. The system was officially called the Trav-O-Lator. Despite government funding cuts imposed on the railways, the scheme continued, albeit with some delays.

Each travolator measured a mighty 302 feet long. Finally, the scheme was completed and formally opened by the Lord Mayor of London on 27th September 1960.

The fascinating history of London Underground is captured as part of a permanent photographic exhibition at the Museum of London called "London: Look Again".

As one of the UK's leading manufacturers of high-quality rubber products, Coruba supplies a wide range of rubber matting and other items for many applications. For more information, give us a call on 01702 560194.

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