It’s a spring morning in 1842, at London Bridge, a train station on the south bank of the River Thames.
With a clank of metal and a hiss of steam, a train chugs slowly into the station. As the engine comes to a halt, carriage doors fling open, and passengers flood out onto the platform.
Among the sea of men in suits and top hats flowing through the station is London-native Charles Pearson. Charles is a burly, busy-looking man nearing 50 who is on a mission to improve the city’s transportation system.
As he allows himself to be swept along by the crowd, Charles scans the hectic scene around him. At the end of the platform, through a wide pair of gates, the bustle of travelers rush out into the chaotic streets. In the tiny square outside the ticket office, dozens of railway porters, horse and carriages, street-sellers, and newspaper boys jockey for position.
Passing through the gates, Charles steps to one side, allowing the other businessmen to flow past him. He pulls out a notebook and jots down his observations, as his fellow passengers from the train push through the commotion outside the station. Some try to flag down a horse-drawn taxi or line up to secure a seat on the crowded buses that will carry them on across London. Others merely try to elbow their way through the crowd and head off on foot into the clogged and narrow streets of the British capital.
The hectic scene is all too familiar to Charles. But he thinks he has the solution.
Charles Pearson works in the City of London, a bastion of the English establishment. But despite his personal wealth and high social status, Charles has always been different, a radical, a man with an eye on the future, a campaigner for the poor and disenfranchised of Victorian Britain. And he has an idea to solve the travel chaos that is choking the vast city he calls home: a railway underground.
It’s an idea that will be mocked and dismissed by many as an impossible dream. But, two decades later, Charles’s vision will lead to the opening of the first underground passenger railway in the world on January 10th, 1863.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 10th, 1863: The First Underground Train.
Act One: The Campaign
It’s the evening of May 11th, 1846, almost 17 years before the world’s first underground passenger railway will open to the public.
At the medieval Guildhall in the heart of the City of London, a council meeting is underway. City lawyer Charles Pearson stands in the middle of the grand room before the gray and bearded ranks of local councilors. On a table beside him is a large wooden box, its sides secured with eight padlocks. Charles tells the intrigued councilors that inside the box is the solution to the transport chaos they all see on the streets every day.
By the middle of the 19th Century, London is dying – of its own success. The city is the capital of the growing British Empire and vast wealth is flowing in from all corners of the world. People have followed - and in huge numbers. At the beginning of the century, the population of London was just under a million, but by the 1840s, that number has more than doubled.
This transformation has only been possible thanks to the railways. The first public railway powered by steam only opened 16 years prior in 1830. But it sparked a mania. Britain is now crisscrossed by new railways, with more being built all the time.
But there’s one place where no railways have been built; they are banned in the center of London. All the new lines to the capital terminate at the city’s outskirts. The thousands of passengers they carry every day must find their own way across the vast city. The traffic this creates is choking roads and making life increasingly unbearable. Something must be done, so the British government has formed a Royal Commission to investigate and decide the future of transportation in London.
Charles Pearson has a bold proposal for this Commission, but to persuade them of its worth, he needs the support of the influential councilors of the City of London.
So now as Charles speaks to them, he circles the large box he’s brought with him and slowly undoes the padlocks one by one. His audience leans forward as, finally, he lifts the lid revealing an intricate model of an enormous train station. What Charles proposes is a Grand Central Railway Terminus for London, linked to existing stations by the never-before-seen innovation of underground railways.
For the next two hours, Charles explains his idea in minute detail. He wins the support of many of the men present. But it’s not enough to see his idea adopted by the Royal Commission.
When the Commission publishes its recommendations later that year, Charles’ ideas aren’t included. But that doesn’t put Charles off. He knows that the capital is still growing so fast that another government inquiry will be needed before too long. And when that time comes, Charles plans to be ready.
Over the coming years, Charles releases pamphlets, gives public speeches, and even stands for parliament – all to spread his dream of building an underground railway. Charles firmly believes that an underground system would take thousands of commuters off the roads every day. But to be built, the line still needs permission from the British government. So, Charles begins gathering evidence for his claims.
Eight years after his proposals were first rejected by the Royal Commission, Charles develops the city’s first-ever traffic survey. At his own expense, Charles hires a team to count the passing pedestrians and vehicles on every major road and station in the City of London.
After completing the survey, Charles presents his findings to Parliament. He tells the government that overcrowding in the city isn’t just caused by its growing population. The traffic in the streets is greatly caused by the buses and cabs serving commuters, or, as Charles describes them: “the population of the city who now oscillate between the country and the city, who leave the City of London every afternoon and return every morning”.
Charles' evidence will be compelling and this time the government will listen. In August 1854, the newly formed Metropolitan Railway Company will be given permission to build an underground railway in London. But Charles’ campaign will not end just yet. The government may have given its permission, but it won’t fund the new line. If Charles’ dream is to become reality, he will have to find some money first.
Act Two: Construction
It’s early 1858, five years before the opening of the world’s first underground passenger railway.
At the Guildhall in the City of London, Charles Pearson waits outside the office of the Lord Mayor, the head of the city’s local government. By now, Charles is in his mid-sixties and has been promoting his dream of an underground railway for over 15 years. But throughout all this time, Charles has not lost any of his enthusiasm. He has a briefcase full of papers, plans, and projections, all ready for his appointment with the Lord Mayor. It’s a meeting which could decide the fate of the whole project.
The Metropolitan Railway Company desperately needs money. Three and a half years have passed since it secured permission to build an underground railway in London. But construction is estimated to cost almost a million pounds and the company has nowhere near that – it’s struggling to attract investors, who are wary of such untried technology.
Charles isn’t a company director and is only a minor shareholder, and yet he’s taken on the task of saving the entire project. To do that, he’s come to see the Lord Mayor to convince the City of London itself to invest in the railway.
After a long wait, Charles is finally ushered into the Lord Mayor’s office. There, he once again lays out his well-practiced arguments. The city is dying. The new railway can save it.
But the Lord Mayor hesitates to grant him funding, fearing that any investment by local government could be illegal as some of the scheme’s opponents claim. But Charles expected this objection and he’s unearthed a precedent to show the Lord Mayor that what he proposes is perfectly lawful. At the turn of the century, the City of London invested in large commercial docks on the River Thames. That was deemed legal, so any similar investment in a railway line should be too.
The Lord Mayor is convinced. He gives the go-ahead for the City of London to invest two hundred thousand pounds, and with this backing, other investors gain the confidence to come forward. Soon, the Metropolitan Railway Company has the needed money in place, and Charles’ project can finally begin.
Two years after his meeting with the Lord Mayor, construction is underway in the center of London. The air rings to the sound of pickaxes and shovels as thousands of workmen labor to dig a wide trench out of the London soil. Deep in the pit, Charles picks his way through the lines of laborers. With an engineer beside him as a guide, Charles marvels at the scene before him. His long-cherished dream is being turned into reality before his eyes.
In charge of the construction is a man from Yorkshire named John Fowler. He’s an experienced railway engineer and regarded as one of the best in the country. But a building project like this has never been attempted before.
The company is using a technique called ‘cut and cover’ – the planned route is cleared of buildings and then a 33-foot-wide trench is dug. The two railway lines – one for each direction – are laid down inside the trench before the whole thing is roofed over with iron girders or arches made of brick. The tunnel created is not deep, but, as Charles’ guide explains, even this shallow depth is causing headaches for John Fowler and the other engineers. They’ve run into sewers and pipes which had to be redirected, and they’ve been forced to reinforce the foundations of nearby buildings to keep them from falling down.
And with all these obstacles, work has been slow. To speed construction, company engineers developed a rudimentary conveyor belt, which is housed in a wooden tower forty feet high. It lifts excavated earth out of the trench so it can be carried away to a spoil heap in West London. But even with this innovation, most of the work is still done by hand.
The project draws in labor from all over the country and, as Charles walks through the mammoth construction site, he hears snippets of conversations, work songs, and curses almost in every accent of English he can think of. Thousands of men toil in shifts around the clock – it’s filthy and dangerous work, with the constant risk that the trench they’re digging will flood or collapse. But to Charles’ delight, he sees that the Metropolitan Railway is slowly growing.
Construction will continue for more than two years as the new line snakes three and a half miles across the center of London. There will be accidents and delays as the workers carve this path out of the earth, but finally, at the beginning of 1863, Charles’ new railway, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, will be ready to welcome passengers.
Act Three: Opening
It’s January 10th, 1863 in a newly opened train station beneath the streets of London.
Under the dull yellow glow of a gaslight, a gray-whiskered businessman in a top hat waits on the platform. The crowd is packed tight around him, excited to be there for the opening day of the new underground railway.
The crowd's chatter falls silent as the chug of a distant steam engine echoes through the earth. It grows louder and louder. And then, with a sudden roar of smoke and the scream of metal on metal, the train bursts out of the tunnel. There are cheers and applause among the crowd as the steam engine slows and comes to a halt.
All at once, everyone on the platform surges forward to clamber onboard. The grey-whiskered businessman just manages to claim one of the last seats in first class when a whistle pierces through the smoke still lingering on the unventilated platform. The brakes are released and the engine shudders forward. They’re on the move, and into the tunnel.
Tens of thousands of passengers ride the Metropolitan Railway on its opening day. The trains run six times an hour and crosses London in just 18 minutes. But one man isn’t there to witness this special occasion. Charles Pearson, the radical lawyer who first came up with the idea of an underground railway, the man who campaigned so long to have it built, did not live to see it completed. He died at the age of 68 at his home in South London in September 1862, just four months before the railway opened.
But Charles left a legacy which would live on forever in the history of London. He was the man whose vision and determination cleared the way not only for the Metropolitan Railway but for a whole network of interconnecting lines that burrowed deep beneath the earth of the British capital. The London Underground now carries millions of passengers every day. But it was thanks above all to the efforts of one man that it transported its first passengers on January 10th, 1863.
Next onHistory Daily. January 11th, 1879. The Anglo-Zulu War begins when a British army invades Zululand in modern-day South Africa.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser