How The Tube Lines Got Their Names

By Nick Young Last edited 24 months ago
How The Tube Lines Got Their Names
No prizes for guessing which line this is on. Photo by photosam in the Londonist Flickr pool

Much as we like to complain about it, Londoners and visitors marvel at the London Underground to the extent that there’s a museum dedicated to it, and its logo and map have become design icons, depicted on everything from mugs to boxer shorts.  

It currently consists of 11 lines, which range in size from one-and-a-half to 52 miles. Some have their own associations; the Central line is regarded as energetic, the Circle line adventurous, and the Northern line intense. But where did their names come from? Some lines are named for a station, or stations, located along them. When looked at in closer detail, though, the names of our tube lines — names that are part of the everyday language of London — take in such diverse origins as a builder, a battle, a queen, a 16th century item of clothing and an extension plan that didn’t happen.

Bakerloo

Opened in March 1906, the brown line was originally called the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway on the grounds that it connected Baker Street — named after the 18th century builder William Baker, who built the street — with the London & South Western Railway’s terminus which had in turn been named after the famous battle. Within months, a shortened version of the name, Bakerloo, had caught on to the extent that it was quickly adopted as the official name.

Central

This one opened in 1900 under the name of the Central London Railway, although back then it only went between Shepherd’s Bush and Bank. It was so named because the idea had been to run a deep-level underground railway line through central London on an east-west axis. The ‘London’ part of the name was dropped in 1937 due to plans to extend the line beyond the boundaries of the old County of London.

A different angle on the District line. Photo by Ann Wuyts in the Londonist Flickr pool

Circle

Named due to its prior existence as a closed loop, running along the tracks of the Metropolitan/Hammersmith & City and District Lines for much of its length. Although it had long been planned that the Met and District Lines would between them form a circle around central London, the Circle did not became a line in its own right until 1949. The loop was broken in 2009 with an extension to Hammersmith, making it more of a spiral than a circle, but the name remains.

District

The Metropolitan District Railway opened in 1868. Originally running between South Kensington and Westminster, the plan was for it to merge with the slightly older Metropolitan Railway — hence the ‘Metropolitan’ part of the name — to create a circle of underground railway lines around central London. This didn’t happen, so the new line became known as the District Railway. The word ‘district’, by the way, derives from the Latin districtus, meaning 'area of jurisdiction'.

Hammersmith & City

The pink line was named due to its linking Hammersmith with the City of London, even though it actually extends out to the East End. The line from Hammersmith to Barking was originally part of the Metropolitan line, but it has had its own separate identity since 1990. The most likely theory for the origins of the name Hammersmith is that it is a combination of the Old English words hamor (hammer) and smyththe (smith).

The Jubilee line in all its shiny glory. Photo by Mike Lodge ARPS in the Londonist Flickr pool

Jubilee

Named to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, which is why it’s a silver/grey colour. However, the line that took over the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo Line and linked it with Charing Cross didn’t actually open until 1979. Originally it was to have been called the Fleet line, with a proposed extension to the City passing under the subterranean River Fleet. In the event, though, the extension (when it came) went south to Waterloo and then turned east to go to the Docklands.

Metropolitan

Running between Paddington and Farringdon, the Metropolitan Railway opened in January 1863 and was the first underground railway in the world. The word ‘metropolitan’ derives from ‘metropolis’, a word of Greek origin (literally, ‘mother city’) which over time came to mean a large city. In Britain, ‘the Metropolis’ was for many years a term used to refer to London, and this lives on in the name of the principal police force as well as the purple tube line. In the 20th century, the Met line was extended out to the developing suburbs to the north west of London, which in turn came to be known as Metro-land.

Northern

The ‘Misery line’ started out as two separate railway lines — the City & South London Railway and the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway, which opened in 1890 and 1907 respectively. The two were merged in the 1920s and 1930s, and at the same time the new line spread northwards and southwards, which led to it being called the Edgware, Highgate & Morden line. A few Bakerloo-style abbreviations were suggested (‘Edgmorden’), but in 1937 it was renamed the Northern line in anticipation of the Northern Heights extension plan which, if realised, would have pushed the line out to Bushey. It was cancelled when war broke out in 1939.

The Victoria line could have been called something very different. Photo by Katy/BlueyBirdy in the Londonist Flickr pool

Piccadilly

Named after the central London street, the name of which derives from the piccadill, a large broad lace collar which was fashionable in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Robert Baker, one of the most successful manufacturers of these, had acquired land in the area on which he built his house, Pikadilly Hall. The Piccadilly Line was opened in December 1906 as the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway; it originally ran from Finsbury Park (already a station on the Great Northern Railway) to Hammersmith. From the start, presumably for the sake of convenience, passengers referred to it as the Piccadilly Railway.

Victoria

The first entirely new tube line in half a century, the Victoria Line opened in 1968. There are no prizes for guessing that it is named after Victoria station, which was in turn named after Queen Victoria. Suggested alternatives during the planning stages had been ‘Walvic’ (Walthamstow-Victoria) and ‘Viking’ (Victoria-King’s Cross).

Waterloo & City

‘The Drain’ dates back to 1898 when the London & South Western Railway opened an underground line that connected their terminus at Waterloo with the City of London. They’d originally wanted to extend the main line into the City but as this was impractical they went for a separate line instead. The line was operated as a train line until 1994, when it was transferred to the London Underground as a result of the privatisation of British Rail.

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Last Updated 14 October 2016