A Brief History Of The Metropolitan Line

By M@ Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2023

A Brief History Of The Metropolitan Line

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The Metropolitan Railway under construction in 1861, near King's Cross. Image public domain

A punchy, quick-fire history of the Metropolitan line.

This is where it all began. The Metropolitan Railway opened from Paddington to Farringdon in 1863 becoming not only London's but also the world's first underground passenger railway. In the 160+ years since, it's sprawled in multiple directions, at one time extending 50 miles outside the capital. This is its story, from the first spade in the ground to the 160th anniversary celebrations of 2023...

See also:
A brief history of the Central line
A brief history of the Bakerloo line
A brief history of the Jubilee line

1845: Charles Pearson is usually credited as the first person to seriously propose an underground railway for London. His scheme would have yielded an "atmospheric railway". That is, one in which a pressure difference drives a car along like a pea in a pea-shooter. That same year, John Williams (not the Star Wars one, obviously) suggested a subterranean "metropolitan railway" to relieve traffic on the streets. It would also incorporate gas and water pipes.

Charles Pearson
Charles Pearson, an early mover and shaker of underground railways. We've given him an anachronistic Metropolitan-purple bowtie because... well, because we're a bit silly.

1852: Pearson perseveres. This year he presents plans to link Farringdon to King's Cross via an underground railway. It is the first true twinkling of what would later become the Met. Pearson's scheme hits a brick wall, but his company is later bought by another company who take on and embiggen the plans to Paddington.

1854: The North Metropolitan Railway Act is passed, allowing construction to begin. It does not. Several years are needed to tweak the plans and raise the capital.

1859 (Aug): A modified plan, linking Farringdon to a station just shy of Paddington, is approved and... finally... the money is in place.

1860 (Jan): Work begins on London's (and the world's) first underground railway line. The first spadefuls of soil seem to have been excavated at Westbourne Terrace, just west of the Great Western Hotel (now the front of Paddington mainline station). Further shafts were immediately sunk at the corner of Euston Square and Seymour Street, and beside King's Cross station. Excavated soil from this latter dig is taken away along the Great Northern Railway and dumped on an embankment between Hornsey and Wood Green. One day, we'll get round to mapping where all the excavated soil from Underground projects ended up... but this is not that day.

1860 (8 May): The first recorded death on an underground railway anywhere in the world. An eight-year old boy, Andrew Lawford Wall, was playing on one of the mounds of spoil from excavations near King's Cross. He slipped and fell under the wheels of a bus, which fatally crushed him.

1860 (30 May): An accident of "terrific character" occurs at King's Cross when a train of the Great Northern Railway overshoots its tracks and falls into the Metropolitan works. Miraculously, nobody is killed, though several people are injured. A drunken guard takes the blame for not applying the brakes.

1860 (1 Nov): A boiler explosion on a workers' locomotive near King's Cross kills two men — the first fatalities on an underground train.

1861 (24 May): Part of the cutting collapses along Euston Road causing much damage to nearby homes. The affected area is where the British Library's forecourt now stands. Nobody is injured. By now, this chronology is starting to sound like nothing more than a catalogue of errors. That would be unfair. Although the construction phase was marred by a series of accidents, it's remarkable to think the whole line was built in just three years.

1861 (28 Nov): The first recorded underground railway journey in the world. A group of invited journalists ride in an open-top car from Paddington to Edgware Road, and then walk along the tracks to Euston, followed by another short train ride from King's Cross to Farringdon and back. The names of the journalists are not recorded but we do know that the journey included railway bigwigs John Fowler (chief engineer) and WH Wilkinson (Chair), and a secretary by the curious name of Mr Henchman. These, then, are the first named individuals ever to ride on London Underground (see Londonist: Time Machine for more details of this debut trip).

1862 (May): James Driscoll becomes the first person to be killed by somebody else on an underground railway. Driscoll was working near King's Cross when he fell into dispute with fellow worker Edward Gregory. The pair traded blows before Gregory "took hold of Driscoll, and flung him with great violence into the cutting below". Driscoll initially survived the fall, with compound fractures to both legs. He later died of shock following amputation. Gregory was found guilty of manslaughter, becoming the first person to be convicted of taking another life on the nascent underground network.

1862 (24 May): William Gladstone becomes the first celebrity to ride along the tracks. The then-Chancellor and his wife are joined by dozens of comedy hat-wearers on the first train to run the whole way from Paddington to Farringdon.

William Gladstone rides on the future Metropolitan line in 1862
Gladstone's the one in the hat.

1862 (15 Jun): Gladstone got his ride in just in time. A month later, a large section of cutting was badly damaged when the Fleet Sewer burst through its walls following heavy rain. The incident occurred near Ray Street where, famously, you can still hear the Fleet flowing today, beside the Coach pub (which was flooded by this incident). The catastrophic damage sets back the opening of the line by several months (it would probably be years today).

The collapse of the met line
Don't worry, they'll have it all rebuilt within six months. Image public domain

1863 (9 Jan): The official opening celebrations take place. Hundreds of shareholders, invited guests and a general assortment of posh people get to ride the line, followed by a banquet at Farringdon.

1863 (10 Jan): The line opens to the public. The stations — mostly in the same places as today, albeit with a few different names — are Paddington (Bishop's Road), Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road, Gower Street, King's Cross and Farringdon Street. 38,000 people ride the line on the first day, and it remains overly-subscribed for many weeks.

Baker street circle line platforms
The original Baker Street Metropolitan Railway platforms, now part of the Circle line

1864 (12 Mar): Mr Aquila John Williams is the first person convicted of graffiti-writing on the underground. His exact message is not reported in the press, but is said to contain "obscene words". Williams was fined 40 shillings, with the judge naively concluding: "no doubt the publicity the case would receive would be effectual in preventing such conduct in future".

1864 (13 Jun): The Met's first extension opens, just a year and a half after the first section. It heads west from Paddington to serve the suburbs of Notting Hill, Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith (now part of the Hammersmith & City line).

1865 (23 Dec): As an early Christmas present, the Met is extended east into the City to connect up Barbican (then Aldersgate Street) and Moorgate.

The debut stations, as sketched in 1862. Image public domain

1866: Almost a year to the day after opening, Aldersgate station becomes the scene of the Underground's first disaster. Contractors working above the tracks manage to drop a four-tonne iron girder, just as a train is passing below. It smashes through a carriage killing four people. Remarkably, the line is up and running again within half an hour.

1868: The Metropolitan Railway begins the first of many expansions out into the north-western suburbs, which would later become synonymous with the line. But, for now, it only reaches as far as Swiss Cottage.

1868 (26 May): The last public execution in Britain takes place outside Newgate prison. This, then, is the last date upon which the public could catch the Underground to Farringdon in order to watch someone hang.

1880: Over the previous 12 years, the Metropolitan Railway had gradually worked its way farther out into the suburbs. In this year, it reaches the future branch point of Harrow-on-the-Hill.

1897: Various extensions to the line have opened over the past few years, reaching Pinner (1885), Chesham (1889) and Aylesbury (1892). In this year, the Metropolitan reaches its north-western extreme at Verney Junction — a staggering 50 miles from Baker Street and about as far out of London as Oxford. Should have been renamed the Metropolitan and Rural Railway.

1904: The extension to Uxbridge opens... though by now you've probably lost track of these north-western add-ons.

1905: After 42 years of steam-powered chuffing, the Met goes (partly) electric, introducing both multiple electric units (power to each car from a third rail), and electric locomotives on different sections. The conversion not only makes the air below ground more breathable, but also speeds up the service.

1914: The Metropolitan Railway introduces its own diamond-style 'roundel', which resembles the circular ones already adopted by other local railway companies. A replica can still be seen at Moorgate.

A diamond roundel at moorgate
Image Matt Brown

1915: This giddy expansion of the Metropolitan into (and beyond) the north-west of London leads to a rapid growth in house building and the creation of whole new suburbs. In this year, the Met's marketing department coined the word "Metro-Land", which is still occasionally used to describe this quadrant of London.

1925: The branch from Rickmansworth to Watford opens.

1932: The last bit of new Met line opens, from Wembley Park to Stanmore. It would later shift allegiance to the Bakerloo and then the Jubilee line, where it remains today.

1933: The Metropolitan Railway ceases to exist as an independent company. From this year, it is amalgamated with other lines in the London Passenger Transport Board — a public corporation akin to today's Transport for London. Henceforward, we shall call it the Metropolitan line. Or the Met if we're feeling lazy.

1936: The Met heads east, sharing tracks with the District line to reach as far as Barking.

1945 (31 Dec): On the last day of the year, two Metropolitan line trains collide near Northwood, killing three people. In a black week for the railways, a further 19 people would be killed in a crash near Lichfield the next day and, just four days later, another 10 in County Durham.

1961: Although most of the Met line had long ago been converted to electric, the branch to Amersham continued to use steam trains until this year. New "A stock" carriages are introduced across the whole line, and will give good service right on into the next century.

Modern Met line trains at Farringdon. Image wcjohnston/iStock

1962: Chaos at Barbican station after Lord Onslow's pet monkey escapes onto the Metropolitan line tracks. The monkey is eventually "rugby tackled" by a police constable in scenes you'd describe as far-fetched if you saw them in a sitcom.

1990: For slightly convoluted historical reasons, the East London Line (now part of London Overground) had always been considered as operationally part of the Metropolitan line and was shown on maps in the same purple colour up to this year, when it changed to orange.

2010: New S8 stock trains enter service, replacing the aged units from 1961. The rollout takes two years, with the final A stock journey on 29 September 2012. The S stock's biggest selling point is the inclusion of air conditioning.

2013: A major tweak to the Watford branch is approved. The plans, known as the Croxley Rail Link, will see the line diverted to Watford Junction, taking in stops at Cassiobridge, Vicarage Road and the High Street.

2016: The Croxley Rail Link is cancelled amid funding issues. Bah.

2023: The Metropolitan line celebrates its 160th birthday with heritage train rides and a heart-shaped roundel for Baker Street — a station whose original platforms have changed little since 1863.

A heart shaped roundel at Baker Street saying Love the Tube
Image Matt Brown