Did Charles Dickens Ever Ride On The London Underground?

M@
By M@
Did Charles Dickens Ever Ride On The London Underground?
A modern tube platform with a train. The oversized head of Charles Dickens peeps out from open carriage doors.

Was Dickens a tube traveller?

The very idea seems absurd. Dickens belongs to the old, foggy London of yore. Think of Dickensian London and you do not think of tube trains.

But the underground network is itself pretty darned old. The first trains rumbled between Paddington and Farringdon from January 1863. Journalists were riding the line over a year before that. Famously, it was once possible to travel to a public execution by underground train. It's that old.

Charles Dickens lived until June 1870. By that time, significant portions of what are now the Circle, District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith and City lines were in operation, serving over 30 stations.

Dickens and the Underground co-existed for over seven years. He had every opportunity to hop onboard.

So did Dickens catch the tube?

The first point to clear up is one of nomenclature. We've been a bit mischievous with some of our phrasing here. Dickens could never have caught the 'tube' per se because, strictly speaking, the term applies only to the deep-level lines (e.g. Northern, Piccadilly, Central...), which were bored with tunnelling shields.

The first one opened in 1890, two decades after Dickens's demise. He could only have used 'cut-and-cover' routes — those which were dug out as trenches, and then roofed over. The correct terminology for the period would be 'Underground Railway', or the name of the particular railway used (e.g. the Metropolitan Railway).

OK you massive pedant, so did Dickens ever catch the Underground Railway?

Inside an old-fashioned underground carriage. Charles Dickens's head has been terribly superimposed on one of the people
How it might have looked. In our terrible photoshop, the head of Charles Dickens is superimposed on a mannequin, in this view of an original underground carriage at London Transport Museum

The short answer is: it seems not. But the possible reasons are interesting to explore.

Dickens had an unusual relationship with the railways. He wrote about them extensively — often as a destructive force. However, as we discovered when we mapped every novel, he never once mentions a London railway station by name. Of the major termini (most were completed during his life) only Euston gets a glance (in Dombey, Chapter 20), and even then it is not named, but implied. Similarly, the London Underground is entirely absent from his works.

Dickens was a frequent train user. He was even involved in a serious accident. On 9 June 1865, a derailment near Staplehurst killed 10 people and injured many more. Dickens was onboard with his mistress Ellen Ternan. Though they escaped injury, the tragedy haunted Dickens. He died on the anniversary, five years later.

The accident may help explain why Dickens avoided the underground railway for his remaining years (though he does record using regular trains again, almost straight away). But what of the three years before the train crash, when he could easily have hopped on the Metropolitan?

His notes and diaries make no mention of it, and there is no account in the newspaper archives of the great celebrity riding the underground trains. Perhaps he simply never got round to it. Though a voracious urban explorer as a younger man, Dickens was increasingly desk-bound in his later years. Diminished was the spark of curiosity that had led his younger self on night-long ambles around the capital. The new-fangled underground railways seem not to have piqued his imagination as they might have done 20 years earlier.

What do the experts say?

View of a cut-and-cover station with rail lines running through. A photoshopped cutout of Charles Dickens leans nonchalantly on a chair to the left
Did he Cratchit? (Get it? Cratchit/catch it?... never mind.)

We contacted Lee Jackson, who runs VictorianLondon.org and has a doctorate in Dickens studies. He too has found no record of a subterranean Dickens. "I think he didn't use it — at least, as far as we know," he told us. "Certainly there is no famous description written by him and I'm pretty sure nothing in the surviving letters".

Jackson did, however, highlight one letter from 1861, which shows that Dickens had his eye somewhat off the ball when it came to these major engineering projects. On visiting the embankment at Millbank, he seemed surprised to find it complete: "I had never seen it in any state of transition, though I suppose myself to know this rather large city as well as anyone in it." Work had begun on this early embankment a full seven years previously.

We also approached the Charles Dickens Museum who also can find no record of the great man ever venturing underground.

So there we have it. Despite co-existing with the underground for seven years, Charles Dickens never set a foot on the network. Or, if he did, he never wrote about it professionally or in his personal letters or diaries. Dickens seems to have been more interested in the city of his formative years rather than the modern metropolis emerging around him.

All background images and dodgy photoshopping by the author.

Last Updated 01 July 2022