A Brief History Of The Northern Line

By M@ Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2023

A Brief History Of The Northern Line

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A very wide platform at Angel tube station
An extra-wide platform at Angel. Image Matt Brown

We call it the Northern line, even though it goes farther south than any other tube line. Indeed, it was originally called the City and South London Railway when its nucleus opened in November 1890. Over time, the line has grown extensively to cover 58 km (36 miles). Here, then, is a brief chronology of the Northern line, including plenty of tidbits you won't find on Wikipedia or TfL's site.

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

1870: The Tower Subway is bored beneath the Thames beside the Tower of London. It is the first project to use the new tunnelling techniques developed by James Greathead, and the first deep-level tunnel to feature a railway (albeit one that was very short-lived, and pulled by cable). More to the point, it serves as a practice run for all that is to come.

1883 (Nov): We get the first whiff of what would become the Northern line, when James Greathead starts promoting the idea of a railway between Elephant and Castle and King William Street in the City (the diagonal road between Bank and the Monument). His plans are laid out before Parliament in a Private Bill.

1884 (24 July): If railways have birthdays, then this would be the Norther line's. Greathead's bill receives Royal Assent. The City of London and Southwark Subway Act 1884 gives a green light to the project.

A statue of James Greathead at Bank
A statue of James Greathead near Bank station. It also serves as ventilation for the tube. Image Matt Brown

1887 (12 Jul): The tunnels aren't even built yet, but an extension is already planned. A Bill to stretch the tracks down to Stockwell is approved on this day.

1888: The line's cars were originally to be pulled by a cable system, driven by static engines. But, oops, the contracted cable company has gone bust. Thankfully, there's another, and better, game in town. The project pivots to electrical traction using a third rail. London's first proper tube will also be the first major railway in the world to be electrically powered.

1890 (25 Jul): Yet another extension — down to Clapham Common — is approved. Given the inexorable push well beyond Southwark, the route changes its name from the City of London and Southwark Subway to the City & South London Railway. I wonder what they'd have said if you could have told them it would one day be called the Northern line?

1890 (5 Mar): The first recorded journey along the tracks. 50 or so gentlemen (no ladies) ride from King William Street to Elephant and Castle. Among their number is Lord Mayor Sir Joseph Savoy, Colonel Frederick Rich (a noted inspector of rail accidents) and Sir William Mather MP. These are the first ever tube passengers (other than workmen testing the trains, whose names are lost to us).

1890 (4 Nov): The big day sort-of arrives, with the official, if not public, opening. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, is among the first to ride the new railway, but not before he'd personally turned on the current with a golden key.

1890 (18 Dec): Six weeks after His Royal Highness had become His Royal Lowness, us commoners are allowed onboard. Trains run frequently between Stockwell and King William Street, but it's not the most scenic of journeys. The cars are known as padded cells, thanks to a lack of windows (other than narrow slits). According to one anonymous press man, the subterranean journey “smacked somewhat of Jules Verne”. Unlike the long-established subsurface lines (such as the Metropolitan Railway), carriages are all of the same class and standard tuppenny fare.

Inside a cramped original tube carriage with some dummies
Interior of an original City and South London carriage, dubbed "the padded cell". The mock-up can be seen at London Transport Museum. Image Matt Brown

1900 (26 Feb): After only a decade of operation, the line gets a major reboot. The extension south to Clapham Common finally opens a decade after its approval. New stations also open to the north, at London Bridge, Bank and Moorgate Street. The old terminus at King William Street is bypassed by new tunnels, and this station is closed forever more (the old tunnels are still down there). It is the first northward push of the future Northern line.

A plaque remembering King William Street tube
Farewell King William Street. We hardly knew you. Image Matt Brown

1901 (17 Nov): The line presses farther north, reaching Old Street, City Road and Angel.

1902 (July): Preparatory work begins on the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (CCEHR), which would eventually become the western branch and two northern arms of the Northern line. At this stage, it is a separate company from the City and South London Railway, with an even more unwieldy name. Tunnelling would begin in a year.

1907 (12 May): A short but important extension is opened to link the City and South London line with mainline stations at King's Cross and St Pancras, plus Euston — much to the chagrin of the Metropolitan Railway who feel the line is muscling in on their territory.

1907 (22 Jun): Heady days, these, for the first generation of tube geeks. Just weeks after the extension mentioned above, a whole new line opens. The CCEHR's service runs from Charing Cross to Camden Town, where it bifurcates towards Golders Green and Highgate (now Archway). Euston finds itself on two new tube lines in the space of six weeks. The new service is colloquially called "the Hampstead tube", even though part of it goes to Highgate.

1913: The City and South London Railway is bought out by the Underground Electric Railways of London company. It becomes a stablemate of most of London's other subterranean lines, including the CCEHR, rather than functioning as a johnny-no-mates.

1922: City Road station closes after just 21 years' service. It never reopens, although it might be useful nowadays to serve the preposterous number of tower blocks that have shot up on its doorstep.

1923 (28 Nov): The entire City and South London line is closed for five months to allow tunnels to be widened. The work had started a year previously, with tiny amounts widened each night, when trains weren't running. This proved slow and dangerous — in one incident, the works caused a subsidence, which in turn ruptured a gas main. The decision is made to shut things down until the work is completed.

1924 (20 Apr): The northern section of the line reopens, along with new tunnels from Euston to Camden. The rest of the line would restart with widened tunnels in December. The opportunity was taken to modernise the tube in other ways, including new escalators, tiling, rolling stock and station improvements.

1924: The CCEHR's Hampstead branch is extended as far as Edgware. It shall go no farther, much as the good people of Elstree and Bushey might wish it to.

1926 (13 Sep): Another big day for the line as the tunnels south to Morden open. It might have gone farther. Plans to take the route all the way to Sutton never see fruition.

On the same day, tunnels from Kennington are hooked up to Charing Cross, completing the western branch of the line and forming another join with the old City and South London line. The tunnel running from Golders Green to Morden is reckoned to be the longest in the world (later to be beaten by the other branch from East Finchley to Morden). The joined-up route is now usually referred to as the Morden-Edgware line, simply because nobody has a better name. Fortunately, the newspapers are full of suggestions.

Cutting from Westminster Gazette on 7 September 1926 suggesting an alternative name for the line. Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.
A press cutting suggesting a name for the new subway line as the Cantgetinedgeways
The Bystander, 29 September 1926. Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

1933 (1 Jul): From today, the two branches of the line and most other services in London come under the umbrella of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) — a forerunner of Transport for London.

1934: The Northern City line — that funny old railway that still trundles out of Moorgate up through Finsbury Park — is tacked on to the side of the Morden-Edgware, though never properly connected up. What's going on?

1935: The LPTB announces its "Northern Heights" plan to link up various bits of track in north London. The Northern City line will be part of this (aha, so that's what they were up to), along with the Highgate branch of the Morden-Hampstead line.

Northern Heights tube expansion scheme shown on a tube map
Part of the planned Northern Heights scheme. Image Matt Brown

1937 (28 Aug): The name "Northern line" is finally introduced (alongside the "Central line"), almost half a century after the railway opened. "Morden-Edgware" had long been considered a "clumsy and unsatisfactory" title given that the line also ran to Highgate. The "Northern" epithet was chosen in anticipation of the new Northern Heights routes.

1940 (14 Apr): London is in the grip of the Blitz, yet work on the railways goes on. The Highgate branch today elongates to becomes the High Barnet branch as old track is transferred over to the Northern line.

1941 (18 May): The Mill Hill branch line opens. It would be the last element of the Northern Heights plan to reach fruition. Other elements, such as a route to Alexandra Palace and another to Bushey Heath, are ultimately thwarted by the war. I'm ignoring many details here for the sake of brevity. You can find plenty of discussion elsewhere online, but the best way to learn more is to take a hike along the Parkland Walk (part of the old trackbed) and read the information boards.

The Dollis Brook Viaduct at Mill Hill
The Dollis Brook Viaduct near Mill Hill opened in 1867 but transferred to the tube during the second world war. Image Matt Brown

1969 (3 Dec): First use of the phrase "Misery line" as a derogatory term for the Northern line. The route had become infamous for its "unreliability, filth and decrepitude", according to the Evening Standard who coined the phrase and then kept using it over and over and over again, until it stuck in the public imagination. It's still used today, even though the service is immeasurably better than in the 60s.

1975 (28 Feb): The Northern City line branch suffers the worst peacetime tragedy on the London Underground, when a train fails to stop at Moorgate and smashes into the end of the tunnel. 43 people are killed and over 70 are badly injured. No fault was found with the train or tracks and the enquiry attributed the accident to driver action. This section of the Northern line was decoupled from the network in October of this year (under plans that predated the crash), to be ran by British Rail. It still operates today and has never rejoined London Underground.

1992: Angel station reopens after an extensive rebuild. The station had previously featured an island platform serving both running lines. The southbound line was diverted through new tunnel and the old track filled in, to create a super-wide platform (top image). The station also features the network's longest escalators.

1998 (12 Jun): The first 1995 stock trains enter service. It would take until 2001 for all the rolling stock to be replaced.

2013: The first refurbished 1995 stock trains enter service. The overhaul also introduces the familiar Barman seat moquettes now found on most tube upholstery (and my sofa).

2014 (1 Jun): After an upgrade of signalling, the entire Northern line now runs on Automatic Train Operation. (It still has drivers, but runs with a greater degree of autonomy.)

2015 (23 Nov): Mayor Boris Johnson officiates, as construction begins on the extension to Battersea Power Station. It's the first extension of the Northern line since the second world war, and the first in south London for almost 100 years.

2016: The Northern line (except for the Bank branch) forms part of the Night Tube, which runs all-night services on Fridays and Saturdays.

2021 (20 Sep): The extension to Battersea Power Station opens, including a new station at Nine Elms. Here's our video from the time:

2030s (possible): The Battersea extension grows some more, to link up with Clapham Junction. It would seem like an obvious move, and the route has been safeguarded, but there are concerns it could overwhelm capacity.

2030s (possible): The Northern line is split into two separate railways, with one running Edgware to Battersea Power Station, and the other from High Barnet and Mill Hill to Morden, via Bank. The scheme has been minutely studied and would increase capacity by something like 25%. However, it would need the rebuilding of Camden Town to handle increased interchanges, which would be a costly endeavour.