A Statue Of The Man Who Created The First Tube Line

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 24 months ago

Last Updated 20 July 2022

A Statue Of The Man Who Created The First Tube Line
the silhouette of Greatshield against a gloomy city skyline
Image: M@/Londonist

A mysterious fedora-wearing man is silhouetted against the City skies above Cornhill, unfolding what appears to be a map. Indiana Jones, perhaps? Nope, and his mission is far more important than recovering the Holy Grail, too.

The statue is of James Henry Greathead, and that 'map' is actually the blueprint for what would become the Northern line.

a close up image of the statue studying the blueprints
Image: M@/Londonist

Born in South Africa in 1844, Greathead moved to England aged 15, studying under the civil engineer Peter W. Barlow. These were enthralling times for tunnel diggers; Marc Brunel and his son Isambard had successfully opened the first tunnel to run beneath the Thames (named, funnily enough, the 'Thames Tunnel') a year before Greathead's birth.

Barlow now recognised Greathead's ingenuity, and in 1869 the pair worked together on the second Thames tunnel, the Tower Subway, a narrow-gauge passenger railway that could shift 12 passengers at a time from Tower Hill to Tooley Street.

Image of the Tower Subway under construction from the Illustrated Times, 25 September 1869, in the British Newspaper Archive. © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.

It was for this project that Greathead built a 'tunnelling shield', based off Barlow's design, which in turn took inspiration from Marc Brunel's earlier Thames Tunnel contraption. Greathead's shield featured notable improvements; it was cylindrical rather than square, and water jets helped blast at the London clay to assist labourers with digging. (There's some controversy over who invented what/was inspired by who when it came to these shields, but Greathead's is the name that has persevered.)

Image: DavidCane in Creative Commons

Until now, London underground trains had run on lines built using the 'cut-and-cover' method. With the Tower Subway, Greathead and Barlow had created the world's first tube tunnel. And Greathead wasn't finished there. In 1890, he made further improvements to his shield for the creation of the the City and South London Railway. (A relief on one side of the Greathead statue's plinth shows this tunnelling shield in action.)

The Greathead tunnelling shield in use on the Waterloo & City Railway. Image: public domain

Initially running between King William Street in the City of London and Stockwell, this project would once again mean burrowing beneath the depths of Old Father Thames. And it would become part of what we now know as the Northern line.

a huge tunnel being dug using the Greathead Shield method
Construction of Tooting Broadway station in 1926 shows the scale of the job of building a deep-level railway. Image: London Transport Museum.

(In recent years, the Thames Tunnel has been used as part of London's subterranean network in 1933, converting to the London Overground in 2010, so you could argue that the Brunels created the first 'tube' — they just didn't know they were doing it at the time.)

Technology's come on a lot since Greathead's day but the essence of his shield is still used in high-tech tunnel boring machines to this day, for metro systems across the world — and even London's Crossrail project.

A modern day tunnelling shield, a descendant of Greathead's shield, is lowered into a Crossrail shaft. Image: Crossrail

As for that statue of Greathead: its isn't as old as you might think. It's the work of James Butler, and was unveiled in 1994. If you're thinking they've put the tunneller on quite the pedestal, well, that's for a reason. In fact, Greathead's towering effigy is a means to an end. As Tony Tugnutt, conservation officer with the Corporation of London at the time explained, following the tragic King's Cross fire, London Underground needed to build a huge new vent shaft for Bank station to meet new safety measures.

The statue's plinth features a relief of workers using Greathead's shield to dig the tunnels that would become the Northern line. Image: M@/Londonist

"The next question," says Tugnutt, "was the subject for what would have to be a fairly monumental object. Being the City, some bright spark came up with the idea of a sculptural group depicting a bull, a bear and a stag — the end result looked like something out of Walt Disney's studio!"

Thankfully, Tugnutt and a colleague instead hit on the idea of celebrating the man who'd revolutionised London's transport network. After all, what better place for this statue than directly above the tube line which Greathead's genius had made a reality.

The Greathead shield hiding in plain sight in Bank station. Image: M@/Londonist

Another, subtler nod to Greathead can be found not far from his statue, in a Bank station walkway. Look up, and you'll see the remains of a Greathead steel shield used to dig the original Waterloo & City line. Oh yes, the Waterloo & City line was dug by Greathead too.