Tag Archives: metropolitan railway

The Infernal Tower

There have been some interesting proposals for London buildings over the years, from the Pyramid of Death to the scheme to rebuild the Crystal Palace so that it stood on its end. Perhaps the most significant landmark-that-never-was was the Wembley Tower.

It all started with the old Metropolitan Railway. Being a commercial enterprise, the directors of this company were naturally keen to make as much money as humanly possible. In the 1880s, though, they were already making quite a lot of money. What is a railway tycoon to do under such circumstances? If you were Edward Watkin, Chairman of the company, you simply create more traffic by making London bigger.

The idea was simple. Buy land out in the sticks where it’s cheap, miles away from London. Build a railway to it, build some houses on it and bam! You got yourself a suburb, mister. Sell the houses, there’s a goldmine for ya. You’d be amazed how much of London basically didn’t exist until people did this. Put it this way – until the 1860s, Kensington was considered to be a rural village.

Watkin was a man who liked to think big. For instance, his ultimate plan for the Metropolitan was to run trains up to Manchester and down to Paris (I forget how that one turned out). When he looked upon the route of his railway, he decided that what his grand plan needed was a selling point. Some sort of focus that would draw people to the area (and, let’s not forget, drive up the land values).

In 1889, the latest wonder of the world was the Eiffel Tower. Watkin came to the conclusion that what we needed in London was something similarly troubling to Freud, only more so. Possible sites included High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road, but eventually it was decided to purchase a 280-acre site at Wembley and develop that. Former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone asked questions in Parliament on behalf of Watkin and was told by the committee that “although the atmosphere of London may not be so favourable to extensive views as Paris, the view would be incomparably superior.” Suck-ups.

Having been given the go-ahead, the Metropolitan Tower Committee was formed in 1890 to decide on the form this tower would take. Many exciting designs were proposed. I think my favourite was one based on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’m no structural engineer, but I can’t help wondering how wise it would have been to build something like the Leaning Tower, only much taller. I also like the one about the “colony of aerial vegetarians.” Gustave Eiffel himself was even approached and did initially show some interest, only to decline later on patriotic grounds (he probably heard that dis about the views in Paris).

As it happened, the final design was very similar to the Eiffel Tower, only 320 metres taller. Work started in 189e and in 1896 the park around the tower’s base was opened to the public. The tower had only reached its first stage, but hopes were high even if the structure wasn’t.

Yet already problems were being encountered – the year before, the new Chairman of the Metropolitan, John Bell, had already been convinced the whole thing was a white elephant. It turned out that the foundations couldn’t quite support all that weight on just four legs (the original design called for eight). The biggest issue of all, though, was money. It turned out that not everyone was as enthusiastic as the Parliamentary committee, and very few were willing to invest. The park itself was not the major tourist attraction Watkin had hoped for, and work ground to a halt.

In fact, the tower ended up having a detrimental effect on the Metropolitan Railway. At this time, the Great Central Railway used the Met lines to get into London, a costly move. With the construction of the Tower, the Great Central was able to say (and I’m paraphrasing here y’understand), “Oh hey, that’s cool, with all that extra traffic you’ll be getting from the Tower you won’t be able to run our little trains so we’rebuildingourownlineintoLondonbyenow,” and promptly rushed off to Marylebone.

The Tower also had something of a domino effect on Watkin’s other schemes – it was very clear, as the mostly-incomplete tower rusted away, that Watkin had maybe lost his golden touch, and so investment in his grand scheme to run trains to Paris dried up as well. The ugly monument gained such unflattering nicknames as “the London Stump” and, the name by which it is perhaps best known today, “Watkin’s Folly.”

The enterprise went bust in 1899, in 1901 Watkin himself passed away and in 1902 the whole thing was declared a health and safety hazard and closed down. In 1907 the remains were blown up and sold for scrap. Yet Watkin’s scheme was not entirely in vain – in the 1920s, when the organisers of the British Empire Exhibition were looking for somewhere to build their stadium, they discovered there was a perfectly peachy-keen area of flat ground at Wembley…

… and the rest, they say, is history.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, London, London Underground, Parks and gardens, Politics, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, tourism, Transport

Thank You For Not Smoking

Much has been made by the Mayor’s office about the great age of the Underground system in order to justify the current heinous amounts of engineering work. Not that I disagree, mark you, I appreciate that the system is very, very old. Ironic, really, given that when it was built it was actually slightly ahead of its time.

Sometimes, you see, technology gets a bit ahead of itself. In the case of the Underground in the 1860s, the problem was that while they could dig a tunnel just fine, they couldn’t find a clean way to send a train through it. Steam engines, as you are no doubt aware, produce the Dickens of a lot of smoke and steam. A number of solutions were tried. Those pipes you see on the front of the engine above left, the ones running from the cylinders up, you see those? Those are condensers, which collect the waste steam and, yes, condense it for re-use. Every so often, the tunnels were fitted with large ventilation shafts – including one that was ingeniously disguised as a pair of fake houses. The Metropolitan, unusually for a Victorian railway, allowed its drivers and firemen to grow enormous ZZ Top-style beards in the hope that said shrubbery would act as a kind of air filter. They even tried brazening it out, claiming that the smoky air was actually really good for bronchial complaints (although at least one chemist sold “Metropolitan Mixture,” a cough medicine targeting regular Underground users).

The only known photo of Fowlers Ghost.

One solution was proposed by John Fowler – remove the fire altogether. He suggested an engine with an “egg-ended boiler” – in reality a storage receptacle for steam produced by a stationary boiler. This engine was never built, but what was eventually produced was a strange locomotive known as “Fowler’s Ghost,” and I can give no better explanation of it than that offered by the Museum of Retrotech.

Clockwork powered Underground loco. I think I may have made a mistake.

On the same site, I came across an interesting little snippet about a concept tested at the Metropolitan District Railway’s Lillie Bridge Depot (that’s the District Line to you) in 1875. The idea was a clockwork tram. I know, right? Now, I’d heard a vague rumour that such a thing was tried, but no more than that. Was this trial carried out in the hope of finding a smokeless alternative to steam on the Underground? Sadly, the indices of the various Underground histories I have list “clockwork tram” under “piss, taking the” and offer little further information.

There were various other possibilities, none of them all that great. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had been something of a champion of the atmospheric railway – as seen left, this was powered by a piston in a vaccuum pipe. I’ve not come across any evidence that this was ever suggested for the Tube, though see the Pneumatic Dispatch for a similar idea that actually was tried. Ironically, Brunel himself, when consulted early on about the proposed Metropolitan, suggested that there was no need to worry, as the smoke from a steam engine would surely not be a problem in the first place.

Another was cable haulage. This was employed on the Glasgow Subway and, less successfully, on the London and Blackwall Railway in its early days. When it came to constructing the City and South London Railway (now roughly the City Branch of the Northern Line) in the 1880s, this was the favoured choice. Unlike the earlier Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways, the C&SLR was constructed entirely below ground in very narrow tunnels rather than being built by the cut-and-cover method (this, incidentally, is also why the former lines today have much larger trains than the latter). You can make excuses about a few coughing passengers, but full asphyxiation was generally frowned upon even back then.

However, by 1886, train technology had caught up with the Underground and the cable concept was dropped in favour of more flexible and easier to maintain electric trains, hauled by dinky little locomotives like that one there. However, there was still a little work to do – one of the early problems the system had was that the power plant wasn’t able to generate enough electricity to get trains up the gradient at Stockwell, which was a bit embarrassing. Nevertheless, once these teething troubles were ironed out, it was clear that finally there was a clean solution to the Underground problem, and the other lines soon followed in the adoption of electric power.

You know what’s ironic in all of this? The Metropolitan was one of the only railways not to ban smoking in its carriages. Was this a wangle to avoid taking responsibility for bronchial irritation? It is a mystery.


Filed under 19th century, Environment, History, London, London Underground, Transport

What a big ship I’ve got

I found myself on the Isle of Dogs yesterday for reasons that must remain secret until Sunday. Suffice it to say that they were awesome, and will certainly get an entry to themselves. In the meantime, here’s an entry about something else that happened on the Isle of Dogs.

Now, if you were to make a list of the greatest engineers of all time, the chances are that Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be somewhere on that list, probably quite close to the top. The guy did everything – tunnels, bridges, railways, hospitals, ships, docks, carriages, the list goes on. When he got a penny stuck in his throat, his solution was to invent a machine to spin him around until centrifugal force dislodged it (one assumes it wasn’t blocking his airway at the time, otherwise that’s damn fast work).

He wasn’t so much an inventor as an improver. He’d take an existing idea and take it in new and exciting directions. Unfortunately, his originality of thought in this regard was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He came up with ideas that were undoubtedly good, but went so far against the grain that no one wanted to risk them.

On the right you can see an example of this – the broad gauge railway. Standard gauge for railways in the UK (and much of the world) is four feet, eight and a half inches. Brunel decided he could do better and went for seven feet, one quarter inch. And you know what? He was right. Locomotives built to a broader gauge could be made larger and more stable, therefore faster, safer and stronger. So those railways built by Brunel (most famously the Great Western Railway) were laid to this gauge. Unfortunately, the rest of the country was building their lines to the standard gauge. Wherever a broad gauge line met a standard gauge line, therefore, passengers and goods had to be swapped from one train to another, which was a massive hassle. Eventually, Brunel’s lines were relaid to standard gauge. Incidentally, the photo above shows the Metropolitan Railway, which borrowed rolling stock from the Great Western Railway in its early days and was therefore built to broad gauge. To this day the tunnels on the oldest parts of the Metropolitan Line are unusually wide.

But I’m moving away from my starting point. Brunel’s final great work to be completed in his lifetime was perhaps the epitome of his tendency to over-innovate. I refer, of course, to the Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern, seen left, was the biggest ship in the world when it was launched in 1858 and would hold that record for forty-three years. At the time of its construction, it was six times larger than anything else afloat. Brunel meant business.

He had already proven himself an innovator in shipping with his earlier vessels, the Great Western and Great Britain (which survives in Bristol to this day and may be regarded as the first ocean liner). With this one, he intended to take on the growing market for emigrating to the Americas. It was so big that it required both paddle wheels and twin screw propellors plus six masts. It would be 692 feet long, weigh 18,915 tonnes and need six engines. Six big engines.

The contract to build the thing went to John Scott Russell, a naval architect of esteem. His shipyard was at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs. Unfortunately, it became clear that the Great Eastern, or Leviathan as it was originally to be called, was too big for his yard and too big to be launched conventionally. After obtaining the use of a bigger yard and deciding on a sideways launch, work could begin.

To say that construction was not without its problems would be unnecessarily rose-tinted. Although the story about a riveter and his mate being sealed into the double-hull of the great ship would appear to be a myth, there were plenty of other crises. Most worrying was the financial issue. Russell was severely in debt by over £100,000 (which in modern terms, adjusting for inflation, is a lot. I mean, a lot) and there was a serious risk of the incomplete ship being seized.

Not to mention technical difficulties resulting in the completion of the ship being put back again and again. As a general rule, the way to tell how construction of the ship was going was to see whether Russell described it as his ship or Brunel’s.

Eventually, the ship was set to be launched in November 1857 – earlier than Brunel had wanted to launch it, but he was pressurised by the heinous amount of rent it was costing to keep it in the yard. Brunel had hoped for a discreet launch, so the fact that the Eastern Company, owners of the ship, sold tickets to the event did not go down well. Indeed, when he was approached at the podium by the Company directors to ask him what the vessel should be called, he angrily replied, “Call her Tom Thumb if you like!” Given that he previously referred to the ship as his “Great Babe,” it was a sign of how fed up he was with the whole thing.

As it turned out, Brunel was right to want to put the launch back – due to a lack of preparation, the ship promptly stuck in the mud, as shown left.

This was a massive embarrassment to all concerned as the ship lay there for months on end. Various solutions were proposed – my favourite was from a gentleman named Thomas Wright who wrote to the Times suggesting that a platoon of soldiers marching around the deck would provide sufficient vibration to get the ship moving. Eventually, the solution was the powerful hydraulic rams made by the newly-formed Tangye Company. Richard Tangye would later quip, “We launched the Great Eastern and the Great Eastern launched us.”

The stress had taken its toll on the workaholic Brunel, and so unfortunately he was out of the country for some R&R when the contract to fit the ship out went to… John Scott Russell. His condition no doubt exacerbated by the situation, he suffered a stroke on 3rd September 1859 and was unable to make the maiden voyage. Perhaps this was just as well.

The voyage, at last, was on 6th September 1859. But even now, the great ship’s troubles were not over. While crossing the Channel, one of the feedwater heaters exploded, shooting the front funnel into the air and killing five stokers. The accident was largely due to negligence – the heater’s safety valve had been shut off.

Nine days later, Brunel’s condition would worsen and he would die, never actually seeing his Great Babe performing its duties.

The ship was not a financial success, though it did enjoy an eventful life – on its second voyage it was nearly destroyed in a storm, saved only by a MacGuyver-esque makeshift steering system. In August 1862 it hit a rock in New York Harbour, creating a gash in the side that would have sunk any lesser ship for sure (for comparative purposes, it was 50 times the size of the hole that sank the Titanic). Not only did the Great Eastern not sink, its engineers didn’t even realise it was damaged until it got into port.

Its first real success came in 1863, when it was bought by a consortium led by Brunel’s friend and collaborator Daniel Gooch, who chartered it out for laying transatlantic cables. Not only was it a roaring success at this task, but it was the only vessel large enough to hold the sheer weight of cable required.

Alas, this job would not last forever, and the ship had an ignominious end as a showboat and mobile advertising hoarding in Liverpool. In 1889, it was broken up for scrap.

These days, there are only two physical relics of the ship still in existence. One is a topmast, which was salvage from the ship and now serves as a flagpole at Liverpool FC’s Anfield ground. The other, closer to home for Londoners, is the original launch timbers at Millwall, pictured left.

The Great Eastern was a brave, grandiose project which epitomised Brunel’s ambition, innovation and – frankly – hubris. However, these days it is rightly remembered as a great achievement and, if not a success, a milestone in British engineering history.


Filed under 19th century, Disasters, East End and Docklands, History, London, London Underground, Notable Londoners, Thames, Transport

Tube Wars

The Circle Line is a bit of an odd one. It has very little of its own track and no stations to call its own – it just slips in where it can between District and Metropolitan trains. It’s not so much a “line” as a “route”.

It was originally built by the Metropolitan Railway (now the Metropolitan Line) and the Metropolitan District Railway (now the District Line). The idea was to create a circular route that would link the main overground termini at Kings Cross, St Pancras, Victoria, Paddington, Liverpool Street, Charing Cross and Cannon Street. Waterloo would later be linked in via the Waterloo and City Line. Fenchurch Street and the now-closed Holborn Viaduct weren’t served, but were a short walking distance from stations that were. Broad Street, to which Paul McCartney gave his regards two years before its closure (coincidence?), was right next door to Liverpool Street.  Marylebone wasn’t served for the simple reason that it did not exist in 1884, when the Circle was completed.

It was, for a long time, known as the Inner Circle. There was also an Outer Circle, a Middle Circle and, briefly, a Super Outer Circle.

The Inner Circle was intended to be operated jointly by the Metropolitan and District Railways. The major problem with this plan was that the Metropolitan and District Railways hated each other’s guts. So much so that the District Railway at one point built its own track between High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road just so they wouldn’t have to use the Metropolitan Railway’s track. Given how relatively strapped for cash the District was at the time, you can see just how strong their hatred was.

It took thirty years to finish the Circle off, and problems arose almost immediately. The circle ran in two directions, trains going one way being controlled by the Metropolitan and those going the other way by the District. The companies had separate ticket offices and issued separate tickets.

Now, you may have spotted a flaw in this policy, and the passengers certainly did. Let’s say you want to go from South Kensington to Sloane Square. If you go to the District ticket office, they’d issue you with a ticket to travel one stop on their train. But if you go to the Metropolitan office, they’ll issue you with a ticket sending you right the way around the Circle, a total of 23 stops and a journey time ten minutes short of an hour.

If that wasn’t stupid enough, an incident that took place at South Kensington sounds like something out of Thomas the Tank Engine. There was a siding used by both companies whose ownership was disputed. Rather than, say, take the matter to Court, the District Railway decided to be proactive, and chained a train to the siding.

This is a Metropolitan train, but those used on the District were basically identical.

This is a Metropolitan train, but those used on the District were basically identical.

The Metropolitan tried to haul the train away with locomotives of their own, but were unsuccessful, and the dispute continued for several days. None of my sources state the outcome, but I like to imagine the Fat Controller told the District locomotive that it was a very naughty engine.


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Filed under History, Kensington, London, London Underground, Transport