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The archaeology of the Underground: a future for its past 1

Oliver Green 2

The 150th anniversary celebrations of the London Underground (LU) in 2013 have aroused far more popular interest in the history and heritage of the Tube than anyone could possibly have expected. They have also been a great organisational success and public relations triumph for LU and its parent body Transport for London (TfL), and for the London Transport Museum, now a charitable trust under the TfL umbrella.

It might have been a different story if anything had gone seriously wrong with the Mayor's plans for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. Two years ago transport in the city during the Games was widely predicted to be the most likely area of risk and potential chaos. Happily, the opposite was the case and afterwards the Mayor and TfL were able to bask in well-deserved praise for the smooth running of the system in this exceptionally busy period. Had it been otherwise, the apparently crazy idea of celebrating LU150 by running a public steam passenger train with restored vintage carriages over the original section of the world's first underground railway would surely never have gained traction. But it did, and both this and a programme of related activities throughout the year have been rightly praised.

The Underground's history over the whole of those 150 years has hardly been one of continuous development and improvement. To some extent it has mirrored the progress of London as a metropolis, reflecting periods of economic success and growth as well as financial crises, stagnation and austerity interspersed with physical attacks, accidents and other incidents both in times of war and peace. It is no exaggeration to say that it has been a roller coaster ride, but the system has managed to survive and even thrive despite the problems that continually arise through social, political and economic issues that are often well beyond the control of those nominally in charge of the Underground.

Just as London has grown in a largely unplanned way since the mid-Victorian period, so too has its essential transport network, which has both encouraged and facilitated the spread of the city over a very large built up area. What began as a novel though technically conventional engineering project to put steam trains just below ground in partly covered cuttings developed by the 1880s into the application of the latest technology to create deep level railway tunnels under London. The stations were accessed by passenger lifts and the trains driven by the clean, new wonder power of electricity. Travelling far below the congested city streets by Tube became cheap, easy and convenient.

By the early 20th century overground extensions of the underground network into London's countryside were a major factor encouraging suburban growth, particularly with the Metropolitan Railway's promotion of 'Metro-land' in its outer catchment area and the extension of the Hampstead and later Piccadilly Tubes into rural Middlesex. Unlike Paris, where the first section of the Metro opened in 1900 but stayed within the city limits, the growing London Underground turned large parts of the outer metropolis into a new suburbia. The system's vehicles and fixed infrastructure reflected the latest design and architectural styles of the period, giving London a very distinctive and progressive character which was much admired though rarely imitated internationally.

The creation of London Transport in 1933 as the world's largest urban public transit authority brought rapid and dramatic new development under the dynamic leadership of Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick. This golden age ended with the outbreak of war in 1939, when the ambitious New Works Programme was curtailed and wartime austerity began. The Underground's and London's growth came to a sudden halt.

After a long period of post-war stagnation with little new investment, the Victoria line was finally built in the 1960s. When it opened in 1969 this was the world's first computer controlled underground railway, but this was the last time that the Tube set the pace internationally. Stagnation, neglect and decline followed in the 1970s and 80s with little new capital investment in the Tube and a worsening reputation for high fares, crime and increasing unreliability.

London Underground reached its nadir in the King's Cross escalator fire of 1987. The 'framework of the town' as Frank Pick liked to describe his highly respected pre-war Underground, had become seriously run down with time expired and poorly maintained equipment. Worst of all, the Tube had become potentially unsafe. Thirty-three people died in this one terrible disaster, which the Fennel enquiry determined was an accident waiting to happen. It was a belated wake up call to both management and politicians in charge. At last there now had to be serious investment in the Tube, effective modernisation and a pro-active approach that put safety, security and customer care above constant cost cutting and neglect.

The whole of the Tube was cleaned up in the 1990s with the introduction of comprehensive safety protection and emergency access systems. This chimed well with a high quality and comprehensive renovation of nearly all the heritage features of the system. New development focused on the Jubilee line extension (JLE) project, which was far more ambitious in scope than every other post-war Underground scheme. Completion was delayed and costs were high, but the JLE was to deliver London's best quality new public architecture and environments on the eve of the Millennium. That major investment in the Underground has continued in the 21st century with line upgrades, smart card Oyster ticketing, new trains, and the linked orbital Overground network. The whole system is almost unrecognisable from its run down feel and appearance in the 1980s.

Work is now well under way on Crossrail, the next big addition to London's underground railway infrastructure, though it is not strictly speaking part of the Tube. Like all major rail projects in this country, it has been slow to take off, having first been proposed twenty years ago. The Tube is already carrying record numbers of passengers, more than a billion a year, which equates to more journeys every day than the entire national rail network. It demands continuous upgrading.

London's fast growing population, together with its international appeal as a world city, has put more pressure than ever on transport capacity and only the Underground and Crossrail can relieve that. This means major disruption with 'upgrades' and engineering works creating weekend line closures for months or even years to come. Complaints about the Tube are as vocal as ever, but there is an apparent acceptance now that the approach back in the sixties, when London Transport was still urging passengers lamely to 'avoid the rush hours', would be a completely inadequate response. The Tube can now be overcrowded in central London at almost any time, and London Underground has recently announced that by 2015 it aims to provide an all-night service at weekends on some lines to meet demand.

The 150th anniversary is an appropriate occasion to look back at how the complex infrastructure of the Underground has developed, and in particular the ways in which a series of successive new works have replaced, superseded or even incorporated what went before. It has left London with a unique set of physical features that mean it can still be 'read' above and below ground almost as archaeological deposits that have been laid and survived over the entire city. Exploring the Underground provides a visible, tangible and three-dimensional experience of London's physical history over 150 years. Going by Underground is like a strange form of time travel where the chronology is non-linear. Each period of time is represented but, like Eric Morecambe's musical notes, not necessarily in the right order.

Successive change and development below ground has also revealed a great deal of earlier archaeological material that pre-dates the creation of the Underground. More recently there has been a growing movement to incorporate some of the early Underground structures and features as part of modern upgrades. Redevelopment and refurbishment can be a creative mix that respects a degree of conservation in the built environment even below ground. Preservation no longer necessarily meant removing a few representative historic features to the confines of a museum and replacing old structures entirely with something new because they are no longer thought 'fit for purpose'.


The change represented a major shift in our approach to the built heritage and the historic urban environment that has taken place in the last forty years or so. It is certainly quite different to the situation fifty years ago when London Transport celebrated the centenary of the Underground. I still have my well-thumbed copy of a little pink paperback called The Story of London's Underground by John Day, published by LT for the anniversary. I bought it as a schoolboy visitor to the special celebratory open day at Neasden Depot in 1963.

This was my first introduction to the Underground's heritage, which later became a favourite part of my growing interest in the modern history of London when I got my first curatorial job at the fledgling Museum of London in 1974. Not long after that I joined GLIAS. Five years later I became the first curator of the London Transport Museum. I was part of the team put together to transform the former Flower Market in Covent Garden into a permanent museum home for LT's historic collections, then in temporary accommodation at Syon Park.

Back in 1963 I had first hand experience of the Northern Line as a daily user travelling to school on classic 1938 stock trains, but of course I knew nothing then about London Transport's attitude to its heritage. In fact very little had been deliberately preserved from the early days of the Underground, although much of the fixed infrastructure survived. I later discovered that after an exhibition of historic rolling stock at South Kensington station in 1928 to mark the 60th anniversary of the District Railway, all the material on display was quietly sold or broken up. Much the same happened after the Metropolitan centenary parade at Neasden, when railway preservation was still in its infancy.

On both occasions the Underground was more concerned with modernity and looking forward than being trapped by the past and hanging on sentimentally to bits of its heritage. This was particularly understandable in 1963 when LT had only just got the go-ahead to start building a completely new Tube, the Victoria line, some fourteen years after the project had first been proposed. In those days significant historic buildings often survived only because there was no money to replace them and a handful of early vehicles escaped the scrapyard because a few individuals recognised their value. A pro-active conservation strategy for the Underground alongside modernisation was only developed much later.

The senior insider at London Transport who became the organisation's historian was Michael Robbins. He was LT's Chief Public Relations Officer from the mid-1950s and later Managing Director (Railways) in the 1970s. Robbins was also a governor of the new Museum of London established in the same period and somehow found the time to collaborate with economic historian Theo Barker on the magisterial two-volume History of London Transport (1963 and 1974), which is still an unrivalled landmark of interdisciplinary historical research.

Robbins was a powerful influence within the organisation in shaping a positive approach to conservation and heritage, far more so than any of LT's Chairmen. He once told me that soon after becoming Secretary to the London Transport Board in 1950, he was faced with an agenda item that proposed the scrapping of the last original Met steam locomotive. The old engine was out of use and said to be taking up 'valuable storage space' at Neasden.

After electrification of the inner Met lines in 1905, number 23 had been sent out to work the remote Brill branch in rural Bucks for another thirty years before ending its long operational life on engineers' trains. Robbins intervened to persuade the Board to retain the loco, and years later, after cosmetic restoration for the centenary parade it became part of LT's growing historic collection. Met 23 eventually became a centrepiece of the Covent Garden museum displays opened in 1980, the only surviving artefact from the world's first underground railway. The very idea of breaking it up for scrap now seems deeply shocking.

But to return to the early 1960s, a negative or at best indifferent approach to preserving the ageing and redundant industrial and architectural heritage of the previous century was much more common. Industrial archaeology was only just recognised as a serious activity, though it was hardly mainstream. The activity was still more to do with recording the remains of vanishing industries than the challenging task of trying to physically preserve them in some way. Open air museums and heritage developments on important industrial sites like Ironbridge in Shropshire were still in the future. In London the engineering infrastructure of the Victorian and Edwardian age was facing widespread demolition and desolation.

The campaign to stop British Railways from wholesale redevelopment of Euston station, including the removal of the great Doric Arch, failed to prevent its destruction in 1962. But this high profile redevelopment also marked the start of a new approach to building conservation by the Victorian Society and other heritage groups. Euston was lost but just down the road St. Pancras, also earmarked for redevelopment, was given listed protection in the 1970s and survived. It was eventually transformed in the 21st century through a sympathetic combination of restoration and modernised rail development to give London a dramatic new international gateway. London Underground has had no equivalent to St Pancras in the landmark heritage stakes. However, since the 1970s there has been a gradual recognition that modernisation of the system can and should include selective infrastructure conservation in situ as well as the preservation of historic material by London Transport Museum. The lack of investment in the Tube after the last war had meant that much of the early Underground had survived almost untouched for up to a century. Very few early stations were comprehensively modernised and they simply got older and shabbier.


The only really noticeable change in the 1950s and 60s was the gradual introduction of strip lighting throughout the Underground, favoured by the electrical engineers because the lamps were brighter and longer lasting. This raised light levels on the Tube, making it easier to read in a gloomy tunnel or train. On the other hand the 'improved' flat lighting might be judged an aesthetic disaster which ended the cosy feel of the filament lamps and destroyed the wonderful artistic effect of the elegant 1930s column uplighters that were removed from escalator shafts. Fortunately the original uplighters have been retained at Southgate and St. John's Wood.

Lighting systems can always be reinstated or replicated after removal. They are easily changed fittings to an original building or structure, and most of the basic Underground infrastructure created from the 1860s onwards is so hardy that it remains in use today. The original stretch of the Metropolitan opened in 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon runs mainly in the shallow cut-and-cover tunnels which were built by the Victorian contractors to a very high standard and have required little attention since.

At Baker Street the soot blackened, single arched brick tunnel over the Circle line platforms was cleaned and restored for the 120th anniversary in 1983. The light fittings and furniture are not precise replicas of the long lost originals, but the general appearance of the newly opened station as portrayed in a familiar chromolithograph of 1863 is effectively created even with the presence of modern electric trains.



The arrival of a steam train in 2012 on a trial run for the LU150 recreations was an even more evocative historic moment. A patch of smoke blackened brick remains on the arch above the tracks, a ghostly reminder of the old steam underground which nobody alive today can actually remember. Even in the eighties it was a hazy memory for a select few surviving Victorians. One of them was George Spiller, who must have been the last man to recall the footplate experience of steam on the Inner Circle when he was interviewed for LWT's Making of Modern London series. George was later a driver on the Bakerloo and lived to be 101, but in his late 90s vividly recalled for me what it had been like to fire open cab District Railway engines just before electrification in 1905. Securing some of those oral history memories on tape has been as important for the historical record as preserving the artefacts.


Other than the renovated station tunnel at Baker Street once it had been cleaned up, there was little enthusiasm for the physical environment of the Underground in the 1980s. However there was a growing interest in the later architecture of the Tube built in the first four decades of the 20th century between 1900 and 1940. Some of the Edwardian stations designed by Leslie Green for the three UERL 3 Tubes opened in 1906-7 (the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Hampstead lines) were given the protection of listed status, as were an initial handful of Charles Holden's best designs for the 1930s Piccadilly line extensions. Both English Heritage, through the official listing process, and the newly formed Thirties Society (later the Twentieth Century Society) pressed for better care of the LU's unique fixed heritage. By the 1990s the Underground had more than 50 listed buildings on its books, more than any other organisation in London.

To its credit, the Underground became a better custodian of its own public realm and recognised the importance of its enormous estate above and below ground. It was no longer just a functional operating environment becoming a museum piece by default rather than design. LT was responsible for managing some of the finest inter-war architecture and built environments in London. There was a renewed appreciation of this inside the organisation and in those designing the next new Tube development in the 1990s, the Jubilee line extension.



The Jubilee line extension witnessed a radically different approach to the design of public space, integrating engineering and architecture to a greater degree than anything seen in London since the heyday of Pick and Holden in the 1930s. At the same time, driven partly by the lessons of the King's Cross fire, the historic infrastructure was carefully and expensively renovated in a way that had not been possible before because of tight financial constraints.

The Victoria line and the first stage of the Jubilee line had been developed on shoestring budgets in the 1960s and 70s to minimum design specification. Materials were to a lower quality standard and less hard wearing than those of the 1900s, often with a lifespan of less than thirty years. Domestic quality 1960s tiles on the Victoria line soon needed replacement when they dropped off the walls within a few years, whereas tough 1900s faience was almost impossible to remove for preservation without damage and conservation treatment. Improved fire and safety standards meant an end to 1970s GRP mouldings below ground as well as pre-war wooden escalator treads and panels, though the last of these were not taken out until the early 2000s.

When the wall tiling in deep level Tubes was replaced from the early 1990s onwards there was a growing tendency to replicate entire platform runs, with a careful match of colours, patterns and built in station names and decorative tiled Way Out and other direction signs. In a remarkable exercise started in the 1980s, tile enthusiast Doug Rose and a small group of colleagues mapped and recorded the original tile layout at every one of more than 40 UERL stations, including those that were closed in the inter-war period.

The results were eventually published in 2007, with pre-digital redrawn wall layouts in colour for each station, in his weighty volume Tiles of the Unexpected. A true labour of love, but now that original 1900s tiling only remains in situ at a handful of stations it is a valuable historical record. What appears to be meticulously renovated Edwardian platform tiling at stations like Arsenal, Mornington Crescent and Edgware Road (Bakerloo) is nearly all modern, the last just completely retiled for the second time in twenty years.

It has become quite difficult to find and identify original wall tiles anywhere on the system. This may be the only way to keep the historic Underground looking clean and fit for purpose, but it does I suppose raise questions about the heritage authenticity of the Tube. Many of the modern copies of heritage features like station roundel nameplates and tiled booking office windows have mellowed sufficiently in just a few years to be identified in various guidebooks and websites as the real thing, genuine survivors from another age. Is the Tube in danger of becoming a selectively Disneyfied but convincing version of its heritage self?

Whether this matters or not is another issue for debate. The Underground is a busy working system, not a static museum. There is a delicate balance between conservation and pastiche reconstruction that can be difficult to meet. Already there have been cases where heritage features have been destroyed or damaged by careless contractors working on unlisted stations when more trouble might have been taken.

Even the most recent refurbishment of some of the more important heritage stations, listed or not, has at times been crass and badly handled. I came across an example just a few weeks ago. At Boston Manor station (Holden, 1934) crudely fitted modern safety railings on the roof and tower have ruined the stylish outline that was proudly presented in London Transport's publicity photographs on completion eighty years ago.

The next big challenge will be what to do with 55 Broadway, the fine Underground head office designed for Pick by Holden which opened over St James's Park station in 1929. At that time this Manhattan style stepped design rising ten floors to a tower was the tallest office building in Westminster and won the RIBA London Architectural Medal. It was first listed Grade 2 in 1970, but its heritage rating has recently been reconsidered and its statutory protection increased.


Now LU considers Broadway no longer suitable for modern office use and is moving out. Owners Transport for London plan to sell this valuable historic building but the process will not be straightforward. 55 Broadway is now Grade 1 listed by English Heritage, putting it on a par with St Paul's Cathedral or the Houses of Parliament. Expert assessment has recommended conversion into apartments, but it remains to be seen how this will be achieved within the listing constraints which will protect 55 from demolition or major changes.

Heritage conservation in a rapidly changing urban context is a big challenge for LU, and just one of the pressures that barely existed in 1963. Managing the urban environment has become more complicated but in some ways more interesting and productive in the last fifty years. We are much more knowledgeable about what lies under London through more sophisticated archaeological investigation of newly excavated sites associated with new developments. The Jubilee line extension, new East London line and now Crossrail projects have all involved forensic archaeological work as part of the process. Some of this reveals previously unknown material about the work of the original Underground construction though it also exposes a great deal about the lives of much earlier inhabitants of the Medieval, Roman and pre-London settlement.

Where the existing historic infrastructure is upgraded and modernised, the Underground environment is being preserved, altered and improved all at the same time. The results are never quite the same and the arguments about what should be retained with selective redevelopment in situ and which features legitimately removed for conservation and display elsewhere will continue.

There is widespread fascination with the idea that ghostly half-forgotten stations remain on disused sections of the Tube, and there are persistent myths associated with this idea. Some of it is true, and there are indeed inaccessible tunnels which have been re-purposed for other uses or simply abandoned and may never meet another need.


The original tunnels carrying the first proper Tube, the City & South London Railway, under the river to King William Street station, were used for just ten years from 1890 then replaced by new tunnels taking the line on a less tortuous route under the City to the Bank and beyond. The later tunnels on the diversionary route were enlarged in the 1920s and now form part of the Northern line. The original station tunnel was adapted for use as an air raid shelter in the Second World War but the tunnels under the Thames remain exactly as they were, with constant water pumping required to prevent flooding. They will probably remain in this state for ever and a day, but this hardly counts as heritage conservation and there will never be open public access.

Brompton Road station on the Piccadilly line was opened in 1906, closed in 1926, and sold to the government just before the war. It was fitted out at platform level with shelter space and a deep level Ops Room for London's anti-aircraft control, working as such throughout the Blitz. In 2013 the former station building was put on the market as a well-located Knightsbridge office property at street level with an unusual added-value history in its lower basement areas which have been derelict since 1945. The agents were confidently expecting offers over £20m!

A second media story in LU150 year told a rather less credible Underground tale in an interview on the Today programme. This came from Down Street, another closed Piccadilly line station converted for select wartime shelter use by the War Cabinet and other senior government officials. Churchill could only be persuaded to stay there overnight on one occasion. This is all soundly documented, but one of the 'experts' interviewed on site took the BBC journalist down a very dubious historical route. Apparently 'in this very room' the senior Nazi Rudolf Hess was interrogated soon after crash landing in Scotland on his alleged peace mission from Germany in 1941. No credible evidence was offered for this and it seems a highly unlikely tale, but the lost and hidden Underground is a breeding ground for urban myth dressed up as historical investigation. It seems a long way from industrial archaeology, but beware the loopier theories that get linked to underground London!



I would like to conclude with a look at Farringdon, the first City terminus of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863, which is set to become one of London's key transport nodes of the 21st century. Changes have been considerable here over 150 years, but this location will continue to exhibit physical features from different stages and dates over almost the entire period of the Underground's history. The original temporary wooden station used as the terminus at the opening of the line in 1863 was replaced within a couple of years by the overall cast iron and glass roofed structure covering the extended through tracks to Moorgate used by the Metropolitan and other companies. This roof, designed by Met engineer John Fowler, is now listed and has recently been renovated and extended.

One small wing of the brick building housing Fowler's contemporary booking hall also remains, but most of this was demolished in 1922 to be replaced by a grander design in the characteristic white tile fronted style of Met architect Charles W Clark. This incorporated a Spiers & Pond restaurant on the first floor over the booking hall and has moulded faience lettering across the façade which still announces it as Farringdon & High Holborn station. Clark's booking office interior was gutted and rebuilt in about 1990, when the new Underground Ticketing System (UTS) was installed. Unfortunately all decorative features such as the attractive mosaic direction signs to the Ladies' Room were destroyed. However the façade remains and this too was later listed.

In the 21st century the station has been altered and extended for expanded use by Thameslink trains. There is now a second booking hall for National Rail over the road from the Met entrance, a second station exit at the northern end and longer platforms, all based around Fowler's restored and renovated roof and Clark's booking office and shop units. The next stage will be the creation of a deep level Crossrail station currently under construction below and close to the existing station, which is scheduled to open in 2018. This will have separate entrances but also new sub-surface connections with the existing station.

Within five years Farringdon will be the crossing and interchange point for the Met and Circle Underground lines, the National Rail services running north-south across London via the reopened Thameslink route and the new east-west Crossrail which is deep underground but in practice the equivalent of an additional main line scale Tube. This enlarged transport complex at the heart of London will be used by up to 140 trains per hour and a projected 150,000 passengers a day.

The entire Underground history of London will then be physically represented in this one site. A busy urban interchange will see the integration of London Underground's oldest tangible heritage with Crossrail, Europe's biggest current infrastructure project. It will be a fascinating blend of old and new, careful renovation for sustainability combined with the latest engineering and construction techniques. This should be an imaginative reshaping of London's public environment that retains some of the past and puts it to good future use. Watch this space!


Transport for London, London Transport Museum collection: figures 1, 3, 6, 8, 10 and 11
Oliver Green: figures 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 12


1. This article is based on a talk given at the GLIAS AGM in June 2013

2. Oliver Green is Research Fellow and former Head Curator of the London Transport Museum

3. Underground Electric Railways Co. of London


© GLIAS, 2014