The first railway in London, the London and Greenwich, opened in 1836. With its station at London Bridge, the passengers had but to cross the bridge to be in the city centre. London Bridge station was followed in 1836 by Euston (servicing the northwest), and then Paddington (servicing the west) in 1838, Shoreditch in 1840, Fenchurch Street in 1841 (both servicing the east), Waterloo (servicing the south) in 1848, and King's Cross (servicing the northeast) in 1852.
However, the City Corporation opposed the railway's entry into the actual city, and this was supported by the 1846 Royal Commission on London Termini which decreed that no further railways could be built in the city itself. London was already jammed with traffic, and the growing numbers of passengers found transferring between the various railway stations or simply entering the city to be a nightmare.
By jove, an Underground Railway!
The only operable solution was an underground railway. Plans for such an undertaking had been on the drawing boards since the early 1850s, and were soon supported by an 1854 Act of Parliament, which authorised the creation of the Metropolitan Railway Company. After six years raising capital, construction began in February of 1860. The line ran from Paddington station, under Marylebone Road and Euston Road, to King's Cross, and then on to Farringdon. Intended to cut costs cause minimal disruption, the builders used the cut and cover technique on the streets, whereby the road is dug up and a trench is built, which is then covered by a 'roof' which supports the rebuilt road. The walls were supported by brick, and the ceiling by either brick arches or iron girders, which can still be seen today in the Metropolitan/Circle line section between Paddington and Moorgate.
After three years, the Metropolitan Railway opened on January 10th, 1863. Given the connection between the Metropolitan and the Great Western Railway's mainline at Paddington (through, I presume, where the Hammersmith and City platform now stands), the trains were broad gauge trains on loan from Great Western. A dispute between the Metropolitan and Great Western soon followed and, as the Metropolitan's own stock had yet to arrive, trains from other railways had to be hired to allow the services to continue running.
In 1864, the Metropolitan's first supply of 18 Class A steam locomotives arrived, together with accompanying passenger carriages. At the same time, work continued on extending the line itself, and by 1868 the Metropolitan reached Moorgate in the east, and South Kensington and Hammersmith in the west.
Competition: The Metropolitan District Railway
John Fowler, Engineer of the Metropolitan railway, designed a second underground system, which would run along the new Thames Embankment from the Metropolitan's South Kensington station to Tower Hill, connecting with the eastern end of the Metropolitan. This would complete what was known as the 'inner circuit', a complete loop around the city of underground railways. The Metropolitan District Railway was formed by the Metropolitan's board of directors as a seperate entity in 1864 - with the intention of amalgamating back with the Metropolitan once the work was complete.
On Christmas Eve 1868, the District Line's first section opened between South Kensington and Westminster Bridge, with extensions to Blackfriars in 1870, and finally Mansion House in 1871. However, neither the District nor the Metropolitan retained interest in completing the inner circuit - particularly as the District had just begun directly competing with the Metropolitan with a new Hammersmith extension, built 1874.
The District continued to expand, and in 1880 was connected to Richmond, Ealing Broadway, Kew, and Putney Bridge. The Metropolitan made similar extensions, and connected to Liverpool Street and Aldgate. Finally, on October 6 1884, the inner circuit (what is now the Circle Line) was completed and opened to services.
The Metropolitan was also expanding out of the city, and was becoming very much a mainline railway. From a terminus at Baker Street, the Metropolitan was operating trains carrying freight and parcels as well as passengers (in Pullman cars no less!) extremely long distances - by 1894, it was possible to ride the 'underground' to Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire... 50 miles outside London.
Welcome to the deep level
Marc Isambard Brunel, son of the famous railway builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had used his patented rectangular tunnelling shield to build the world's first sub-aqueous tunnnel under the Thames River in 1843. Originally a pedestrian tunnel, it was sold to the East London Railway in 1865, and is still in service today with the Underground.
However, 1864 saw the invetion of a circular tunnelling shield by Peter William Barlow, who used it to build the Tower Subway in 1870. Although a failure, Barlow's pupil, a man called James Henry Greathead, improved on the tunnelling shield, christened it the Greathead Shield, and set it to work building the City and South London Railway. Running from Stockwell in South London, it passed under the Thames to King William Street, and was opened by the Prince of Wales on November 4th, 1890. Passenger services began the following month on the 18th. Due to the enclosed nature of the tube-shaped tunnel, the trains were electric. A new age had arrived.
Lord of the Dynamos
For the last thirty years, the Metropolitan and District had operated their underground trains with steam locomotives. Although originally intended to use coke as a less smokey fuel, a change to standard coal was soon neccessary. The experience of being trapped in an enclosed space filled with steam, smoke and passengers was understandably unpleasant. Luckily, the electrified City and South London tube had shone a light through the smokey air.
Given they shared many sections of track, the Metropolitan and District (who, having never amalgated, were fierce rivals) agreed to a shared standard of electrification. The original plan in 1900 failed as the 300 volt AC overhead supply originally proposed was rejected by the District due to lack of testing (note: many subways do use overhead wires or catenary, such as Tokyo and Edmonton). After a long, drawn out dispute, a conclusion was reached via Board of Trade tribunal for a 550-600 volt DC system.
This system is still in use today, with the positive rail running outside the running rails much like most subways around the world, with a fourth, negative rail running down the middle. This system was successfully installed on the Inner Circle by 1905. The Metropolitan, however, took its time on its mainline section outside the city, with electricity gradually extended to Rickmansworth by 1925.
Meanwhile, new underground companies were springing up to take advantage of the tube and electric technologies. The Central London Railway opened on July 30th 1900 between Shepherd's Bush and Bank. With financial backing from the District, the Baker Street and Waterloo, Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton, and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railways (now the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern lines respectively) were opened in the first decade of the 20th century.
With eight electric railways now running in the city, a lot of power was needed. Two generating stations were built. One, supplying the District line and the tube lines it supported, opened in 1905 at Lots Road in Chelsea. The Metropolitan was supplied by its own station at Neasden, built the same year.
Much as towns sprang up around rail stations as they crossed the United States and Canada, so did suburbs around Underground stations in London as they extended out from the city centre. Golders Green, for example, was countryside when the Northern Line's station opened there in 1907, but within a few years an entirely new suburb had been built. The line was extended further, and the same boom in growth came to Edgware in 1924.
The Metropolitan, meanwhile, began building its own residential estates, dubbing them Metro-Land. Although similar to the identikit housing developments one sees today, they were at the time a pleasant change from inner city life for many Londoners, and were marketed as, "London's nearest countryside - charm and peace awaits you. Those who visit it for the first time are enchanted by its beauty and never lose their love for it". A bit like the Sims.
From July 1, 1933, all the bus, tram, and underground lines were amalgated under one banner - London Transport. With this new authority, many underground lines were extended, in some cases along existing railways which were electrified for use by the tube trains. Services were continually expanded out of the city, and linked together to provide one of the biggest underground railways in the world. The Central Line, extensions delayed by the Second World War (some of the unfinished sections were used as factories for war materiel) was finally completed to West Ruislip and Epping.
The Metropolitan's old mainline was also improved, with complete electrification and widening to four tracks - two inner, slow tracks and two outer express tracks. In 1968, the first completely new tube railway in 60 years, the Victoria Line, was finished. December 16, 1977 saw the Piccadilly Line extended to Heathrow, making London the world's first capital to directly connect its airport with its subway system. May 1, 1979 saw the opening of the first part of the Jubilee Line between Stanmore (where it uses the inner tracks of the Metropolitan) and Charing Cross via Baker Street and Bond Street.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the establishment of the Hammersmith and City Line, a former branch of the Metropolitan. The second part of the Jubilee Line was finished just in time for the Millenium Celebrations in 1999, where it links Green Park with Greenwich. The Docklands Light Railway was also built in the early 1990s and has been rapidly extended through the West India and Docklands area.
The London Underground is the oldest, and probably most diverse and colourful underground railway system in the world. With almost 300 miles of tunnels and an extremely convoluted history, it is as an integral part of London's culture as it is a part of everyday life for commuters.
source for much of this information: The London Transport Museum visitor's guide, 1980