Opening of the Metropolitan Railway | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


The Opening of the Metropolitan Railway – 10 January 1863

On 10 January 1863 the Metropolitan Railway was opened in London. An unprecedented feat of engineering, the Metropolitan Railway was the first underground railway in the world, forming the basis of the London underground and other global underground systems.

In this special blog, we take a look at the historic first three days of the Metropolitan Railway’s existence, from its grand opening on Friday 10 January 1863, to the teething problems it encountered when it opened to the public on the Saturday and Sunday, using reports found in the British Newspaper Archive.

Baker Street Station | Penny Illustrated Paper | 10 January 1863

The Penny Illustrated Paper gives its readers an insight into the new underground railway’s location:

The line commences at the terminus of the Great Western Railway, at Paddington… It proceeds under portion of the South-Wharf road and Praed-street, crosses under Edgware-road, and leaves Chapel-street almost intact; it then runs under Marylebone and Euston roads to King’s-cross, the whole of which distance is under ground. From King’s-cross a cutting has been made along Bagnigge-wells-road and Coppice-row, and its termination south is at Farringdon-street, where the principal station for the east end is situated.

Thus, the new line formed a west-east artery, allowing Londoners and visitors to the capital to cross from the west and into the city.

Friday 10th January 1863

The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard on 17 January 1863 tells us of how the ‘formal opening of the Metropolitan Underground Railway took place on Friday last.’ A select group of 600 to 700 ladies and gentlemen, invited by the directors, arrived at Paddington and in two trains travelled along the new line to Farringdon.

A banquet was then held to mark the occasion at Farringdon Street Station, where MP Mr Lowe addressed the gathered guests, and highlighted the difficulties that the pioneering engineers faced:

They have had to make their way through gas-pipes, and water-pipes, and sewers, and that greatest of all obstacles, that modern dragon, Mr Fowler (the engineer of the line), the modern St George, has four times vanquished – the Fleet ditch (cheers)…The line has had to worm its way through a complicated and intricate labyrinth under difficulties almost insuperable.

The dragon that Mr Lowe mentions is the Fleet Ditch, the bursting of which on 16 June 1862 caused the opening of the line to be delayed by many months.

Bursting of the Fleet Ditch June 1862 | The Sphere | 28 April 1928

In the same speech, Mr Lowe highlights the need for an underground system, labelling London’s traffic ‘the opprobrium of the age.’ The Penny Illustrated Paper expands on the positive impact of the new Metropolitan Railway:

The difficult middle-passage, from the Great Western to the frontier of the city proper, is thus neutralised and rendered facile, and passengers arriving by the Great Western, the London and North-Western, and the Great Northern Railways, as well as that vast mass of active humanity that flows and reflows from east to west daily and almost hourly, will find a distance accomplished in from fifteen to twenty minutes which has hitherto occupied portions of time varying from three-quarters of an hour to an hour and a quarter.

Banquet at Farringdon Street Station Illustrated London News | 17 January 1863

And the newspapers of the day were swift to find other positives regarding the new underground line. The same publication lauds the ‘entire absence of damp’ in the tunnels, the ‘commodious’ carriages, and the ‘very well managed lighting,’ whilst the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard comments how ‘the smoothness of the line and the comfort of the carriages were beyond all praise, while nothing could be more satisfactory than the simple and yet effective operation of the new railway signals.’

The Yorkshire Gazette, however, sounds a note of caution, for although the ‘travelling is smooth and easy…the tunnels are cold, and render warm clothing necessary.’

Saturday 11th January 1863

The following day, the ‘line was thrown open to the public,’ and as the Illustrated Times relates, ‘many thousands indulged their curiosity’ in this new method of transportation. The day started innocuously enough, with the so-called labourer’s train leaving Paddington at 6am, ‘to accommodate workman.’

First public train from Paddington to Farringdon Street | Illustrated Times | 17 January 1863

But by 8am, the line was struggling to cope with demand, and an hour later ‘it became evident to authorities that neither the locomotive power nor the rolling stock at their disposal was at all in proportion to the requirements of the opening day.’

This resulted in all sorts of chaos, as stations ‘became crowded with anxious passengers,’ comparable ‘to the crush at the doors of a theatre on the first night of a pantomime.’ Indeed, first class passengers were ‘compelled’ to travel third class, and vice versa, as between 30,000 and 40,000 people attempted to travel on the railway that day.

Sunday 12th January 1863

On the Sunday, ‘the pressure was nearly as great.’ This led to engines and carriages which were not designed for underground travel to work on the line. These engines were steam powered, and created a build-up of steam and smoke in the tunnels.

According to the Illustrated Times:

On Sunday evening it was discovered that the ventilation of some parts of the line, particularly the station at Gower-street, was so imperfect that several of the company’s servants became affected with sickness, giddiness, and even insensibility; indeed, to such an extent did this occur that at one period all the officials at the station mentioned were incapacitated for duty.

One of the affected persons was James Napier, who had to be admitted to University College Hospital for his symptoms. Reynold’s Newspaper tells of how he was suffering from sickness and dizziness, a low pulse, and very cold hands and extremities. A local tavern proprietor, Mr J Tilley of the Green Man Tavern, helped others affected by the fumes by taking them into his house and bathing their heads and temples with vinegar.

The Case of Elizabeth Stainsby – 1867

Despite these incidents, the Grantham Journal, a month later, reports on the success of the new underground line, with share prices in the Metropolitan Railway ‘going up rapidly.’

But the new line was not freed from the spectre of ‘bad air,’ which had haunted it on its opening weekend.

Three years later, a young woman named Elizabeth Stainsby was travelling on the Metropolitan Railway, when she began to complain of a ‘slight pain at the chest.’ As the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette relates, she arrived at Bishop’s Road Station (Paddington), and remarked ‘It’s a nice station, but it feels very hot.’

Having departed the station, the train went into the tunnel and she remarked on the ‘dreadful smell.’ By King’s Cross, she had fainted, and was removed to the waiting room, ‘but it was found that she was quite dead.’

At the inquest, one Dr Popham gave his medical opinion that ‘a large quantity of sulphurous acid gas and carbonic acid gas,’ such as that found in the tunnels, ‘would hasten the death of a diseased person.’ The jury found that more investigations should be carried out on the noxious atmosphere of the underground, and two months later Professor Julian E D Rogers, a chemist and lecturer, gave his findings after having tested the air on the underground.

According to the Islington Gazette, ‘he did not think the carbonic acid or the sulphurous acid would have an injurious effect.’ Indeed, he put Elizabeth Stainsby’s death down to her diseased heart, her tightly-laced stays, and her previous consumption of a hearty meal.

Over time, the Metropolitan Railway expanded, as did the network it helped to found. As evidenced here, the British Newspaper Archive provides unparalleled real-time commentary of this historic event, and you can discover more by registering with us today.

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