Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A journey underground




In the “Voyages Imaginaires de Milord Céton,” written about the year 1780, by the ingenious Marie-Anne de Roumier, we have an account of his lordship’s journey to the moon and six other planets. The lunatics, his lordship finds, are given up to many light and frivolous diversions, as would become the people of so changeable a planet. In Mercury we meet with misers, and those given to hiding and hoarding useless heaps of gold. In Mars the people think of nothing but going to war, and snatching by conquest the lands of others. In Venus, on the contrary, we have a Paphian court and inhabitants, who delight in compliments, courtship, and what is termed the “gentle passion.” In Saturn we find the good old Saturian times restored; times which gentlemen of a certain age longed for in the days of Virgil and Horace. In the Sun we meet with people deeply immersed in the pursuits of science and the cultivation of “pure reason.” Whilst in Jupiter everybody cultivates his own conceit and pride, each one thinking himself, in the true Jovian method, considerably better off than his neighbour.

This is tolerable fooling, indeed, and might have been written in our own days by the Prophet Zadkiel, or any one who had fancy enough to adapt the old tales of the stars to the assumed characters assigned them by the astrologers. But neither Milord Céton, nor his imaginative authoress, ever dreamt of describing a voyage such as we have realised to-day, under the surface of the earth, beneath the largest city in the world, whilst thousands, nay millions, of its inhabitants were pursuing their avocations over our heads.

Of course everybody will at once see that this talk about Milord Céton and his imaginary voyage, is merely introduced to bring in our description of the first journey on the Metropolitan Railway, commonly called the “Underground Railway,” and they shall not be disappointed.

On Saturday, the 30th of August, 1862, a great number of impatient shareholders and of the equally impatient public (of which latter the writer was one), were invited to take the first trip throughout the entire length of a subterranean and subaquean undertaking to which the Thames Tunnel is a flea-bite. Had not the shareholders been for two years on the tenterhooks of suspense? Had not the public been turned out of its accustomed route by huge hoardings, immense cuttings, and gigantic pitfalls? Had it not got lost in the purlieus of Clerkenwell, been upset in the Euston Road, frightened at night by the continued roar and puff of the steam engines? Had not relays of navvies worked noiselessly at the very back of the wine and coal cellars of the public? Had not old landmarks disappeared, and was not the very site of “King George’s statue at King’s Cross” tumbled up and down in railway barrows, and all for this gigantic undertaking? Did not Messrs. Croaker and Hare—the one dissatisfied, the other timorous—prophecy a complete failure and a final crash, like an earthquake, in which the two sides of London streets should first nod to each other, then fall in, and finally topple over each other like a house of cards? We know that all this, and much more, was the case. We also all know that seldom has a great scheme been brought to bear, or a ship sailed, or a plough-coulter cut the sod for the first time, but that some wise-acre shook his head, and with lamenting face prophesied a failure.

But the Underground Railway is now an “accomplished fact,” as our translators say. Already several part journeys have been taken, and the public by its representatives virtually made the trip on the Saturday aforesaid. On the 12th of August, a number of directors, shareholders, and city magnates, had gone through a portion of the works, walking along part of the way, and drawn in trucks over the other. On the 20th of the same month, the grand difficulties of tumbling sides, crumbling foundations, and finally the eruption of the Fleet Ditch, having been overcome, the contractors assembled their workmen and gave them a feast on the occasion. It was a kind of under-ground harvest home, only the crop had been thousands of tons of earth and of London clay instead of corn. After they had dispatched dinner, and done honour to the Queen, they drank the health of the carpenters and bricklayers, and of the navvies too, whereat the latter, at some forty feet below the surface, raised a shout like that which Milton says was given in another place.

All this is now a matter of the past. On the 30th of August, rails had been laid down from one end of the line to within a few feet of the other; the stations had been very nearly finished, and the engines (Fowler’s patent improved by Gooch), with smoke-consuming and steam-condensing apparatus, had been brought upon the line with several first and second class carriages and trucks. To these, in the thick darkness which enveloped the commencement of the tunnel, nearly six hundred people clambered up, after walking there from the city terminus in Victoria Street, to which the lines had not yet been joined, and then, doubtless not without some misgivings in the hearts of many, we commenced our journey.

Slowly we went on the first expedition, so that one might inspect the works, and on reaching the first station, that of King’s Cross, the train stopped. From this runs a trumpet-shaped tunnel, communicating with the Great Northern Railway, and to join this we believe another branch of the railway will run to a terminus in Finsbury Square. The next stopping-point reached was that of Gower Street, which may as well be described, as a favourable specimen of all the stations. Even upon the earth’s surface the only ornamental part of railways really consists of their stations and termini; and underground the same rule seems to be observed. “Gower Street” is a very pretty station, lighted from the top, from the fore-courts of the gardens and the pavement, whence thick glass panes transmit a soft light to horizontal cuttings lined with white, and from these cuttings oval eyelet holes, lined with Minton’s white-glazed tiles, admit both light and air to the station. The reflection of the light from so many surfaces has a very pretty effect; there is no darkness about the matter, but quite as much light as need be, like the soft evening of a June day. Neither is there any smell of damp or confined air; in fact, the air is not confined, and the damp does not exist, and on our hot August trip a dry and pleasant atmosphere was preserved throughout; indeed, the air in the tunnel must always be kept pure by the current passing from terminus to terminus, and from the frequent passage of engines and carriages, which will carry all before them.

Naturally, the pretty station and the agreeable temperature elicited a good deal of cheering and cheerful praise. There was also an evident care in the construction of the work, and the shareholders’ money, it was plain to see, had not been carelessly spent. The Portland Road station, which we next reached, is as simple as that at Gower Street, but differs in its mode of lighting, the light being admitted by two glass domes and a flat skylight; at Baker Street we have almost a copy of that of Gower Street, and at all very handsome and wide staircases run on each side up to the surface. The Edgeware Road station, near Praed Street, is not an underground one, and is therefore lighted horizontally; and from thence to the terminus, at the Great Western Railway, the line is single. On reaching the terminus all of us dismounted, and as soon as we had wandered over the works, we remounted our carriages, and proceeded home, my scientific fellow-travellers expressing a firm belief in the success of the undertaking, although nearly 1,500,000l. have been spent upon it.

Of the merit and utility of this great triumph of engineering skill there can be no doubt. London is over-crowded with vehicles, and the number seems to increase every day. Cabs, trucks, carts, carriages of all sorts, omnibusses with two or three horses, and gigantic railway-vans driven by furious and reckless Jehus, over-crowd our streets every day, form blocks and stoppages at all our principal thoroughfares, and all but convince the stranger that finally London will find itself tied up in one eternal dead-lock, from which there will be no escape. Time and temper—two very valuable articles—are continually lost in these stoppages, and indeed it is very evident that something must be done to relieve them. Thanks to the security enjoyed by vested interests, it would be an almost hopeless task to widen the main thoroughfares sufficiently. In the widest streets these dead-locks occur; for instance, in Regent Street, in the height of the season. Nay, they would occur in Nevskoï Prospect, or the broadest streets of Paris or Pekin, if those cities had the population, the material wealth, and the eagerness for business, which mark London and the Londoners. Naturally enough, the concourse of vehicles has increased as the railway traffic has increased, and therefore it is but fair that a railway should be applied to abate the nuisance.

A penny-fare from Praed Street to the City will lessen the number of riders in the City omnibusses, and men of business proceeding from the centre of London to any part of England will pack their luggage in the Underground Railway car more safely and expeditiously than in a cab. At the same time, many of our luggage-vans themselves will be superseded, since the goods will be brought right into the midst of the City warehouses from the manufacturing districts, without passing all our public thoroughfares.

That it may interfere with some branches of industry is likely enough; but those branches are capable of being transferred to any other towns, where those who are employed in them will flourish all the more for being taken away from Cobbett’s “Huge Wen.”

J. Hain Friswell.