Reviewed by Henry Falconer.
Christian Wolmar spent his childhood in Kensington and has been fascinated by the London Underground, on which he travelled daily to school, ever since. The Subterranean Railwayis more than just a history of the Underground from its beginnings in the mid-19th century to the present; Wolmar places it firmly in a wider social, economic and political context. It will excite and intrigue anyone who travels on the Underground and has the slightest interest in its evolution. Why, for example, is south London still so badly served by the Underground? After reading this book, no-one can be in any doubt about the answers to such questions, or about the Underground`s formative influence in the development of London during the last 150 years. And yet, as Wolmar states frequently, most Londoners simply take the Underground for granted.
By the 1850s, London was facing massive traffic congestion. It was only in 1830 that the first regular passenger railway (the Manchester-Liverpool) had been opened, yet by 1850 London was at the centre of a national passenger rail network. All the railway termini were outside the old city (as they still are) and quite widely separated, so that travellers between stations added to the existing congestion. An underground railway was a massive technological challenge and required both great vision and speculative investment. In mid-Victorian Britain, this would have to be an achievement of private enterprise. Wolmar emphasises in particular the role of one Charles Pearson in the pioneering development of the Metropolitan Line between Paddington and Farringdon – the world`s first underground railway when it opened in 1863.
The role of individuals (Charles Yerkes, Lord Ashfield, Frank Pick and Harry Beck are particularly worthy of mention) and of private investment continued to influence the evolution of the Underground down to the 1930s, when it was, in practice, nationalised under the umbrella of London Transport. Wolmar is in no doubt that the Underground would have benefited from greater central planning instead of the rivalry between private companies (most notably the Metropolitan and the District) which led to much wasteful duplication, but he understands that in the political climate of the time a greater role for the state was simply not practicable. He regrets that the suburban rail network and the Underground have not been more closely integrated; Londoners can only envy the more rationally developed systems of Berlin and Vienna.
Perhaps the Underground`s greatest impact on London has been its role in the growth and development of suburbia. Wolmar makes clear that, in most cases, the Underground came before the suburbs and not the other way round. The best-known example of this process, thanks in no small part to John Betjeman`s memorable film Metroland made for the BBC in 1973 and given a new airing recently as part of the Betjeman centenary celebrations, was the extension of the Metropolitan Railway into Middlesex and Buckinghamshire in the decade preceding the outbreak of the First World War. Some of the early stations were built in open fields, but where the railway led, commuters (as they came to be called) soon followed – not least in response to the promotional advertising of the railway companies themselves, who were desperate for passengers to make their extensions viable economic propositions. Morden, in south London, was a mere village of 1000 inhabitants when the Underground arrived in 1926, with fields and parklands all around as far as the eye could see. Within 5 years there were 12,600 residents (1931 census).
For Wolmar, the golden age of the Underground was the inter-war period and he sees the system as having been in decline since the end of the Second World War rival forms of transport, lack of investment and the dead hand of bureaucracy all being contributory factors. Perhaps for that reason, the post-war period is accorded only 20 pages out of over 300. Readers are advised to have a map of the modern Underground to hand having to refer constantly to the map tucked away between pages 180 and 181 is irritating but otherwise the illustrations are well-chosen. Budapest is proud of being the second city to have an underground railway, so it is perhaps rather churlish to describe it as a small tram-cum underground system. And, published in 2004, it cannot take into account any changes in perception brought about by the attacks of 7th July 2005.
But it would be even more churlish to dwell upon such details. Wolmar has written a superb book one to which I shall refer again and again whenever I reflect upon a journey on the Underground.