The Lure of the Underground: London Transport Museum and the Tube at 150

The Lure of the Underground - London Transport Poster
The Lure of the Underground - London Transport Poster

It won’t have escaped the notice of readers of this blog that January saw the 150 year anniversary of the London Underground: the first underground line running from Paddington to Farringdon opened on 9th January 1863, marking the beginning of London’s expansive subterranean network of railway lines. Having studied Victorian mobilities for some years now, it came as some surprise to me to realise that I hadn’t yet visited the London Transport Museum, and with a range of new events and exhibits on display to celebrate the history of the Tube this was the perfect time to visit. An exhibition on Tube Poster Art opens this Friday 15th February, but apart from this there isn’t a specific exhibition area dedicated to the Underground anniversary. Instead a number of new highlights have been incorporated into the regular collection, and so in what follows I’ve focused on both the museum as a whole and the new Tube at 150 exhibits.

The London Transport Museum charts the history of public transport in the city from the early 1800s to the present day, filtering the wider story of British transport technology through the unique history of London’s development. What emerges is a narrative about the interrelations between transport and geography, exploring the ways in which public transport systems have played a fundamental role in shaping, and being shaped by, the city.

The Shillibeer Omnibus of 1829 - image c London Transport Museum
The Shillibeer Omnibus of 1829 - London Transport Museum

We start in the 1800s where it’s immediately clear that one of the museum’s main attractions lies in a large collection of full-scale vehicles, from the replica of the city’s first Shillibeer Omnibus from 1829 (pictured) to numerous London buses from the twentieth century. In the context of the nineteenth century, one of the interesting and useful things about this is being able to grasp the comparative scale and size of different vehicles, and to better understand the development of different features across the century: the Shillibeer omnibus is surprising in its height and depth, while the steep winding steps to the top seats of the later Tilling “knifeboard” bus of 1875 must have presented rather a feat of manoeuvring to ladies in long skirts. A selection of the carriages throughout the exhibition are opened up for viewing, and taking a seat in the interiors of different carriages brings out interesting contrasts and comparisons between vehicle designs. As many studies of railway carriage design will tell you, the interiors of later modes of transport are not dissimilar to those of earlier horse-drawn models; save for a shift in the direction of the seat (backs to the windows in the omnibus vs the side-on travel of the railway carriage that gives the traveller a view from the window), the luxury and comfort of the first-class carriage prevails across horse-drawn, railway, and underground transport. There are other details, though, that become clearer here: for example, the advertisements that adorn the exterior of the omnibus become a notable presence inside the carriage by the time we get to the Underground railway.

Another feature of the museum is that, throughout the 19th century exhibits in particular, each mode of public transport – horse-drawn, railway and river – is given its own chronological narrative, but these run in parallel to one another thus allowing for enriching intersections to emerge between the separate histories. The explanatory material focuses more on the historical and social contexts of transport developments rather than the technology, moving from the individual stories of drivers and crossing-sweepers, to wider issues of health, pollution, urbanization, and changing commuter practices. Literature, art and newspaper clippings provide a range of cultural perspectives, while maps of evolving transport networks are useful in visualising the spread of each technology throughout the century. The growth of the suburbs are a key theme throughout, nicely illustrating the relationship between the city and its transport networks, and capturing one of the essential points here of how the city was simultaneously expanding and becoming increasingly connected across the century – as in this quote from Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks (1857):

It is very difficult nowadays to say where the suburbs of London come to an end, and where the country begins. The railways, instead of enabling Londoners to live in the country, have turned the country into a city. London will soon assume the shape of a great starfish. The old town, extending from Poplar to Hammersmith, will be the nucleus, and the various railways will be the projecting rays (chapter 3)

Yet while drawing out the ways in which public transport created an increasingly connected London, I felt what was missing from this was acknowledgement of the role that transport networks extending beyond London and its suburbs played in connecting the city to the rest of the country. As in the quote by Trollope, those “projecting rays” of the railway lines were just as important in bringing people and goods, things and ideas, into London, which were vital in shaping the evolving city. There’s a brief mention of the central hubs that provided the gateway to “the rest of the country”, but the primary message that emerged here was a sense of how transport networks have served and sustained the city’s insularity, a message that might hold some truth but that could be better articulated through a sense of how the city’s central network was sustained and revived by its external connections.

Model of the construction of the Underground railway lines - London Transport Museum
Model of the construction of the Underground railway lines - London Transport Museum

The regular section of the museum on the London Underground has been extended with some additional features in celebration of the 150 year anniversary, elaborating on themes such as the construction of the first Underground lines and the early technological problems encountered – the (pictured) model of the early cut-and-cover method of construction is effective in demonstrating the sheer chaos involved. The main addition to the Museum to mark the 150 year anniversary, Poster Art 150, makes for an interesting choice of material given that, I felt, there was much more to be added to the brief handling of the Tube’s history. Yet the new exhibition is perhaps more fitting in picking up on what is arguably the Tube’s most significant source of cultural meaning: its iconic status as visual symbol, as captured in the London Underground sign and Harry Beck’s 1933 map. As David Pike writes in Subterreanean Cities (2005), this has been central not only to the Tube’s cultural status as a marketable commodity, but also in shaping the material reality of travelling by Tube:

the Tube map is arguably today the predominant summary image of London worldwide. Not only does the map govern perception of the Tube in the world above through its reproduction on everything from maps and postcards to umbrellas, mugs, t-shirts and playing cards […] it even governs the perception of the Tube for the rider underground, its pleasing symbolization assuaging the eye and the mind, the sole distraction from the fact that the system, true to its Victorian roots, is overcrowded, overburdened with trains, and underfunded (p.22)

To this I’d go a step further and suggest that the Tube map also succinctly depicts the changed experience of mobility and space that the Underground gave to travellers: a placeless-ness in which the journey-space itself ceases to matter, becoming a non-space of homogenous tube tunnels and uniform stations demarcated only by station names that stand as markers of the changing landscape above ground, not the experience below.

I hope to return at some point in the year to view the posters on display – it’s worth noting that a ticket to the Museum gives you access for a whole year – and there are a number of special talks and events continuing over the coming months. The London Transport Museum is an all too brief exploration of the fascinating 200-year history of public transport in London, and to the Victorianist will undoubtedly open up more questions than it gives answers. But it nonetheless provides an engaging account of the city’s transport developments through a stimulating range of displays and visual media that aptly capture the “lure of the underground” – and the many other forms of transport – that have been central to London’s past and present.


Pike, David. Subterranean Cities: the World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945. Cornell University Press, 2005.

Trollope, Anthony. The Three Clerks. 1858. Oxford University Press ed., 1952.

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