The London Underground is a unique and iconic institution famous across the world. As you might expect, London’s underground train network has a fascinating history, which stretches back more than 150 years. At Insider London, we know all about the hard work, rivalries, and scandals that went into creating today’s underground network (after all, our London Underground Tour is all about these juicy details!) To whet your appetite, here are five little-known facts about the history of the Tube. Whether you’re a tourist or a Londoner born and bred we bet you didn’t know all this about the London Underground…
“Ankle Watching” was a scandalous problem associated with the early London Underground. The first trains that ran underground in London produced huge amounts of unpleasant and dangerous steam. To combat this, ventilation vents were introduced above the underground platforms at street level. This meant that when a train entered the station, wind would rush out of the vents on the streets, blowing up women’s skirts and showing off a shockingly indecent amount of ankle. At the time, this was considered so provocative that men began to loiter around the stations to catch a glimpse of lady’s ankles – so much so that policemen sometimes had to be stationed outside to keep ankle-watchers away!
You don’t need to be able to read to use The London Underground. The trains and stations that make up the London Underground network are all carefully colour-coded. This harks back to the days when the trains were used by poor, uneducated workers who could not read. These early commuters knew stations and lines by their colours rather than their names. Likewise, every station had different decorative mosaics and tiles so that the workers knew where to change trains.
Many of the first rail and underground stations built in London were “Double stations”. If you take a tour around London’s underground, you may notice that many of the stations are built impractically close to each other. This is because multiple companies built the original train services in and around London. Each rival company would build their own station with separate tracks and platforms; often right next door to an already-existing station! The current day Victoria Station is a prime example of this; originally two separate stations run by rival companies, Victoria was only connected into one station in 1924. You can still see the distinct architectural differences between the two sides of the building – one red brick, the other white stone - revealing the station’s secret history.
New technology was tested on the poorest travellers first. The first trains to run on underground lines in London were steam trains. In the 1890s, it was suggested that electric trains could be used, however there were concerns about the safety of this new technology. The first electric underground trains were tried out on a new line (which is now part of the Northern Line) between Stockwell and Bank intended for poorer workers to use. It was only after this ‘tester’ train proved safe that the richer populace would use the same technology elsewhere on the network.
The London Underground is haunted by many abandoned Ghost Stations. Anyone who has taken our London Ghost Tour knows that London is full of ghosts… But did you know there are also many so-called ‘ghost stations’ around the tube network? These are stations that were once in operation on the Tube but were abandoned because they did not get enough use or could be replaced by another nearby station. Good examples include ‘British Museum’, ‘South Kentish Town’, and ‘Down Street’. Many of these ghost stations still have existing platforms that can be seen from travelling tube trains if you know where to look!
Want to find out more about the history, quirks and secret stories behind the Tube? Insider London’s insightful London Underground Tours delve into even more detail about the history of this fascinating institution. You’ll also have the chance to catch a glimpse of one of the famous ghost stations for yourself!