What the Evolution of the Tube Map Can Teach Us About London's History

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

The tube map, along with red telephone boxes, black cabs and those funnily dressed people with sticks up their arses who trample old people and smack little kids from time to time while prancing around for the Queen, is a London icon.

Unlike some of its bedfellows, which are either totally useless but look good on postcards, under threat or just plain stupid, the instantly recognisable map is still central to daily life, helping thousands of people navigate the capital’s underground transport network every single day.

However, the technicolour diagram that’s so familiar to most of us today has developed dramatically through the years. Prepare for a short journey through history. There shouldn’t be too many gaps to mind.

1908: London Underground

Though numerous subterranean lines were in operation during the second half of the 19th century – the very first of which opened in January 1863, running between Paddington and Farringdon Street – it wasn’t until 1908 that a combined map was created, uniting the routes under a single banner: London Underground.

Created by the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), the firm superimposed its own routes (Bakerloo – brown, Hampstead – indigo, Piccadilly – yellow, District Railway – green) and those operated by an array of independent companies, such as Central London Railway (blue), City and South London Railway (black), Great Northern and City Railway (orange) and Metropolitan Railway (red) on a map of the city.

Look closely and you’ll spot a greyed-out Waterloo and City line too. The railway’s operator took no part in the creation of the first tube map, and was therefore classified as one of the ‘Other Railways’.

Back to the actual map. As you can see, the geographically accurate result was anything but neat, despite showing only a fraction of the number of stations we have today. Central areas were littered with criss-crossing lines and messy lettering, and great chunks of the District and Metropolitan railways had been completely cut off.

The birth of a star, sure, but so much room for improvement.

1919: Ugliness and Expansion

As this glorious monstrosity from 1919 shows, things got worse before they got better. The map above perfectly demonstrates why the geographical model had no future, even without the added complexity of street names. Though a number of outer District, Metropolitan and Bakerloo line stations had been sliced off, the central zone was crowded to the point of illegibility, while much of the rest of the map was blank, wasted, useless.

However, you may have also noticed that the Piccadilly line had turned that familiar shade of blue, and something resembling today’s Circle line was also beginning to take shape. Much of East London, which was dominated by the docks and connected to the rest of the city by the London and Blackwall Railway, was conspicuous by its absence.

Design aside, however, it explains plenty about contemporary London, not least because this was the first tube map produced after the end of war. During the WWI (and WWII) years, the underground network was run predominantly by women, though many had to give up their jobs when the men returned. As you’d expect for a relatively young transport network, it had expanded significantly in the 11 years since 1908, but the factors fuelling its growth are particularly interesting.

London started to spread itself, and quickly, largely due to a steady rise in car ownership and changes in lifestyle. Rather than the tightly packed terraced houses of old, Londoners developed a taste for semi-detached homes and rural surroundings. The capital’s suburbs therefore expanded beyond the boundaries of what was then the County of London, and into Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey.

1920: Something's Got to Change

When I said the geographical model had no future, I meant no future. The following year, MacDonald Gill did what needed to be done. Well, one of many things anyway. He dropped all surface details – street names, parks and even the River Thames – from his tube map, making it possible to squeeze more stations in than ever.

As you can see, it wasn’t an entirely successful move. Some of the outermost Bakerloo and District line stops were (once again) cut off, the central area was arguably messier than ever and any sign of the Circle line appeared to have gone up in smoke. Progress? Debatable.

1933: Brilliant Harry Beck

If the name Harry Beck means nothing to you, you don’t deserve to ride the tube. OK, that may be a touch strong, but promise not to forget him. Beck was a former electrical draughtsman for UERL (which had by this point handed control of the lines to the London Passenger Transport Board), who single-handedly put the organisation’s design team to shame with a creation that started out as a personal project.

Having had a similar schematic design rejected a couple of years earlier, he created this masterpiece, the daddy, the big cheese, the blueprint for every great and good tube map that would come after it, in London and beyond. Beck did away with all of the capital’s surface features apart from the Thames, and found a way to make the sprawling network look neat, compact and easy to navigate.

Apart from the easternmost stretch of the District line – that side of London was still served predominantly by non-underground routes, though the London and Blackwall Railway had closed seven years earlier – Beck’s creation managed to comfortably integrate every part of the network.

It’s easy to look back and scoff with the luxury of hindsight, but at the time UERL was terrified about how the public might react to such a radically different tube map, marking it with the line, “A new design for an old map. We should welcome your comments”.

Needless to say, it was a revelation, but one seemingly simple feature would take several more years to perfect...

1935: Oh Dear, Oh Dear

This map probably highlights it better than any other. Just look at those interchanges. TfL had no idea how to represent them neatly, experimenting with an array of symbols, shapes and sizes. The combination of comically oversized diamonds and bold lines to indicate London’s central zone is utterly hideous.

On the positive side, all of the lines by this point had been assigned their own distinct colours, with the Bakerloo and Central lines making the switch to brown and red, respectively.

1940: War and Death

London at the time was once again in the grips of war, and March 3rd, 1943 marked the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground: the Bethnal Green disaster.

Following heavy RAF strikes on Berlin a couple of days earlier, shelter-seeking civilians expecting German revenge were being led down a darkened staircase into the station when a woman carrying a baby fell, triggering a crush involving around 300 people. 173 of those died, while approximately 60 were hospitalised. In the end, no bombs were dropped that night.

News of the incident was kept from the public for 36 hours to avoid losing morale and, astonishingly, a commemorative plaque was only erected at the site 50 years later. New safety measures introduced after the tragedy included handrails and clearly marked steps.

The end of WWII also marked the end of the so-called Golden Age of London Underground’s growth. The Northern Heights extension of the Northern line, a major part of the New Works Programme, was never built because Britain’s pockets were empty. North-east London, however, was due some Central line love as part of the scheme, with a lengthy extension in the works. Though the war severely hampered progress, the planned stations on the section were all eventually completed and in operation by 1951.

Back to the tube map. The 1940 version above was scarred with interlocking interchange rings and painfully steep diagonals to allow the extensions to fit on the page. Fortunately, subsequent versions of the map brought back 45-degree diagonals.

1960: Too Sharp

Fifty-six years on, this one still provokes sighs, head-shakes and eye-rolls. Harold Hutchinson, this was not the best way to mark the arrival of the Victoria line. The underground’s publicity officer at the time who – as you can probably tell from the diagram above – wasn’t a designer, decided to relieve the tube map of some of its sex appeal.

He essentially took all that was good about recent versions of the map and sullied them by replacing the smooth bends with offensively ugly sharp corners. What’s more, the area around Liverpool Street once again descended into cluttered chaos.

The one positive was Hutchinson’s introduction of distinct interchange symbols (circles for underground-only, squares for connections with British Rail), which haven’t changed a great deal since.

1972: That's More Like It

Back to Beck and the good times, when turns were gently curved and interchanges were neat. The Victoria line was finally complete, after becoming the first entirely new tube line to be built in London for 50 years when it sprung into action in 1968.

Designed to ease the load on the Piccadilly line and the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, the light blue route was originally supposed to run between Walthamstow (which later became Walthamstow Central) and Victoria, but extended southwards to Brixton. Further tracks leading to Streatham, Dulwich and Crystal Palace were discussed but never developed.

Though several lines were yet to be built at this point, the 1972 map looks startlingly similar to the present-day version. Lots of new features have been added over the years, but the formula has remained the same.

1987: Reviving the Docks

No changes to report here, apart from the arrival of the Heathrow extension of the Piccadilly line, the creation of the Jubilee line, which initially only operated between Stanmore and Charing Cross, and an early-stage look at the Docklands Light Railway. OK, quite a lot then.

Until the DLR’s creation in 1987, the only public transport that connected the Isle of Dogs with the rest of London consisted of buses, which were frequently delayed thanks to a series of bridges that had to give ships access to the docks. The area, which had suffered enormously as London’s status as a major port declined and its main ports moved downstream to Felixstowe and Tilbury, was boosted by the transport infrastructure, as well as brand new housing and office space.

The eagle-eyed among you may also have noticed that Strand and Trafalgar Square stations are no more. The two were combined to become Charing Cross, with the original Charing Cross station being renamed Embankment.

There were many different reasons for station closures and amalgamations, including low passenger numbers (Blake Hall was estimated to have 17 passengers a day at its closure) and the re-routing of lines, but consolidation was a huge factor too. In the underground’s early days, when the lines were run by separate companies, operating a station near that of a rival was a good way to try and steal business from them. However, once the underground was nationalised in 1947, that became a problem that needed fixing.

1999: Filling the Gaps

The eastern Jubilee line extension was finished, the DLR was quickly expanding (the shape of the Thames having at last been altered) and travel zones, which were actually established back in 1981, start appearing on the tube map.

2006 Onwards: The Rise of the East

Though the connections between Shoreditch and New Cross and Shoreditch and New Cross Gate had existed for decades, it wasn’t until TfL took over the North London (NLL) and East London lines (ELL), which were then managed by the Department for Transport, that the now vibrant and immensely popular east really hit the map. So to speak.

The announcement was made in 2006, with the NLL becoming part of London Overground in 2007, and the ELL following in 2010. London Reconnections Editor John Bull, who I have to thank for much of the information included in this piece, managed to travel on the first train after the ELL reopened, and has witnessed the subsequent transformation of east London first-hand.

“A mate and I went all the way from Dalston to New Cross on it, then pub-crawled our way back up,” he told me. “I'm strangely proud of the fact that I did the first pub crawl on the reopened ELL! And trust me, there were a lot of places on that line which were a shithole. Within a year the ELL had changed that, for better or for worse. Because suddenly the rest of London (and, more importantly, new people moving to London) knew that east London was there.

“If you're looking for signs of the tube map recognising and mirroring the economic shift eastwards, it's not about the underground, it's about the overground.”

Elizabeth Line and Beyond

And so we enter the next phase of development. The night tube will eventually creak into action and the Elizabeth line is set to open in 2019, with TfL currently working on a tube map capable of clearly incorporating the east-west route. The effort above, with its messy representations of Liverpool Street, Paddington and Farringdon, hopefully isn't it.

That's not all we have to look forward to, according to Bull (who knows a lot more about the network's future than I do). "Don't look for line extensions beyond the Bakerloo and the last bit of work on the Northern," he told me. "There's no point, as the network is effectively full. There's no point running a Victoria train beyond Walthamstow, say, if all it means is the people at Seven Sisters now can't get on.

"And the fact is that, once you've got 36 trains per hour, which we're effectively capable of now on much of the network, your problems stop being technological ones and become human ones. How long it takes to get a group of exchange students off the train at Tottenham Court Road becomes your barrier, not how fast or frequent your trains are."

What about driverless trains? Aren't they inevitable? Another negative from John. "Don't look for driverless trains – at least not in the way most people think of them. Whole swathes of the network will never have unattended trains for safety reasons that are insurmountable, such as narrow tunnels on the Central, due to the tube's age."

We're entering a period of optimisation then, with expansion and fresh development set to follow shortly after. "None of the above will stop London growing, so look for the Northern line to be split into two lines again once Camden is rebuilt (a project already underway), the planned extensions to Bakerloo and Northern, and then new lines like Crossrail and Crossrail 2, as well as big projects to make stations better, so passengers flow through them quicker and they don't overcrowd.

"Then perhaps, in about 30 years' time, we might start to see work start on new lines to relieve pressure on the existing ones by simply running parallel to them. That's a long way off though."