January 1863: London underground pioneer John Fowler

Today marks 150 years since the opening of what would become the London Underground and The Engineer has been writing about the world’s oldest metropolitan railway system since its beginning. In fact its origins date back to about the same time as the launch of this publication: 1852, when the first company proposing a railway linking the City to a mainline terminal was formed and the first bill authorising an internal London railway was published.

The Engineer was also present at the finished Metropolitan Railway’s grand opening on 9 January 1863, and a week later published an account of the launch speech given by the line’s chief engineer, John Fowler (later president of the Institution of Civil Engineers), who was reportedly loudly cheered.

As well as giving a short history of the railway’s development, Fowler explained the engineering challenge he had faced in choosing the appropriate type of propulsion system since realising the line would be important not just for transporting people across London but also as a way of linking the City with Britain’s larger rail network.

‘It was … clear that the peculiar locomotive I had proposed for the isolate line, viz., without any fire-box, or the means of carrying any fuel whatever, but dependant upon the sufficient supply of hot water and steam being taken in at one end of the journey to supply it to the other, was no longer the machine to employ,’ he said.

‘But at the same time, it was manifest that, from the necessarily low tunnel and numerous trains, the ordinary locomotive engine could not be employed.

‘It became necessary then to contrive an engine that should work as an ordinary locomotive when on the ordinary railways joining the Metropolitan Railway, puffing out its smoke and steam, and when in the Metropolitan Railway tunnel it should condense its steam and bottle up its smoke, so as to create no nuisance whatever to the passengers.’

Fowler wasn’t bashful about his achievement. ‘I confess I cannot but feel proud of the result of this day’s proceedings,’ he said. ‘Your journey over the Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to the present city station … has brought to a successful completion a great public work of a novel character, in which a large measure of responsibility has necessarily devolved upon me.’

But he also paid dues to that other great Victorian railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who advised on the adoption of locomotion engines, and to the first man to attempt to initiate a London railway, solicitor Charles Pearson. Sadly, neither man had lived to see the opening of the Metropolitan; a particular tragedy in Pearson’s case as he had died just four months earlier.

The route from Paddington to Farringdon was even then only planned as the first stage of the railway and Fowler referenced the intention to extend the line further eastwards to Moorgate and build a more permanent terminal, the first of many additions that would eventually see the network grow from seven original stations to 270 today.