Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Underground in the Victorian period

The underground first opened in 1863 and operated between Paddington and Farringdon Street. In order to solve transport problems such as traffic and congestion in London, the underground railway system was introduced. London needed a solution to link the main railroad stations to the city’s centre, in order to allow people to move further out into the city and to reduce slums. The first steam railway was running in 1825. 25 years later, Kings Cross, one of London’s largest stations, was a depot for steam trains arriving in London. London in the 1850’s was one of the world’s largest cities. It was a very crowded and busy city, which was massively growing into an industrial city. Houses were built in a medieval style which meant people lived very close to each other. Many Victorian writers disliked the idea of the underground system and saw it as being destructive and deadly for the people travelling on it. I will discuss how the underground system was perceived in the Victorian period and how writers portrayed it in the novels News from Nowhere by William Morris and The Time Machine and The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells. As a user of public transport myself, I will also share my thoughts on the tube, and the ways in which it has developed since the 19th century.

Bayswater Station 1866

2013: Today there are cashpoints, telephone boxes and buskers outside Bayswater Tube Station in London
Bayswater Station 2013

Towards the end of the first chapter of The War of The Worlds, Wells provides the reader with a description of the railways:

“From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling…My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights…It seemed so safe and tranquil.” (73)

According to the OED, the phrase ‘shunting’ meant “ moving a train into a siding, or on to another line of rails.” This implies that the train station created a lot of noise and that the trains moved roughly and swiftly. The word ‘shunting’ is also repeated in chapter eight, as Wells writes “In Woking junction, until a late hour, trains were stopping and going on, others were shunting on the sidings” (89). This emphasises the narrators’ memory of the underground system, and its noisiness. The chapter then ends with “It seemed so safe and tranquil” (73) which is ironic, as later on the reader finds out nothing and no one is safe, as the Martians have come to invade the earth. Wells is very descriptive in The War of The Worlds and many train stations are mentioned throughout the text, specifically in and around London. The narrator then talks about the people at the station. He says that there were “Excited men came into the station about nine o’clock…and caused no more disturbance than drunkards might have done” (89) this emphasises the loud, chaotic surrounding of the underground, informing readers that the underground system was disliked by many, including the narrator himself. Although the narrator explains that these men were excited, he compares them to drunkards, emphasising the annoyance and inconvenience. 

Another Victorian novelist who portrays his hatred of the underground is William Morris. In his novel News from Nowhere he exemplifies how the trains were forced upon the people of the 1800’s as he writes:

 “Took his way home by himself to a western suburb, using the means of travelling which civilisation has forced upon us like a habit.  As he sat in that vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity, a carriage of the underground railway, he, like others, stewed discontentedly, while in self-reproachful mood he turned over the many excellent and conclusive arguments which, though they lay at his fingers’ ends, he had forgotten in the just past discussion.” (2)

Morris creates an image of a stuffy train, full of unhappy people who are experiencing a time when railways have just newly been built. He also emphasises the fast-moving, industrialised society, which was once just a rural landscape, and that the people have just accepted the construction of the railways and the advances of technology. However, without the construction of these railways, the problem of congestion and overcrowding would have sustained, and as London’s population continued to grow, problems would have increased and gotten worse. It can also be interpreted that the “discontented humanity” is present even today, as there is hardly any interaction with others when travelling on the tube as due to the rise of mobile phones and modern day technology, people are constantly peering onto their smart phones, and neglecting verbal communication with others.  

The stuffy, airless imagery is juxtaposed with the pleasing, lovely and refreshing air “It was a beautiful night of early winter, the air just sharp enough to be refreshing after the hot room and the stinking railway carriage.” (2). Here Morris compares the beauty of the weather with the smell of the carriage, but also how the pure, freshness of nature differentiates from the urbanisation and industrialisation. It also shows that when stepping out of the carriage, you are out into a different world and that the air relieves you from the foul smells of the train. In Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Gaiman also describes the underground as a new world, “They crossed an iron bridge in the darkness, while Underground trains echoed by beneath them. Then they entered what seemed like an endless network of underground vaults that smelled of damp and decay, of brick and stone and time.” (100) this idea of a strange new place, and the association with a whole new world, is recurrent even in 20th century novels such as this.

Dickens was also one of many Victorian writers who disliked the underground system. In Dombey and Son, Dickens uses his classic technique of listing, which was usually written to emphasise his displeasure on something.

 “There were railway patterns in its drapers' shops, and railway journals in the windows of its newsmen. There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views, wrappers, bottles, sandwich-boxes, and time-tables; railway hackney-coach and stands; railway omnibuses, railway streets and buildings, railway hangers-on and parasites, and flatterers out of all calculation. There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.”  (Chapter 15)

This is also similar to how the tubes are even today…we all know that feeling of the rush hour! But as technology progresses as the years pass, our travelling underground experiences are improving. We now have advertisements on the underground, which give people something to look at, rather than just a dark, gloomy black tunnel wall. The advertisements also monopolize space, and add to the marketing world as most of London is dominated by finance. People nowadays can also use Wi-Fi underground at some stations, which is really convenient for tube goers as they are able to access the internet and communicate with others without having to worry about getting no network connection. However, as much as the technological world has developed, prices are also increasing and tube fares go up every year, which shows London as a financial district and a consequence for regular underground travellers.


Morris, William. News From Nowhere. London:  Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908. Web. Project Gutenberg. 22nd March 2015 < http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3261/3261-h/3261-h.htm>

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine and The War of The Worlds. USA: Starling and Black Publications, 2013. Print

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. London: 2014. Web. Project Gutenberg. 22nd March 2015


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