Farringdon Station’s history celebrated

Passengers get into the spirit of things Pic: TfL Visual Image Services

Passengers get into the spirit of things Pic: TfL Visual Image Services - Credit: Archant

It is January 1863, Queen Victoria is on the throne, Lord Palmerston is prime minister and Charles Dickens is still alive.

Farringdon Station Opening Banquet 9 Jan 1863 A3

Farringdon Station Opening Banquet 9 Jan 1863 A3 - Credit: Archant

Along a newly-constructed underground railway a steam train, belching smoke and carrying the great and good of London’s society, including then chancellor William Gladstone, pulls into the very first Tube stop in the world.

Passengers get into the spirit of things Pic: TfL Visual Image Services

Passengers get into the spirit of things Pic: TfL Visual Image Services - Credit: Archant

150 years on and Farringdon Station, or Farringdon Street as it was then known, has changed beyond all recognition – today it is a bustling transport hub carrying millions of passengers every year and when the new Crossrail link opens in 2018 it will become one of the busiest stations in the country.

Farringdon Station 1915 A4

Farringdon Station 1915 A4 - Credit: Archant

This week, the whole world has turned it’s attention to this Finsbury stop as a series of events celebrate the birth of the London Underground – inspiration for the Paris Metro, New York subway and every subterranean railway on the planet.

The steam train pulls out Pic: TfL Visual Image Services

The steam train pulls out Pic: TfL Visual Image Services - Credit: Archant

On Sunday, the first Tube journey was recreated when specially restored trains, including the Metropolitan Steam Locomotive No 1 and the Metropolitan Railway Jubilee Carriage No 353, chugged into Farringdon station with passengers dressed in period costume.

The event mimicked the soft launch, complete with banquet, held on January 9, 1863, to show off the new track to celebrities and politicians of the day.

The general public had to wait until the following day for their chance to have a look. And it seems overcrowded trains are no new phenomena, as right from day one, commuters were crammed into the carriages like cattle.

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Despite trains running from six in the morning, by 11am platforms were so crowded that no one was allowed on and ticket inspectors stopped taking payment for passengers travelling between King’s Cross and Farringdon Street.

One newspaper of the day reported: “At this point, during the morning, the crowds were immense, and the constant cry, as the trains arrived, of “no room”, appeared to have a very depressing effect upon those assembled.”

An estimated 38,000 people travelled on the line that day, with a total of 225,000 experiencing the Tube during its first week.

The immense public interest was unsurprising as the building project had captured the imagination of the whole city.

A 13-year-old boy, writing about his first trip on the Tube, in 1863, said: “It was still a public wonder. It had been projected and talked about for many years, and during construction had kept well in popular view, especially when the Demon of the Fleet Ditch (in reality the little River Fleet) had broken into and flooded the half-finished tunnels on more than one vexatious occasion.”

The flood referred to was probably an occasion in early 1862, when the sewer burst and leaked effluent at a rate of several gallons a minute, or maybe a disaster in June when a section of sewer fell in, causing a tide of sewage to sweep through the ground on the west side of Farringdon Road, leading to the vault holding the bodies cleared from Ray Street burial ground breaking open.

The track was pretty shallow by today’s standard and was dug from above ground rather than by tunnelling. It also tried to follow the paths of the roads above to minimise disruption.

Two other familiar Tube problems manifested themselves early on – at the end of January John Rice, from Euston Road, became the first man to be charged with theft on the new railway when he allegedly picked the pocket of a young woman.

Then towards the end of February one of the first recorded letters of complaint about the Underground appeared in the newspapers; one Irving Courtenay unhappy about an obvious defect in the new system, namely “the very short time allowed at the stations of the ingress and egress of passengers from the trains.”

The original Farringdon Street was only a temporary station and in 1865 it moved to the building it occupies to this day.

As part of the 150th birthday celebrations, Zoe Gofton and Stefania Menga, two project management students from London Metropolitan University staged a competition for schoolchildren to draw pictures of the station. Prizes were given out at a gala event at Islington Museum, St John Street, Finsbury, last week.

Ms Gofton said: “It’s just really nice to be part of this historical celebration and to get the whole community involved, especially young people who might not immediately find it exciting.”

And from this four-mile stretch spiralled the Underground behemoth we take for granted today – what Mayor of London Boris Johnson this week described as the “throbbing cardiovascular system of the greatest city on Earth”.

With thanks to Mark Aston of Islington Museum.