‘A great leveller’: Class and the London Underground

The London Underground, by virtue of being subterranean, is a socially ambiguous space. When the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, passengers were able to choose a class of ticket in the model of established rail custom, which prevailed until the 2d. flat fare of the City and South London Railway (C&SLR) in 1890 and Central London Railway (CLR) in 1900.[1] The vertical conception of the city mirrors the spatial hierarchy of lower and upper classes, illustrated in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine: the Underground was middle-class infrastructure inhabiting a working-class space, creating a ‘threshold space, an underground masquerading as a world above’.[2] The Underground served ‘both the bowler hat and the cloth cap brigades’ in catering for the Victorian leisure class and offering early morning workmen’s fares.[3] The ‘cosmopolitan throng’ of the CLR suggests it was a modernist utopia that transgressed from the norms of social segregation; in fact, class consciousness haunted the Underground despite social and technological innovation.[4]

The C&SLR was the first line to adopt classless carriages, eschewing the preceding futile ‘parody of the Victorian class system’.[5] The C&SLR was distinctly modern: it was the first deep-level tube – constructed using a tunnelling ‘shield’ rather than subsurface cut-and-cover – and, perhaps most importantly, powered by electricity. The uninviting ‘sardine box railway’ was a precursor to the CLR, which carried passengers between Bank and Shepherd’s Bush as what is now part of the Central Line.[6]

  • Figure 1: Photographs of CLR interiors, from The Twopenny Tube, p. 12.
  • Figure 2: A photograph of an original CLR carriage, from The Twopenny Tube, p. 10.

Many contemporary reports gloss over the fare in favour of lauding the ‘new, comfortable, lightsome, and up-to-date London’ ushering in the twentieth century.[7] Though technological change appears to overshadow social, Haewon Hwang’s characterisation of the Underground as a ‘democratising force’ relates Marxist readings of space to London’s newfound accessibility.[8] Drawing on Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Hwang quotes Saint-Simonian theorist Constantin Pecqueur on the egalitarian potential of the communal journey: ‘To foreshorten for everyone the distances that separate localities from each other, is to equally diminish the distances that separate men from one another’.[9] Schivelbusch on the proto-Marxist fascination with French railways is echoed in the British press response to the electrified tubes: London was achieving ‘technological equality’ in its advanced transport system open to all.[10] Pecqueur considered the class distinctions in carriages to be a ‘baleful possibility’, but painted the jumble of passengers as a ‘living mosaic of all the fortunes, positions, characters, manners, customs, and modes of dress’.[11] Eric Banton’s appeal to the ‘scene of varied and ever-changing life’ at Bank, the ‘kaleidoscopic procession of pedestrians’, echoes Pecqueur’s exaltation of shared space.[12]

However, the classless tickets on the C&SLR and the CLR did not make the London Underground a classless space. In his oft-quoted essay from George Sims’ anthology Living London, Banton’s account of the CLR depicts tolerated integration rather than egalitarian utopia:

The City magnate, failing to find a first-class carriage, has found that the single-class trains on the electric lines provide a means of travelling scarcely less comfortable than that to which he has been accustomed […] The office boy, finding these trains have no third-class carriages, has sat him down in great content beside the City magnate and still the heavens do not fall![13]

Though they occupy the same space, the socially-stratified hierarchy remains: the middle-class magnate has lessened himself and the office boy is content to be ignored. It is conservative rather than radical: a ‘vision of toleration’ with a superficial dismissal of social distinction.[14] The CLR, dubbed the ‘Twopenny Tube’ by the Daily Mail, was not always intended to open with its eponymous fare.[15] The dreary perception of the C&SLR left promoters disenchanted with the classless carriages, but they were eventually adopted on the CLR to maintain its public image as a ‘people’s railway’.[16] This indecision contributed to economically indiscriminate but materially varied carriages. Some had luxurious maroon haircloth upholstery and others basic rattan – as well as signs urging passengers not to spit (Figure 1).[17] In Figure 2, the word ‘class’ is faintly visible on the uppermost panel, a palimpsest of Victorian class divisions. The Underground has been likened to Augé’s ‘non-space’, mediated by advertisements that rose from the need to deter diverse passengers from looking at one another.[18] Though the trains were technically classless, social consciousness remained a spectral presence behind the ‘vision’ of equality. The Daily News’ optimistic evaluation of the classless tube as a ‘great leveller’ is reductive; nevertheless, it is a neat spatial metaphor for shifting conceptions of the verticalised city at the turn of the century.[19]

Bibliography

Ashford, David, London Underground: A Cultural Geography (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013)

Banton, Eric, ‘Underground Travelling London’, in Living London, ed. by George Sims, 3 vols (London, Cassell and Company, 1902-03), iii (1903), pp. 147-151

Bruce, J. Graeme and Desmond F. Croome, The Twopenny Tube: The Story of the Central Line (London: Capital Transport Publishing, 1996)

‘The Electric Railway’, Daily News, 5 November 1890, p. 5 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FR6J5&gt; [accessed 3 November 2018]

‘Electric Utopia’, Daily Mail, 4 Aug. 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518861&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

Hwang, Haewon, London’s Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013)

Pike, David L., Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005)

Pincher, Peregrine, ‘The Sardine-Box Railway’, Punch, or the London Charivari, 7 February 1900, p. 97 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FqCz0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey (California: University of California Press, 2014)

‘The Twopenny Tube’, Daily Mail, 1 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862896226&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

‘The 2D. Tube Leads’, Daily Mail, 3 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518687&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018]

Wells, H. G., The Time Machine: An Invention (Martino Publishing: Connecticut, 2011)

Welsh, David, Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010)

Wolmar, Christian, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever (London: Atlantic, 2004)


[1] ‘Underground’ refers to any part of London’s underground rail system; ‘tube’ refers to the deep-level lines.

[2] David L. Pike, Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 30.                                                             

[3] Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever (London: Atlantic, 2004), p. 6.

[4] ‘Electric Utopia’, Daily Mail, 4 Aug. 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518861&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[5] David Welsh, Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), p. 5.

[6] Peregrine Pincher, ‘The Sardine-Box Railway’, Punch, or the London Charivari, 7 February 1900, p. 97 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FqCz0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[7] ‘The 2D. Tube Leads’, Daily Mail, 3 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862518687&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[8] Haewon Hwang, London’s Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 85.

[9] Hwang, p. 85.

[10] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey (California: University of California Press, 2014), p. 71.

[11] Constantin Pecqueur, Economie sociale, quoted in Schivelbusch, p. 71.

[12] Eric Banton, ‘Underground Travelling London’, in Living London, ed. by George Sims, 3 vols (London, Cassell and Company, 1902-03), iii (1903), pp. 147-151 (p. 151).

[13] Banton, p. 151.

[14] Pike, p. 44.

[15] ‘The Twopenny Tube’, Daily Mail, 1 August 1900, p. 3 <http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/dmha/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=DMHA&userGroupName=uokent&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=BasicSearchForm&docId=EE1862896226&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&gt; [accessed 4 November 2018].

[16] Wolmar, p. 155.

[17] J. Graeme Bruce and Desmond F. Croome, The Twopenny Tube: The Story of the Central Line (London: Capital Transport Publishing, 1996), p. 10.

[18] David Ashford, London Underground: A Cultural Geography (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 6, 16.

[19] ‘The Electric Railway’, Daily News, 5 November 1890, p. 5 <http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FR6J5&gt; [accessed 3 November 2018].