By James Hoyle.
London Underground, known colloquially as “the Tube”, is the oldest subway system in the world. Since the first service was launched more than 150 years ago, on 10th January 1863, it has carried an unbelievable number of passengers (now over 1 billion a year!) beneath the streets of The Big Smoke. By the time British Pathé was producing newsreels in the 1910s, there were already a number of different lines, which probably explains why so little footage of the Underground features in the archive until the Second World War, when its use as air raid shelters presumably made it newsworthy again. Indeed, prior to 1939, British Pathé often seemed more interested in the subways of other countries than in its own.
British Pathé was mainly concerned with new construction. As early as 1925 the company released a newsreel on the removal of the statue of Eros necessitated by the building of a new Piccadilly station and the next year the creation of the world’s largest tube line – from Edgware to Hendon – also earned newsreel coverage (view it here). Following the war, Transport Minister Alfred Barnes could be seen in a newsreel from 1946 opening a 4-mile extension of the Underground to Stratford (which would prove vital for the 2012 Summer Olympics). The work cost £3.5 million, employing 2000 – “sizeable figures for 9 minutes travel”. In the film, we get glimpses of tube journeys in the 1940s, including some nice interior shots of the carriages. The next year, Barnes opened another extension in Essex on the Central Line and in the film documenting it, the cameras travel through the new stations from Wanstead to Gants Hill.
In the 1950s and 60s, there were interesting innovations in tube travel, with new trains, “travolators” and automatic ticket barriers. But the development which caught British Pathé’s attention the most was the building of the Victoria Line. The “first pictures” of this were released in 1964, construction reached the half-way mark in 1965, and new tube trains were given a test run in 1968. The first stage was opened later that year, before work on stage 2 commenced.
The opening ceremony for Stage 3 of the Victoria Line involved the Queen not only operating the vehicle from the driver’s cabin but taking her second-ever journey in a tube carriage. The newsreel, “Queen Opens New Victoria Line (1969)”, can be viewed here.
Aside from construction work, British Pathé was preoccupied with the work of cleaning and maintaining the tunnels and stations. In 1944, we took an “exclusive” look at women war workers, known as “fluffies” or “fluffers”, who cleaned the Underground every night. An interesting reveal is the extraordinary amount of fluff created by people’s clothing during just one day. Other features on tube cleaners followed, such as on the “Rubber Man” Leonard Ware, who was responsible for erasing graffiti (the cinemagazine names “the moustache” as the most common form of it). We don’t know what was cut from this clip, but the graffiti certainly seems rather mild – and it’s all in pencil! If only Tube staff today were so lucky. You can see the light-hearted 1947 film here. There are also films from 1949 and 1950 documenting cleaning work after hours.
British Pathé always liked to show things it believed to be unknown or unusual, so as well as “fluffies”, the company had a look at less mundane uses for the Tube. These included the Post Office’s own underground railway, the telephone exchange within an unused Tube tunnel and, of course, as air raid shelters during the Blitz.
British Pathé also documented some of the tragedies which occurred on London Underground during its long history. In 1939, a terrorist attack forced two damaged stations, Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road, to be shut temporarily. Only two days after the maiden service on the Stratford extension discussed above, two people were killed when a train collided with a second, thankfully empty, carriage. Any footage of the aftermath is currently missing, but the newsreel announcing the incident is here. 1953 saw another tube crash near Stratford in which 8 adults and 1 child were killed, with 49 others injured. The newsreel shows the damaged interiors of the carriages, as well as rescue workers bringing out the dead. Luckily, the fire on the unfinished Victoria Line in 1966 claimed no lives. And while the British Pathé footage ends with the Victoria Line in 1969, apart from a few silent clips from the 1970s, an episode of A Day That Shook The World documents the horrific events of the July 2005 London bombings. An interesting look at safety on the Underground is provided by a film from 1955 showing new recruits in training, which involved miniature railways and mock-ups of various safety devices.
Finally, British Pathé’s extensive collection of strike footage also includes the 1962 Tube Strike, which made people realise “how London depends on the Underground”.
And indeed it does.
For British Pathé’s collection of clips on London Underground, click here.