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Letting off steam: the perils and possibilities of underground travel in Victorian and Edwardian London

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Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis 1863-2013 conference
17 January 2013
Richard Dennis
Letting off steam: the perils and possibilities of underground travel in Victorian and Edwardian London

Abstract: Operating steam-hauled trains underground, even with locomotives designed to condense their own steam, was always going to cause problems. This paper focuses on some key episodes in the early history of the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways: the question of whether smoking should be allowed on trains and platforms, hotly debated in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the attempt by the District to provide adequate ventilation in the late 1870s and early 1880s, including controversies over the siting of Mansion House and Mark Lane Stations and the construction of additional ventilators on public land in Embankment Gardens and Queen Victoria Street just at the time when the company was also selling land which could have been used for ventilation; and the Board of Trade investigation into ventilation on the Metropolitan in the 1890s which attempted to force the companies to adopt electric traction. Each episode can also be read as a debate, not only about regulation in public and private space, but also about class interest: the rights and responsibilities of working-class, ‘gentlemen’ and female passengers underground, and of all commuters and railway employees underground compared to those of pedestrians and road users above ground.

A steam train which carried passengers in the 19th Century has returned to the Great Portland Street tube station on a journey to mark 150 years since the first London Underground journey.(wikipedia)

A steam train which carried passengers in the 19th Century has returned to the Great Portland Street tube station on a journey to mark 150 years since the first London Underground journey.(wikipedia)

Biography: Richard Dennis is Professor of Human Geography at University College London. He is the author of Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and of numerous essays and book chapters about 19th- and early 20th-century London, especially focused on housing (in model dwellings, in the East End, and in mansion flats) and on the city as represented by the novelist, George Gissing, who was fascinated – and usually horrified – by all things modern, including the Metropolitan Railway. His essay on ‘Mapping Gissing’s Workers in the Dawn’ (The Gissing Journal, 2010) has been republished in Ross Bradshaw (ed), Maps (Five Leaves, 2011). Most recently, Dennis has contributed essays on ‘ Victoria Street in theory and practice: scenes from the governmentality of nineteenth-century London’ in Matthew Davies and Jim Galloway (eds), London and Beyond (IHR, 2012), and ‘Urbanising experiences’ in Martin Hewitt (ed), The Victorian World (Routledge, 2012); and he is co-editor, with Carlos Galviz and Sam Merrill, of a forthcoming special issue of The London Journal devoted to ’150 Years of the London Underground’ (for publication in 2013).

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