Jubilee Line - just before the rush hour (wikipedia)

Jubilee Line – just before the rush hour (wikipedia)

Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis, 1863-2013

Simon Abernethy (University of Cambridge)
Class and commuting on the Underground, 1863 – 1939



In the 21st Century London’s Underground is effectively “classless”. Builders and clerks, managers and secretaries, all travel in the same coaches and share the same free newspapers. But a century ago this mixing of classes was almost revolutionary, and an occurrence that incurred the wrath of the management of the early companies, fearful of the impact of working class passengers. In 1905 the Chairman of the Metropolitan District Railway decried the presence of ‘dusty’ and ‘filthy’ workmen sat alongside his middle class travellers. The Underground Group tried to abolish workmen’s fares, early morning concessions for the working classes, in the early 1920s. At each stage the companies faced the opposition of the London County Council (LCC), a champion of cheap travel for the working classes, and fierce political battles were often the result. This paper examines the relationship between the underground companies and the class of their passengers between the 1860s and the Second World War. It shows how before 1914 class was a key issue that the companies engaged with, how they often acted to restrict working class travellers, and how the LCC fought them on this. But it also shows how the Great War represents a watershed. The inter-war period saw class issues largely fade away due to the Underground Group’s drive for efficiency and expansion. In fact, one might consider the period as laying the foundation for the classless Underground we know today. This paper examines how and why this happened.


Simon Abernethy is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. He has a BA in history and an M.Phil. in Economic and Social History from Cambridge. His Ph.D. examines the relationship between London’s transport providers and the impact this had on class development in the capital between 1881 and 1939. Simon is currently digitising the New Survey of London Life and Labour in the London School of Economics, which gives fare data on thousands of Londoners between 1928 and 1932. He intends to match this data with workmen’s fare data collected by the Underground Group between 1914 and 1933.


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