YOU might think a museum filled with buses, trains and trams would be a haven for middle aged men with woolly hats, notepads and flasks of tea. But the London Transport Museum tells a story which appeals to a much wider audience. It is not just about one model of bus or train being replaced by a more a superior one. Rather, the story of public transport is in fact about London and explains its exponential growth in the 1800s and 1900s.
It is a success story that continues to this day. Today, the London Underground alone carries more than three million people everyday and further growth is expected. Others travel on buses and modern trains that glide through the skyline to the docklands on the east of the city.
Yet the intriguing thing is that the complex network of services now overseen by Transport for London began with a single horse-drawn omnibus in 1829. It made the journey from Paddington to Islington several times each day. Within three years there were more than 4,000 such vehicles on the streets of London.
Travelling on the omnibus was not cheap but was more affordable than booking private carriages. Lower priced tickets would come with horse drawn trams in the late 1800s (they could pull a heavier weight because the vehicle was on wheels), buses and then the Underground.
In time, the innovations would make travelling on public transport something that all Londoners could participate in. Transport allowed the working classes to reach workplaces on the other side of the capital.
In the early 1800s things were very different; you could walk around London quite easily and countryside wasn’t that far away. But then, very quickly, the city boundaries were pushed out aggressively as London boasted the busiest port in the world.
Of course, the mainline railways helped to bring people to London from all corners of the country. But they only came to the edge of the capital, to places like Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross so the streets became jam packed. By now London had been too large to walk around easily. Something needed to be built underground to solve the congestion. The process of transforming the capital began by building the Metropolitan railway in 1850. It was the start of the London Underground. The Circle Line came from 1863-8 and the building of new lines really intensified in the early 1900s.
The key point about the Underground was, and is, that it’s classless – unlike the mainline services everyone sat in the same compartments. But special cheap early morning services were run for workmen.
Mainline services were initially designed for intercity travel, but from the 1860s they also played an important role in helping to move people between London and its suburbs. Today, many commute to work by train.
But there was a cost to the railway building in and around London; 100,000 poor Londoners lost their homes to make way for new tracks. They were fobbed off with cheap services early in the morning.
THE fascinating story of the growth of the suburbs is told through a new exhibition called Suburbia at the London Transport Museum (see http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/). In the 1800s most lived within walking distance, by the 1900s most lived outside it. Early railway suburbs started in the 1860s and further expansion followed in the 1900s. The peak of suburban growth came in the 1920s.
Eye-catching posters customers survive from that era. They encourage people to live in the clean air of the suburbs, surrounded by countryside. You get messages like: “Live in Kent and be content.”
It was important time for property, with people owning their own homes for the first time (the Victorian norm was to rent property) and many building societies were setup.
The train company also strove to drive business by encouraging those living in the centre of London to enjoy day trips to the countryside. Colourful advertisements suggested activities like rambling and fishing.
Now it’s trendy to live in the city, many also live down at the rejuvenated Docklands. But the suburbs aren’t waning; they have their own identities and thrive with busy high streets. Some former villages, like Paddington, feel fully part of the capital. Others, like Hampstead, feel a million miles from the busy shops of Oxford Street.
There have been some notable changes with transport in London over the years; in 1900 the majority of vehicles were pulled by horse, by 1915 this had switched. In the 1920s trams were overtaken by buses (trams were indeed phased out from the 1930s because they were unprofitable).
Expansion looks set to continue in the years to come; by 2025 there are forecast to be an extra four million journeys into the city everyday. With so much expansion it’s hard to think that public transport began less than 200 years ago with just one omnibus on one route.