The man who first proposed the London Underground’s original plan that everyone thought was stupid

A Mind the Gap sign on the floor as a Tube train passes through a station
The original pitch, titled, ‘Trains in Drains’, was published in a pamphlet in 1845 -Credit:Mike Kemp/Getty Images

The first underground train in London (and the world!) was originally proposed by a man who was ridiculed for “roads down into Hell”. Charles Pearson was a Solicitor to the City of London and a campaigner for the city, pushing progressive ideas to improve the lives of Londoners.

Believe it or not, congestion was a massive problem in the 1800s, as it remains today, with the caveat that it became a core inspiration to the invention of the Tube. The original pitch, titled, ‘Trains in Drains’, was published in a pamphlet in 1845 with the idea of an atmospheric railway running from King's Cross to Holborn.

The idea was to use air pressure to run the train, which, for the technology of the time, was rather ambitious and very quickly got shut down with outrage of being under ground. One dubbed it “The Sewer Railway” while the Times said it was “an insult to common sense”. Doctor Cumming said: "Why not build an overhead Railway? . . . It's better to wait for the Devil than to make roads down into Hell."

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The architect of Crystal Palace, Sir Joseph Paxton, believed people wouldn’t even choose to go under ground saying: "People, I find, will never go much above the ground, and they will never go under ground; they always like to keep as much as possible in the ordinary course in which they have been going."

Clearly times have changed! As a city that lives as much underground as it does above ground, the criticism is rather amusing.

The feedback, however, did not put Pearson off and he continued to lobby for a new railway scheme, working to raise money and encourage investment by publishing pamphlets and notices such as “A Twenty Minutes’ letter to the Citizens of London, in favour of the Metropolitan Railway and City Station” .

In 1860 plans were approved and the railway was on its way, completed three years later and welcoming visitors on the Metropolitan Railway on January 10th, 1863. Unfortunately, this did not include Pearson who died of dropsy in 1862 and never saw the day the railway opened.

Changing the course of the transport system across the world, Pearson leaves an impressive legacy behind.

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