The 150th anniversary of the Tube has been heralded with artwork, steam trains, and special Oyster cards. All wonderful things, but they ignore the obvious: the London Underground would never be the institution that it is without people. And my celebration of 150 years of the network that carries me to work each day is a tribute to the faces behind those tunnels, roundels and murals. Happy birthday, tube.
Frank Pick is proof that even if you have an office job, you can change the world. Head of the London Underground in the 1910s and 20s, and of London Transport in the 30s, Frank commissioned pretty much everything we hold dear about the underground, from the red and blue roundels to Man Ray’s iconic poster of a planet next to an underground roundel. He also hired Edward Johnston (see below) to create the distinctive font seen on maps, signs and stations.
Frank wasn’t just about making the stations look pretty though – he pushed for expanding the network into the suburbs, spearheaded the effort to get tourists using the tube, and even insisted that upholstery for the train seats was specially made. When you ride all the way from Amersham to Baker Street, you can thank Frank.
The clear, bold, but incredibly pleasing lettering that you encounter all over the London Underground was originally designed in 1913 by Edward Johnston , also known at the father of modern calligraphy. It is characterised by its perfectly round ‘o’ and square tittles (stop sniggering – it’s the dots on top of ‘i’s and ‘j’s).
The font was redesigned in the 1980s, but still remembers Ed with its name: ‘new Johnston‘.
His influence continues with the Edward Johnston Foundation, a research centre for calligraphy and lettering arts.
A champion of beauty with function, Charles Holden designed some of the most memorable London Underground stations, including Sudbury Town, Arnos Grove and Southgate.
It’s not difficult to spot one of his creations: they are mainly made of red brick, glass and concrete, and incorporate sculptures that echo local history. Look out for Dick Whittington at Highgate, a Roman Centurion at Elstree South and an archer at East Finchley. His designs made tube stations a landmark in the area, rather than an eyesore.
Not believing in individual praise for architecture, he twice declined a knighthood. Not bad for a lad from Bolton.
One of those great Victorian figures who had mutton chops and seem to have been born to be immortalised in stone, Sir John Fowler engineered London’s Metropolitan Railway; also known as the beginnings of the London Underground. He came up with the ‘cut-and-cover’ method of building railways underground – this is where a shallow trench is dug, the tunnel built and a canopy erected on top. And this method is still used today – Canary Wharf is a ‘cut-and-cover’ station.
He also proposed ‘fireless locomotives’ for this scary new subterranean world, giving George Stephenson’s son Robert the job. When it was discovered the Stephenson trains were rubbish (the boilers had a tendency to explode); Fowler designed his own. These were so successful they ran until the lines were electrified in the 1900s. The embodiment of the phrase: ‘if it needs doing, do it yourself.’
Ah, yes. Harry Beck. His story has everything we Brits love: knocking up amazing things in his spare time; years of being ignored by the establishment; pretty colours; and foxy glasses. It’s enough to give you that warm, fuzzy feeling inside.