From the Inner Circle to Crossrail: 135 years of ‘improving’ the capital’s transportation network

tube

Not everything that came before the magistrates in London was ‘criminal’; the Metropolitan Police magistracy dealt with a lot of business that we would deem ‘civil’, including complaints about all sorts of things that were result of the everyday nature of living and working in the world’s largest city.

If you take a trip into London today you will be struck by the sheer amount of building and repair work that goes on. London’s streets are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction; pavements are opened up so utility companies can lay new telecommunications cables, or fix leaks in water pipers, or reroute gas or electricity. New road layouts or junctions are being set out, traffic lights replaced or pelican crossings created, cycle paths painted in, and ‘traffic calming’ measures (a misnomer if ever there was one) put in place.

Meanwhile new housing or office blocks rise up as other buildings are demolished, and scaffolding wraps existing structures in a coating of branded cladding to let us know which major building company is disturbing the peace around us. An army of hi-viz, plastic helmeted workers occupying lofty or lowly positions as they beaver away like so many bright yellow ants to make these design projects a reality.

Foremost amongst all of this building activity is Crossrail, London’s new and expensive east to west underground railway, the first new addition to the capital underground since the Jubilee Line was opened in 1977.  Crossrail has been disrupting London for years, it seems like decades, making it impossible to visit the site of Polly Nicholls’ murder in Durward Street (then Bucks Row) and other places. Crossrail will eventually connect the tow sides of the capital via 26 miles of new tunnels and allow greater connectivity and volume for an underground system that is clearly creaking under the weight of millions of daily commuters.

London’s underground network is the oldest in the world and when it was first opened (in 1863) it was – and remains – a tremendous feat of engineering. From the building of the first lines by the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway, work expanded to drill down deeper into the capital and them, in the 1890s, the first electric trains began to run. One can only imagine what it was like to travel underground in the Victorian period, on steam-powered engines hauling wooden carries, lit by gas lamps. It is not exactly a picnic today, and recent research has revealed that levels of air pollution are contributing to the ill health of millions of Londoners.

While the tube (as it is affectionately known) was both an engineering miracle and a tremendous boost for the Victorian capital’s economy, it was also a nuisance in just the same way that Crossrail is today.  It disrupted daily life, forced people from their homes and business, and cut deep swathes through the city.  Photos from the time (such as the one above) show scenes of building work that are not unlike those we experience whilst walking or driving in London today.

And for a small glimpse into exactly how this affected ordinary Londoners we can visit the Mansion House Police court in January 1884 just as the new Circle Line (known then as the inner circle) was being constructed. John Bates, who rented rooms at 137 Cannon Street, applied to the Lord Mayor for compensation for being, in effect, evicted from the home where he and his wife had lived for some time.

Bates paid 5s a week for his accommodation and his wife contributed to the rent by cleaning the offices in the rest of the property. The property had been recently acquired by the Metropolitan and District Railways Companies and they were asking the couple to vacate the premises because they needed to knock it down to build a ventilating shaft ‘or “blow hole” for the new underground line below. In court Bates argued that since he had a three year verbal agreement with his landlord he should be compensated for moving out. In reply the lawyer representing the railways insisted that Bates was simply a weekly tenant and had no real rights to his tenancy.

Bates’ representative explained that Mrs Bates also provided a catering service to the clerks that had been occupying the site before it was sold and that she earned £3 a week from this venture; the Bates’ had more to lose than their home then as a consequence of the building of the ‘Inner Circle Railway’. A surveyor calculated the loss of income at £94 per annum and Bates’ claim was for a year and a half, £141, plus costs (which were estimated at over £50).

So what was the Lord Mayor to do? Clearly the building work was going ahead – the tube needed to be built – and so the Bates’ would have to find a new home and a new way of earning a living (or at least some new clients). In the end, having heard from the original landlord that he considered Bates to be ‘a yearly tenant’, the Lord Mayor awarded damages of £100 with 5 guineas costs (a guinea was worth 21 shillings, or £1 and 1s).

This was considerably less than £50 and so the overall compensation awarded was about half what Bates had asked for. It was still about £7,000 in today’s money but I rather expect Crossrail has had to pay a lot more to compensate those in the path of the new railway. After all the estimated cost of Crossrail was supposed to be just under £18bn in 2009 but that was revised downwards to £14.8bn. In 2018 it was announced that the project was behind schedule (by nearly a year) and over budget, to the tune of about £600m.

Hopefully it will all be worth it.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 19, 1884]

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