From: Julian Crowe, U of St Andrews <[log in to unmask]>
in response to D. Webb, K. Ackley, F. De Naples
Like Dennis Webb, I can't think of any references in Dick-
ens's novels to the London Underground. However there is an
article in _All the Year Round_ (January 26th 1861 pp 369ff)
which touches on the building of the Metropolitan Underground
Railway. I don't know who wrote this article. The article is
called "Some Railway Points" (a good _All the Year Round_ title)
and it starts off with a miscellany of railway anecdotes,
including a nice reference to the booking clerk as a
... young gentleman of pleasing manners who hands you
your ticket through a pigeon-hole, and flings about
sovereigns and silver as if coin came as natural to him
as mud comes to a hippopotamus ...
After the anecdotes, the article turns to the Underground
Railway which was then under construction. It refers to railway
projects as "more revolutionary in their effects upon persons and
places than an Indian rebellion or a Parisian riot," and talks
about the destruction of old buildings as well as dwelling with
some relish upon the temporary inconvenience caused by the
process of tunnelling. But for the most part the attitude is
more positive. For one thing, the writer plainly thinks the suc-
cess of the project is assured and that it is part of the
inevitable march of progress:
It is not many months since the public shook its head,
and laughed at the idea of a railway among the sewers.
The omnibus and cab interests, as represented by their
drivers, were particularly facetious on the subject:
forgetting what their predecessors, the stage-coachmen,
had predicted of railroads in general, and how signally
those predictions had failed.
As is common in _All the Year Round_ the writer speaks
respectfully of the men involved in the work, mentioning some of
the contractors by name, and reminding the reader of the vast
extent of their undertakings. The greatest difficulty that they
have had to overcome is the "caging" of the Fleet Ditch, a
stream receiving the sewage from 50,000 households, so that it
can pass safely through a "large boiler-looking tube" above the
heads of the travellers.
The writer then discusses the real advantages of the project,
both its likely good effect upon the above-ground traffic, and
its contribution to the general railway system. It is assumed
that the Underground will
drain off the meat 'blocks' of Newgate-street, the car-
riage 'blocks' of Ludgate-hill, and transform London-
bridge from a bridge of curses to an agreeable lounge.
The article ends with this assurance:
These works, like all alterations and repairs, will give
employment to many, and be a nuisance to others, as long
as they are being constructed; but when the mess is
cleared up, and the new channels are thrown open, a sense
of comfort and relief will be felt throughout the vast
general traffic of London.
What is said about the railway network is more interesting.
The national railway system is centred upon London, but none of
the lines in from the regions can get into the centre of the
city. The Underground is part of a grand project to effect "an
universal junction throughout the country" with London as "the
heart of the system". The Underground will "feed the general
centralization at Finsbury-circus."
The key-word "centralization" recalls Mr Podsnap's dispute
in _Our Mutual Friend_ (I 10). In "Some Railway Points" the word
is used in a purely local sense, referring to the need for a
grand central station in London, but in another of the many arti-
cles on railways published in _All the Year Round_ it is sug-
gested that railways require centralization in just the sense
that Podsnap denounces as un-English.
This later article ("The Steam's Highway" March 18th 1865 pp
175ff) is particularly interesting to those of us who are at pre-
sent watching the steady dismantling of the public utilities in
Britain. The writer advocates the taking into national ownership
and control of the whole railway network. This is on two
grounds. The first is that ownership of a railway amounts to
what Peel in 1844 called a "permanent monopoly against the pub-
lic" and the second is that so long as control of the parts of
the network is in the hands of many different companies it is
impossible to provide an efficient, harmonious service.
The arguments against the commercial monopoly are quite per-
suasive. A company can increase profits by carrying slightly
fewer passengers at a slightly higher fare, whereas the national
interest is served by carrying as many passengers as possible.
The writer neatly adduces a good political economist argument
here, pointing out that cheap railway travel produces "readier
harmony between supply and demand in the labour market" since
workers can travel to where the work is.
But the real interest of this article is in its discussion of
the mechanics of centralization. One thing that must be avoided
is putting the Circumlocution Office in charge -- that is, making
the governors of the national railway crown appointees. (The
tactful reference to the works of their conductor is, of course,
common among contributors to _All the Year Round_.) Instead, the
directors should be drawn from the most efficient of the direc-
tors of the existing companies. We feel we are being asked to
put our faith in the sort of men who deal in those satisfying
"boiler-looking tubes". The writer quotes with approval the sug-
gestion of Captain Laws (of the Leeds and Manchester Railway, a
man who is, according to the lights of _All the Year Round_, a
benefactor for having been responsible for the introduction of
third-class fares) that "the iron roads might be managed for the
country on a method intermediate between the companies' system
and the penny post system..." The problem is stated in these
terms: "each line should be managed in harmony with the main
system, but with minute reference to the convenience of the dis-
trict served by it."
The article ends with a thoroughly Dickensian appeal to the
public not to let slip, through inattention, the opportunity to
bring the railways under national control.
So what was Dickens's own attitude to the Underground Rail-
way? I am sure he loved the idea of the sewage being safely
caged -- though what did he think about the fact that the
"boiler-looking tube" eventually disgorged its contents into the
Thames? A lot is made of Dickens's supposedly reactionary atti-
tudes in the last decade of his life (an increasingly hard atti-
tude to criminals, for instance) but you have only to dip into
_All the Year Round_ to see that it, and presumably its con-
ductor, was enormously enthusiastic about the details of material progress.
Also Dickens liked things to be tidy. The regional railway
lines all terminating at unconnected points round the periphery
of London amounted to untidy loose ends, and so he would have
liked to bring about a grand metropolitan junction at a grand
central station by means of the Underground Railway. The
simplification and harmonisation of the national railway network
by some system like the penny-post would have appealed to him in
the same way. But the caveat entered in "The Steam's Highway" is
important -- systematisation and harmonisation must not mean
ignoring local convenience. As Dickens points out in _The
Uncommercial Traveller_ when talking about great railway hotels,
there is a constant danger that large concerns will deal with
people in a wholesale way, ignoring the "lingering retail inter-
est" that there is in all of us.