The Morden-Edgware Line – a real London tube line few have heard of – even though its to all purposes and intents the Northern Line!
The Morden-Edgware Line is practically an unknown in terms of the history of the London Underground. Certainly it is mentioned in quite a number of historical sources in books and on the internet – but only in passing. There’s no comprehensive history of that tube line in any form whatsoever. Thus this feature has to be the first serious work that takes a look at the brief history of the Morden-Edgware Line. It lasted a little over three years so that’s probably why few have bothered with its annals because it can be considered far more easily part of the Northern Line’s history.
In general many do view the Northern Line as an oddity because its also the furthest south the tube goes! I’ve had a number try to enquire after that fact and its something that many find somewhat puzzling because it makes little sense that the Northern is the one and only southern tube line too! The reasons for that curious naming are rather pretty lost in the annals of time and its quite a long story starting with the City and South London. That very name reflected the true intents of the world’s first ever tube line when it opened in 1890 – because it was always going to serve South London! It was however the merging of this and the later Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway that established a new network of underground lines which were, well a bit short in terms of their adopted namesakes.
This group of new tube lines would reach much further into North London and beyond. These included Finsbury Park, Crouch End, Highgate, Muswell Hill, Alexandra Palace, Mill Hill, as well as a new extension to Elstree and Bushey Heath. The latter new extension was essentially Frank Pick’s idea – and he envisaged around 3,795,000 passengers per year within the first five years of the line’s use. The lines, known colloquially as the ‘Northern Heights’ scheme, were partially implemented with new electrified track and signals and complete new sections of line were built to varying extents, including part of the Bushey Heath route.
All that unfinished effort is basically why the Northern Line came into existence. A series of events however soon caused almost the entire scheme of new extensions to be dropped right off the radar completely. Hence the Northern Line, in both its name and its aims, never achieved the objectives the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) had wanted to achieve.
In fact one could say the Morden-Edgware Line was the most complete iteration to be had of the combined City and South London and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railways. The Northern Line wasn’t anything but because it was meant to be the iteration of a even grander set of schemes, most of which were – to put it bluntly – a failure.
The North London network of lines as they would have looked if the LPTB plans for the Northern Line had been achieved. Source: Twitter.
The above diagram was first published (outside of its original source) in Rails to the Palace (1980) followed by a second airing in Northern Wastes (1987.) It indicates basically what the new works would have looked, however there was far more detail in terms of the full plans. The furthest work undertaken beyond Edgware was the construction of Bushey Heath depot. Plans too were drawn up for a further extension to Watford although that is yet another story. Eventually these improvement schemes were dropped and the one and only unfinished tube depot became repurposed as the Aldenham Bus Overhaul Works.
Its also why there are odd bits of the Northern Line! There’s abandoned platforms and tunnels at Edgware. The Mill Hill East branch. Extra platforms and tracks leading south from East Finchley. And the abandoned LPTB station at Highgate which has never seen a tube train in public service! All of these curious bits are there because practically the entire ‘Northern Heights’ plan fell by the wayside.
And that is indeed the crux. In a literal sense ‘Northern Heights’ denotes the unrealised aims of the Northern Line which was to reach the higher lands is the north of London approaching 300 feet or more in elevation. The highest station of all would have been Bushey Heath at around 354 feet above sea level, some 170 feet higher than the terminus at Edgware. The one and only ‘Northern Height’ achieved was High Barnet, at around the 320 foot mark, and even there the fullest plans were not realised either.
Geographical rendering of the Northern Heights proposals. Source: Twitter.
Much has been written about the Northern Line’s original purpose (including the complex Northern Heights scheme) and books have been published too, plus I have included a couple of illustrations above, as well as a summary of sorts on that history – thus do not wish to delve into the complexities of the Northern Heights programme. Very little has in fact been written about the intervening period before Northern Line came into existence, this being when the railway was known as the Morden-Edgware Line – and this is the period I wish to focus upon.
The Morden-Edgware Line:
Edgmor, Mordenware, Medgway, Edgmorden, some of the alternative names for what would eventually become the Northern Line. Source: Google Books – London Underground.
Just after the new lines to Edgware and Morden had opened there was one aside in Punch (September 1928) that the railway should be called the Hampstead, Highgate, City, South London, and Morden Tube and that because whatever name it was, the City and South London’s roots should not be let go of. It constituted somewhat as an irony in how things were renamed for it was also said one mustn’t forget ‘the place called Morden somewhere near the Sunny South Coast!’
Golders Green depot on the Hampstead tube in 1929. All the trains visible in this aerial were in the new red and cream London Underground livery of the time – but it would be four years before they received their one off Morden-Edgware Line branding. Source: Twitter.
Jokes aside, for a while the newly extended and combined tube railway remained known by its older separate names – the City and South London and Charing Cross Euston and Hampstead Lines. It was quite difficult to rename the lines to any extent and get these to stick. One such attempt – which even saw proper line signage put up at stations after the extension to Morden had opened – was the official view the railway should be called the City Line. That never grasped the public’s attention however and the old names remained steadfast.
In due course, this being during 1933 when the first of the now iconic Harry Beck tube maps came out, the line was described as the Edgware, Highgate and Morden Line. (David St John Thomas says it was 1932 when the renaming took place, however Mary Vivian Hughes’ book London at Home, 1931, indicates a competition had taken place ‘but nothing was successful’ hence it became the Edgware, Highgate and Morden Line in deference of its termini).
What many of these writers do not realise is the Edgware, Highgate and Morden Line was merely temporary. In the minds of the LPTB, it was a trial with little likelihood of attaining permanent status. That year was 1933 (or maybe earlier depending on which source one reads) and that was proved as such – because the next iteration of the famous Beck tube map, published in 1934, it had now become the Morden-Edgware Line.
Rare picture showing part of a ‘Edgware Highgate and Morden Line sign’. Source: Bygonley.
Curiously the Northern Heights scheme was approved by the LPTB at a time when the Morden-Edgware Line was in existence – and that as part of the LPTB’s new works programme of 1935. Thus its sometimes claimed the Edgware-Highgate-Morden Line was the proper name and that Morden-Edgware was a ‘masquerade’ (as Trains To Beyond claims). Others claimed it was a ‘clumsy title’ (Rails Through the Clay: A History of London’s Tube Railways p185) or even ‘poorly named’ (London Underground by Design p199). Yet none of these writers have sussed that Edgware-Highgate-Morden was a temporary name pending a better one. As for ‘better’, I just think things hadn’t been considered properly in light of the forthcoming extensions.
The Morden-Edgware Line was London Underground’s busiest and most successful line. It was regularly referred to in Parliamentary debates in terms of its huge overcrowding. Quite a few MPs were rather concerned that the LPTB wanted to build new extensions, and that because the LPTB hadn’t even properly considered the capacity problems on the Morden-Edgware Line or how to resolve those! In the mind’s eye of the various politicians, the LPTB was no doubt trying to run before it could walk.
Parliament had concerns any extensions of the Morden-Edgware Line would lead to further overcrowding. Source: Internet Archive.
Note: The above extract (‘The Third Reading debate on the London Passenger Transport Bill was…’ etc) is from a limited preview at the Internet Archive and the required page (p497) does not always appear.
Anyhow these debates show the new tube line name had been widely accepted across the political spectrum too, but not only that the politicians’ fears were a sort of predilection that things wouldn’t get sorted out properly – and that was the case when the entire Northern Heights schemes was dropped and miles of new tube line, stations, tunnels, bridges and electricity installations were scrapped. It was a monumental waste, given no chance of any revival post WW2. As Jim Blake, the author of Northern Wastes (the definitive work on the abandoned Northern Line extensions) put it so clearly, ‘the greatest blot on the history of the London Underground is the abandonment of the uncompleted extensions to the Northern Line.’
In deference the Northern Line wasn’t really what the LPTB wanted. It turned out to be the one and only suitable name in a completion, thus the LPTB described it as a ‘default name.’ The other names that were put forward they didn’t even like. (More on that in the second part of this feature.) In other words there wasn’t any other choice. Or was there? Rather than rename it the Northern Line they already had a good name. The Morden-Edgware Line was something the LPTB people had wanted and they spent a lot of money and time on that – thus they should have kept it rather than seeking yet another new name – especially in regards to the later events which the Northern Line was all about and the subsequent mass abandonment of its extensions.
Morden-Edgware was a quick and easily identifiable name and it caught very easily on compared to previous re-naming attempts. The LPTB were serious about corporate identities and consistent branding thus the the LPTB actually had a good brand name at the time. It wasn’t just a mere name, for besides the political sphere it too was to be found at the various tube stations, as part of the trains’ branding, on tube maps, posters, and also in official LPTB documents and publications.
In LPTB parlance it was usually referred to as the ‘Morden-Edgware group of lines.’ That’s the management side, however in terms of the passenger side of things it was simply the Morden-Edgware Line. Even more to the public side of things, UndergrounD literature (eg leaflets, maps) depicted the Morden-Edgware Line identity clearly and Ordnance Survey maps showed it as the Morden & Edgware Line. So the name was accepted far and wide.
In terms of stations themselves, the new look Leicester Square tube station of 1935 designed by Charles Holden was perhaps the biggest and best showpiece for the Morden-Edgware Line. The station’s opening in time for the Silver Jubilee 1935 tied in quite nicely with the new tube line as this LT Museum picture shows by way of posters for the new escalators and the Royal festivities. Thus the formulation of the new (or maybe reformulated) tube line was a chance for the LPTB to show off that railway at its very best. It wasn’t just Leicester Square that had an upgrade, but Tottenham Court Road and Warren Street too. Leicester Square however was the newest, most shiny and the best of all and it wasn’t just a ‘new’ tube line and branding but also what were at the time some of the world’s longest escalators. Thus the Morden-Edgware Line got off to a good start.
This is a screencap from the Hidden London Hangouts episode on Leicester Square. The tube map shown inside the Cranbourn Street entrance is Beck’s later version (in poster format) c1935 – and its without a doubt one that shows the Morden-Edgware Line! Source: Youtube.
Another tube map with the Morden-Edgware Line can be seen inside the station’s ticket hall during 1935 – LT Museum.
This series of LT Museum pictures from 1935 and 1937 clearly show further indications of the LPTB’s Morden-Edgware Line branding at the new Leicester Square ticket hall. 13 May 1935 (1); 13 May 1935 (2); 25 June 1937; 5 October 1937.
Screencap from Pennyfare June 1935 is this view of the top of the escalators, which I’ve colourised. The Morden-Edgware Line branding is very evident.
2023- and this is how the 1935 scene now looks! Its the Northern Line of course – but will that even exist if it gets to be split up?
The next picture is again from the Hidden London Hangouts feature on Leicester Square station…
Down on the platforms at Leicester Square and what do we see? Edgware and Highgate trains indicated for the line didn’t go any further than the present Archway station. But there’s more (and the Hidden London Hangouts team never talked about this….) which is the large Royal poster at right, by the train indicator. Its a tube map yes but not the normal kind. Its the Stanford’s London Underground ‘bubble map’ which was official LPTB merchandise and used at its central stations. This poster denoted the Morden-Edgware – and that plus the train destinations clearly place this scene as one which was from Morden-Edgware Line days. Source: Youtube.
The Morden-Edgware Line’s branding is very evident in this picture from February 1936. Source: LT Museum.
Burnt Oak in 1934 with what is clearly the second edition of Beck’s iconic tube map. This is the one that introduces the Morden-Edgware Line for the first time. No doubt the station could have had some Morden-Edgware Line branding inside the ticket hall area too!
The new Highgate (aka Archway) station opened in 1932 however photographs in detail of the new station are rare thus difficult to tell if it ever got Morden-Edgware branding or new versions of Beck’s tube map. Evidently it did at some point in time but whether there was any branding like that at Leicester Square isn’t known. Source: LT Museum.
Similarly for the new Warren Street station which opened slightly later than Highgate, photos don’t show Morden-Edgware branding either. Evidently it depends on when photographs were taken. Anyway it wasn’t just new stations like Leicester Square that got Morden-Edgware branding – the old ones did too as the following pictures show…
Strand station (now Charing Cross) in 1937 with Morden-Edgware Line branding seen just inside the entrance. Source: LT Museum.
‘Morden-Edgware Line’ very clearly visible in this 1937 view of Strand station. Source: LT Museum.
Even older stations such as Moorgate that had their lifts taken out and replaced by escalators too were modernised to an extent. And that included the use of Morden Edgware Line branding!
Moorgate (Northern City Line platform 10) has signs for the Morden-Edgware Line under the roundel. 1938. Source: LT Museum.
Euston in 1939 with three signs clearly showing Morden-Edgware Line branding. This is two years after the line had ‘shut’. Source: LT Museum.
Pictures of actual trains with the branding are rare however some of the former Isle of Wight stock that consisted of Standard Tube Stock and brought back to London was rebranded into its former 1930s Morden-Edgware Line look for the open day at Morden depot in 1990 and this makes the branding quite clear. I visited that depot open day and was pleased to see the former Standard Tube Stock that had been brought back from the Isle of Wight – and considerably impressed by the fact one carriage had been restyled in its former 1930s red and cream Morden-Edgware Line identity. It was no doubt a tube line I wanted to know more about despite its relevant obscurity.
Obviously from the very first days of the London Underground line names and branding were important and this pervaded into Underground Electric Railway days. For a while this was dropped and the new Standard Stock tube trains simply had ‘UndergrounD’ on the sides whatever line they were on. On the formation of the LPTB it was decided once again to give each line’s rolling stock unique identification once again. The Morden-Edgware Line’s trains had this branding along the train sides as well as the Bakerloo, Central London and Piccadilly Lines thus this was an unique period in how the London tube lines were marketed (along with tube maps, posters and other publicity). Certainly as some will know, in later years newer tube stock such as the 1938 and 1962s, had line branding too but that was merely in the form of small roundels placed on the carriage windows.
Standard tube stock of 1923 seen at Morden depot with its ‘Mordenware’ branding. Source: Flickr.
Its hard to find pictures of the trains as they were in the days when they sported Modern-Edgware Line branding. However the long name made the Morden-Edgware Line’s branding look somewhat more exquisite than the others – especially when dropped letters were used at the beginning and the end of the sequence. What s more interesting perhaps is among all the deep level tube lines the ‘M’ for Morden stood out much better than ‘B’ for Bakerloo or ‘P’ for Piccadilly or even ‘C’ for the Central London Line).
In terms of Morden-Edgware the fonts (M and the E in line) sat squarely with the underlining and made both ends of the name considerably will balanced. The reason the famous UndergrounD title worked was because both ends were curved and that sat well with the underlining too because both ends were well spaced. No amount of trying to do that with Bakerloo Line or Piccadilly Line meant it just never looked right especially as it was a capital E. Its a possible reason why this dedicated train branding was ultimately dropped. Thus the Morden-Edgware was the only tube line of the time which achieved a nicely balanced appearance in terms of the trains’ branding.
Anyway here’s a couple of official photographs of Morden-Edgware Line tube trains – even though the clarity isn’t great on the first!
Nine car Morden-Edgware Line train at Golders Green in 1937. Source: LT Museum.
This is undoubtedly a Morden-Edgware Line tube train as evidenced by the name in the bottom left of the picture. The branding on the motor coach however is different to that used on the previous picture. This is Colindale during 1935. Source: LT Museum.
Its known the Piccadilly Line also received this type of branding (possibly the Bakerloo and Central London were similarly treated but no pictures have been seen of that) however its likely it wasn’t considered suitable by way of its location directly above the motor coach’s bogies, in fact it looked more awkward on the Piccadilly’s trains because of the font, thus it was eventually moved on both lines’ stock to match the positioning of those found on the trailers. Clearly the Morden-Edgware Line was expected to be a permanent railway otherwise the LPTB wouldn’t have bothered with such changes!
In terms of extending the Morden-Edgware Line under the various auspices promoted by the LPTB, there was a lot of concern as to how the extensions would cope with present line capacity because as Parliamentary debates make it very clear, even in those days Camden Town was a problem, one of the worst stations on the entire tube system in fact. That besides the serious crowding conditions experienced on the Morden-Edgware’s trains – and it was felt that until these issues could be sorted out – it would be rather a pointless exercise procuring any new tube extensions. What is interesting is practically every political debate on Camden Town and the tube’s capacity issues used the term Morden-Edgware Line thus in the corridors of Parliament Morden-Edgware was an accepted legal entity.
The line in fact received a number of upgrades in light of the forthcoming new works. These included a number of new substations such as that at Camden Town, Highgate and Leicester Square and some parts of the Northern Heights programme also saw work begin under the auspices of the Morden-Edgware Line. Nevertheless it was by 1937 the LPTB were thinking maybe another new name was needed in light of the work to build these new stations and new extensions.
The nearly completed Leicester Square substation in May 1936. Source: LT Museum.
The same site in June 2023. The sub station can still be seen however the front portion that isn’t tube related has been totally rebuilt.
The site for the new Highgate substation, 1936, with the nominee Morden-Edgware Line clearly evident. Source: LT Museum.
The sub station today. Although its listed as an external power utility (possibly the current UK Power Network), it was managed from 1998 by Seeboard under a Power Service Contract with London Underground Limited. The building is undoubtedly a ventilation shaft and power supply point for the Northern Line however if the power company does need to do any work at the lower level agreement has to be made with LUL first such as a Track Possession Order.
Its possible the new Highgate train depot (roughly a mile up the road from the sub station) also known as Wellington sidings too had a Morden-Edgware Line board denoting the upgrade work underway – although the quality of the image on the LT Museum site isn’t that great.
Towering over Camden High Street is this large substation building next to the oversubscribed tube station which has to deal with huge flows of tourists to the area daily. This substation, like that at Highgate, was also built in the days of the Morden-Edgware Line. A comparable 1937 view can be seen at the collection of the LT Museum.