The Metropolitan Railway's first full run in 1862

The Metropolitan Railway's first full run in 1862

Common knowledge:
Q – When was the first  full trial run on London’s Metropolitan Railway?
A – 24 May 1862

Many sources use this date as being the date of the first full, official, run along the entire Metropolitan Railway. Sadly the answer is completely wrong! During recent research on the Metropolitan Railway, I set out to find the real facts regarding the first full trial run on London’s new underground railway. The first ever full run on the Met was not Gladstone’s trip, but one that took place several months later!

Gladstone + others on a trial run – and pose for the camera at Edgware Road station – May 1862

The only known photograph of test trains on the new railway is the one shown above featuring Gladstone the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his wife and other important guests for what is regularly claimed as the first full run along the new railway. The date of this trip is given as 24 May 1862. Like many other books, Christian Wolmar’s recent ‘Subterranean Railway’ repeats the assumption this trip was a full one over the whole line:

Wolmar; The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How it Changed the City Forever (Nov 2012)

In reality the Gladstone trip of 24 May ran from Paddington possibly as far as Portland Road. The tunnels therein towards King’s Cross were incomplete and the track unlaid as a report dated 8 May finds.

The best pre-Gladstone trial run I have read is dated 2 April 1862. This was NO complete trip either! Yet it gives us the full state of the works as they were just before the ‘Gladstone’ trip. That on 2nd April began with horse drawn haulage from Ray Street (not Farringdon) as far as Gower Street, where the party had to then walk through the streets to rejoin the line at Portland Road. From here they walked through the tunnels to Baker Street where a locomotive hauled train waited for the onwards trip to Paddington.

Another full inspection trip is described on 31 May 1862. This used horse drawn wagons from Paddington as far as King’s Cross, where the passengers then walked onwards to Farringdon. Clearly that indicates the track wasnt even in a complete enough state for anyone called Gladstone to make a full trial trip over the line with steam haulage!

Comparing these two runs with the celebrated event of 24 May and it is clear the Gladstone trip was NOT a full excursion of any sort. Its a complete mis-truth to claim otherwise. Gladstone and his intermediaries rode in the two wagons pictured above, firstly pushed by locomotive to Baker Street, thence pulled by horses as far as either Portland Road or possibly even Gower Street (Euston Square). Very likely they then walked on to Farringdon.

The railway had expected to be opened by the summer of 1862. This objective would be rendered impossible for the Fleet river/sewer caused many months of disruption. The work that had so far been done between between King’s Cross and Farringdon was totally destroyed.

The railway itself feared the mighty Fleet river and sought to protect it’s line. Despite the company’s best efforts in 1861 a shaft for the tunnels by Exmouth market collapsed due to flooding.

“Since the sinking of the Fleet ditch between Ray Street and Saffron Hill, great fears have been entertained by the contractors for the safety of the Metropolitan Railway tunnel and brick arching in that district.”

In early 1862 the Fleet began making its grumbles far more known. It leaked at the rate of several gallons a minute by the top of Victoria Street (now Farringdon Street) and a major disaster occurred on Sunday 15 June when the entire railway’s works at Farringdon were destroyed at an estimated value of £1000 (over two million in today’s prices). This report from the Guardian describes the calamity.
Another description is as follows:

The Farringdon destruction described in Death, Dynamite & Disaster: A Grisly British Railway History, Rosa Matheson 2014
Total destruction of the Metropolitan Railway’s works at Clerkenwell, June 1862

Besides the damage, a substantial cast iron aqueduct carrying the Fleet sewer over the lines at Frederick Street took months of major engineering work and until this was completed no steam hauled trains could pass this point. This aqueduct was completed in early July 1862 (though I can find no exact date.)

There may possibly have been some trials fully hauled by steam from Paddington at this point in time. It was a very short window because the tracks still had to be fully laid towards Farringdon and there seems to be no record of how much track had been completed. That window was very brief because the Met’s new underground railway was destroyed once again by the river.

How did that happen? Almost immediately after the aqueduct at Frederick Street was completed, the second major disaster occurred. The date is 19 July 1862. Once again the Fleet filled the railway to depths of 15 feet. The cellars of houses in King’s Cross were also inundated.

This second disaster was apparently worse than the first. It caused considerable amounts of damage ‘downstream’, washing away further retaining walls, scaffolding and contractors’ equipment. Copious amounts of planking and shoring ended up afloat in the Thames. The damage was estimated at £1090 – again a cost of over two million in 2015 prices.

Due to this flooding and destruction the Ray Street to Victoria Street terminus section was not even completed until the late summer of 1862. By August records show the permanent rails had been finally laid as far as Ray Street. On August 30 the first real inspection trip throughout with locomotive haulage took place. As reports of the time relate, this trip began at the Ray Street tunnel portal. Dignitaries had to walk up from Farringdon to join the train.

We can see from this that the first ever through trial trip to Paddington (from Ray Street) was on 30 August 1862. Gladstone’s trip back in May wasnt even a full trip of any sort! I wonder what Wolmar and others now think having ensured their unsubstantiated claims made it to the printing presses?

In mid September newspaper reports declared the Metropolitan Railway all but complete and it appears regular trial runs were therein made. The Illustrated London News reports these occurring on the 13th.

Clearly the first complete trial runs from Paddington to Farringdon did not even begin until mid September of 1862. This flies in complete contradiction once again against those who cite ‘Gladstone’ as being the first full trial trip.

On the 27th the Government’s inspector Colonel Yolland made what appears to be the first full official inspection of the line. Yes, this is FOUR MONTHS after Gladstone!

Depiction of a trial run at Great Portland Street – The Illustrated London News 13 September 1862

Inspector Yolland demanded many changes to the line’s workings. On the 5th October it is said the track formations were fully completed thus trials could now be regularly conducted.

From this we can see that even the track was still had not been completed up to this point in time, so one must once again question claims of ‘Gladstone’ or others having made a full trial run earlier in 1862.

Throughout the remainder of 1862 concerns were regularly raised by the inspector. One was particularly related to the signalling system whilst another found the railway carriages too wide. The doors could not be opened in an emergency within the tunnels, hence the carriages had to be rebuilt 🙂

Official openings of the line for 1st October and for 10th November were both deferred whilst problems were sorted. On Monday 15 December Colonel Yolland inspected the line yet again but asserted it was still not to his satisfaction. The signalling was largely at fault. The Metropolitan company described the signals ‘an unfailing source of trouble’.

On 2 January 1863 Colonel Yolland finally passed the railway as fit for public service and the next day the company announced: “We are at length in a position to assure the shareholders and the public that the Metropolitan Railway will be open for traffic on Saturday next.”

The temporary Victoria terminus at Farringdon, where a great banquet was held on 9 January 1863

The actual opening ceremony was conducted on Friday 9th January 1863 with a special train which took two hours to cover the route due to stops for speeches and inspection of the line. A huge banquet was held at the Victoria terminus in Farringdon.

Full public service commenced 10th January 1863, with around 25,000 passengers attending. A description of the opening day itself can be read at the Guardian.