How London’s underground lines were named

London’s tube lines are unusual – they have names. Not for Londoners the relative humdrum of ‘line 4’ or ‘the red line’ (though our lines have colours too).

But a newcomer to London might find the names a little odd. The Northern line goes furthest south. Until 1994, the Central line went furthest north. The Circle isn’t a circle any more. The Jubilee was opened when Queen Elizabeth II had been on the throne for, er, 27 years.

Many of these names are historic accidents, because much of what is now the London Underground was built by competing railway companies.

First up was the Metropolitan Railway, some of which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2013. Its great rival, the Metropolitan District Railway opened its first section in 1868 and the successor line is now known as the District.

Next to be opened was the City and South London Railway (1890) – the world’s first dep level tube. This joined with the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, also known as the ‘Hampstead Tube’. By the 1930s this line was known as the Morden-Edgware line, and crying out for a rename. Ideas included ‘Edgmor’, ‘Mordenware’, ‘Medgway’ and ‘Edgmorden’, but a slew of planned extensions in north London led to the adoption of the name Northern line. Unfortunately most of the extensions were cancelled following World War II, but the name stuck. During the 1970s and 80s the line was widely known to commuters as the Misery line, until more reliable trains arrived.

The Waterloo and City Railway was opened in 1898 and is the best example of literal naming. Its two stations were Waterloo and City (now called Bank). It is popularly known as the Drain.

The Central London Railway, or ‘twopenny tube’ opened in 1900, although it has since taken over an older overground railway (near Leyton) that was actually opened in 1856 and is therefore the oldest part of the whole system.

The only popularly-named line, the Bakerloo, opened as the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway in 1906. The contraction to Bakerloo caught on quickly and the name was officially changed within months.

Also dating from 1906 was the Piccadilly tube, the name a contraction of the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway – which was itself a merger of the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway and the Great Northern and Strand Railway.

The Inner Circle was a joint service using the tracks of the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District lines. (There was also an ‘Outer Circle’.) The Circle first appeared as a separate route on tube maps from 1949 onwards.

Similarly, the Hammersmith and City route was one of a number of Metropolitan line services. It appeared on in-carriage maps as the ‘Metropolitan line – Hammersmith and City’ and got its own colour and identity in 1990.

Within the last fifty years, only two completely new lines have been built: the Victoria and Jubilee (and not all the Jubilee is new). Word is that ‘Walvic’ (Walthamstow – Victoria) and ‘Viking’ (Victoria – King’s Cross) were considered before Victoria was settled on – whether in homage to the former queen or the new line’s busiest station I’m not sure.

The Jubilee line’s working title was the ‘Fleet line’ on the basis that the route vaguely followed the ancient river. The line was due to open in 1977 and was renamed to mark that year’s festivities, though in the end the line actually opened two years later.

So there we have it: historic and convoluted company names, a couple of services that got bumped up to full line status, one popular contraction, a name based on services that never opened, a royal hijack and a we-couldn’t-come-up-with-anything-better. Somehow, this reflects the character of the system incredibly well. But for future lines perhaps crowd sourcing might be the answer.

There are loads of great history books about the Tube but one that focuses on design and branding is Mark Ovenden’s London Underground by Design (2013, Penguin)


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