The history of the London Underground map, by Caroline Roope – book review

Everyone loves the London Underground map. But in recent years the basic principles of Harry Beck’s formula have started to creak. Fare zones, accessibility information, out of station interchanges: all these are important, but they make it harder for the eye to follow the lines…and that’s before you include more modes, such as the Elizabeth Line or the Overground. Now is a good time to reflect on what information we need to find our way round the system. The History of the London Underground Map, by Caroline Roope, sounds like the sort of thing that could help us out. I’ll give it six out of seven: The History of the London Underground, yes: Map not so much.

Cover of The History of the London Underground Map, by Caroline Roope
The History of the London Underground Map by Caroline Rope published in the UK by Pen and Sword (Transport) on 16 August 2022. Source: Suffolk Libraries

There are four ways to approach writing a book of this kind: you can focus on cartography and design, as does Maxwell Roberts; you can write about the map in the context of wider design a topic in which London Transport has been both brilliant and (occasionally) careless; you can look at the history of the tube network as a whole and use the map as a part of that; you can write about London and the relationship between the city and its transport network. Roope does the third of these and there’s a tension between the two: curiously the book feels at times as though it would be stronger if it didn’t need to mention the map at all. 

There’s a lot to like: Roope is a gifted writer with an eye for the anecdote that will delight her reader. We start with an 1861 court case against the Metropolitan Railway, there’s a (non-transport related) stand-off between Underground legend Frank Pick and Winston Churchill and there are new tales about shady magnate Charles Yerkes. We hear that the Metropolitan Railway claimed that the fumes from its engines were ‘health-giving’. There is useful detail on the Northern (aka ‘Tootancamden’!) line extension. This is an engaging retelling of the London Underground story.

The book is on less sure ground when it comes to discussing the map. Harold Hutchison is London Transport’s Richard III, widely condemned for appalling behaviour: Roope gives him a fair hearing and it’s refreshing and informative. But when the maxim runs ‘show, don’t tell’, this book does the opposite. The 1949 diagram was Beck’s peak, says Roope, ‘and it is easy to see why’. But we have to look up the diagram for ourselves, and having done so need more than an assertion: why is this version the best? There are so many versions of the map that are described but not shown.

My frustration spills over at other times: sometimes because the chronological narrative means that Roope can’t develop an analysis of some of the key themes she identifies; more than once because I find myself re-reading passages to see if I’ve missed something. There’s a memo from publicity chief Christian Barman to Harry Beck in 1938: Roope compares Barman’s ‘soothing approach’ to Neville Chamberlain’s Munich declaration; ‘both would result in a worthless bit of paper and several broken promises’ but doesn’t actually say what was in the memo: are we meant to guess? There’s an incoherent passage that conflates societal decay with the GLC trying to lower fares, and a section on the Blair government’s public private partnership which is described both as a ‘frankly bizarre and enormously complicated funding scheme’ and a ‘sound’ idea: ‘it looked that way on paper’.

This book is worth a read: there is something for the general reader and the armchair tube historian alike. But in what is a reasonable overall history of the Underground, there is the first draft of what could be something really excellent.

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