Harry Beck: the man who drew London

Beck's blue plaque. Image: Spudgun67/Wikimedia Commons.

Picture yourself as a Londoner in 1908. You’re lost underground somewhere in sweltering heat on the Central Line, but you’ve no idea where you’re going, or how to make your next connection.

Until 1908 the map of the London underground was about as easy to follow as the last couple of months of British politics. Each station was spaced using a life-like scale, causing a dense knot of overlapping dots in the centre, long, sprawling lines into the deep dark north, and barren land across much of the south. Unsurprisingly, the map caused much confusion:

The 1932 London Underground map – the map being used before Harry sorted us out.

Our commutes were revolutionised in the 1930s by one unassuming engineer.  His name was Harry Beck, and he had a dream. A dream about a map that would shape London’s future.

Harry understood Londoners don’t care about geographical accuracy: we just want to navigate the Underground’s mass of overgrown vines as quickly as possible and without having to speak to each other. And Harry gave us the tools we needed, arming us with a cartographical machete. In 1931, he produced possibly the most familiar map on the planet – the London Underground.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Beck’s innovation was that he wasn’t even commissioned to re-design the map. He took it upon himself to re-design the whole of London’s underground network in his spare time, alongside his day job as an engineering draughtsman. And in true British fashion, Harry was typically understated about the inspiration for his creation:

“Looking at an old map of the Underground railways, it occurred to me that it might be possible to tidy it up by straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distance between stations.”

The Underground initially rejected his proposal, believing it was too radical. “Tidy it up by straightening the lines?” Steady on now pal. “Experimenting with diagonals”? But eventually Beck’s design was approved, and the rest as they say, was history.

Thanks to his smart thinking, the Underground became easier to navigate, and helped improve the way the city transported its rapidly growing population.  I’d wager that over time it also increased the city’s productivity and economy – by making it easier for tourists and workers to get around.

Beck posthumously received a blue plaque in 2013. But can we ever truly repay our debt for this beauty?

At Centre for London we’re on a mission to find London’s next leaders, the future blue plaques of the capital out there taking it upon themselves to improve our city and the lives of Londoners. Nominees have the opportunity to win a speaking spot at this year’s London Conference, an invite-only full day event attended by the capital’s leaders in politics, business and the third sector.

Think you know a rising star who deserves a platform for their ideas, innovation or work in the community? We want to know them too. Send us your nominations on Twitter using #LeadLDN.


You can find out more about the campaign to find London's next leaders here.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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