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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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