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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.