How did the tube lines get their names? A history of London Underground in 12 lines

A very old tube map, at Aldwych in 2004. Image: Getty.

Most cities’ metro networks have boring names for their lines: colours or numbers or occasionally letters, simple labels that don’t tell you anything about them.

London’s tube lines, though, have names, and that gives them a degree of personality. What’s more evocative: Line 8, or the Bakerloo? The C train, or the Jubilee? Names are great, right?

Except – the names don’t. Make. Any. Sense. The Circle line isn’t a circle. We call the line that goes further south than any other the Northern line, and the Central line is one of literally all the lines that serve central London. The Victoria line goes to Victoria station, but so do two others, and which District exactly are we talking about here?

So – how did we end up with these obviously nonsensical names? What the hell happened?

Before we get going, I should warn you: I intended this as a quick listicle-style post. It didn’t work out that way, and what follows is more of a long-read on the history of the tube, one line at a time. Sorry about that. If you want to close this article now, I won’t judge you for it.

Still with me? Let’s roll.

Metropolitan line (1863)

Let’s start with an easy one. The Metropolitan Railway was the private company which built the first stretch of underground railway in London, helping commuters from the railway terminals at Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross reach the north west corner of the City at Farringdon Street.

Over the next few decades, the company’s network grew rapidly: reaching Hammersmith in 1864, Richmond in 1877, and joining up with a rival company to close a circle around central London by 1884. It also extended to the north west from a branch at Baker Street, scattering the new suburbs of “Metroland” along its path through Middlesex, into Herts and Bucks. At its greatest extent, the Met made it all the way to Verney Junction, more than 50 miles from Central London and basically in the middle of nowhere even now.

Verney Junction today. That’s the edge of Milton Keynes in the top right corner. Image: Google Maps.

Those outer branches are gone now, and much of the track the company laid is now served by other lines (Circle, District, Piccadilly, Jubilee), or even National Rail (in the form of the Chiltern Railways branch to Aylesbury).

But when the London Passenger Transport board swallowed much of London’s transport network in 1933, it retained the Metropolitan name for the core of the network, running around the north of central London, with branches to Barking, Hammersmith and points north west.

“But,” I hear you cry, “the Metropolitan line doesn’t go to Barking or Hammersmith!” Don’t worry, we’ll be coming back to that.

Harry Beck’s iconic first tube map. The Bakerloo, Piccadilly and (what is now) Northern are “lines”; the rest are still “railways”. Click to expand.

District line (1867)

The first stretch of what is now the District line opened in December 1867 from South Kensington to Westminster. Which was handy if you were a mid Victorian politician with a big house in Belgravia.

The company that built it was actually the Metropolitan District Railway – but since the vaguely parallel line to the north got to the Metropolitan bit of the name first, the new kid on the block became known simply as the District.

Anyway. This one, too, was for many years less of a single line than a network, and its tentacles gradually spread: to West Brompton in the west and Mansion House in the east by 1871; to Ealing, Hounslow and Wimbledon; and along London Tilbury & Southend Railway tracks to Upminster in 1902. In 1884, after the inner circle was completed, the two companies began running joint trains around the network: the Circle line was effectively there, even if nobody would be ready to admit it for another 60 years.


Northern line (1890)

The first section of the Northern Line opened between Stockwell and King William Street in the City in 1890. It was the first proper tube line (that is, a line built by boring a tunnel, rather than by cutting a trench and then sticking a roof on it). It wasn’t the Northern line yet: it was actually built by the City & South London Railway, which, let’s be honest about it, was a much more sensible name.

King William Street was abandoned in the hilariously short time of 10 years, replaced by Bank when the line extended north to Moorgate in 1900. By 1907 further extensions had taken the line to Euston and Clapham Common.

The same year a second company – the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway, better known as the Hampstead Tube – ran its first trains from Strand (now Charing Cross) northwards to Golders Green and Highgate.  

The CCE & HR had been established in 1891 as an independent company. But in 1900, it became a subsidiary of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London: the imaginatively-named holding company controlled by the ever so slightly dodgy American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes. The UERL, as it was known, also built the Piccadilly and the Bakerloo, and in 1914 bought up the City & South London, too. In the early 1920s, the company it added some fiddly bits of track at Camden and Kennington, allowing the Hampstead and South London tubes to run as a single network. Further extensions into the suburbs followed.

The growth of the Northern line. Image: Rbrw/Wikimedia Commons.

None of which explains how the whole thing came to be known as the Northern line. Various contractions for the Morden-Edgware route were tried (“Edgmor”, “Mordenware”, “Medgway”, “Edgmorden”), but all of those are obviously awful so none of them stuck.

Hilariously, the name that did stick is a reference to some extensions that never actually happened. In 1935, the London Passenger Transport Board published its New Works scheme, outlining ambitious extensions into the suburbs. A big part of that was the Northern Heights project, which would have joined the Moorgate-Finsbury Park route to lines onwards to Highgate, Alexandra Palace and Bushey Heath. It was all very exciting, except World War Two happened, the money disappeared, and much of the plan was abandoned.

A 1939 tube map showing the New Works project. Click to expand.

The result of this is we ended up with a Northern line which doesn’t include the northernmost parts of the network (the notably un-metropolitan village of Chesham, on the Metropolitan), but does include the southernmost (Morden).

Anyway, if you want to see what’s left of the Northern Heights plan, there’s a rather nice walk along the abandoned line from Finsbury Park to Highgate.

All that remains of Crouch End station, closed 1954. Image: Fezpp/Wikimedia Commons.

Waterloo & City line (1889)

Oh thank god, an easy one.

The London and South Western Railway built its station by Waterloo Bridge in 1848. The new line helpfully delivered passengers from Southampton and Richmond to within a couple of miles of their offices, only to then abandon them to fend for themselves.

By the 1890s, though, this was becoming annoying. So a new company – the Waterloo & City Railway Company; they really put effort into naming things in those days – got parliamentary permission to build a new tube line from Waterloo (as it was now known) to a new City station. The resulting railway opened in 1898, and was named after the company and its two stations.

City was renamed Bank in 1940, when somebody pointed out that having multiple names on single station complexes was stupid. Nobody has yet made the same argument for Monument.

Central line (1900)

The Central London Railway opened in 1900, from Shepherd’s Bush to the new station at Bank (a hive of activity for new railway companies in 1900, you’ll notice). Whether the name was chosen because it ran between the two existing east-west lines, or simply because it was a nifty bit of branding, sadly seems to be one of life’s little mysteries.

Anyway. It remained the Central London line even after integration into the London Transport Passenger Board network in 1933, but by 1937 had been shortened to simply the Central line in 1937.

That’s quite a boring story, though, so let’s talk about the path not taken. The initial plan was to increase the line’s capacity through turning loops at Shepherds Bush and its new eastern terminus at Liverpool Street: trains would have continued out of the station at one platform, done a quick spin and returned to the other before heading out again. (Some Northern line trains still do this at Kennington.) More excitingly, there were proposals for this magnificent loop line:

Image: Ed g2s/David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

In the event of course it didn’t do either, but we did get extensions to the eastern and western suburbs. There’s even a loop of sorts from Leytonstone through Gants Hill, Hainult and Woodford back to Leytonstone. So that’s nice.

Bakerloo line (1906)

We all know where this one came from, right? The Baker Street & Waterloo Railway – another UERL subsidiary – opened its new line between Baker Street and Kennington Road (today’s Lambeth North) in March 1906. The abbreviated name caught on so quickly that the line’s official name was changed to the Bakerloo the following July, a mere four months after opening day.

Extra branches to the north appeared in the following decades. The first was to Queen’s Park, where it joined the London & North Western Railway’s suburban line to Watford. Another took over the Stanmore branch of the Metropolitan line in 1939, to simplify the massively over-complicated Metropolitan line.

Since then, of course, the Watford service has been cut back to Harrow & Wealdstone, while the Stanmore one has switched lines. And the various proposed southern extensions have never appeared at all: the line still terminates at Elephant & Castle, as it has since August 1906. If we’re lucky, though, that should change within the next 20 years or so.


Piccadilly line (1906)

Big year for new tubes, 1906: that December, the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (GNP&BR), yet another UERL subsidiary, opened a new line from Finsbury Park to Hammersmith. The name reflects the fact that it ran from the Great Northern station in Finsbury Park, through central London, under Piccadilly, to Brompton and points west.

This looks like a relatively smooth one from a modern perspective: rather than opening in bits, the entire central London section of the modern line appeared in one go. Actually, though, it was the result of two earlier schemes – the Great Northern & Strand route from Finsbury Park to Aldwych, and the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus one from the west to Piccadilly – stitched together, with a connection between them under the West End.

What titan of the tube managed to bring these two proposals together, I hear you ask? That’d be Charles Tyson Yerkes, the American financier who founded UERL in 1902. His company, you’ll have noticed, if you’ve been paying attention, managed to build three separate lines; it also acquired and electrified the District. He probably had more impact on the tube than any other individual.

The lines that Yerkes built, as of 1907. Image: David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

Yerkes, though, never lived to see the network he did so much to build: he died in 1905, when only one of his proposed routes (the Hampstead) existed. Pity, in some ways: correlation isn’t causation, but it is notable that his death comes at almost exactly the point when private companies stopped digging major new tube lines under central London. After the Piccadilly, it would be sixty years before the next appeared, and that would be the work of the public sector.

Before we get to that, though, a brief interlude:

Circle line (1949)

The Circle line was actually finished in the 1880s, but only became a separate line on the map in 1949. It was called the Circle line because, well, it was a circle – or rather a loop, since it’s much longer east-west than it is north-south, and the western end is noticeably fatter than the eastern.

It stayed a circle until 2009, when TfL decided to break it: since then trains have started at Edgware Road, travelled anti-clockwise around central London, passed Edward Road again and continued onto Hammersmith.

This had the advantage of adding extra trains on the Hammersmith branch. It also removed a flat junction (that is, where trains cross each other’s paths) at Edgware Road, thus allowing higher frequency services. But it’s not been popular with everyone and the 2010 UKIP manifesto promised to turn it back again.

Definitely not a circle: a geographically accurate map of the Circle line. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway – UKIP didn’t win the 2010 general election, for some reason, so the Circle line remains a spiral, or possibly a teacup.

Victoria line (1968)

The passing of Charles Tyson Yerkes marked the end of the great era of the swashbuckling speculative railway magnate. Over the next few decades, various proposals for new lines through central London didn’t come off, and the network’s expansion focused instead on the suburbs – often, indeed, created those suburbs as it went. (There was also the matter of two world wars to contend with, which was a bit of a distraction on the whole.) 

Anyway: after World War II, everything changed. In 1948, the London Passenger Transport Board was nationalised as the London Transport Executive: for the first time, planning and building new tube lines would be the job of the state. What’s more, the city had stopped growing, thanks to the metropolitan green belt (indeed, its population was actually falling). So, when the authorities came to plan the first new central London tube line in half a century, its main function would not be to serve new destinations: rather, it was intended to relieve over-crowding on the existing network.


And so, in 1948, the agency in charge of the newly nationalised-transport network, the British Transport Commission – the London Transport Executive’s Dad, basically – proposed a new south-west to north-east line, running from Victoria to Walthamstow. The plan won parliamentary permission in 1955, construction began in 1962, and the first trains ran in September 1968. By that point, proposals for a southern extension to Brixton had already been approved; that bit opened in 1972.

In other words, it now took nearly a quarter of a century to build a new tube line. This was exactly the kind of breakneck scheduling that would later give us Crossrail.

But what of its name? During planning the line was known as Route 8 or Route C (references, one assumes, to long forgotten consultation documents), but those would obviously never have survived contact with the Tube Map. There were attempts to name it the Walvic line (Walthamstow-Victoria) or, more pleasingly, the Viking line (Victoria-King’s Cross). 

Despite the fact that this latter name is brilliant, the authorities decided to be boring as hell and name it the Victoria line: this was presumably to advertise the fact that its main function was to improve links between Victoria station and the West End. And so, half a century on, we can do nothing but mourn the loss of the Viking line.

Jubilee line (1979)

The Jubbly, too, was created to relieve the existing network. In fact, it did so before it was even conceived as a new line: it started life in 1939, when the London Passenger Transport Board extended the Bakerloo line through a new tunnel from Baker Street to Finchley Road; beyond that, it took over Metropolitan line services to Stanmore, thus relieving pressure on Baker Street. 

After the war, various official sounding bodies proposed all sorts of ideas to expand the central London network, and with south-west to north-east travel dealt with by the Victoria line, north-west to south-east was next on the list. 

The original plan, discussed in the mid 1960s, would have seen the Stanmore branch connected to a new line, via Bond Street and Charing Cross; it would then continue under the Strand and Fleet Street to Cannon Street and Fenchurch Street, before heading on to pathetically under tube-d south east London. This line, in reference one of the key streets in served, and the buried river after which it was named, would be known as the Fleet Line. 

Various proposals for the Fleet Line, dating from the mid 1970s. Image: London Reconnections/public domain.

Except, everything went wrong. Construction began in 1971, even as the Victoria line was being polished off – but the various fiscal crises of that decade meant that the government decided to build it in stages, with the first stage only running as far as Charing Cross. Since the new line didn’t actually make it as far as Fleet Street, and since sucking up to royalty was all the rage, the proposed name was abandoned. The line instead opened as the Jubilee Line, coloured silver on the map, to reference the fact that 1977 was the queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Which would make sense were it not for the fact that it didn’t actually open until 1979. 

Anyway. It was another 11 years before plans to extend the line were finally agreed, and by 1990, London’s economic geography had changed. Improving links in the City and connecting up south east London were now less of a priority than serving the South Bank and Canary Wharf. So when the extension finally opened in 1999, it never went near Fleet Street at all. Perhaps they got the name right after all.

Hammersmith & City line (1990)

This, like the Circle, is actually one of the oldest bits of the network, but for most of its history it was just a part of the Metropolitan line.

That line was always a bit over-complicated, however, and eventually someone noticed that – since all the Metropolitan line’s Hammersmith trains went to Barking, and since all its Barking trains went to Hammersmith – it really might as well be shown as a separate line. The Hammersmith & City made its first appearance on the tube map in its own salmon pink in 1990.

There doesn’t seem to be an interesting story behind the name. Presumably they wanted to highlight that this was the Hammersmith branch, but it was nonetheless a pretty lazy choice of name for a line that runs from Hammersmith to the City, not least since the District line runs from Hammersmith to the City as well. Oh, and unlike the Waterloo & City line, it doesn’t even have the excuse of serving a station once known as City.

Ah well. Not everyone can be creative, I suppose.

Elizabeth line (2019)

Oh, for heaven's sake. Image: Getty.

And so we reach the end of our journey, a line that’s named after the Queen. Or rather, another line that’s named after the bloody Queen, because apparently having one line named after an event in her life, and another after her great great grandmother, wasn’t good enough for her. So instead of Crossrail, the Elizabeth line it will be, even though she’s still alive, because naming transport infrastructure after people who are still breathing in and out is definitely not a creepy thing to do. 

I can’t help but notice that this is the third time running this has happened. Victoria, not Viking; Jubilee, not Fleet; now Elizabeth, not Crossrail. Since the integration of the tube network under the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, the city authorities have succeeded in creating precisely no new major underground railways without naming them after the royal family. 

And this is why we will never have true equality in Britain.

This bloody country. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.