In the heat of the craze for Egyptology that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, it was seriously suggested that the London Underground route from Morden to Edgware be called the Tutancamden (Tootancamden in some tellings) line. The name used the same awkward portmanteau language that brought us “Bakerloo”, to commemorate the exotic thrill of both the boy king’s tomb and the new ability to travel between Tooting and Camden through a tunnel.
The portmanteau word is awkward, more so even than Bakerloo, and it is a little hard to see the connection between the majestic, ancient majesty of the pyramids and either Tooting or Camden. But still, it’s a more interesting name than the Northern line, and might have provided the pretext for the stations on the route to have an Ancient Egypt-influenced Art Deco look. The current decor of Kentish Town and Mornington Crescent stations has its charms – but imagine them with the odd blue scarab or red lotus motif?
The Northern line isn’t the only one to have more exotic name suggestions rejected. The portmanteaus Warvic (Walthamstow to Victoria) and Viking (Victoria to Kings Cross) were suggested for what instead became the Victoria line in 1955. Although the name is actually only a third-hand tribute to Queen Victoria – the line is named after the London Victoria station, itself named for its placement on Victoria Street which was named after the Queen in 1851 – it still has the same aura of fatuous forelock-tugging.
And on balance, weren’t the Vikings a less destructive force in the world than Queen Victoria? And more deserving of a tube line named after them? While the 1950s were a time of less vigorous cultural appropriation than the 1920s, there might also have been some inspiration to be had when designing a Viking themed tube line.
Sadly, none of the other tube lines seem to have solicited such interesting/stupid suggestions for names as Viking or Tutancamden. Instead they gained uncontroversial names based on some combination of the names of the companies that owned the line prior to London Underground’s formation, description or geography. The main exception to this was the Jubilee line, an authentic expression of contemporary royal fervour in exactly the way the naming of the Victoria line wasn’t.
Are these banal names a problem, and should we demand better? A nod to Tutankhamun in the name of the Tutancamden line might bring a welcome evocation of the Nile’s fertile banks to a mundane trip to Archway; while the Viking line would, if nothing else, give a hint of the kind of bustle you’ll experience changing at Victoria in the rush hour. But would it be useful or helpful for the tube lines to have better, cooler, more interesting names?
I’m not sure. The names of the tube lines themselves are, in practice, largely irrelevant to a system primarily navigated by tracing coloured lines on a map, so snappier names wouldn’t necessarily provide any recognition value for newcomers to the city. It’s also arguable that giving each line more character would be counter-productive – the identity of the London Underground is it’s the Underground. It’s the tube: that’s the identity that matters.
Also, goddamit, those names may be boring but there’s plenty of solid, admittedly slightly dull history in each of those tube line names. The abandoned Northern Heights plan to extend the Underground from Edgware to Bushey Heath might not be quite as exciting as cracking open the tomb of a long lost pharaoh to discover the treasure within, but its worthy of commemoration in its own way; even the layered logic of naming a line after a station after a street after a queen has a story of its own to tell.
They may not be very exciting historical stories, but they’re ours, and I can’t think of anything more authentically British than that.
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