A life in London

September 29 2007

A job at Chatham House [1924-56] was a job in London, and my roots were, and still are, there. I had been born and brought up in London, and so far there have been only three years of my life (1912-15) during which I have been living in England without having a London home. During those three years I had a feeling of being in exile. I was homesick for Kensington Gardens, which, in my childhood, had been the centre of my universe, and I missed the London buses and the Underground. My mind then dwelled wistfully on early memories: that chocolate-coloured horse-bus in which I had loved to ride, from Queen’s Road (now Queensway) Metropolitan station to the Zoo; that trace-horse that used to be hitched on to the Islington bus to help it up the hill; those pails of bran-mash that an ostler once brought out of the stables of an inn to refresh the bus-horses at the mid-point of the long-distance drive to Cricklewood; and the builds – both of them peculiar [and] each peculiar in a highly distinctive style – of the steam-locomotives on the Metropolitan Railway and on the District Railway. (The change of locomotives between the two segments of the Inner Circle used to take ten minutes.) I was even homesick for the choking blue-black smoke that used to pour up from Gower Street Station into the street through a grimy grating.

Of course, even by 1912, the outward shape of London transport had changed out of all recognition. My father had often taken me to watch the two-wheeled horse-carts removing the spoil from the shafts that were being sunk for “the Twopenny Tube” (the Central London Railway); and he had laughed at my terror when the first motor-bus that I had yet seen took me by surprise in Piccadilly Circus as it hurled itself round the corner of Swann and Edgar’s. By 1912, London was fast changing, and in the twenty-four years that have now passed since the end of the Second World War it has undergone further changes that surpass those of the half-century before that. In 1969, travelling about London is less agreeable and more fatiguing than it was in 1899. Yet, if I were to stop riding in London’s present-day capricious buses and crowded tubes, I should, I am sure, feel a sharp sense of loss. Are such life-long attachments to local colour really trivialities? My guess is that a psychologist would pronounce that they have their psychological importance. One cannot be expatriated with impunity; and, so long as I stayed at Chatham House, I was going to be living and working in my native city.

The Metropolitan Railway (MetR) and the Metropolitan District Railway (District) were the first two partly underground railways to be constructed in London. The first part of the MetR opened in 1863. The trains were steam-hauled, so the tunnels had regular vents to the surface.

They were separate companies, and rivals, but the histories of the MetR and District were linked through their joint construction of the Inner Circle (now Circle Line), which was completed in 1884. Toynbee (born 1889) remembers how it was jointly operated.

The first deep-level, electrically-operated line, the City & South London Railway (now part of the Northern Line), opened in 1890. Another, the Central London Railway, the original “Tube”, whose excavations he remembers, formally opened in 1900. The Circle began with steam trains.

By the early twentieth century, six independent operators were running different Underground lines.

Most, but not all, underground steam routes were electrified in the first decade of the century. Toynbee remembers the steam-locomotives on the MetR and District and the smoke vents at Gower Street (which was actually renamed Euston Square station in 1909).

The first motor-bus appeared on a London street in 1904. The last horse-drawn bus disappeared in 1911. In the picture below, you see both kinds.

In Edwardian London, straw was placed on the streets near hospitals to dull the sound of traffic.


Experiences, OUP, 1969

11 Responses to “A life in London”

  1. […] “I cannot avoid the conclusion that it is connected in some obscure way with the artistic creativeness of these two closely similar epochs. The extreme sensibility to physical suffering which characterizes modern civilization arose together with Industrialism, and is most marked in the most highly industrialized countries. It has synchronized with the complete eclipse of spontaneous and unconscious artistic production, which we deplore in our time. … The explanation of this extreme susceptibleness must be left to psychologists; but I am convinced that we have here a case of transferred aesthetic susceptibility. We can walk unmoved down the streets of Plaistow, but we cannot bear to see a horse beaten. The Athenians set up no Albert Memorials, but they tortured slave-girls in their law-courts and sent their prisoners to work in the horrible galleries of the Laureion silver-mines.” [Footnote: Inge, W. R., in The Legacy of Greece (Oxford 1921, Clarendon Press), pp. 39-40.] Inge is rude about the Albert Memorial, but Toynbee was very fond of it, or had been in his childhood, as we have seen here and here. […]

  2. […] Toynbee’s memories of enchanted pre-1914 London are quoted here. […]

  3. […] your city June 11, 2008 A life in London Enchanted […]

  4. Julian Myerscough Says:

    Can I just say that all this is one of the most moving things I have read on the web. Please, allow me to ponder why – perhaps to explain (much) later. For the moment, I shall say that there is something very beautiful in these observations. Through this one can not only touch the past but be part of it. All very sentimental/simplistic/naive of me – but there is something in the above I have not felt before… apologies for my directness

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee writes to Columba Cary-Elwes from Ganthorpe in Yorkshire on June 25 1969, three months after his coronary on March 26: “I have been recuperating splendidly here, and shall now be able to get about again in London – with less bus and more taxi, I expect, but taking taxis makes me feel unordinary and guilty, apart from the cost.”

  6. […] 10-volume set ‘A Study of History’ is Toynbee’s life’s work. Arnold Toynbee’s roots are in London although he harbors fond feelings for […]

  7. davidderrick Says:

    What about electric trams?

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