The Underground: London’s Circulatory System17 minute read

The London Underground serves a vital role for life in the city. Life, in this sense, can be understood both as a way of life, in this case a means of public transportation, but also by its intrinsic meaning, namely the organic state of being alive that distinguishes living organisms from inanimate matter1. If London is a living body, it is naturally observed that the Underground network is its circulatory system, carrying a flow of people, goods and ideas not dissimilar to the transportation of oxygen, nutrients and hormones within a living body. Serving 1.3 billion passengers per annum2, it is difficult to imagine life in London in its absence. This essay will demonstrate how the birth of the Underground in Victorian London, and its subsequent growth and maturity, not only exhibits signs of life of a body but also a confluence of time through a plethora of events that merges a past, present, and future. Issues such as increases in fares, tube strikes and terrorist attacks are by no means contemporary, meanwhile as London Underground’s body grows physically, so does the scope of its responsibility, evolving from a mere transportation function to one that shelters children in WW2, indicating an undertaking of greater duty that underlines adulthood. Under these analyses, it becomes apparent that the metaphor for London and the Underground as body is inseparable.

Underground Poster - Keep Londons Heart Aglow
Underground poster, date unknown

Direct comparison of the physical attributes of the circulatory system reveal that the Underground network is exactly at the same location – beneath the surface of the body. It is the heart, blood and circulation of the city in every essence, unseen yet keeping London alive and functioning, after all, infrastructure comprises the very architecture for circulation underpinning all modern societies (Larkin, 2013). Meanwhile the multitudinous, intricate network of lines represents the arteries, veins and capillaries, pumping the flow of people, goods, money and ideas, as well as producing byproducts such as garbage and pollution in the same way a body produces waste. The different units constantly circulate in a cycle of inputs and outputs, and the health of the tube can easily determine the health of London, just like in human anatomy. Increased policing, surveillance and CCTV in modern times that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon can be compared to vaccinations or medication humans take for protection. These measures are in place to prevent and mitigate attacks on the body, the level of which will vary in accordance with exogenous shocks, such as increased exposure to disease in winter, or increased threat of terrorism in the wake of attacks elsewhere.

Under this line of analysis, the July 2005 tube bombings reflect a gunshot to the body, and has left a scar that London will always remember. Yet terrorist attacks on the Underground date to the 1883 bombing campaign by the Fenians, the Irish fraternal organization dedicated to the establishment of an independent Ireland. Two separate bombs were detonated at Paddington and Westminster Bridge stations, injuring 70 people (Porter, 1991). Both instances were retaliation to UK foreign policy of the period, revealing a merging of time whereby past events are reproduced in the present, only with the terrorizer changing in accordance with the political climate.

Nerve Centre of London Underground
Official poster from 1930

Closer inspection of the diagrammatic layout of the Underground also shows correlation with that of a human body; Zone 1 or Central London depicts the heart, the most important region in the system, while Zone 6 is a less significant area, the extremities such as a finger we can perhaps live on without it affecting the functioning of the wider body. Similarly areas of oxygenated blood resemble areas of wealth and economic activity, therefore following this logic, the derelict and abandoned factories of the east end can be described as de-oxygenated and deprived of nutrients that enable it to prosper. The BBC documentary3 ‘Mind the Gap’ reports on the 21-year difference in life expectancy between residents of Oxford Circus and Canning Town, highlighting this heterogeneous pattern of health across London. Moreover, no one knows our body quite like ourselves – how it operates, its capabilities and its limits, much like knowing it is quicker to exit to the ticket hall level and re-enter, rather than changing between the Victoria and Piccadilly lines at Green Park. Meanwhile, the 20-second tube ride that costs £4.80 between Leicester Square and Covent Garden remains the most popular journey with tourists4, despite being a pleasant 2-minute walk on foot. This is tacit knowledge exclusive to Londoners who know their body well.

When placed in juxtaposition, the parallels between the Underground and the body are endless, and this is not a new phenomenon. Interestingly, early posters promoting tube travel made the link between the Underground and the human body through words such as ‘heart’ and ‘nerve centre.’ Fast-forward to its 150th birthday, London Mayor Boris Johnson comments that it is the “throbbing cardiovascular system of the greatest city on earth5.” Yet more comparisons are made by a 2014 BBC documentary on the new tube connection with Crossrail, titled ‘Urban Heart Surgery6.’ Evidently the notion of the Underground serving as the vital life force has not changed over time, integral to London today as it was over 150 years ago.

David Ashford notes the Underground was a “physical manifestation of that paradigm of circulation that obsessed the Victorian mind.” Indeed Victorian London was fervently concerned with the notion of circulation, and applying Bentham’s panopticon of total social control through visibility and transparency, eradicating all filth, obscurity and the irrational. Underlying this belief was that order in the streets would bring about order in society, as well as modernity and morality. This was executed through the construction of the first steam-driven underground railway in 1860, which would appropriately regulate the unsightly topography and “disordered, crumbling, labyrinthine” of London’s cartography (Nead, 2000). In the same way Foucault indicates the built environment is formed to facilitate and stabilize power and knowledge structures, Victorian values of circulation would be embedded in society through integration into formalized urban planning.

The most detailed mapping of London by Ordnance Survey in 1893 showed the city stripped bare of decorative ornament and replaced by skeletal, geometric notations that declared its utilitarian function and thus commitment to modernity (Nead, 2000). Yet the earliest Underground tunnels beneath the city followed the curvature of the meandering roads, a vestige of its medieval street plan and violating the “straight, singular, and purposeful” Victorian vision which was thought to allow for more efficient movement (Nead, 2000). In a modern attempt to improve circulation, the Underground announced in January 2005 it would play classical music at problem stations4 to discourage loitering young people who were disrupting the flow of commuters. This indicates both a continuous strive for the Victorian fixation, and a confluence of time.

Construction of the Underground was also in response to the congestion of a growing city (Wolmar, 2004), with road widening and freeing up movement conveniently displacing some of the poverty and destitution famously documented by Dickens and Orwell. Ironically the 1940 census found a staggering 177,500 homeless people sleeping in tube stations4, a reproduction of the very problem the Victorians tried to eradicate, and according to a study in 2002 by researchers at University College London, air quality in the Underground is up to 73 times worse than at street level7, again recreating images of a ‘black,’ ‘ugly’ and ‘airless’ space (Jackson, 2014). If filth and darkness correspond to social disorder, the Victorians were once more defeated in their battle for cleanliness as an estimated half a million mice live in the Underground today4, a pollutant circulated along with the otherwise benign molecules in the system. These examples aptly demonstrate the inability to eliminate old anxieties, and a merging of past themes with the present.

On a grander scale, they indicate a decline of Britain’s authority as the pioneer of industrialization, sanitation and modernity. Despite Victorians inventing the science of public health (Jackson, 2014), commitment to these issues has been vastly overtaken by other metropolitan cities, whose underground systems are characterized by immaculate cleanliness and are hi-tech powered, employing state-of-the-art technology ranging from digital advertising to virtual shopping. It is a microcosm of Britain’s power on the global stage; it has now been overtaken by other bodies which are both larger and more complex. Most notably the rise of the USA and their naming conventions of ‘subway’ and ‘metro’ which have been adopted across the world, despite the London Underground being the first of its kind. Yet it has resisted American influence and still affectionately calls it ‘tube,’ retaining its identity as a unique body.

Virtual Supermarket Seoul
An underground commuter in Seoul, South Korea scans the QR-code for his item with a smartphone, which is added to his basket and will be delivered to his home.

Since its birth in 1863, perhaps the most noticeable change is the Underground’s physical size, becoming larger the same way a human body grows and develops over time. But the growth spurt of London in the 1930s was accompanied by growing pains as the tube struggled to cope with increased ridership and operation already at full capacity. To accommodate the economic growth and population growth of the city, the Underground saw expansion from Zone 2 to Zone 6 into the suburbs of Essex and Hertfordshire. Development also involved application of advances in technology, with the move from steam power to electrification on the Metropolitan line between Baker Street and Harrow in 1905 (Jackson, 1986), and the first ‘moving staircase,’ or escalator installed at Earl’s Court in 1911, then at all deep level tube stations after 1912 (Green, 1987). Expansion and adaptation of new technology implicitly evince a passing of time, with further outlook to the future through deployment of driverless trains planned for the mid 2020s8.

Early Steam Locomotive Underground
Early steam locomotive

The call for driverless trains has increased in the wake of a wave of tube strikes in 2015. Tube strikes bring the city to a standstill, and affect London in a huge way as commuters are forced to take time off work or leave the office early. A breakdown, partial network failure or full-scale industrial action causes chaos for London because it disrupts the circulation of the very particles that keep it alive. When the flow of people is obstructed, the body will suffer; the economy loses £50 million per 24 hours of strike action9. There have been earlier attempts to strike, another reminder of past-present themes however they were not so successful, as the London Underground workers’ campaign against the Company Plan in 1992 ended in defeat. The Company Plan sought to cut 5-10,000 jobs, abolish performance pay, contracting out workers, among other destructions for working conditions and job security in what was called the ‘most fundamental attack on tube workers in the history of the tube’ (Socialist Organiser No. 530, LSE Archives Ref. AWL/7/10). Despite a two to one majority for strike action, it was ultimately cancelled due to a failure of ‘timid,’ ‘weak’ union management and the internal divisions within the main unions themselves, the TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association), RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) and ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen). The ability of the tube to secure strikes now reflects significantly increased powers of negotiation, debate, and unity it has learnt through adolescence into adulthood. The adult Underground has achieved the industrial action it could not two decades prior and this is the result of combined development and experience that can only be acquired through growth.

Evacuees Leave By Underground
Evacuees leave by underground in 1939

First signs of maturity of the growing tube became unmistakable during WW2 as it transported over 200,000 evacuees to the countryside, and became an air raid shelter in September 19404, protecting the remaining men, women and children from the Blitz in the eight deep-level shelters (Ashford, 2013). During the war, special supply trains provided seven tonnes of food and 2,400 gallons of tea and cocoa every night to people sheltering there4. In London’s hour of need, it was the perfect opportunity for the Underground to declare its strength and capability to undertake greater roles, not merely serving a transportation function. Stations between Holborn and Aldwych stored priceless artifacts from the British Museum, while others were converted to emergency government offices, such as Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms at Down Street4 (now closed). These noble acts characterize the tube’s growing up not in a physical capacity, but reaching a psychological milestone – the ability to take on greater responsibility.

Brandt and McNeill
Left: Bill Brandt’s photograph of a family sheltering in the Liverpool Street extension, 1940.
From the Imperial War Museum Photography Archive, negative number D1578; Right: M. McNeill’s photograph of children sheltering in the tube during the Blitz, published anonymously in the Evening Standard, 1940
Hulton Avenue, ref. 149606564. © Getty Images.

Maturity of the tube is also demonstrated today by its emotional growth, and even its ability to communicate humour and satire. Underground stations across London displaying noticeboards with travel updates often also include a ‘quote of the day.’ These are inspirational or humourous messages written by station staff intended to brighten up commuters’ day, some of which are funny, some informative, and others absolutely random. As humans age, we learn the importance of inspiring others: generating positive externalities for the benefit of society. This has also been seen at Walthamstow station in human form, where a particular staff member Leon Tsui has gained recognition from passengers as well as Transport for London for his role in directing people efficiently during maintenance work on escalators. By being bright, cheery and friendly, Leon’s interaction with commuters has turned the solitary transportation experience of the tube into one that is personal and human, bringing an emotional connection to an otherwise mechanical function. Leon’s enthusiasm and outstanding service has attracted praise on social media, awards from management, gifts from commuters, and even a dedicated video by TfL’s official YouTube account. The gifts from commuters particularly highlight the positive reciprocal relationship of human interaction, indicating not just a healthy body, but also mind and soul.

Click to enlarge images…

Leon’s main role was to improve the flow of people in a time of disruption to circulation. Once again, it is little surprise that similar problems faced the Underground in the past, identified through a series of letters from Andrew Faulds MP to the London Transport Divisional General Manager between 1980-82. Mr Faulds complained of escalators being out of service at Paddington, and a lack of visual information regarding delays at Gloucester Road (LSE Archives Ref. FAULDS/4/1/95). 30 years later, the same problems have been met with new solutions that both resemble a maturing body and a confluence of time. In the case of escalators, a human approach has been used through staff such as Leon to direct the flow of people, and in improving information of delays, modern technology has been employed through use of social media such as Twitter to provide passengers with live updates. These are a notable improvement on what Mr Faulds received, namely an apology and refund.

Uses of the tube have evolved over time as we have seen in WW2, but it has also developed a commercial interest, learning how to sell itself and capitalize on its assets. The iconic tube map by Harry Beck has become unquestionably a national design icon and symbol for London, reproduced on souvenirs popular with tourists and Londoners alike, while filming in the Underground costs £500 per hour4. This represents a complex mind, by diversification into other means of gaining income. The mind of the tube made another leap in social development with the first female driver in 1978, showing its openness to new ideas and being a vehicle for social change, and improved accessibility for disabled users, expressing acceptance and accommodation for the non-traditional. Commitment to championing liberal values such as these yet again demonstrate a maturing and evolving mind, and sometimes, development of the mind is even more important than growth of the physical body.

Forster’s Machine in his science fiction novel is a subsurface network that has evolved from the London Underground into a multipurpose residential compound. Rather pessimistically, Forster predicts that the Machine will eventually stop in his book titled ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909). There is no doubt that at 152 years, the tube is ageing. Throughout its life there has been direct links to anatomy with measures put in place to maintain good health, whether it be the ban on smoking in 1987 after the Kings Cross fire killing 31 people, or the ban on alcohol consumption on the tube in 2008. In a 1970 letter from Sir Richard Way, Chairman of London Transport to Lord Shore MP, Privy Council and Cabinet Minister, it is explained that rising ticket prices were sought to cover the cost of increasing automation (LSE Archives Ref. SHORE/19/41). Increases in fares stem from a combination of inflation, paying for new technology, and rising maintenance costs experienced with wear and tear. The latter nicely reflects the metaphor of the Underground as body, as rising medical costs are associated with old age, as well as reflecting the medical discourse popular in the Victorian era.

The London Underground was the first underground transportation system of its kind, the very body and integral circulatory system of the city for over 150 years. The health of the tube indicates the health of London, as strikes have the ability to bring the city to a standstill. As it grows, we have seen development not only on the physical body, but a growth of the mind and soul. It has demonstrated maturity through managing relationships and concern for wider social issues, be it connecting with commuters sentimentally, sheltering children from air raids or facilitating women’s strive for equality. In each instance the Underground has stepped up in a changing world and responded as we expect a maturing body to do through birth, adulthood and old age. A confluence of time is repeated again and again as many of the issues facing the Victorians face the modern tube today. They reflect a connection of the past, present and future, only with evolving technology characterizing change, because the core function of the Underground as the circulatory system of the London body remains unchanged. The future is uncertain; it may breakdown and die as Forster predicts, however it is more likely that it will continue to serve London as long as we look after it. If we take care of the Underground as we do our own body, there is no doubt it will lead a happy and prolonged life.




3 Mind the Gap, BBC ONE, (22 May 2013)



6 Urban Heart Surgery, BBC, (16 July 2014)




Ashford, D. (2013) London Underground: A Cultural Geography, Liverpool University Press

Bentham J. (1791) Panopticon or the Inspection House, Kessinger Publishing

Dickens, C. (1848) Dombey and Son, Bradbury & Evans

Faulds, A. (1980-1982) Complaints to London Transport regarding service on the London Underground, LSE Archives Ref. FAULDS/4/1/95

Forster, E. M. (1909) The Machine Stops, Archibald Constable

Green, O. (1987) The London Underground – An illustrated history, Ian Allan

Jackson, A. (1986) London’s Metropolitan Railway, David & Charles

Jackson, L. (2014) Dirty old London: the Victorian fight against filth, Yale University Press, New Haven

Larkin, B. (2013) The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure, Annual Review of Anthropology

Nead, L. (2000) Victorian Babylon: people, streets, and images in nineteenth-century London, Yale University Press, New Haven

Porter, B. (1991) The origins of the vigilant state: the London Metropolitan Police Special Branch before the First World War, Boydell & Brewer, pg 27-28

Socialist Organiser No. 529, No. 530, No. 553 (1992) “The tube fiasco: why the London Underground workers’ campaign against the Company Plan ended in defeat without a fight”, excerpts from Socialist Organiser and Socialist Outlook, LSE Archives Ref. AWL/7/10

Way, R. (1970) Letter to Shore from Sir Richard Way, with enclosed London Transport paper, ‘London Underground fares’, 9 January 1970, LSE Archives Ref. SHORE/19/41

Wolmar, C. (2004) The Subterranean Railway: how the London Underground was built and how it changed the city forever, Atlantic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.