Christopher Westcott looks back over the complicated history of London Underground’s District Line, which is celebrating 150 years of operation
The history of London Underground’s Metropolitan Line is a very precise and definitive story, representing the launch of the world’s first inner-city underground metro railway system.
It had an opening ceremony and inaugural special train service between Paddington and Farringdon for the Lord Mayor and guests on January 9, 1863, with public services commencing the following day. Nailing down when the District Line became a railway in its own right, however, is a little more complicated.
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The success of the first underground railway quickly created demand for more to the main line stations around London – in effect, the birth of the idea of a Circle Route. Permission was granted for the Metropolitan Railway to extend its railway east towards Tower Hill, whilst another organisation, the Metropolitan District, was permitted to begin construction south from Paddington to South Kensington.
The Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways jointly owned some of the stations when services commenced on Christmas Eve 1868, and revenues were unequally shared in favour of the Metropolitan Railway, whose rolling stock was used. This began a long history of rivalry between the two.
After extending the line eastwards from South Kensington to Mansion House on July 1, 1871, the District Railway took legal ownership of its own services, operating its first train clockwise to the then Metropolitan Railway terminus at Moorgate Street (known just as Moorgate today). A week later on July 10, 1871, the District began using new platforms at South Kensington adjacent to those operated by the Metropolitan Railway.
All these dates mean the London Transport Museum (LTM) has had to decide exactly when to commemorate the one-and-a-half centuries of the District Railway. In the end the answer was simple: spread the celebrations over three years!
As the District excavated east from Mansion House, it also dug itself into a progressively larger financial black hole – not that the Metropolitan was in great financial shape either. But the introduction of two new chairman – James Forbes (District) and Edward Watkin (Metropolitan), both experienced businessmen – scuppered any chance that the two railways might merge into one.
Both had a proven track record of rescuing financially starving railway companies, but both were bitter rivals. Attempts to outdo one another delayed the eventual completion of the circular railway around London between Tower Hill and Aldgate until September 1882. Even then, with Metropolitan services operating clockwise and District services counter-clockwise, both companies refused to issue tickets for one another, even if it meant that passengers would have to take the longer route.
To increase their income, both railways reached into the towns surrounding London. The District looked to the west and south of the River Thames, reaching its modern termini at Richmond (June 1877) and Ealing Broadway (July 1879). It even shared track with the Great Western Railway beyond Ealing Broadway to serve Windsor (today’s Windsor and Eton Central) via Slough from March 1883 and September 1885.
The long-closed Hounslow Town (closed for the second and final time in May 1909), opened in May 1883. Nearby Hounslow Barracks (now Hounslow West on the Piccadilly Line) opened in July 1884. Services reached Wimbledon in June 1889 and the new income helped to fund the slow progression eastwards.
In October 1884, the District and Metropolitan Railways extended to St Mary’s (Whitechapel Road) station. To the east of Whitechapel and Bow, services extended to Barking and then Upminster from June 1902.
Between June 1910 and September 1939, through services operated between Ealing Broadway and Southend, with District electric locomotives hauling the trains as far as Barking and steam beyond there. Although electric services reached Upminster in September 1932, it was not until May 1935 that all stations along the modern branch were opened, the last being Elm Park.
In the years that followed, an element of rationalisation took place. District services were withdrawn between Acton Town and Hounslow Town, with services then solely operated by the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (today’s Piccadilly Line).
Meanwhile the plethora of lines that became the Underground network came under the control of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933. This morphed into London Transport in 1948 at the same time as the private mainline railways were nationalised under the umbrella of British Railways.
In the late 1950s, as British Railways began electrifying the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, a new depot for its EMUs was built on the site of the District’s Little Ilford depot, with the District relocating to Upminster. Today, this continues to occupy a large site to the east of Upminster station, and a similar role is played at the other end of the line by Ealing Common depot.
To the west, the Acton Town to South Acton shuttle, long-served by two converted single ‘Q23’ cars was withdrawn on February 28, 1959.
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