The Victoria Line has now attained its 50th anniversary. Certainly 2019 will be seen by some die hard enthusiasts as the true 50th anniversary as that is when Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new tube route. The first section opened in 1968 (Walthamstow to Highbury/Warren Street) thus most of the route was already in service (just over eight miles) before the Royal opening involving just 2 miles (3.5 km) of new tube from Warren Street to Victoria.
London’s most recent complete tube line (as opposed to half jobs such as the Jubilee Line which took over the Bakerloo) had been planned for many years but was beset by delays largely due to cost. The line first gained Government approval in 1955. Much wrangling eventually saw it built but on a somewhat reduced scale including smaller stations, narrower platforms, and fewer escalators, plus a decor that was extremely austere and lavatorial. Indeed it’s been said the stations’ decor used cheap bathroom tiles!
The first section to be opened was the five and three quarter miles (more than half of the entire new line – 9.20km) between Walthamstow Central and Highbury & Islington. There was no initial opening ceremony; instead the normal timetable started on Sunday 1 September 1968. The first train left Walthamstow Central for Highbury & Islington at 7:32 am. Thus the world’s first automatic public railway had begun operation.
The section from Highbury & Islington to Warren Street (two and half miles) (4 km) was opened, again without ceremony, on 1 December 1968. Both days in 1968 were on a Sunday, this being London Transport’s (LT) preferred day in case things should go wrong. This made a total of just under eight and a quarter miles (13.20km) and with that to Victoria 10 and a quarter miles (16.4 km), the total being ten and half miles (or 16.9 km) including the over-run tunnels.
Victoria Line timetable from my LT book
The Victoria Line’s two most unusual aspects are on this initial stretch of line. An unprecedented four tracks running parallel between Seven Sisters and Tottenham Hale. Plus Blackhorse Road station, the only one built on the entire line that has dedicated surface buildings.
Above & below: Blackhorse Road station currently has these repro 1968 Victoria Line posters on show above the escalators
The Victoria Line had been planned for many years but was beset largely by financial constraints. The plans were first given the green light in 1955 for a line from Wood Street to Victoria subject to finance. Eventually the Government gave it the all clear on 20th August 1962. One condition of the go-ahead was the requirement for a shorter line with smaller stations and fewer escalators in order to reduce costs.
The Victoria Line bill goes through Parliament February 1955
The original terminus of the line was to be at Wood Street with a route from Walthamstow near the junction of High Street and Church Hill. The original plans would have involved a lot of demolition around Walthamstow and Wood Street. The route was therefore diverted southwards to Hoe Street station itself and that alone cut £1.5 million from the costs of the new line. Despite the changes the amount invariably mushroomed and by 1964 it was £56 million. By the time the first trains had started running, the project had allegedly costed over £80 million (though it may have been nearer £75 million.)
The Victoria Line’s original route from Wood Street to Victoria as shown on this map circa 1958
Before final approval and construction began, a one mile section of twin tunnel between Finsbury Park and Netherton Road was built. This was to test new methods of construction including digging tunnels faster and the use of concrete, rather than steel, tunnel sections. The speed with which these tunnels were built would amount to further savings in cost when it came to constructing the new line. These isolated tunnels were of course ultimately incorporated into the Victoria Line.
Construction work was no less stupendous. Considerable diversions had to be made to other tube lines, such as the Northern and Piccadilly. At Finsbury Park huge effort was made to create a new alignment involving the use of the northbound City (Moorgate) platform for this new purpose. After three years work the new section of Piccadilly Line came into use on 3rd October 1965.
In those days sometimes the construction workers simply wore the clothes they went to work in. Bosses in their ties and shirts too giving a hand with the extensive engineering work – such as the picture below of a steel lintel being lowered onto a wagon ready for the diversion of the Piccadily Line at Finsbury Park. Today’s Health and Safety would have a heart attack! Actually when it came to the really heavy and dirty engineering work, such as digging the tunnels themselves, workers were required to wear safety helmets at all times. Other than that they could still wear their own clothes and heavy boots – very unlike now where workers must wear all sorts of safety equipment!
Watching a documentary about the making of the Victoria line in the 60s, loving the guy changing rails in his shirt and tie. pic.twitter.com/2t0waYflKT
— Gary Lee Wadsworth (@Donny_Jpeg) December 27, 2017
Perhaps the most public part of the construction works was around Oxford Circus with a shaft in Cavendish Square and the famous ‘umbrella’ (which I remember.) Construction at King’s Cross was massive too, the front forecourt of the main line terminus was a total mess. My uncle, a LT signal engineer, told me ‘when you grow up all this work will be a new tube line across London.’ It was so exciting I could barely wait for the first bit to open and when it did in September 1968, during the third week of that month I remember going on my own via Moorgate and the Highbury branch, then the new Victoria Line to Walthamstow, back to Finsbury Park and Piccadilly Line return. I was in fact on the way to school and instead on the spur of the moment had chosen to ride the new tube! It too was my first unsupervised off-route foray on the tube system.
Dismantling the Oxford Circus ‘umbrella’
Oxford Circus southbound platform during construction – possibly 1965
Oxford Circus southbound platform. The same location 53 years later!
Coburg Street signalling centre on the first day of operation
The section from Walthamstow to Highbury was not the first to be completed by large. Many of its stations were still incomplete on the day of opening. The first stations to be truly completed was Oxford Circus in 1966 followed by Euston in 1967. Both these locations were the very first to have begun construction, with works at Oxford Circus commencing in August 1963. Its ironic these were completed so early, for the Victoria Line began between Walthamstow and Highbury with what were clearly a number of incomplete stations. Surely it would have been better to have got Seven Sisters to Warren Street working first? In the event it was the King’s Cross bit which was completed last due to the complexity of the area.
Victoria Line and the BT (aka P.O.) Tower – two great sixties buddies!
Anyhow this was an exciting time for London. It wasn’t just the Victoria Line. There was the Post Office Tower too. Two of London’s now major landmarks (remember the Victoria Line was too presented in the sixties as a new London landmark) were being built at roughly the same time, one soaring right up into the skies and the other snaking deep beneath the capital’s streets. Both structures almost positively lived off the vibes of each other. The tower was finished first of course, but then the Victoria Line proved its worth by bringing huge crowds to London’s new observation viewpoint. The Victoria Line pass almost beneath the base of the tower itself en route from Warren Street to Oxford Circus. Thus in the quite short corridor that was King’s Cross, Euston, Warren Street and Oxford Circus, it was all construction work. London was becoming newly reinvigorated, and the future was coming!
Northumberland Park depot under construction – as seen from one of the floodlight towers
The first trains to begin work properly on the new railway had to be taken to Northumberland park depot via British Railway tracks where there was a direct connection from the Lea Valley Line into the depot. This connection to the main line was afforded perhaps no more than a year or so at the most, but allowed LT battery locomotives and rolling stock, and track laying trains to reach the new tube line. Track laying naturally began from Northumberland Park depot and progressed down the line.
Track laying train in the tunnels – probably approaching Finsbury Park
Essentially the history of the building of the Victoria Line is so long and complex I wont delve into it apart from what I have already said. There have been a number of books covering the Victoria Line’s history but none so comprehensive therefore the tube line’s history is largely incomplete, and many elements of the story are missing. I do not intend to fill in the gaps completely but here forthwith is some research upon the few weeks before the line opened in September 1968, as so little has been written….
The Victoria Line’s woes late August 1968
Generally it is known there were quite a few setbacks including the loss of two tunnel digging machines due to their encountering unexpected gravel and water logged strata, the resulting sections then having to be dug by hand. There was a major fire in the new tunnels at Green Park.
As if things were not bad enough the problems the new tube line faced got worse. The opening on 1st September 1968 was very doubtful. Many stations were still incomplete, unfinished tiling, lights, ladders, planks, scaffolding, wheelbarrows, concrete mixers etc, and some of the stations had not even received their tile motifs!
In fact it was touch and go whether the line would even open at the time. There was a disastrous fire, so fierce it wrecked parts of the station at Tottenham Hale (LT suspected it was sabotage.) There was a major dispute and construction workers went on strike. But London Transport wanted to show it could honour the date. It very nearly did not happen because things continued to go wrong, even in the early hours of the opening day itself.
Working in the tunnels near Finsbury Park. Picture by courtesy of TfL
One of the major problems in August 1968 was a huge problem with damp between Seven Sisters and Walthamstow. Huge patches of damp sent the signals haywire. Obviously trains couldn’t run if the signalling was not reliable. Officials from the Ministry of Transport despaired and were on the verge of giving the Victoria Line a certificate of not being fit for public service. A major test of the trains running and the signals working had been conducted during the morning of 29th August 1968, yet the Government’s representatives were quite undecided whether to give it a certificate.
Ultimately it was decided to provisionally approved the line as fit for public service – subject to even more rigorous retesting. London Transport was given 36 hours to sort out the line’s problems. Of course if this further retesting hadn’t worked it would have failed. It was a case of ‘get it sorted by the end of Saturday night and we will reconsider whether full approval can be given.’
LT were clearly in a pickle, quite unsure what to do. Their brand new line didn’t seem as if it would open on time. In fact officials were saying if it came to the worst they’d try to open the Seven Sisters to Highbury section which wasn’t beset by these damp problems. It was clear no matter what sort of problems were thrown at the new tube line, management would try their damnedest to get it opened on the day they promised it would.
Alas LT didn’t explain where the damp was coming from. It was because the line passed through the Lee Valley for a good way hence the ground was more waterlogged and full of gravel than is usual. This section was one of those where the tunnel digging machines met disaster and the remaining sections along here had to be dug by hand. Instead of explaining this to the press, LT came up with the most amazing explanation for the line’s delays. Mr. Anthony Bull, vice-chairman of the LT Board, said at a press review: “This railway has just been built. It is cold and like a new house it is still damp.” LOL!
LT and its contractors ran around trying to get the line finished and staff were told to work overtime. In interviews with the newspapers LT asked that commuters have a full understanding of the circumstances and be aware that the stations would still not be complete if the new trains did indeed begin services on the 1st September.
Clearing up operations at the six stations would probably continue into next week, and the understanding of commuters was being sought while building equipment is being removed, a spokesman said. (Financial Times 31 August 1968)
Nevertheless it turned out to be an embarassment for LT officials who had to explain why the stations were in such a state…. and much of it was down to the London Transport Board’s vice-chairman, Mr Anthony Bull, to explain the problems away. Unfortunately he did not manage this too well.
This posh tile motif wasn’t the sight that greeted reporters at Tottenham Hale in August 1968!
When a train full of reporters stopped at Tottenham Hale by mistake, it is reported that Mr Anthony Bull got off the train, saw where he was and turned pale. “Tottenham Hale”, he said: “No. This can’t be right.” Rather than the reporters see a partially complete platform, Mr. Bull instead insisted no-one got off the train and it continued its journey. It was too late for many of the reporters had already observed that station’s quite incomplete state.
Contractors frenetically worked 24/7 to get the stations ready. Even so, more new problems arose – the automatic ticket barriers would not be ready at Seven Sisters. The state of affairs was indeed dire, as reported by the Guardian on 31 August 1968:
Highbury and Islington station was visibly behind schedule…. Walthamstow was worse – and the ticket hall of Seven Sisters looked like a battlefield. There, feverish electricians laid wiring on a semi tiled floor, public telephone innards were exposed, and the ticket office was still a shell.
Blackhorse Road was a state. Didnt even have any black horse tile motifs installed!
Seven Sisters only had one escalator operational on the line’s day of opening. Passengers arriving had to use the centre fixed staircase. Even passengers descending had to be careful not to trip over contractors stuff as they alighted the bottom of the escalator! There was barely any space on the landing lobby for passengers to walk through!
Above & below: Chaos at Seven Sisters on the line’s opening day. Contractors, ladders, electrical equipment, and only one escalator working!
Oil drums and planking at Seven Sisters…
Seven Sisters northbound platform had planks, oil drums, and scaffolding stacked along its walls the first few days the line was in service with no one seemingly doing any work. They were probably all elsewhere sorting out other issues! At Finsbury Park men were still working on the platforms, on one CCTV a man is clearly visible at his workbench.
Passengers on the platform at Finsbury Park – and also a worker with his workbench!
Despite all the cost cutting measures, including making the stations smaller, the new tube line was nowhere near finished. The stations’ decor became the latest victim of the press and reviewers. The new tube line was slated for having a dull and uninspiring look. The vast expanses of grey tiling throughout the stations were without a doubt those intended for bathrooms, no doubt a huge cost saving!
Arguably one of the best bits of the Victoria Line in terms of art! The famous tile motifs
This state of affairs, both of incomplete stations and dreadful station decor continued up to and beyond the official opening on 7th March 1969. Criticism continued to be levelled at the line’s incomplete stations including yet more ticket machines not even working. One reporter wrote at length upon the decor of the new tube line:
“There are a few austere decorated tiles on the platforms with punning symbols – the warren for Warren Street, the bushes for Green Park, the Queen’s head for Victoria. But the assumption is made that most of the decoration can be left to the advertisers, the old ‘poor man’s art gallery’: all the advertisements have been jazzed up, lit from behind, to make them look even more precious. Yet even the most passionate devotee of brassiere advertisements, even the most obsessive voyeur of girls undressing, pursuing, reclining, embracing or brandishing guns, must admit to a certain monotony in Underground art-forms.”
Our reporter continued:
“Is it really necessary that the Underground, in which working Londoners spend an hour of their lives every day, should be regarded as a descent into some kind of hell?… Surely the Victoria Line needs something more than automatic tickets and coloured tiles if it is really to be (as its advertisements proclaim) ‘London’s Pride.’ “ (The Observer 9th March 1969)
Despite this brief jump forward in time to March 1969, we need go go back to September 1968! As the new line was about to open there was just no end to the problems it faced.
Indeed things looked as if they were going to get worse. Were the Gods trying to throw everything they could at the new tube line to stop it even opening? Well it looks like it! Walthamstow Hoe Street station was nearly engulfed by a major fire which broke out in an adjacent timber works on Selborne Road during the night of 31st August. The fire brigade spent hours trying to prevent the flames spreading to the station – because that would have prevented the new tube line from opening. Fortunately the firemen saved the day. The Goverment’s inspectors gave the line its clean bill of health and without further ado the very first Victoria Line train left on time at 07.32am on 1st September 1968 for the short journey to Highbury and Islington.
From the day of opening Walthamstow Hoe Street became known as Walthamstow Central – and London’s Pride had finally arrived on the capital’s scene!
The Victoria Line – London’s Pride. 1968/69 logo and motto used for publicity