It is easy to overlook that fact that by 1933, when the first edition of Harry Beck’s famous diagram was presented to the public, Beck was able to draw on a full sixty years of earlier attempts to map London’s Underground. A key component in the success of Beck’s design was colour.
The individual line colours of London’s Underground have been far more stable than those of most metro or subway systems around the world, and I suspect there would be a public outcry if anyone suggested a change. We have Bakerloo Line brown, Northern Line black, the light blue of the Victoria Line contrasting with the Piccadilly Line’s deep blue, the silver of the Jubilee Line and the green and yellow of the District and Circle, all bisected by the pillar box red of the Central Line and the vivid pink of the Hammersmith and City. So whose bright idea was it? One might assume that the initiative came from the forerunners of London Transport, but actually (just like the name of the Bakerloo Line) the idea seems to have come from a London newspaper, the Evening News, in 1907.
Distinctive line colours enable passengers to negotiate the network, and not just on the map: they also appear at platform level, and in the fixtures and fittings inside carriages. There are examples of black and white tube maps, employing a complicated array of dots, dashes and cross hatching to differentiate between lines, but a splash of colour makes all the difference. What’s more, the idea of colour coding railway maps was nothing new. For example, John Airey was preparing coloured maps for the Railway Clearing House from 1867, soon after the first underground line opened in London.
Airey’s maps were coloured by hand (it would be another decade or so before colour-printed maps became commercially viable on a significant scale) but there was another reason why the earliest underground maps were resolutely monochrome, or at best triumphs of two or three colour printing. The whole point of today’s Underground map, with its colour coded lines, of equal thickness, is that it makes it easier to treat the network as a single entity, changing trains where necessary. The earliest London Underground companies were independent of one another. They had little interest in drumming up passenger traffic for their rivals. Perhaps that’s why the impetus for change came from an outside source, with no vested interests.
How can we be so sure the Evening News got there first? First, we need to establish the date of the earliest issue of the Evening News London Tube Map, and the sure fire way of doing that is through internal evidence, looking at how far the network had developed at the time the map was printed.
The first edition was published with red card covers, rather than buff ones, and with the title printed in blue rather than black in the top margin. The Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (CCE&HR), otherwise known as the Hampstead Tube, had opened in June 1907; the extension to Strand station, opened in November 1907, is shown as under construction. Likewise, Edgware Road is open (so the map postdates June 1907) but the extension to Paddington is also under construction. The map was current in Summer and Autumn 1907.
The Underground Electric Railways Company of London Ltd (UERL) was established in 1902 as an umbrella company for four lines, and from about 1907 the UERL began to promote its own programme of joint branding, booking and coordination of fares across the whole network. A vital component of that involved the maps which, by now, could be distributed free to the public. However, the earliest UERL maps were printed in two colours or in monochrome, simply distinguishing between the UERL lines and those of its rivals. The third and final UERL issue of 1907, printed by Johnson Riddle & Co, shows Strand Station as open while the Paddington extension is still under construction, indicating that it appeared at the very end of 1907, after the Evening News map was already in circulation.
The green border would become a distinctive feature of Edwardian UERL maps, but the Underground Group lines are represented in bold; colour coding on official maps was not introduced until the following year, 1908, when Waterlow and Sons also produced a striking postcard, with colour coded lines reversed from a black background.
Not everyone got the message even then. The Central London Railway (CLR, the future Central Line, then an independent company) had been among the first to give maps away, in 1902. The CLR is shown in red, superimposed on a conventional street plan; all other lines are thin ribbons of black, barely legible.
By 1911 the CLR had introduced elements from the latest UERL maps including a simplified surface topography and colour coded lines. However, they missed the point about making the map passenger friendly, for anyone changing trains. The CLR is three times the width of its neighbours, and all other lines are purely incidental.