An iconic Bo-Bo electric locomotive obtained in 1924 © RP Hendry

Men Of Vision

30th April 2010

Jill Glenn meets Clive Foxell, author of a new book about the Metropolitan Line: London’s first underground railway.

Like most small boys in the 1930s, Clive Foxell was mesmerised by trains. They were “big, powerful things”, he stresses, and his childhood was spent on and around them… taking the Met Line out to Chorleywood Common to watch the engines steaming by, and keeping an eye on the ‘Joint’ (as the line was once known) as he cycled to school. A stint as a casual cleaner in Neasden Locomotive Sheds, working alongside Italian Prisoners of War, disabused him of a boyhood notion of becoming an engine driver. Instead, as the war came to an end, he joined GEC Research at Wembley as an apprentice, progressing, via a degree taken at night school, to a career in the lab. It was the age of the transistor – “the dotcom of its day” – and Clive, now part of the scientific staff, was fascinated by the process and the possibilities. Eventually he became Managing Director of GEC Semiconductors; then Deputy Director of Research at the Post Office; then, finally, Managing Director of BT.

Always, though, he thought of himself as an engineer and physicist. He kept up his interest in, and understanding of, the science involved – “I had to know whether it was worth spending millions…” he explains – and when he retired he became Vice-President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and President of the Institute of Physics. He was involved in the Science and Engineering Council, still sits on government bodies, and does what he describes, vaguely, as “Parliamentary stuff.”

And every working day since 1956 he has travelled up to London on the Met Line from Chesham. Along with his prodigious knowledge of the history, the amount of Met miles he’s clocked up would have entitled him to write on the subject. Since 1996 he’s become an acknowledged expert, publishing something every couple of years or so.

I was, to be perfectly honest, daunted at the thought of meeting Clive Foxell to discuss his latest book, The Metropolitan Line: London’s First Underground Railway. I am neither scientist nor engineer, and I was highly alarmed at the possibility of being a] out-of-my-depth and b] bored.

I was, as it happens, neither. My fear that this might turn out to be a dull list of gauges and engine sizes and changes of livery proved unfounded. Acronyms are abundant, but so long as you can distinguish your GCR from your GWR, your LNER from your MS&LR, you’re in business.

Clive is excellent company and a superb raconteur, with a fund of anecdotes about the vagaries of railway history, and firm opinions on its future. He’s every inch the retired executive, with a bow tie and a pen in his shirt pocket… but he has a twinkle in his eye and a sweet smile. His health has troubled him over the past twelve months or so, but enforced leisure has afforded him the time for writing and research.

He brings the Met – and the men who built it up – vividly to life. Before I met Clive, I’d planned to call this feature Steaming Home, in honour of those great locomotives of the early days… but after our fascinating conversation, Men Of Vision seemed so much more appropriate. The history of the Metropolitan Line is, after all, the story of a handful of visionaries, men who revolutionised how people lived as well as how they travelled.

First there was Charles Pearson, Solicitor to the City, whose goal was to improve the lot of London workers plagued by appalling congestion. You think it’s bad today? Imagine it in the 1850s: horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses, with around 300,000 horses stabled in the capital; some 2.5 million cattle, sheep, pigs and ducks being driven through the streets to the abattoirs and markets each year; an estimated 25,000 tons of the consequent manure to be removed every month.

Pearson’s proposal to run a railway underground from Paddington to Faringdon was considered madness by some, but, eventually, he and his supporters were able to overcome the financial and practical obstacles. This first section, just over three miles long, opened on 10 January 1863. In its first twelve months it carried 9.5 million passengers, and made a profit of £101,000.

The Met rapidly extended in all directions during the 1860s; by 1870 passenger numbers had quadrupled. The London Underground had arrived in a big way.

By 1872 the next of our men of vision was heading up the company. Sir Edward Watkin was a Manchester man, who had discovered in the railways a career that would obsess him. He was chair of around 20 railway companies, both in England and overseas, and he had huge plans: a line that would connect Manchester to Paris, via a Channel Tunnel. The Met was a crucial link. Bit by bit the line was extended north to Harrow, to Rickmansworth, to Chesham; the plan was to take it over to Tring to access the north, but that failed, and it snaked its way out to Quainton Road, near Wendover.

The Channel Tunnel was halted by a fearful government; Watkin became ill, and his empire began to crumble. In-fighting between the managers of two of his lines led first to a disastrous derailment at Aylesbury in 1904, then to the forming of a new company (the ‘Joint’), and thus to the leadership of Robert Selbie, who was to become the orchestrator of ‘Metroland’. It was an inspired piece of thinking: he had a railway that ran through some surprisingly underpopulated territory; he needed passengers; his passengers needed somewhere to live and a reason to travel…

It was a highly profitable enterprise, which went hand-in-hand with the simultaneous development of rolling stock and the beefing up of the whole travel experience. “The Met,” explains Clive, “was almost mainline.” Everything that a mainline railway had, the Met had too, including Pullman cars for serious travel comfort.

In 1932 Selbie’s sudden death (in St Paul’s Cathedral, as his son was being confirmed) left the Met “rudderless”. By 1933 it had been consumed by the newly established London Passenger Transport Board, under Chief Executive Frank Pick.
It was Pick who really understood the importance of coherent image, of branding, of manipulating the passenger experience. (I’m resisting the temptation to indulge in cheap jokes about the current state of the London Transport passenger experience, here…). Pick’s tenancy at the top was short – by 1939 he had moved on to work for the Ministry of Information; by 1941 he was dead – but it was he who integrated the Met into the rest of London Transport, and made it ready for post-war developments.

Four main ‘men of vision’ then. I’d add Clive Foxell himself to the list, too, though for having the wit to appreciate that the tale of the Metropolitan Line is also a social history of the last 150 years, and for writing it so that it appeals to the widest possible audience. It’s a great story.

Clive Foxell will be launching The Metropolitan Line, and signing copies, at Chorleywood Bookshop (4 New Parade), on Thursday 6 May, between 6 and 7pm. Refreshments provided. All welcome. Call 01923 283566 or see www.chorleywoodbookshop.co.uk for details.

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