Sheffield’s Sir John Fowler revolutionised travel

Sheffield Engineer: Sir John Fowler.
Sheffield Engineer: Sir John Fowler.
Have your say

SIR John Fowler is the Sheffield man who revolutionised how we travel, writes Colin Drury.

IT was arguably the most ambitious transport project ever undertaken.

Going underground:A lithograph of a Metropolitan Railway train in the tunnel near Paddington, 1863.

Going underground:A lithograph of a Metropolitan Railway train in the tunnel near Paddington, 1863.

Exactly 150 years ago this coming Wednesday the world’s first underground passenger train made its maiden journey beneath the streets of London.

It was a short route - covering just 3.8 miles between Paddington and Farringdon - but it was one which would ultimately revolutionise urban travel around the world.

For that first experimental, steam-powered line was not only the beginning of the London Underground, it was also the inspiration behind dozens of tube systems in major cities everywhere from New York to Tokyo.

And behind it all - the chief engineer on what was called the Metropolitan Railway Line - was a young man from Wadsley.

“When you look at the history of London Underground there are so many huge figures who have helped to create the network,” says Tim Shields, curator with London Transport Museum, which will run a Victorian steam locomotive along the current Metropolitan Line to mark the anniversary. “But Sir John Fowler is a giant even among them. As the engineer on the original line, his contribution cannot be overstated.”

That Sir John achieved greatness there can be little doubt.

His other major engineering projects included Liverpool Central Station, the Great Northern Railway and the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland. Aged only 28, he was also a key figure in constructing Sheffield Victoria Station and the Wicker Arches, and in later life helped build railways across Australia, Africa and India.

But it was perhaps the underground train which most made his biggest mark on the world.

Its instant success saw it carry some 30,000 passengers on its very first day; while The Times newspaper, which had dismissed the scheme as an “insult to common sense” before it opened, later admitted it was an engineering feat “without equal”.

Indeed, it so impressed one railway company, Fowler was asked to build a railway tunnel beneath the English Channel. It was one of the few such jobs he turned down after concluding it would be possible but “only in the course of 50 or 100 years”.

Such a grand global reputation was some way from his relatively humble beginnings, of course.

He was born on July 17 1817 at his family home, Wadsley Hall. His father, also John, was a land surveyor who had married his mother, Elizabeth nee Swann of Dykes Hall, on Christmas Eve. His paternal grandfather had previously raised the Fowler family in Wincobank.

The future Sir John Fowler was sent to Whitley Hall, a private school near Ecclesfield, at nine. And, while he instantly showed an aptitude for science, he would recall the place for a rather different reason - namely, for getting into a fight after an older pupil teased him.

“The elder boy had two front teeth knocked out,” wrote Sir John later.

At 17, he was apprenticed to work with John Towlerton Leather, engineer of The Sheffield Waterworks Company, and worked on the Rivelin and Crookes reservoirs.

From 1837 he worked for John Urpeth Rastrick on railway projects including the London and Brighton Railway, before establishing his own consultancy in London in 1844, aged just 26. It was in this capacity he became chief engineer on the revolutionary Metropolitan Railway Line project.

“London’s transport system by the 1850s was unfit for purpose,” says Tim. “All its railway terminals were on the edges of town and there was no way of connecting them either with each other or with the centre.

“A Royal Charter had established central London was a no go area for railways because it was such a built up area so it had become an issue.”

The solution, as advocated by the solicitor Sir Charles Pearson with support from Sir John, was ‘trains in the drains’ - steam locomotives running under the streets of the city.

“As proposals go, it was pushing the technology of the day to its absolute limits,” says Tim. “Plenty of people didn’t believe it could be done but the Metropolitan Railway company and Sir John were absolutely confident of the engineering principles needed and their own ability.”

Parliament approved the proposals in 1853 but, with the country still embroiled in the Crimean War, it was March 1860 before the £1 million needed for the project was raised and work started.

“Quite clearly, the construction itself was hard,” says Tim. “Fowler favoured the cut and cover system to dig the tunnels.

“That meant digging a deep trench where the railway line would be and then covering it up. It was seen to be the least disruptive method but it still meant thousands of people losing their homes.

“The Fleet River also had to be re-routed, and the work was dangerous. But through sheer determination and ingenuity it was done.”

Trial runs on the line were carried out in November 1861 while construction work was still being done, before the official opening on January 9 1863.

The Prime Minister Lord Palmerston turned down the chance to ride the maiden journey, noting he was 80-years-old and would like to spend as much time above ground while he could.

But it was an instant hit with others. Some 11.8 million passengers travelled on the line in its first year. Within months, extensions were already being planned. By 1884, the Metropolitan Railway Line had been extended to form the Circle Line, with several routes going to London’s suburbs.

Perhaps most impressively, the tunnels designed and engineered by Sir John are still used today.

“The brick work and iron girders are the very same,” notes Tim.

Yet, if that was a job well done, for Sir John there would be more.

His work would take him around the globe overseeing major national railway projects. Perhaps more impressively, he would also design and build the Forth Railway Bridge, and be made a baronet the year it opened in 1890.

When he passed away aged 81 in Bournemouth in 1898, his legacy was assured.

Summing up his life, his biographer, Thomas MacKay, noted: “His work has been revolutionary in its consequences.”

Such men, added MacKay, had ensured “the England through which Fowler travelled to London in the year 1838 is not the England which he left behind.”

A restored Victorian locomtove, including a Craven Bros carriage, will retrace the journey of the original underground train journey four times on January 13. See

* SIR John Fowler is not Sheffield’s only link to the early London Underground.

Many of the system’s earliest carriages were built by Craven Brothers, a railway wagon works of Staniforth Road, Darnall.

And one of those carriages - first used in 1892 - has been fully restored for the anniversary steam train journey being made on the Metropolitan Line on January 13.

The old vehicle will ferry dignitaries during the day’s celebrations marking the 150th birthday of the first ever underground passenger train journey.

And Tim Shields, curator at London Transport Museum, is hoping to hear from anyone with information about Craven’s carriages from the 19th century.

“We’re still trying to piece together exactly how the coach would have looked,” he says. “We’d love to hear from anyone who could help us out.”

He’s on