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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

18 Amazing Facts for the London Tube's 150th Birthday

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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

I spend probably 40 minutes a day crammed cheek to sweaty jowl with other London commuters, some of them drunks, farters, and shovers, in a swiftly moving cylinder hundreds of feet underground. It’s usually hot, and despite the fact that we are Tetrised in there, all of us are trying desperately to pretend that we are completely alone.

And rarely do I give thanks for the experience.

But last week, I did, because it marked the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, that efficient marvel of public transport. On January 9, 1863, the world’s first-ever underground railway train, steam-operated, pulled out of Paddington Station, and rumbled 3.5 miles down the tubular tunnel to Farringdon Station. The line, which was financed by Metropolitan Railway, was an instant success: More than 40,000 people queued up for the novelty of riding a train underground. Within six months, 26,000 people were riding the train each day. The private company had been formed in 1854 with the express purpose of linking the main railway stations of Paddington, Euston, and King’s Cross; the man behind the idea and who pushed approval for it through Parliament, reformer Charles Pearson, sadly died one year before it was completed.

Six years later, the East London Railway, another private company, ran its steam-operated trains under the Thames, through a tunnel that took nearly 20 years to complete and was the first ever tunnel to run under a navigable river, between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Other lines, each operated by a separate private company, began popping up, sometimes overlapping, sometimes linking with one another; this organic growth is the reason why some stations are only blocks apart, yet can take 45 minutes to move between via train.

By 1884, there were more than 800 trains in operation in what was called the Inner Circle, a circular line that enclosed central London and that is now just the Circle Line. And now, with more than five times that number of trains operating and millions of people safely and swiftly reaching their destinations every day, the London Underground is truly a modern miracle of efficient transport.

The Figures

1. The entire London Underground network is 249 miles long, employing 4134 trains and linking 270 stations. Only around 45 percent of those miles are underground.

2. Each Tube train travels an average of 114,500 miles a year, or 4.6 times around the world. The longest distance between stations is the 6.3 kilometers (3.9 miles) between Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer, out in Zone 8 on the Metropolitan Line. The shortest distance is the 300 meters (.19 miles) between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Picadilly Line—and since Covent Garden is usually mobbed, you’re better off getting out at Leicester Square and walking.

3. Each year, 1,107,000,000 journeys are made on the London Underground or, according to TimeOut, about 135 trips for every man, woman and child in London. The busiest station in the network is Waterloo, which sees some 82 million passengers a year, with some 57,000 traveling through during the three-hour morning peak each day; the least used is Roding Valley, which is somewhere out in Zone 4 on the Central Line and is probably a lovely place to visit.

4. The average Londoner spends 11.5 days each year on the Underground, 5.2 of those days in the Underground’s underground tunnels. What’s unknown is how many hours of those days are spent stopped underground, waiting for a signal failure to be resolved, another train to move along, or for whatever bit of rubbish that has been thrown on the tracks at the station ahead of you to be cleared.

5. The fastest line is the Metropolitan, which can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, but the average speed of a London Underground train is only around 20.5 miles per hour.

6. The deepest Underground station is Hampstead, on the Northern Line, which is nearly 60 meters (192 feet) below street level. There’s an elevator, of course, but also an emergency spiral stair of more than 320 steps. In a fit of exercise mania, I tried it. It was dizzying.

7. The longest escalator at any Underground station is the 60-meter (197 foot) moving stair at Angel, in Islington, on the Northern line. I once tripped going up this engineering wonder and barked my shins something fierce.

8. The chances of being involved in a fatal accident on the Tube are 1 in 300 million, according to The Guardian. Excluding terrorist attacks, such as the horrifying 7/7 bombings in 2005, and natural deaths, only 265 people have died on the Tube in the last 10 years. That statistic, however, is difficult to reconcile with The Independent’s claim that around 50 people each year commit suicide on the Underground, and the Transport for London figures released in 2011, showing that 80 people threw themselves in front of trains in 2010, a 74 percent increase since 2000.

The Facts (just a few)

1. The Underground’s first real escalator was built in 1911 at Earl’s Court, but four years before that, a spiral escalator was installed at Holloway Road Station. It didn’t last very long—in fact, it only lasted a day of testing and never actually saw public use. Its remains are held at the London Transport Museum’s Depot, which is only open to the public twice a year. And if you ever get a chance to go, don’t hesitate.

2. Most amusing station names: Barking, West Ham, East Ham, and, of course, Cockfosters.

3. An estimated 500,000 mice live in the tunnels, but they’re not the only pests—the mosquitoes that live in the Tube are of a different and somewhat more vicious species than their aboveground cousins. Called Culex pipiens molestus, they’re supposedly known for their voracious appetites (full disclosure: as far as I know, I have never been bitten by a mosquito on the Underground).

4. The London Underground is also supposedly home to a group of subterranean Londoners, who, just like the Mole People of New York’s Subway, took to the tunnels and mutated. The Tube is also reportedly home to a host of ghostly apparitions, including the Faceless Woman of Beacontree Station, the Toothy Man of Channelsea Depot, and the Screaming Spectre of Farringdon Station.

5. Among the strangest things left on the Underground and collected by the Lost Property Office: A jar of bull semen; outboard motor; three dead bats in a container; a vasectomy kit; a harpoon gun, which may have gone with the 14-foot long boat; a stuffed eagle; breast implants; false teeth and a surprising number of prosthetic limbs; a four-foot tall Mickey Mouse; six full-sized mannequins; and an urn containing a dead man’s ashes, which was reunited with his brother five years after it was lost.

6. Another thing lost on the Underground—daytime television’s dignity, with the birth of trash talk-show host Jerry Springer! The indomitable Springer was born at Highgate Station on the Northern Line on February 13, 1944, when his mother sought shelter during a Luftwaffe raid.

7. And speaking of air raids: At the start of the London Blitz, Germany’s nightly bombing raids on the British capital in September 1939, the government banned people from using the Tube stations as air raid shelters, claiming that the stations should be reserved only for transport. People got around the ban by simply buying a ticket and refusing to the leave the platform. A month later, the government realized that the ban was unenforceable at best and cruel at worst, and gave the go-ahead for stations to be used as shelters. By the end of the war, sheltering in the Underground had became so regular that a ticketing scheme was introduced to keep people from panicking at the queues, and more than 22,000 bunk beds were installed in stations across the system to provide places for them to sleep. But the shelters weren’t failsafe: Between September 1940 and May 1941, 198 people were killed in direct hits to Tube stations; one of the worst was when Bank Station, the only station to be fully underground, was hit, resulting in the deaths of 56 people on January 13, 1941.

8. In 1969, Queen Elizabeth II commemorated the opening of the Victoria Line by driving one of the new trains from Green Park to Oxford Circus. It was her second ride ever on a London Underground train, the first being when she was 13 and accompanied by her sister and governess. Presumably her stint as Tube driver was without incident as eight years later, the Queen was again allowed in the cab of a Picadilly Line train when she presided over the opening of the line’s extension.

9. There is a shocking number of disused ghost stations scattered across the lines, which are sometimes used for TV and movie sets. And, because they can, some intrepid souls like to sneak down into them to have a look around and take creepy pictures. That’s not exactly legal or safe, but in 2011, The London Transport Museum, in conjunction with the Underground, took some 2500 lucky people on tours of the abandoned Aldwych Station on the Strand.

10. The London Underground’s iconic map, which bears no relationship to actual topographical or geographical features, was designed in 1931 by HC Beck. Beck, an engineering draughtsman who worked in London Underground’s signals office, was supposedly inspired by electronic circuit boards, and saw ways of tidying up the lines. But the department rejected the initial proposal, claiming it was too radical, and Beck was paid a paltry £10.50 for his work. Two years and some modifications later, however, the Underground adopted the map and has used it ever since.

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History
10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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