Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fairly low-key opening of the Victoria line, and this is its 20 year journey from idea to finished railway.

The opening was muted as it was only one small section that was to open initially, running just between Walthamstow Central and Highbury & Islington, with the rest of the line to open in phases over the next couple of years.

The beginnings

The Victoria line was planned and built in a surprisingly short time frame of just 20 years, with its initial proposal being made by a Working Party set up by the British Transport Commission in 1948.

Although approved by Parliament in 1955, nothing was done, and in 1959 another report was commissioned to try and push the matter forward before the Parliamentary approval expired in 1961.

The impetus was changes in how people commuted to work, with fewer living in the centre and moving out to the suburbs. By 1959, the number of passengers arriving at Victoria mainline railway station in the morning peak was double what it had been a mere 20 years earlier, and there was no way of easily continuing the journey northwards.

The proposed line would link up with all the other London Underground lines along its route, reliving congestion in the West End and easing travel between Victoria and Euston stations.

The report also highlighted that four of the stations, Oxford Circus, Euston, Finsbury Park and Walthamstow Wood Street (later cancelled), would have cross-platform interchanges with the other lines, avoiding long tunnels and stairs common at other stations.

It was estimated that 85 million people would use the new line every year — today it carries over 200 million passengers.

The experimental tunnels

While the government was delaying the approval, London Transport got on with testing a new construction method they hoped would reduce costs.

In 1961, a mile of double-tunnels were dug out between Finsbury Park and Netherton Road in Tottenham, setting what was thought to be a new world record for tunnelling speed. The breakthrough was the use of the newly invented Kinnear Moodie “drum digger” which is the precursor to the modern tunnel boring machines.

The experimental tunnels were used for the finished railway, and the shaft down to the tunnels is still in use today, providing ventilation.

Approved at last

Finally, in August 1962 the new railway, costed at £56 million was approved, and given the formal name of the Victoria line. That £56 million was for a loan from the government, and London Transport would eventually have to pay an additional £9 million in interest on top back to the government.

The line was to run from Walthamstow (Hoe Street) to Victoria. It had been planned to run from the mainline railway just a bit further along at Walthamstow Wood Street, but cost cutting saw that extra stop removed.

Walthamstow (Hoe Street) was later renamed as Walthamstow Central.

The new line was expected to open six years later, a deadline it was to just about achieve.

The naming

The railway had a number of names and suggested names before it became the Victoria line.

In the 1948 report, the line was simply known as “Route C”, out of several route options.

It was nearly called the Walvic line (Walthamstow–Victoria) or the Viking line (Victoria–King’s Cross).

The decision to name it after Victoria mainline station eventually came from the General Manager, Southern Region, British Railways, David McKenna.

Construction Starts

Construction started just a few weeks after approval was given by the government.

London Transport was promising some new fangled thing called CCTV, and draught less ventilation in the stations, and special fins would line the tunnels to reduce the noise of the trains.

They also promised automatic train control, with machines “interpreting a timetable of punched paper rolls”, so it wasn’t quite the age of the computer for the London Underground.

The line was approved to run from Walthamstow to Victoria. There was also a proposal for a later extension from Victoria to Fulham Broadway station on the District line, but that was dropped in favour of an extension to Brixton.

Sorry Fulham.

The tunnels being dug, it was time to order the trains, and a £2.25 million order for 224 carriages (30 trains) was place in March 1964 with Birmingham’s Metro-Cammel. That was to sustain enough work for 350 staff at the train manufacturer for the next two years.

Tunnels were being dug by machines for the trains, and more manually, for the stations and access services.

Deaths were narrowly averted when part of the tunnel collapsed at Green Park in August 1964 causing the hurried evacuation of seven men where were working on the exposed surface of the clay. Fortunately no one was hurt, although Green Park itself was partially sealed off in case it collapsed into the tunnels below.

A delay was nearly caused by another near-miss when in May 1965, a fire took hold in the tunnels near Green Park, causing the evacuation of 70 men working in the tunnels.

It turned out that timbers had caught fire when they were placed near to an oxy-acetylene cutting torch.

More delays occurred when two of the tunnel boring machines were “lost”, when they hit unexpected patches of sandy soil where clay had been expected and the sand had flowed into the tunnels and engulfed the machines.

Half way there

Half way through the construction, in August 1965, London Transport was able to confirm that just over half of the 25 miles of new tunnels had been dug, and work was underway of the 12 stations. However, they were behind schedule, and the line was now not expected to be fully ready until 1969.

A shortage of labour was blamed for the delays, as generous wages of £50 per week were still felt too low for the work.

Despite the delays, plans to expand the Victoria line to Brixton were approved the following month, at an additional cost of £15 million. The Brixton extension was chosen over a possible link to Fulham thanks to the plans at the time to build a motorway through South London — and the Victoria line would have linked up with car parks to be built in Brixton.

By 1968, the first of the new trains from Birmingham were arriving in London, for testing on the Central line between Woodford and Hainault

The test train was driven by Jimmy Greaves, and if that name sounds familiar to some, he was the father of the footballer, of the same name. I am sure the choice of Mr Greaves to test the trains was entirely technical and not at all motivated by the publicity opportunity.

The drivers weren’t to do too badly out of the new idea of having one-man operation of the trains, earning £22 per week, which was £3 more than drivers of older trains that still needed guards.

The stations

A lot of rebuilding works were needed at the interchange stations, but the most dramatic was at Oxford Circus.

An enlarged ticket hall was needed, but the only place it could go was right underneath the road, so a huge “umbrella” was constructed over the road for the cars and buses to use, while the ground underneath was dug out by hand.

A new shaft was dug down to the Victoria tunnels from Cavendish Square behind John Lewis so that the deep level platforms could be dug out as the new ticket hall was also built.

If you’ve ever suspected there’s an odd smell in the the corridor that links the old and new ticket halls, well it runs through the middle of the old ticket hall’s public toilets that were sacrificed to the new railway.

The new ticket hall opened on the 29th September 1968, even though the Victoria Line itself didn’t call there until the following March.

Oxford Circus was however never supposed to be an interchange for the Victoria Line. What was known as “Route 8” in the 1946 London Railway Committee Report preferred Bond Street, but this was later changed to Oxford Circus because it was felt that more passengers could be encouraged to use it outside the rush-hour peaks.

Elsewhere, all of the Victoria line stations were originally tiled in blue/grey. Each station was then decorated with tiled motifs in seating recesses to help identify the station.

Fire and damp threaten the launch

Finally though, they were ready to open one stretch of the line, until the very night before it was to open, dampness was causing problems with the new signalling system between Highbury and Walthamstow leading to urgent checks overnight.

While engineers were testing signalling deep underground, a fire started in stacks of timber next to Walthamstow station. A 3-year old Alsatian guard-dog, called Rusty, barked a warning and that alerted the security guard to call the fire brigade who dealt with it before it reached the tube station.

The risk of fire was already known though, as Tottenham Hale station had been damaged earlier in the year.

Because of the risk of delays, the opening of the Victoria line at 6:30am on 1st September 1968 was a very low-key affair.

Despite that, some 500 train geeks were up early to catch the first train, and the 28-year old Dr Hugh Pincott was the first to buy a ticket for the new line, snapping up 6 tickets for souvenirs at 1s 9d each. He evidently spotted a quick opportunity for profit though, as the man behind him in the queue offered 2s 3d to buy the very first ticket, so Mr M Tyzack ended up the proud owner of ticket number 0000.

By the end of the first day, some 20,000 people had tried out the new railway line.

Today, the Victoria line carries over 200 million passengers per year.

If you enjoyed this, there’s a 40-minute documentary about the construction of the Victoria line here, and if 40 minutes isn’t enough, how about the 1 hour 40 minute documentary here.


The Victoria Line, Report by the London Travel Committee, 1959

Innovation and the Rise of the Tunnelling Industry

Underground Railway Construction, London Transport 1968

What’s Under Oxford Circus, Kinnear Moodie

Coventry Evening TelegraphMonday 28 August 1961

Daily MirrorTuesday 21 August 1962

Coventry Evening TelegraphTuesday 21 August 1962

Birmingham Daily PostWednesday 11 March 1964

Birmingham Daily PostTuesday 18 August 1964

Coventry Evening TelegraphThursday 06 May 1965

Birmingham Daily PostTuesday 08 November 1966

Daily MirrorFriday 16 August 1968

Daily MirrorSaturday 31 August 1968

Daily MirrorMonday 02 September 1968

Coventry Evening TelegraphThursday 05 September 1968


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  1. Richard Fitch says:

    This interesting article brought back memories of working on the line. I was employed by Otis Elevator Co and helped to install the escalators at Euston and Warren Street stations .A fairly hard job as the escalators were built from scratch on site .My first job each morning was to scare off the large rats which got into the site hut every night ,happy days!

  2. Melvyn says:

    The cross platform interchange between lines like Bakerloo Line and Victoria Line at Oxford Circus are one of the best features of this line. It’s a pity that escalators were not installed linking northbound/ southbound platforms and of course cost cuts put paid to thoughts of step free access something that is still be delivered but at a vastly greater cost !

    Lord Adonis recently thought that one of the biggest failures of Crossrail was how it hasn’t been built with similar cross platform interchange. Imagine had Crossrail tunnels been either side of the Central Line then cross platform interchange between Central Line and Crossrail could have been provided at Liverpool Street, TCR and Bond Street and maybe even with Bakerloo Line at Paddington. These stations would have gained wider platforms and shared escalators and lifts but instead passengers are consigned to long walks!

  3. Andrew Gwilt says:

    The Victoria Line could of carried on if the extension did still happen when the Victoria Line was born and opened in 1948.

    The extension of the Victoria Line that could of be planned was to extend it from Walthamstow Central to Woodford which would of terminated at Woodford with a interchange onto the Central Line.

    And to extend it from Brixton to Peckham or Dulwich. Plus new stations being added on the extended Victoria Line.

    But at least the Victoria Line as it is. Is still the best and most used tube line that it still provides interchanges to other tube lines and National Rail aswell cutting underneath Central London.

  4. Geoffrey says:

    With other members of The Railway Club (Founded 1899 – worlds oldest enthusiasts club)I walked from Euston to Warren street through the new tunnels with rails in place but before any trains had run. Also later on similarly from Stockwell to Brixton.

  5. Steve says:

    I was on the first Victoria Line train from Walthamstow. My dad drove me there for 6.30am (I think). There were only about 20 of us waiting for the station to open and then rushing down to the platform. I was one of the lucky few to have a few minutes in the cab. Great memories.

  6. Tony Hardy says:

    This article brings back memories of working on the Victoria Line designing the heating and ventilating systems at four stations and tunnel ventilation fans at various sites.

    The main item talks about the original tunnels between Finsbury Park and Netherton Road and this was where draft tests were carried out to test the “efficiency” of the smooth tunnels.

    Further comments were made about Oxford Circus station and this was one of “my” stations and it was interesting in many ways. After the umbrella was constructed all the services that were under the ground were moved into a deep tunnel with branches to the West South and East.

    All the heating and ventilation equipment was housed in the old lift shaft with concrete ducts running under the new station floor and down below the new escalators.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories. Each time I come back to London I like to go to Oxford Circus Station and bring back memories.

  7. Ken says:

    It is a shame the Victoria never reached South Woodford or Woodford via Wood Street as a result of cost cutting.

  8. Sinkle says:

    Ian do you know – or could you find out about the Cavendish Square access tunnel? The circular underground carpark in the square would have been constructed once they’d finished. But what happened to the tunnel(s) connecting the two? What are they used for now? BTW there was a picture and a reference to this in a 2018 Daily Mail article. Be great to know more.

    • Sinkle says:

      just adding to the above, found this: “To add to the complexity and difficulty of reconstructing the station, the new southbound Victoria Line station tunnel passed just under the large Peter Robinson department store at Oxford Circus with its three basements and its foundations. It was necessary to spread some of the building’s load before tunnelling began. From the working shaft at Cavendish Square, a 230m access tunnel was dug to beneath the department store. A pre-stressed concrete raft was then constructed below the basement to spread the load. The under-side of this raft was formed of weak concrete as the new southbound tunnel would cut across the underside of the raft itself. “

  9. Tony says:

    What a pity they didn’t consider (and still should!) utilising the Bus terminus area at Chingford Mount. As the local authority took it upon themselves to destroy an area which was once picturesque and that they desire that we should all get off the roads and use public transport, why not urge TFL to consider extending the Victoria Line to Chingford Mount? This would certainly ease congestion and polution on the roads. Given that the Carparks at Blackhorse Road have now closed, wouldn’t this be a smart decision for TFL and the local authority to consider? And…for Heaven’s sake…when o’ when will we be given Air Conditioning ??
    Additionally from Walthamstow Central to open again the overground link directly to Stratford using the old ‘Curve’would create a highly needed transport link and cut down journey times considerably for workers to Stratford and onto Canary Wharf.

  10. Garry Shadbolt says:

    Why is there no information about the Victoria Line construction firms involved in this huge project, although I happen to know that the firm Charles Brand tunnelled the section in Tottenham because I was working in the area at the time and there were many Irishmen working for the firm.
    There is no background to this in any of the information I have read.

    • John Stephenson says:

      In 1964 I was a site engineer working for John Mowlem & Co, on Seven Sisters Station,[ticket hall & escalators.]. The method of construction was complicated,and included deep excavation, and underpinning the Wards Corner store. Part of the Ticket Hall was constructed beneath the Tottenham High road,by working under a temporary steel bridge/road deck. Mowlems were constructing the Victoria/Green Park section at the same time. I think Nuttalls, Balfour Beatty & Brands were some of the other contractors used. In 1969 I was working for A.Waddington & Son in charge of Stockwell TicketHall and escalator. Waddingtons had the contract for Brixton stn[very difficult job],the running tunnels Brixton/Stockwell and Stockwell Stn.
      Mowlems were regarded as the rolls royce of the construction industry,and had completrd many prestiege projects, such as the new London Bridge,Downing Street and the Nat west Tower. They were bought by Carillian who have now gone broke.
      A Waddington was a privately owned tunnelling based in Stonebridge on the Norh Circular Road. They were bought byF.L.C.Lilley of Scotland.

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