In the first half of the 19th century, London had grown greatly and the development of a commuting population arriving by train each day led to traffic congestion with carts, cabs and omnibuses filling the roads. By 1850 there were seven railway termini located around the urban centre of London and the concept of an underground railway linking the City of London with these stations was first proposed in the 1830s. Charles Pearson, Solicitor to the City of London, was a leading promoter of several schemes,and in 1852 he helped set up the City Terminus Company to build such a railway from Farringdon to King’s Cross. Although the plan was supported by the City of London, the railway companies were not interested and the company struggled to proceed. In 1854 the Metropolitan Railway (also known as the Met) was granted permission to build an underground line at an estimated cost of £1 million. With theCrimean War under way, the Met found it hard to raise the capital, and construction did not start until March 1860. The railway was mostly built using the “cut-and-cover” method from Paddington to King’s Cross; east of King’s Cross it was built by tunnelling and then followed the culverted River Fleet in an open cutting to the new meat market at Smithfield. The 3.75-mile (6 km) railway opened to the public on 10 January 1863, using steam locomotives hauling wooden carriages. It was hailed as a success, carrying 38,000 passengers on the opening day, borrowing trains from other railways to supplement the service. In the first twelve months 9.5 million passengers were carried and in the second twelve months this increased to 12 million.
The Met’s early success prompted a flurry of applications to parliament in 1863 for new railways in London, many competing for similar routes. The House of Lords established a select committee that recommended an “inner circuit of railway that should abut, if not actually join, nearly all of the principal railway termini in the Metropolis”. Proposals to extend the Met were accepted, and the committee agreed a proposal that a new company, the Metropolitan District Railway (commonly known as the District Railway), be formed to complete the circuit. Initially, the District and the Met were closely associated and it was intended that they would merge. The Met’s chairman and three other directors were on the board of the District, John Fowler was the engineer of both companies. The construction works for the extensions were let as a single contract and the Met initially operated all the services. Struggling under the burden of high construction costs, the District’s level of debt meant that merger was no longer attractive to the Met and its directors resigned from the District’s board. To improve its finances, the District terminated the operating agreement and began operating its own trains.Conflict between the Met and the District and the expense of construction delayed further progress on the completion of the inner circle. In 1879, the Met now wishing to access the South Eastern Railway via the East London Railway (ELR), an Act of Parliament was obtained to complete the circle and link to the ELR. After an official opening ceremony on 17 September and trial running, a complete Circle line service started on 6 October 1884.
The Metropolitan Railway had been extended soon after opening, reaching Hammersmith with the Great Western Railway in 1864 and Richmond over the tracks of the London and South Western Railway(L&SWR) in 1877. The Metropolitan & St John’s Wood Railway opened as a single track branch fromBaker Street to Swiss Cottage, and this was to become the Met’s most important route as it expanded north into the Middlesex countryside, where it stimulated the development of new suburbs. Harrow was reached in 1880, and the line eventually extended as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, more than 50 miles (80 kilometres) from Baker Street and the centre of London. From the end of the 19th century, the railway shared tracks with the Great Central Railway route out of Marylebone.
By 1871, when the District began operating its own trains, the railway had extended to West Brompton and a terminus at Mansion House. Hammersmith was reached from Earl’s Court and services reached Richmond, Ealing, Hounslow and Wimbledon. As part of the project that completed the Circle line in October 1884, the District began to serve Whitechapel. Services began running to Upminster in 1902, after a link to the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway had been built.