REVIEW | Motion and emotion at the London Transport Museum

During his latest London trip in January 2023 Dennis De Roover visited the London Transport Museum. London is an absolute pioneer when it comes to public transport with some of the oldest trains and the oldest tube in the world. Being such a big city with big distances to cross, transport has always played a major role in its development. The iconic London Underground, red double-decker buses and black cabs are part of London’s DNA. It’s no surprise that this museum about motion evokes many emotions.

The London Transport Museum takes you back 200 years in time. You can take this quite literally. The display of the elevator that takes you to the beginning of the exhibition does not count up the floors but counts down the years. The exhibition focuses on transport in London, with a main focus on public transport.

In the 19th-century London wheeled transport relied on horses. Horse-drawn hackney coaches could be hired for journeys across town. In 1805 there were 1100 licensed hackney drivers in London. They were the only people allowed to pick up passengers in the street.

Stagecoaches were used for journeys beyond the city limits. They ran from inn yards and travellers had to book their seats in advance. By 1825 there were about 600 stagecoaches running between central London and nearby towns every day.

Similar to horses buses were horse trams, but they ran on rails. Two horses could pull a heavier vehicle more easily on smooth irons than on an uneven road. Trams were therefore much larger than buses. They could carry almost the double amount of passengers. This enabled reduced fares.

Shitty business

Thousands of working horses populated Victorian London. Operating a bus or tram for a single day required twelve horses (six pairs) per vehicle, because the working horses needed to be changed several times a day.

By 1900 London’s public transport relied on some 50.000 horses. You can imagine the smell in the streets of London, knowing that every day these horses produced more than 1000 tonnes of dung.

Horses had to be stabled, fed and cared for. Horses were the biggest cost for a transport operator. Vets, blacksmiths and horse-handlers were employed, and barges brought in huge quantities of horse feed from the surrounding countryside by river and canal. Good care of the horses was of great importance. Without them, there were no services and no source of income.

Exploring alternatives

During the 19th century there were experiments with possible alternatives for horse power. Steam-powered road engines and trams proved too heavy and damaged the roads. Stationary steam engines were used to haul trams attached to a cable. This was only an effective alternative on hills that were too steep for horses.

There were even experiments with trams fueled by gas engines and battery electric power, but there was no technical breakthrough yet. Petrol engines were still primitive and unreliable in the 1890s.

In 1900 the horse still dominated the streets of London, but new technology eventually revolutionized road transport.

Creating infrastructure

Street railways, as tramways were called in the past, started in New York and New Orleans in the 1830s. Elsewhere in the world they were developed from the 1850s and onwards. It was the famous George Francis Train, who introduced the streetcar or ‘tram’ to Britain.

Decent infrastructure was of great importance for the breakthrough of tram and trains. In the beginning of the 19th century nobody really had responsibility of London’s infrastructure as a whole. This changed with the foundation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855. For the first time, a single organization had the power to make large-scale improvements to roads, bridges and sewers.

By the 1860s, a number of ambitious projects were underway. They embraced slum clearance, a major new north-south road (Farringdon Road) and building the Holborn Viaduct to make a better east-west route.

Fifteen road and foot bridges over the Thames were built or replaced in central London during the 19th century. To use some of these bridges you initially had to pay toll, but by the end of the century all of them were free.

Defeating the Thames

Despite all these improvements, the river was still an obstacle for London’s growing road traffic. Even after opening of Tower Bridge in 1894 new ways of getting over and under the Thames were being proposed.

The Thames in central London was completely reshaped in the 1860s by the construction of the Albert, Victoria and Chelsea Embankments by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The Embankments weren’t just a new sanitation system for London. They also held part of the new District Railway and, on top, a wide new road in an effort to relieve the congestion of the Strand.

Watermen over time lost out to steamboats, bridges and the Thames 

Embankment. Steamboats in turn lost the competition as London’s suburban railways developed in the 1860s. The five operating paddlesteamers on the Thames merged in 1876 into the London Steamboat Company. But by 1884 the company was bankrupt and no bidders were found for the steamboats put up for sale.

Railway pioneer

England is an undisputed pioneer in trains and railways. The world’s first public railway was a horse-driven goods line, which opened near London in 1803. In 1808 Richard Trevithick demonstrated a steam locomotive on rails, but there was no interest in his ideas.

Being the son of mining captain Trevithick surely must have taken comfort in the fact that steam railways eventually developed to transport coal. The Stockton & Darlington Railway opened in 1825 and started the run passenger trains as well. George Stephenson, the famous engineer, went on to build the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. It opened in 1830 and was in fact the first inter-city passenger line in the world.

Parliament gave the green light in 1833 for London’s first passenger railway to be built. It ran from London Bridge to Greenwich on a long brick viaduct and opened in stages from 1836 to 1838.

The London & Greenwich Railway had no difficulty convincing travellers that over a distance a steam train was much faster than a stagecoach. Railways quickly won the competition with steamboats. In the first 15 months the company carried more than 650.000 passengers. By the 1840s it was carrying over two million a year.


In the 1860s the southern main lines got permission to extend across the river to Victoria, Blackfriars, Charing Cross and Cannon Street. Lines from the north and east later extended to St. Pancras, Liverpool Street and Marylebone.

By 1900 London was the city with the most main line railway termini in the world, 15 in total. At least 100.000 Londoners, mainly poor people, had their homes destroyed and new lines, yards and stations were built. Companies didn’t even have the obligation to rehouse them!

In 1901, London’s population reaches 4.5 million. In 1800 almost all Londoners lived within walking distance of their jobs. By 1900 most did not, and needed to use public transport to go to work.

Rise of the commuters

Horse-drawn buses and trams were only suitable for trips up to 4 km (2-3 miles). For a longer journey, the train was faster and more comfortable. As central London became more crowded, middle-class residents moved out to the growing suburbs. The roads were getting congested and there was resistance to the demolition of houses to build railway infrastructure. This all pushed for the development of the Underground.

The first underground railway was designed to transport passengers arriving at London’s main lines into the City, Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross were all some distance from London’s central business district.

An underground line was build below the main road to the City. The Metropolitan Railway Company was founded in 1854 to accomplish this revolutionary project in transport.

Engineers tried to find ways to reduce the steam and smoke from locomotives underground. There was a successful trial with a fireless locomotive that ran on hot bricks. But eventually they went for conventional steam engines, but with special pipes to condense exhaust steam into side tanks of cold water. Cokes were used as fuel instead of coal as it created less smoke. All kinds of means like ‘blow holes’ at intervals around the Circle were implemented. The ultimate solution to the problem was the electrification in 1905.

Cheap fares

The Metropolitan was the first railway in London to offer cheap workmen’s fares on some early morning services. These reduced travel costs were not a choice of the heart of railway companies. They were introduced under pressure of Parliament. It was one way of compensating those who had to move when their houses were demolished as the lines were extended through built-up areas of London.

The development of the first and oldest subterranean railway network in the world was experimental. Thus some stations have become redundant and others were never completed. Many disused London Underground stations now have an alternative use. You can discover their story at the London Transport Museum. Some are used for ventilation or storage, as a film set or even to grow salad leaves!


Railway expansion pushed the development of outer London. Residential districts grew up all around the city from 1880s onwards. In the 1920s nearly all of London’s growth was suburban. This meant a more comfortable lifestyle for thousands of Londoners. However the development was uncontrolled and only halted by the outbreak of war in 1939. New building around Greater London was restricted after the war by calling into life a wide ‘green belt’.

The changeover from horse to mechanical power in London at the start of the 20th century was very rapid. In 1900 only a few, short-lived experimental vehicles were motorized. Electric trams had been introduced in some American and European cities in the 1890s, but not in London.

By 1915 there was a total new reality in transport. London’s horse-drawn buses and trams had disappeared, and motor taxis heavily outnumbered horse-drawn cabs. Only rich people could afford a private car, yet they were already more common than carriages.

Tramway metropolis

Electric tramways opened all over Greater London in the 1900s. There were 14 separate systems, 11 run by local councils and three by private companies. The total lack of cooperation between the different operators was a great source of frustration for travellers. Some tracks weren’t even connected, which made through services impossible. 

But the trams were cheap and used by almost all Londoners. By 1914 they were carrying more than 800 million passengers a year.

There were also trolleybuses in London. A trolleybus takes its power from overhead electric wires. It’s a means of transport with characteristics of both a tram and a bus. London’s first trolleybus services began in 1931 and expanded quickly. In the London Transport Museum you can admire the K2, a typical London trolleybus of the type that replaced the first generation of electric trams as the system grew in the 1930s.



After the Second World War new choices were made. Trams and trolleybus routes were replaced by diesel buses. In the 1960s the most iconic double-deckers bus was introduced: the Routemaster. It entered service in 1963 and was withdrawn from service in 1985. It’s red colour and design still inspires the looks of busses today.

New Routemaster buses were built from 2011 to 2017. These lower-floor diesel double-decker buses can be seen all over London now. And so the history of public transport in London is being written every day!


Flower market

The London Transport Museum is located at Covent Garden Piazza. In 1670 the Earl of Bedford introduced a market to sell fruit, flowers, roots and herbs. By the 19th century, Convent Garden had become London’s principle vegetable, fruit and flower market. In the 1830s permanent buildings replaced the traders’ stalls in the central piazza. Additional buildings around the square were constructed to accompany the growing specialist trading.

The collection of the London Transport Museum is put in a beautiful building that was designed by William Rogers in 1871 and which has served a century as a flower market.


Also very appealing in this museum is its souvenir shop. Try not to be tempted to buy all the collectibles being offered here: magnets, mugs, clothing, books and children’s toys! Strangely enough pillows covered with the original pattern of the London Underground seats attracted me the most. The souvenir shop can be visited independently. You don’t have to visit the museum to enter the shop.

By understanding the history of public transport, you get a greater notion of the development of the city itself. As Londoners use public transport every day to date, go to work and go out there are a lot of memories attached to it. With memories come big emotions.

The shop.

Children and social media

The London Transport Museum attracts not just tourist but a lot of Londoners as well. I would advise you to not visit it during weekends if you don’t like big crowds of screaming children. With its playgrounds it is a very child-friendly museum.

As a visitor you may take a seat in the old vehicles, making it a very social media-friendly museum. I have seen old man gaze into front windows, people admiring traditional interiors and recollecting memories of public transport.

Children area.

Pride and pleasure

One can’t imagine London without its tube, red double-decker buses and black cabs. Like in any country everyone has an opinion on public transport and how it should be run. Being a train manager myself, I couldn’t help the sense of being part of a greater tradition. Is this what they call a humbling experience? I certainly felt it.

Let alone the national pride many British people must feel when confronted with the pioneering innovations throughout the decades on display here. Expect a lot of emotion in this museum in motion!

Dennis De Roover

Dennis De Roover.

Railway and transport museums 

5 Comments Add yours

  1. elvira797mx says:

    Wow! Wonderful photos, very interesting post!
    Thank’s for share Timothy.
    Have a nice day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Timothy says:

      Thank you Elvira.
      Have a great day.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. elvira797mx says:

        Always a pleasure Timothy
        You as well.

        Liked by 1 person

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