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The American Father of the London Underground – Charles Tyson Yerkes
London Transport Museum in Covent Garden explores the powerful link between transport and the growth of modern London, culture and society since 1800. Here, the Museum’s curator Simon Murphy explores the influence of US transport tycoon, Charles Yerkes, on London Underground.
In the nineteenth century, London was a compact city of narrow, congested streets. The first steam-hauled underground railways were built in the 1860s to reduce some of the pressure on the surface. But any relief they provided was more than offset by the city’s rapid expansion and growing traffic problems.
The success of two deep-level electric Tube railways in 1890 and 1900 seemed to point to a longer-term solution but finding investors for big construction projects once parliamentary approval had been granted was a constant problem.
MP and lawyer, Sir Robert Perks, looked to New York for backers for his scheme to electrify one of the old steam underground lines, the ailing District Railway. In 1898 he contacted a rich American who had built the Chicago Elevated Railroad, Charles Tyson Yerkes.
Yerkes was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1837. He prospered as a stockbroker in the 1850s, but lost his fortune in 1871, and later spent time in prison. He started to make money again in 1880s Chicago, this time in tramways and suburban railways.
Financial manipulation, local government bribes and a tangled network of interlinked companies all featured in his business dealings. Although these methods were typical of the period, Yerkes’s profits also earned him enemies, and in 1899 he fled Chicago for New York with his millions intact.
Yerkes once described his approach to business as, ‘buy up old junk, fix it up a little, and unload it upon other fellows’. Shortly after meeting Perks, and in this spirit, he did indeed buy a large number of District Railway shares. These may have been ‘old junk’ to him at the time, but they interested him enough to inspire a further move to London in 1900.
After taking control of the District Railway alongside Perks, Yerkes wasted no time in buying out one of the proposed new Tube railways that had languished without funding since 1893, the Charing Cross Euston & Hampstead Railway. This would soon be subsumed into Perks’s plans for the electrification of the District Railway and the construction of the company’s own power station by the Thames at Lots Road in Chelsea.
The first step towards this end was to form a new Electric Traction Company, and issue £1 million in shares, 94 per cent of which were sold to Yerkes’s American contacts - 25 investors from New York and Boston.
Yerkes and Perks were soon joined on the board of the company by representatives of these US interests, which then in turn took control of the District Railway and started buying up other dormant Tube railways.
Though this was not part of the original project, the Traction Company soon owned the Charing Cross to Hampstead line, the troubled Baker Street & Waterloo Railway, and other smaller schemes.
With all these additional commitments, yet another company was formed in 1902 to raise the required funds, the Underground Electric Railways of London Ltd (UERL).
With echoes of some of his Chicago tactics, the financial arrangements for UERL shares were extremely complex, and once again the vast majority went to American companies, syndicates and individuals.
£15 million was raised to finance three deep Tube railways that we now know as parts of the Northern, Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines.
It also financed the electrification of the District Railway and the construction of Lots Road power station. This opened in 1905 as the largest power station in Europe and went on to provide power to the Underground for the next 97 years.
Though Yerkes died in 1905 in New York, the UERL company lived on, to be led by another graduate of the Chicago transit system, Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield), who has a direct link to today’s Transport for London organisation. But that’s another story.
Find out more about the history of the London Underground and London's Transport Heritage at the London Transport Museum. Book tickets to visit London Transport Museum online to save money, and kids go free! https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/