The idea of an underground railway linking the City of London with the railway termini in its urban centre was proposed in the 1830s, and the Metropolitan Railway was granted permission to build such a line in 1854. The world's first underground railway, it opened in January 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon using gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives. It was hailed as a success, carrying 38,000 passengers on the opening day, borrowing trains from other railways to supplement the service. The Metropolitan District Railway (commonly known as the District Railway) opened in December 1868 from South Kensington to Westminster as part of a plan for an underground 'inner circle' connecting London's main-line termini. The Metropolitan and District railways completed the Circle line in 1884, built using the cut and cover method where below the surface. Both railways expanded, the District building five branches to the west reaching Ealing, Hounslow, Uxbridge, Richmond and Wimbledon and the Metropolitan eventually extended as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, more than 50 miles (80 km) from Baker Street and the centre of London. For the first deep-level tube line, the City and South London Railway, two 10 feet 2 inches (3.10 m) diameter circular tunnels were dug between King William Street (close to today's Monument station) and Stockwell, under the roads to avoid the need for agreement with owners of property on the surface. This opened in 1890 with electric locomotives that hauled carriages with small opaque windows, nicknamed padded cells. The Waterloo and City Railway opened in 1898, followed by the Central London Railway in 1900, known as the "twopenny tube".These two ran electric trains in circular tunnels having diameters between 11 feet 8 inches (3.56 m) and 12 feet 2 inches (3.71 m), whereas the Great Northern and City Railway, which opened in 1904, was built to take main line trains from Finsbury Park to a Moorgate terminus in the City and had 16 feet (4.9 m) diameter tunnels.

In the early 20th century the District and Metropolitan railways needed to electrify and cooperation between the two companies would be needed because of the shared ownership of the inner circle and a joint committee recommended the used of an AC system. The District, needing to raise the finance necessary, found an investor in the American Charles Yerkes. However, he favoured a DC system similar to that in use on the City & South London Railway and Central London Railway. The Metropolitan Railway protested about the change of plan, but after arbitration by the Board of Trade the DC system was adopted.[23] Yerkes soon had control of the District Railway and established the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) in 1902 to complete and operate three tube lines, the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (Bakerloo), the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (Hampstead) and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway, (Piccadilly), which all opened between 1906 and 1907. When the 'Bakerloo' was so named in July 1906, it was called an undignified "gutter title" by The Railway Magazine. By 1907 the District and Metropolitan Railways had electrified the underground sections of their lines. A joint marketing agreement between most of the companies in the early years of the 20th century included maps, joint publicity, through ticketing and UNDERGROUND signs outside stations in Central London. The Bakerloo line was extended north to Queen's Park to join a new electric line from Euston to Watford, but the start of World War I in 1914 delayed construction and trains reached Watford Junction in 1917. An extension of the Central line east to Ealing was also delayed by the war and completed in 1920. People used the tube stations as shelters during air raids in 1915. After the war, government-backed financial guarantees were used to expand the network and the tunnels of the City and South London and Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railways were linked at Euston and Kennington, although the combined service was not named the Northern line until later. The Metropolitan promoted housing estates near the railway with the "Metro-land" brand and nine housing estates were built near stations on the line and electrification was extended north from Harrow to Rickmansworth and a short branch opened from Rickmansworth to Watford in 1925, and from Wembley Park to Stanmore in 1932. The Piccadilly line was extended north to Cockfosters and took over District line branches to Harrow (later Uxbridge) and Hounslow.

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