Today (December 29) in London History – the American who gave us the Underground

The American who made London a modern city died today. Well, today (December 29) 116 years ago.  This podcast marks the anniversary and tells his story. Doing so it tells a hugely important London story.


London calling.

It’s December 29th.

December 29th, 1905.

We’re in New York. In Manhattan. At a death bed. In the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

But we’re also in London.

Because the man who’s just died made an enormous difference to London and to Londoners.

He also made an enormous – but not a good difference – to the people he persuaded to invest in his schemes.

Meet Charles Tyson Yerkes. Love the names. That Tyson. That ring any bells? And the maiden name – the surname – of his first wife: Susanna Gamble.

We have this American – this Yank – Charles Tyson Yerkes to thank for the London Underground. Not all of it but he was the key player in making it happen.

Mr. Yerkes was the financier of urban transport systems in his era. 

Our man was born in Philadelphia. His father was president of a local bank. He was raised a Quaker. Bright boy. Left school at 17. In short order this teenager managed to get himself a good reputation as an investor of other people’s money. Other people’s money. As he started, so would he end. Though that good reputation got more than a little tarnished along the way. 

By the time he was 30 he’d made a small fortune. Wanted the small fortune to be a large fortune. Over-extended, as they say. Along came a crash. Couldn’t honour his commitments. Did time. Yes, they put him in prison. Nothing daunted, he came out and quickly made himself another fortune. Charles Tyson Yerkes was a Yankee hustler. He could talk the talk. What you got with Yerkes was sharp financial practices, loose private morals and seriously important achievements in developing urban transport. Cut his teeth in that field in Chicago. The hard facts of the matter are: in the last two decades of the nineteenth century America took the world lead in the great technological changes in urban transport and Yerkes was the go-to man, the can-do man, the mover and shaker. He mastered all the money-raising, cost, and other problems involved. Made a ton of money for himself. And for his business associates. Chicago’s scalp in his belt, Europe beckoned. Especially London. Right man in the right place at the right time. London was just inching toward electrifying the existing steam-operated underground and horse-drawn tramways. Yerkes pitched up and carried all before him. He was an American. He thought big and talked big. Talked about conveying all London about in tunnels. But given that by the turn of the century Yerkes was the world’s leading expert on the financing, route planning and day-to-day operation of urban railways – the big talk had plenty of substance to it. He got here. Made the right contacts. Rolled up his sleeves – American energy, American drive – and got on with it. Yerkes’ talk to his investors was a vision, a Niagara Falls of pound notes and dollar bills. He said it was a lock, a couldn’t miss. He said it was impossible for the project not to be profitable. His British investors – his potential British investors – weren’t so sure. They for the most part held back. Foreign investors, though – especially Americans – bought in. Hook, line and sinker. In the 16 months between March 1906 and June 1907 London got three electrified Tube Lines. London benefitted enormously. Londoners benefitted enormously. Not so, Yerkes’ investors. The projected cascade of profits didn’t cascade. 

But if you’ve locked onto the dates you’ll have twigged that Yerkes didn’t have to face the wrath of his picked clean investors. He died in 1905 remember. On this date, December 29th. He went out in some style, dying at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. As that old New York ad for the so-called Roach Motel put it, “Roaches check in but they don’t check out.” Yerkes checked in but he didn’t check out. That said, his personal fortune was pretty storm-battered by the time it was all over. His valuable art collection had to be sold by auction. As a New York obituary writer matter of factly put it, “this is one of the ordinary hazards of the modern world – speculators make money, they buy art treasures lavishly, and die in debt.’

Well, there are debts and there are debts. We, as Londoners, permanent Londoners and honorary temporary Londoners – visitors – are all in debt to Charles Tyson Yerkes.

Finally, there’s another reason why I like this story. It’s that London is a city of immigrants, of outsiders. I’m one of them. This city was founded by immigrants. 37 per cent of today’s Londoners are immigrants, they were born abroad. Immigrants make this city what it is. They’ve always made – and will always make – an enormous difference. London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world – and that’s one of the reasons – a critically important reason – why, as cities go, London is at the cutting edge of modernity.

You see it all the time. You see it everywhere. My walkers and I see it in microcosm on, for example, my Kensington Walk. Over the course of the walk we meet Pete the Welder, who’s Welsh. We meet a Brazilian model named Orlando. We meet a shopkeeper named Shirley, who’s from Goa.We meet a Scottish tailor named Chris. We meet Joanna, a couture expert who’s Polish. We meet an art dealer named Sandra who’s Italian. And an artist named Gordon, who’s Australian. And an Irish hairdresser named Annie. And a Greek deli owner named Pannos. And Sebastian, a French hairdresser. Oh, and Bill, an English actor. Well, you get the idea.

That’s all for December 29th. 

Good night, from London. 

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