Today (March 21) in London History – Peashooters, Misinformation & Driverless Trains

Today’s the 159th anniversary – or is it? – of the first driverless trains in London. Today’s Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


Battle Stations.

This one’s going to be brief because, yes, it’s battle stations. We are otherwise engaged. Battle stations because this is the last day of voting for the Tourism Superstar Award. Pretty sure for once the hoary old cliche is true: every vote counts. So if you can rustle up another vote or two for Team London Walks, it’s for a very good cause, they’ll certainly count and it’ll be hugely appreciated. The link to vote is at the top of the homepage. It’s easy to copy and paste into an email to an old classmate or two – with the cover note, “hey this London Walks team, they’re good people – they’ve got their backs to the wall thanks to Covid – winning this award would give them a boost. Appreciate it if you could take five seconds, click on the link and vote for them.”

Or words to that effect. In fact, I’ll stick the link into the transcript – right here – for this podcast.

Ok, Today in London. Has to be a visit to the Courtauld. To see the Courtauld and especially its special Van Gogh Exhibition. Its Van Gogh’s self-portraits reunited for the first time in 130 years. Exhibition only has seven weeks to run so catch it while you can.

Today in London History.

They called it the Robot Tube Train. It was demonstrated for the first time on this day, March 21, 1963.

A glimpse into the future was how one newspaper put it. The first automatically controlled Underground Train. The demonstration run was a mile long. It started at Acton Town and crossed the finish line at South Ealing. At the press of a button the train accelerated and then came to a standstill right on the button – five yards from the “stop” mark. 

The London Transport Board was quick to allay any public misgivings – we don’t have any intention of bringing in driverless trains – we think it necessary that a man should be available to take control and initiate action.”

How dated that is, huh. Notice that noun: a man. And of course the Docklands Light Railway has operated with driverless trains since it opened in 1987.

Now, firsts are always appealing, always fun, always interesting. And here we’ve got this London first coming along on the first day of spring in 1963.

But as usual with London, things are always more complicated than you’re sometimes led to believe. So, yes, here’s the corrective. The first driverless train wasn’t introduced in 1963. It was introduced in 1863. It was a miniature mail train. It carried letters and parcels – 35 mail bags in all – through an underground pneumatic tube. The train took just one minute to get from London’s Euston station to a post office a third of a mile away.

And its method of propulsion? 

Well, the process was exactly similar to that by which a schoolboy projects missiles through a pea-shooter.

And on that jolly note, let’s allow ourselves, like a pea turned into a missile, to be projected from the February 20th, 1863 end of the peashooter along to and out the March 21st, 1963 end of the weapon. And out the weapon to arc gradually and gracefully and with some expedition  to March 21st, 2022. Well, March 21st 2022 for most of us. There’ll be a few of us – think of those late popping seeds of popcorn – who will be blown merrily along from 1863 but doubtless won’t touch down for a landing until later this year. Or even next year or thereafter. Late poppers. Hold outs. Rugged individualists. In my own good time, thank you very much.

And on that note, Welcome to Spring, Good night from London. Wish us luck. See ya tomorrow.

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