Tube 150th anniversary: Families with the Underground in their blood

Harry Robinson Rail enthusiast Mr Robinson has several paintings of steam trains in his home, including this locomotive which ran on Great Western Railway

As the Tube prepares to mark its 150th anniversary on Thursday, BBC News talks to London Underground employees whose family histories have become intertwined with the rail network's.

"If they give me a chance to jump on the footplate, I would," 91-year-old Harry Robinson says as he looks forward to a long-awaited reunion.

He used to drive Metropolitan Locomotive 1, an 1898 steam engine and last drove it in 1960 on the Chesham branch of the Metropolitan Line.

Mr Robinson, from Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, one of the last drivers of a steam train, will get to see the engine again on 13 January when the first Tube journey of 1863 is recreated. But this time he will be a passenger.

He retired from the Underground in 1984 but wants to at least be in the driver's cab on the anniversary journey.

It is a trip that his parents and grandfather would both be jealous of as they too devoted their working life to the Underground.

Harry Robinson's parents Martha and Edward Joseph Martha Robinson worked during World War I and Edward Joseph was a ticket collector for 46 years

"I suppose it's in my blood," he adds wistfully as we were chatting .

Mr Robinson's grandfather, Harry Brockland, worked for the then Metropolitan Railway as a ticket collector in Kilburn, north-west London. But he never got to meet him as he died before Mr Robinson's birth.

Edward Joseph Robinson, his father, was a ticket collector at Liverpool Street, Farringdon and Baker Street for 46 years and his mother, Mary, worked at Kilburn station as a porteress during World War I when the network first recruited women.

His parents never discussed work at home and he had never planned to work on the Tube but on 14 February 1940 he found himself at the offices of the Metropolitan Railway.

"I joined as an engine cleaner and I passed as a fireman [to tend fire in the engine]. Then I was a spare driver and then I became a driver (on engineering trains)."

Bomb damage

"Steam engine was more manual work, harder work, with shovelling coal in the fire, and then when you got on the electric all you more or less had to do was move handles and press buttons."

World's first underground railway

Construction workers on the Metropolitan Railway
  • London's Metropolitan Railway became the world's first underground passenger line when it opened in January 1863.
  • Built by a private company, the 3.5 mile (5.6km) line linked Paddington, Euston and King's Cross with the business district of central London.
  • More than 2,000 workers built the line, mostly by hand. They dug a shallow cutting for the track before roofing it over to form a tunnel.
  • The original gas-lit carriages were pulled by steam engines before electrification was introduced in the early 1900s.
  • The noxious fumes from the engines left many passengers feeling ill and, despite ventilation efforts, prompted many complaints

Source: London Transport Museum

Steam passenger Tube trains were last in operation in 1907, but steam locomotives hauled freight and engineers' trains until 1971.

Mr Robinson's early years of service during World War II is something he wants to forget.

"(I saw) terrible things I can't throw out of my mind now," he says.

"There was bad bomb damage at Sloane Square and there were people killed there and you could see the dead bodies.

"I didn't actually see it happen but we were working on clearing all the rubble.

"Everybody got on with what they could... we never gave up.

"There would be long hours, blackouts during night time and you had to be careful lighting the fires and when you open the fire doors, you had special blackout curtains on the engines to stop the light from reflecting out."

When he retired after 44 years with the Tube he felt like "something had gone out of my life", he added.

Nevertheless his love affair with steam trains continues and he travels around England with other rail enthusiasts to go on heritage train journeys and wears the watch given to his father on his retirement.

And the family connection with the railways has continued, as his grandson works for Network Rail.

It is a similar story for Shauni O'Neill.

The 19-year-old from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, understands why working on the Tube was not just a job for Mr Robinson.

The youngest woman Tube driver also likes to "keep it in the family".

Her father, Phelim, 38, is a manager at Wembley Park station, her 17-year-old brother Phelim is a trainee at the maintenance firm Tube Lines and her godfather is a driver on the Jubilee Line.

Shauni O'Neill with her father Phelim O'Neill Shauni's father Phelim O'Neill and younger brother Phelim junior both work for the tube

Shauni said she and her five younger siblings used to love visiting their father at work.

"I would always get really excited when I would go to see my dad at work.

"Also my dad would always let me make announcements.

"I was like a bubbly young child so when I made the announcement the customers on the platforms would laugh and you could see them on the CCTV.

"That's probably my favourite memory and who knew that about 10 years later I would be doing it myself."

She joined the Underground two years ago after her father told her about an apprenticeship scheme, and her colleagues became her "second family".

'Join the clan'

And the family's passion for London Underground does not stop there.

"My little sister said that maybe she can be the occupational health doctor for LU because she is adamant that she wants to be a doctor," she said.

And her nine-year-old brother has also made up his mind. "He wants to join the clan and become a manager somewhere."

It was only relatively recently - in 1978 - that Hannah Dadds became the first woman to qualify as a Tube driver.

Thinking of Ms Dadds, Shauni said she felt the weight of history on her shoulders becoming the youngest woman driver three decades later.

Hannah Dadds, the first woman Tube driver Hannah Dadds qualified as the first woman Tube driver in 1978

The new Metropolitan Line trains are "a dream" to drive compared to the steam engines that Harry Robinson drove on the route, but the first time was nevertheless nerve-wracking.

"I had every single manual and every single handbook in my bag just in case I needed to refer to them," she said.

"I had about 12 hours sleep beforehand to absolutely make sure that I was fine.

"It was a surreal experience but I was really proud once I had finished my first shift."

The teenager is hoping to get a ticket on the train which will recreate the 1863 Paddington to Farringdon Tube journey.

"If not, I'd like to be the driver that pulls in alongside the steam train to show how the old has come to the new," she added.

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