“The Wonderground Map of London Town,” the Iconic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Subway System


Most major world cities now boast far-reach­ing and con­ve­nient sub­way sys­tems, but Lon­don will always have the orig­i­nal from which all the rest descend. It will also, arguably, always have, in the Tube, by far the most icon­ic. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Rail­way, the first under­ground train line to open in Lon­don and thus the first in the world, entered ser­vice in 1863. Oth­er lines fol­lowed, run by sev­er­al dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, until, says Make Big Plans, all the oper­a­tors “agreed on a joint mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy in 1908 that fea­tured the now famil­iar logo with a red disk and the word ‘Under­ground.’ ”


But by 1913, writes the BBC’s Emma Jane Kir­by, “pas­sen­gers are moan­ing about unpunc­tu­al­i­ty, about over­crowd­ing, about con­fu­sion and dirt. The Tube, crammed on work­days (some 400,000 peo­ple now work in the heart of the city) is vir­tu­al­ly emp­ty at week­ends and hol­i­days and the com­pa­ny is fast los­ing mon­ey and pub­lic sup­port. What we need, thinks [Lon­don Under­ground com­mer­cial direc­tor Frank] Pick, is stronger brand­ing.” In addi­tion to the immor­tal logo, he want­ed “some eye-catch­ing posters, dis­tinct from gen­er­al adver­tise­ment bills, that will make Lon­don­ers of all social class­es proud to jour­ney around their city and vis­it its attrac­tions.”


But a tran­sit sys­tem, even the for­mi­da­ble Lon­don Under­ground, is only as good as its maps. Eric Gill, the Arts and Crafts move­ment lumi­nary who helped design the Tube’s type­face, asked his archi­tect-car­tog­ra­ph­er-graph­ic design­er broth­er Mac­Don­ald to come up with an eye-catch­ing one. In the result, writes the Anti­quar­i­an Book­sellers’ Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca’s Elis­a­beth Bur­don, “all the attrac­tions and ameni­ties of Lon­don are laid before the view­er in a man­ner which is both visu­al­ly excit­ing and yet with­in a com­pre­hen­si­ble struc­ture; the city is pre­sent­ed in the man­ner of a medieval walled town, the curved hori­zon recall­ing the medieval world map’s enclos­ing cir­cle, all bound­ed by a dec­o­ra­tive bor­der in which coats of arms evoke a sense of sta­bil­i­ty and tra­di­tion.”


Apart from its degree of his­tor­i­cal astute­ness and car­to­graph­i­cal sound­ness, Gill’s “Won­der­ground Map,” as Lon­don­ers came to call it, con­tained enough humor that some of the pas­sen­gers who con­sult­ed it missed their trains due to sheer amuse­ment. Kir­by points out that, “on the Har­row Road, a farm work­er till­ing the soil cries ‘Har­row­ing work, this!’ an excla­ma­tion which is coun­tered by the query ‘What is work, is it a herb?’ deliv­ered by an effete gen­tle­man near­by.” A sign placed at the map’s east­ern edge points the way to “Vic­to­ria Park, Wanstead Flats, Har­wich, Rus­sia and oth­er vil­lages,” while “at Regen­t’s Park Zoo a pre­his­toric-look­ing bird eats a child through the bars of its cage as the child laments, ‘and I promised moth­er I’d be home for tea by five!’ ”


The Won­der­ground Map attained such pop­u­lar­i­ty that it became the first Lon­don Under­ground poster sold com­mer­cial­ly for homes and offices, and remains on sale more than a cen­tu­ry lat­er. You can view the whole thing online, and in zoomable detail, here; if you’d like a print­able ver­sion, you can find one here. The his­to­ry of Lon­don now cred­its it as hav­ing effec­tive­ly “saved” the Tube, whose rep­u­ta­tion for dys­func­tion and dis­com­fort had reached a crit­i­cal point. New­er sub­way sys­tems else­where may have since made great tech­no­log­i­cal leaps beyond the Lon­don Under­ground (as my ex-Lon­don­er friends here in Seoul don’t hes­i­tate to remind me), but we can safe­ly say that none will ever inspire quite so beloved a work of car­tog­ra­phy.

An alter­na­tive ver­sion of the map can be viewed and down­loaded at the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Won­der­ful Archive of His­toric Tran­sit Maps: Expres­sive Art Meets Pre­cise Graph­ic Design

Lon­don Mashed Up: Footage of the City from 1924 Lay­ered Onto Footage from 2013

1927 Lon­don Shown in Mov­ing Col­or

2,000 Years of London’s His­tor­i­cal Devel­op­ment, Ani­mat­ed in 7 Min­utes

Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion Lets You Fly Through 17th Cen­tu­ry Lon­don

The Curi­ous Sto­ry of London’s First Cof­fee­hous­es (1650–1675)

The Birth of London’s 1950s Bohemi­an Cof­fee Bars Doc­u­ment­ed in a Vin­tage 1959 News­reel

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • andy hall says:

    Love these uploads thank you. You need to do one about the Acid House scene which took off in Lon­don in 1988/89 and even­tu­al­ly spread all over the world.Something on the first parties/clubs in 19867/88: Shoom, The Trip, Spec­trum, The Project, Future, Rage, Clink Street and the big M25 orbital raves all over south east Eng­land.

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