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Henry Beck and the birth of the London underground

'It might be possible to tidy the old maps by straightening things out, experimenting with diagonals and evening the distance between stations- then we may have a map of the underground.'

Of all the designers born and bred in Britain, Henry Beck I think is one of the most under-appreciated. The creator of one of Britain's most iconic designs to date, throughout his career, he was continually forgotton for the genius which improved the ease of movement from one station to the next.


Born in 1902 in London, as a young child no one would ever imagine he would one day become the man who sorted the mess that once was the map of London's extensive underground train system. With a father working in engineering, his skills were born of an apprenticeship into the family business. Drawing schematics, and making sense of the electrical systems which ran the London Underground itself during his early twenties/thirties, his rise towards being the creator of this now iconic map was unconventiaonl to say the least.


Born in 1902 in London, as a young child no one would ever imagine he would one day become the man who sorted the mess that once was the map of London's extensive underground train system. With a father working in engineering, his skills were born of an apprenticeship into the family business. Drawing schematics, and making sense of the electrical systems which ran the London Underground itself during his early twenties/thirties, his rise towards being the creator of this now iconic map was unconventional to say the least. nd had seen an end to the endless confusion of that time in trying to figure out where you needed to get off for your stop- the use of electrical schematic design as inspiration was in his eyes ground-breaking. But, after taking Henry and himself to the board of design governors, both were left disappointed by their reactions.


In short they thought his sketches were ridiculous- 'the public won't accept this' Henry later recalled them saying when discussing the impact his work had had not only in the UK, but also across the world. Although what he had done made perfect sense it was deemed 'too radical' and was pushed aside. Companies at that time didn't want him unifying the lines as he did in the maps we know today-to do so would remove the competition element that the maps then encourage between different train companies. Within them, they could say that their stop was the fastest way to reach that destination, whilst another branch could also claim their own station a little away from the priors was even better. It was a muddle of confusion but the profit brought about by keeping the public out of the know was too tempting a prospect to accept Henry's designs at all.


This did not dishearten Beck at all though- pushed by his friends belief in him, Henry knew his designs had the answers to all the publics questions- ending the mindless attempts to show geographical distance, and just show them where to get on and where to get off was the right way to go- and with that in mind Beck began to take his work further. Moving those intial plans into developed final pieces, although he had at first sold those sketches in an attempt to earn some income from what had been initially an exciting project, as more companies showed interest in his work, the man who bought them off him in the first place came back and asked if Beck would work with him in creating more to answer the new demand.


Working as a teacher at the London college of printing at the time he began work on the underground, it was only pure chance that led him to designing it at all. Having met up with a friend (and later his biographer) Ken Garland in 1931, when Garland saw the initial sketches Beck had performed whilst musing over the confusion of maps he had encountered as a young man, he encouraged Henry to complete them as quickly as possible and take them to the board who controlled such things within the underground itself. In them Garland had seen an end to the endless confusion of that time in trying to figure out where you needed to get off for your stop, but, after taking Henry and himself to the board of design governors, both were left disappointed by their reactions.


Finally acting as the steward of his own company, as a growing team of revolutionary designers flocked towards Beck's equally radicalistic call, it began to draw also a number of railway companies attention. Though progress was slow at first, with many stations only rolling out to a 1000 members of the public his new designs, pace picked up as more and more positive responses flooded in. At last Beck's hopes had come true, and as he walked through the stations of London, it was clear his designs were there to stay.


Cut to three decades later, and the face of the underground rail system had changed entirely. More and more companies were asking after his help, but, just as business seemed settled disaster struck- Henry's ownership of his designs and the company that had grown from them were lost completely, as the very company who first rejected him plagiarised his concept- it was none other than the London underground. The boss of the publicity department for this London Underground had been tracking for sometime now Beck's rise in popularity- and as it became clear his designs were soon going to become the goldmine of topography for railways, he copied Beck's work and sold it to the London Underground, who were eager to keep with the times and have a design just like Beck's for their own.


Devastated, Beck immediately lost all the income he had produced through the selling of his work to smaller railway operations. He no longer was recognised as their designer, and as people forgot his name, it was only thanks again to Garland that the books which withheld the proof those maps had been Beck's from the start were saved from Beck's desire to destroy everything that reminded him of what he'd lost the moment the London underground pulled the world from under his feet. They'd taken it all and not even paid him a price for copyright grounds.


However, almost 85 years later, upon the rediscovery of the sketchbooks Garland had saved all those years ago, the London Underground finally credited the true designer of their maps, and made a blue plaque for him, to commemorate the humility Beck had shown, in stepping back and allowing his designs to be plagiarised, for his desire that the public would at least possess a system that made sense. The V and A held an exhibit, and since then, many publications have been made, to celebrate the life and times of Henry Beck, the forgotten designer of the London Underground.