James Henry Greathead (1844-1896), also known as ‘the father of the Tube’, was born in South-Africa. In 1864 he became a pupil of civil engineer Peter W. Barlow (1776-1862) who had already patented a more basic tunnelling shield system in the 1860s. The shield they eventually came up with for the Tower Subway, which ran from Tower Hill to Bermondsey, was named the Barlow-Greathead shield. They combined this shield with the positioning of cast-iron segments to form the tunnel’s solid structure. Greathead also patented his idea of using hydraulic power to move the tunnelling segments forward. In this way, tunnels could be dug without disturbing the land above the tunnel. Up till then, the cut and cover method had been used, i.e. digging a trench in the road as deep as necessary, lining the sides with brickwork, covering the top with brick arches and filling it all in again, causing a lot of disruption to the congested Victorian traffic in the process. Greathead and Barlow’s method caused a lot less destruction to the streets, not to mention the disturbance to everyday life.
Greathead went on to work as an engineer with several railway lines, among them the Richmond extension of the Metropolitan District Railway. In 1884, he was engaged to work on the City & South London Railway, the section from King William Street to Stockwell (now part of the Northern line) which opened in 1890. It was the first electric railway to run underground.
His bronze statue by James Butler (1931-) was unveiled near the Royal Exchange in 1994 and seems to be positioned in an awkward place in the middle of the road, but that is because it is hiding a ventilation shaft for the Underground. In the photograph of the bronze plaque surrounded by Greathead’s name in marble, the workmen can be seen digging out the rubble while the cast-iron tunnel segments are clearly visible around them.
A photograph of the real working conditions underground can be seen here.