The topic for this week’s ‘London Shoes’ publication on its Website, FB & Twitter portals, is not about a building or a location – it’s simply all about a humble, ordinary Londoner, whose work has touched millions upon millions of people throughout the years and will most probably continue to do so for future generations.
So – the subject matter in question is all about the genius that was “Harry Beck”!!!
I’m sure there are many reading this that will be thinking to themselves ‘who the hell is Harry Beck’. Well, quite simply, Harry Beck is the man who designed what is probably one of the most instantly recognised and familiar ‘map’ on this planet – the ‘London Underground Tube Map’.
In some ways Harry Beck’s story is quite sad – as it was only after his death that he gained the recognition he deserved for what he created and left as a legacy to the London, and beyond.
Harry Beck’s story begins in 1902 when he was born in east-London at no.14 Wesley Road-Leyton-London-E10.
In 1925 Harry Beck started work as a draughtsman for what was then known as the ‘London Underground-Signals Office’ located in the City – where his job was to draw-up electrical circuits and systems for the London Underground network.
From its early inception back in the late 1800’s, London’s underground rail network evolved rapidly, spreading from the City out to the ‘burbs’ – and as a result ‘passenger’ maps of the rail network were forever being re-designed and updated, to accommodate the constant changes.
‘Tube’ maps were only distributed or displayed at selected stations – and were not particularly ‘user-friendly’ as they were extremely confusing because they tended to show where the various tube lines ran out to ‘geographically’ against a backdrop outline of London.
For many years, the most common Underground map was the 1908 version – which critics said looked more like a bowl of spaghetti escaping off a plate – very confusing for travellers to understand and interpret.
As a ‘side-of-desk’ activity whilst drawing up electrical circuitry designs for London Underground, Harry Beck enjoyed drawing up tube map designs of his own, in his spare time – just for fun really.
He based his designs on the recognised structure of electrical circuits that he used to produce in his day job.
His designs discarded any references to geographical accuracy or the quantification of distances between stations – he simply colour coded the various rail lines and displayed all the networks stations roughly in the direction the lines were heading out to – and he also emphasised those ‘link-up’ stations passengers had to get to, to change lines and get on to another train service.
London Underground had never commissioned or asked Harry Beck to produce a new design of tube map – it was just something he enjoyed doing as a sort of hobby.
However – by 1930, with the tube network expanding rapidly – Beck felt that the time was just right for him to propose his designs to his London Underground bosses, for their consideration.
So – he put forward his ideas to the organisations hierarchy for them to review. However, they rejected it out of hand, on the basis that his design and the positioning of the stations, was not geographically accurate.
Not to be deterred, and having total confidence that his new design proposals were far better than the existing tube map design – Beck challenged back at the LU bosses, claiming that the average tube passenger couldn’t give a toss about the geographic accuracy of the stations – all they wanted to know was where the various lines headed out to – the ability to see all the stations, and those stations where you could change from one line to another.
London Underground eventually relented and in 1932 agreed to ‘pilot’ Beck’s new map design – but only on a small scale, producing just 500 copies which they distributed to just a few selected stations only.
Harry Beck’s version of London Underground map/chart was an immediate and outstanding success, which was welcomed enthusiastically by the public. It received such a positive response, that just 1yr later in 1933 following the initial pilot exercise, London Underground commissioned a further 700,000 copies to be printed and distributed throughout the entire tube network – and the passengers loved it.
It wasn’t just London that benefited from Harry Beck’s tube map design – in 1939 Australia adopted his style and layout for the Sydney rail network – Beck also designed and submitted proposals to the French for its Paris Metro, although these proposals were never taken any further. In more recent decades, many countries throughout the world have adopted Beck’s design to map out their metro network routes.
Throughout the years following its formal launch, Beck continued to make amendments and tweaks to his original design, to accommodate the ever changing and modernisation of the London Underground network.
By now Harry Beck was living in Courthouse Gardens-Finchley-London N3, and would commute daily from Finchley Central tube station to the LU HQ in the City.
Beck continued to work for London Underground (by now known as London Transport) right up until 1960 – but then he had a massive falling out with its bosses, when a newly appointed publicity manager decided to make considerable design changes to Beck’s tube map, without even consulting him.
Harry Beck was so deeply hurt and angered by this action; he resigned from his job with the organisation, and took up a job teaching typography at the London School of Printing, where he spent the rest of his working life.
Harry Beck spent the 5 years from 1960 to 1965 fighting a legal battle with London Underground through the courts, for the ownership rights to his tube map design – a battle that sadly he never won.
Harry Beck died in 1974 at the age of 82 – and it was only sometime after his passing that the ‘man who drew London’ finally got the recognition he, and his remarkable ground-breaking & influential work, deserved.
It is alleged that because Harry Beck was never formally commissioned by his London Underground bosses, to produce a new tube map design – he was only ever paid a total of 5 Guineas (eg £5.25) for his efforts.
Today, Beck’s genius and the influence his piece of work has had on public transport throughout the world, is at least recognised and commemorated at the London Transport Museum in London’s Covent Garden.
Apart from that – there is a blue commemoration plaque displayed on the exterior of no.14 Wesley Road-Leyton-E10, the house where Harry Beck was born – and another blue plaque commissioned by the Finchley Society at the house in Courthouse Road-Finchley-N3, commemorating the fact that it was Harry Beck’s home for many years.
Tucked away on the London bound platform at Finchley Central tube station, a copy of Harry Beck’s original tube map is framed and displayed, along with a black plaque commemorating the fact that Harry Beck used to use the station for his daily commute into the City, when working for London Underground.
Gift shops throughout London sell mugs, t-shirts and all manner of other memorabilia that display Beck’s iconic tube map – and I myself own up to possessing a pair of tube-map socks, that my little grandkids bought for their old grandad last Christmas, to wear with his ‘London Shoes’.
So Harry Beck may have been just a humble hard working, conscientious Londoner – but he was the man responsible for one of the most globally renowned and most copied designs ever – what a legacy to leave for past, present and future generations.
So – having trawled across London on the Harry Beck trail, I ended up at Piccadilly Circus tube station, and so thought I would take the opportunity to wander off to Wardour Street in Soho, where I worked for Barclays Bank between the years 1974-1978.
With the branch now long gone, I found myself in ‘The George’ pub located on the corner of Wardour Street and D’Arbley Street. This boozer was a right old seedy dirty dive when I used to frequent it back in the 1970’s – and although a lot cleaner, it isn’t that much different now, some 45 years later.
Records show that there’s been a pub on the site since 1727, with the present building dating back to 1897, with a few of the original Victorian fixtures & fittings still in situ – and it was an ok venue to neck down a couple of ‘cheeky’ lagers, before setting off back home.
So – the next time you find yourself looking at a London Tube-Map, just spare a thought for old Harry Beck, and the influence his work has had on past-present & future generations of travellers – what a legacy this humble Londoner left for the world.
Below are the full sequence of photographs accompanying this Harry Beck blog