How a ‘Robin Hood’ conman almost derailed the first ever London Underground line

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The London Underground is such a fixture of the city, the very idea that anything could have stopped it coming into being seems absurd.

The very first London Underground line to open was the Metropolitan line, which started carrying passengers in 1863.

But in the preceding decade, one man nearly scuppered the entire project.

READ MORE: London Underground commuters baffled after Tube driver takes a swipe at ex-wife during announcement warning about delays

Charles Pearson was a lawyer and politician who had a one-track mind – by which I mean he was consumed by thoughts of trains, of course.

He was an early Tube visionary, proposing the idea of “trains in drains” in a pamphlet in 1845, which The Times called “an insult to common sense”.

But it wasn’t until the 1850s that Charles was given the responsibility to get the first underground railway line funded and built.

Unfortunately, as the registrar of the operation, he appointed Leopold Redpath.



Navvies force the Metropolitan Line through a London street in the early 1860s.

As the registrar, Redpath had access to the funds and over a period of eight years, he managed to embezzle a staggering amount of money.

Sources differ on exactly how much it was, the highest estimate being £250,000 – which today would be worth over £35 million.

The fraud was uncovered by a routine audit, years into the scam.

Redpath was of course immediately arrested and imprisoned while he awaited trial.



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He’s a tricky villain to entirely hate, though – of course he almost scuppered our precious first Tube line, but a lot of the money he stole went to charitable organisations.

An article in the December 6, 1856, edition of the Surrey Comet described how, “A few days short of… being arrested he promised £100 to supply the poor with coals, he also offered to erect a new wall with iron palisading around the Church yard…

“As he appears to have obtained his cash easily so he squandered it lavishly, as rumour states that it was Mr. Redpath’s custom, if a tradesman took him a bill for 30s he would throw down two or three pounds and say he required no change, as he had not been charged enough.”

Another writer in 1859 wrote, “Never was money obtained with more wicked subtlety; never was it spent more charitably… It is certain that he spent in acts of high benevolence much of the money that he gained by robbery. With equal readiness he forged a deed or wrote a cheque for a charitable institution.”



Trial Trip on the Underground Railway, 1863', (circa 1876). Artist Unknown.
Trial Trip on the Underground Railway, 1863′, (circa 1876). Artist Unknown.

But neither the judge nor the jury at his trial were swayed by this Robin Hood angle, and he was sentenced to transportation to Australia, where he had to stay for life.

(Yeah, don’t mess with 19th century Londoners and their Tube, or they’ll batter you with unlimited Vitamin D.)

He was one of the very last people to be deported to Australia, after which Britain had to curb their appetite for using the place as a dumping ground for their criminals.

For that reason he never got to see the railway line completed (and nor did Charles, who died of dropsy before it was finished), and had to spend 10 years toiling at the Swan River Penal Colony down under.

Dr Stephen Halliday pointed out in a lecture at Gresham College, “they did get their own back, because one of his descendants, Ian Redpath, the New South Wales batsman, caused the English cricket team a great deal of trouble in the century that followed!”

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