The Development of Transport in London
from Roman Times to Today

This is an outline which others may like to develop for their local use.

The text explains when and why some of the different forms of transport developed and how the physical conditions, such as contours and the earlier development of roads and settlements, caused each new form of transport to develop as it did.

Using these maps in your own schools

Many more details could be added to explain the modern position in different local areas. This set of maps was made for North Westminster Community School, in Lisson Grove, so the 1840 map relates to the position in that area of North West London. Other schools may like to add their own map of local Roman roads, when the canals first reached London, and add their local railway histories. The local development of the Underground Railways in North London could be added and South London schools could explain why there is no Underground System south of the Thames because of their completely different geological conditions.

This set of maps is just a spine to be adapted and expanded as schools in other parts of London may decide.


Roman Road near London about AD 400,
when the Romans left Britain

In Roman Times, the road we know as Oxford Street led to Silchester, the Roman city near Reading. Watling Street led to St. Albans and eventually to Holyhead and St David’s in Wales. We now call the London end of Watling Street, Edgware Road.

Watling Street was built to by-pass London, which had only one bridge and was very congested. Instead of a bridge over the river, travellers on Watling Street crossed the Thames at the ford which is by the House of Commons. In Roman Times the sea was lower than it is today, so the ford would have been shallower then. A few years ago a man forded the Thames here at low water for a bet and did not have to swim. The Roman soldiers would have waited for low tide and hitched up their tunics.


London and its Environs in Roman Times

Roman London was a walled city built on twin gravel hills divided by a steam with many tributaries supplying it with clean water. This was a perfect site for a Roman fortress town. It had dry ground for building, good visibility of the surrounding countryside and a varied supply of clean water. London Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames and led to the single road through the marshy ground in Southwark.

What is now the City of Westminster the low-lying Thorney Island, which is still prone to flooding and, if it were not for the Embankment, would be under water half the time. Westminster Abbey was the first large building on Thorney Island but centuries after the Romans had departed.

The high Clay ground North West of London, was covered with thick forest and the Middlesex forest.

Schools may like to locate the rough position of their school site on this map and then draw a circle round it, to help pupils identify local Roman roads and streams.

For the latter ‘The Lost Rivers of London’, by Nicholas Barton, 1960, may be helpful.


The Earliest known map of Roman London

London was a port and from it Roman roads ran North East to Colchester and East to join the road to Silchester and Watling Street to Wales. The mouth of the River Fleet (our modern Fleet Street) was very marshy so this part of the road was built on wooden piles. Today it is bridged by High Holborn, with the River Fleet in a culvert carrying into the Thanes, and the streets covering the culvert far below.

By this time there were eight roads radiating from London in a semicircle.


The Roman roads near Paddington

In 1740, Paddington and Westborn (sic) were isolated villages, far from the walled City of London. Oxford Street ran westwards along the gravel ridge from Holborn, on the road to Oxford. Park Lane was then an unpaved path called Tyburn Lane.

The New Road, London’s first bypass

By 1740 Piccadilly was a huge traffic jam. Not only were there pedestrians, horse riders, horse-drawn carts and carriages of all types, but the road was full of cattle. London needed meat and herds of cattle and sheep were driven to London to be slaughtered at Smithfield. They were driven to London and held for a day or two in Hyde Park and the Maida Vale fields. From there they were driven along Piccadilly, disrupting the traffic and allowing bulls to blunder into fashionable china shops. The noise and confusion became unbearable.

It was decided to build the New Road as a by-pass from Edgware Road to Smithfield, north of the existing London houses. Incidentally it would open these areas to building, but that was not the original reason for the road. Today we call it Marylebone Road, Euston Road, Pentonville and City Road.

At this time the area was sandy Heathland, not good enough for agriculture, used to graze cattle. A few streams were bridged, hedges re-aligned and the sandy gravel leveled. The New Road was opened very quickly and London, its second bypass road.


The Coming of the Canals

++Would it be possible to colour the canal blue please or would this be too much work?

The Midlands and North had been developing canal systems for years. They were ideal for moving bulk materials like coal and iron, slowly and steadily. Roads were so bad and carts so small, that transporting them buy road was impractical. Canals were the answer and in 1801the Grand Junction Canal reached Paddington. The Grand Union was formed by uniting a number of northern canals so that goods from many towns could all be brought to London by water.

Canals always tried to follow the contours because changing the levels, by adding locks was very expensive and would always increase the journey time. The Grand Union snaked along the 30 m contour until it reached Paddington. There it came to an abrupt stop because it ran into houses. It could not proceed further and it looked as if this was the end of the story.

Paddington Basin had been opened in 1801 and soon became crowded with barges carrying goods of all kinds from the manufacturing towns of the Midlands. The goods then had to be carried into London by horse and cart, so the congestion and confusion became enormous. There were plans for a second canal basin at Paddington parallel to the first.

Heavy and bulky goods destined for the Port of London and abroad, had to be diverted at Bull’s Bridge, Hayes, to Brentford and the River Thames. There it was loaded on to Thames barges, which are sea-going boats capable of withstanding the Tames currents. Canal barges would have been far more unstable, as was proved in World War II when they tried it in the height of the Blitz and had a very hazardous time.

From Brentford the goods were carried down to the Port of London and loaded on ships for abroad. All this was time-consuming and expensive, so very soon the Regent’s Canal was planned to link Paddington and the Port of London at Whitechapel. This was started in 1811 but was a slow, expensive and frustrating project and was not completed until 1820. The detailed story is told in ‘The Growth of Camden Tow,’ Jack Whitehead, 1999.

Paddington Basin Unloading Buildings


The Regent’s Canal

The Regent’s Canal was cut through the northern part of the Regent’ Park estate, so that near the Zoo, both banks of the Canal are still Crown property. It forked right round the Estate, to Cumberland Basin (now filled in) and left to Camden Town. The canal builders had followed the 30 metre contour for 26 miles, from Bull’s Bridge to Camden Town, without the need for locks. It was level walking all that way for the horses pulling the barges.

At Camden Town the ground fell away sharply and there had to be locks to lower the level. In Islington, the canal builders had to cut tunnels through the gravel ridge and slowly, frustratingly slowly, the canal reached the Port of London. At last canal barges could reach the sea-going ships without unloading first.


Regents Canal



I WOULD LIKE THE CANAL AND REGENT’S PARK LAKE AND THE THAMES IN BLUEAND REGENT’S PARK IN GREEN. Then I would like to play about with it to explain why the railways developed where they did.

This map traces the course of the Regent’s Canal as it traces its way across North London. Each time it crossed a large road it offered an unloading point and therefore builders merchants, coal depots, power stations, timber yards and later petrol stations began to appear at these points. Years later, when the canal trade died in the Great Freeze of 1962-63, many of these firms closed. Slowly the buildings were put to other uses and are now flats or house modern high-tec firms. These local sites can be interesting Land Use studies.

North London railway 1846 and Later

Railways reached London at Euston in 1837 and Paddington in 1838. King’s Cross and St Pancras were no to be built until later but the railways were hovering near. It was decided to build a goods line from the docks to Chalk Farm/Primrose Hill and so allow the goods from the North to be carried directly to the London Docks in Poplar.

Whole Map Full Size Full Size Map in New Window

The North London Railway - Linking up the Main Line Railways

With thanks to North London Railway Historical Society website.


The first goods railway is shown as the dark line from Poplar to Chalk Farm.

Then a new railway asked to extend it as a passenger line via Dalston Junction to Broad Street for the City of London population, and a suburban service was born.

The line was extended to Queen’s Park, Willesden Junction and the London North Western Railway.

A new loop built via Gospel Oak, Hampstead Heath again to Willesden Junction wih a link to Acton and the Great Western Railway,

This was then extended to Kew and across the River to Richmond and the railway system south of the Thames.

People could work in the City of London and yet live anywhere along this lone. New towns developed all the way along.

The Railways approached London from the North and West
but were blocked by the New Road and Edgware Road


A train with passenger carriages and goods wagons approaching
London through the Primrose Hill Tunnel in 1837.


The Metropolitan Railway

Before 1862 the railways had reached Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross but were prevented from going further into London by the Euston, Marylebone and Paddington Roads and their houses. The railways approaching from the south (not shown) had built their termini either South of the Thames, or had crossed the river on bridges to the Northern Bank.

Travellers travelling via London arrived at one terminus and had to cross to a different one, before continuing their journey. This was a slow and confusing process. In 1863 the Metropolitan railway was built by ‘Cut and Cover’ and opened to link the major London Railway termini.

1863, the Metropolitan Railway opened

By the 1830s, London houses had spread as far as the New Road. The old oval of Marylebone Farm was Crown Property and in 1811, John Nash had begun to redevelop it as Regent’s Park, This drawing shows how the railways from the North and West were blocked by the New Road from penetrating nearer to the Thames and how Regent’s Park split the stations left and right.


During the 1960s Britain embarked on huge Motorway building schemes. Birmingham was crisscrossed by Spaghetti Junction and other cities had simiThe old Marylebone lar major road schemes. The Planners had published their design for a Ring Road which would encircle London in one huge ellipse, overtopping the houses, but by this time the public protests began to rise. As the Motorway approached London from the White City, cutting off the ends of old street terraces, cutting one locality off from the next, and as joy-riders used the new Motorway as an ear-splitting race track, public meetings were held all round London.


Westway under construction at the White City.
Camden Town too could have looked like this.


The Planners' Model, looking east.

The Planners’ model for Camden Town became infamous in Camden Town and Hampstead. A motorway was to sweep down from the M1, along the edge of Hampstead Heath into an enormous roundabout encircling Camden Town. The roads would swing about at three levels, driving the population to flee. When the Metropolitan Railway was built between 1860 and 1863, the developers cut a huge trench wide enough to take two lines of trains from Paddington Station, along Marylebone Road, Euston Road, Fenchurch Street and Moorgate to Liverpool Street Station. They then arched this over and built major roads on top.


Some people were driven out of their houses, while the others were made so uncomfortable by the noise and dirt that they fled to the outskirts. The City of London lost 90% of its population between 1860 and 1880. The Planners did not think they were proposing similar disruption, but the public saw more clearly than the Planners, and the Government was forced to cave in. Westway came to an abrupt stop at Edgware Road.

See ‘The London Building World 1860-1880’, by John Summerson.


Westway reaches London


In 1970 Westway opened up Edgware Road and Marylebone Road to the national Motorway System





Updated October 25, 2011
from M&P Railways Final 

Back to Growth of St Marylebone & Paddington

Main Menu