The diagrammatic map that features the London Underground system – the famous “tube” – is not just familiar to every Londoner, but famous throughout the world. It has iconic status and is featured on all manner of merchandise, including, a couple of years ago, a British first-class postage stamp. What few Londoners know, however, is that its designer, Henry Charles Beck (1902-1974), better known as Harry Beck, lived in Finchley N3 for much of his life.
Beck worked at London Transport’s headquarters as an engineering draughtsman and amused himself in his spare time by drawing better versions of the tube map, which until then had been laid out geographically, more like a road map. This meant that central London stations were too crowded together and suburban ones were too spaced out.
In 1931 Beck submitted a startling new full-colour map design to Managing Director Frank Pick with lines drawn at angles of 45 and 90 degrees only. Some people claim that he got his idea from electrical wiring diagrams, but this has been denied. Although not accurate geographically, the new format was clearly easier to understand and use. Passengers were delighted and after a successful trial run in 1932, London Underground distributed a million copies of the new map in 1933.
Harry Beck lived at 60 Courthouse Gardens from 1936 until 1960, and used to walk to Finchley (Church End) station to go to work, initially by LNER steam train. A blue commemorative plaque was placed on this house by the Finchley Society on 19 June 2003. The station’s name was changed to Finchley Central in April 1940 with the arrival of electrification and Northern Line tube trains, and a memorial plaque to his achievements can be seen on the southbound platform, alongside a copy of his original 1933 design. Beck went on to design many more transport system maps, including two unsuccessful versions for the Paris Métro. (to be continued)
There is an exhibition on Harry Beck at the Church Farmhouse Museum in Hendon, probably the last exhibition at the museum before the Council forces it to close.