The Story of London Underground’s first-ever escalator and the first person to use it

View of a platform on the Baker Street London Undergound and Waterloo Railway in its first week of opening
Passengers waiting at an Underground Station, 1906.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The London Underground has no shortage of wild, extraordinary, sometimes bizarre stories and tales. An emblem of London’s early run into modernity, the Underground network is a vast and convoluted network of crisscrossing railway tunnels. With its numerous stations dotted around the city, each station is filled with a pilgrimage of busy commuters. Like the city it calls home, the network has a rich, colorful, intriguing history. Let’s take a leaf from history and unravel one of its most riveting stories – the birth of the escalator.

Now, imagine this. The year is 1911. The city is in the midst of an exciting growth spurt. At the heart of it is the fast-growing London underground, the first-ever of its kind. It is slowly coming to life… one new tunnel at a time. 

Got it? Okay, now transport yourself to Earl’s Court underground station. Snap bang in the center of the bustling metropolis, Earl’s Court station is nestled in an ocean of chic shopping arcades, cafes, and upmarket restaurants. As the story of the past goes, it also became the first-ever station to host the moving staircase, what we now call an escalator. But, and very unsurprisingly, the stairway sent no shortage of terror in the many travelers unfamiliar with such a thing back then. Terrified Londoners crowded the top and the bottom of the newly opened stairway. Overcome by awe and amazement, they couldn’t be blamed for dreading their laces getting stuck in the gaps or just wobbling and tumbling down to their demise.

To clarify, this wasn’t the first-ever escalator in the entire city of London or the world. Late in the 19th century, the first London-based escalator appeared in the upmarket departmental store of Harrods. Before that, escalators were popping up in Paris and the United States. The first workable one was opened in the USA in 1892 in a theme park in Coney Island, New York. However, the ones mentioned above didn’t usually fall in the tracks of London’s large commuting population. Unlike the one at Earls Court, which met many travelers by surprise. 

It’s also worth noting that, back then, the escalators were designed a little differently. Unlike today’s “comb” model, the first-ever escalators ended with a diagonal stairway, which meant that the escalator finished earlier for the right foot than it did for the left foot. And, honestly speaking, if you’ve ever traveled on London’s many escalators, it doesn’t take a telescope to see how terrifyingly long they are. So, as expected, it wouldn’t be easy to get the premodern commuters to embrace this marvel of engineering. 

In response, then, the station authorities conjured up a cunning plan. This is where a person called William “Bumper” Harris comes into the picture. An engineer by trade, this chap had only one leg. Originally from Bristol, Harris got a job up north in Salford as an engineer. Later, he married his boss’s daughter and ended up being sent to London to work on its budding new underground railway line. In a sad and brutal-sounding train incident, he lost a leg as it got stuck between two carriages, leaving him with his one-legged figure. Rumour has it that he was the victim of a nasty prank played by his colleagues. He may have lost a leg, but he certainly kept his courage.

So, as it happened, Harris was asked to spend the day cruising up and down the escalator to reassure the multitudes of frightened (and mostly two-legged) passengers. As it turns out, probably thanks to his engineering background, this new wonder of engineering was nothing more than “child’s play.” So, unintimidated by the novelty, Bumper’s single leg became the first to carry a person up and down the escalator. Shortly afterward, the rest of the crowd took the plunge and harkened to a new era in public transport. 

Meanwhile, it is said that our old man Harris went on to make an absolute fortune in the years that followed, bagging several properties in Greenwich in the process. Having earnt a buck from simply riding up and down an escalator, he later worked on the Severn Tunnel, yet another feat of engineering that happens to connect Wales with the South-Western corner of England. He spent his last years in Gloucestershire, retiring in the small town of Stonehouse, where he reportedly became a watercolor artist.

Today, the London Underground boasts a total of 451 escalators, the vast majority located in the busiest stations. The station that bags the most is Waterloo Station, with 23 escalators. A short journey west from Waterloo, at Angel Station is the deepest in the entire network, extending to a whopping 60 meters deep. Together, this cobweb of moving stairways helps transit a staggering 1.35 billion passengers yearly, measured by annual arrivals. 

So, if you’re lucky enough to crisscross London’s vast underground network, you know who to thank. And, quite fittingly, London isn’t unaware of their unsung hero. Today, a small and handsome figurine of William Harris stands proudly in London’s Transport Museum. A fitting tribute to the humble yet momentous legacy that William Harris came to forebear. 


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