Grahamstown-born Saffer who is London’s “Father of the Tube”

Immigrants to major cities tend to stay close to each other. In London, relocated South Africans favour the south west, an area whose commuter trains converge onto Waterloo Station, the UK’s busiest. Many Saffers step straight onto the Waterloo and City Line, a one-stop underground express to Bank Station, nerve centre of the financial district. Appropriately, as I recently discovered.

Because right outside Exit 3 at Bank Station is a double decker bus-sized bronze of their countryman, James Henry Greathead, complete with his trademark wide brimmed hat and overcoat. The statue, built a century after his death, honours the South African engineer whose invention made the London Underground possible.

His cylindrical Greathead Shield invention, patented in 1874, massively disrupted tunnel construction. It delivering projects 10 times faster and 90% cheaper and is still used today. Quite an achievement for the Grahamstown-born lad schooled at St Andrews and Bishops, and grandson to a land surveyor who led one of the 1820 settler groups.

Greathead arrived in London at 15, secured an apprenticeship at 19, and went on to become one of the best known consulting engineers of his era. He died aged 52 of stomach cancer. The statue was built 100 years after his death in gratitude to “the father of the tube”. His final project was the same Waterloo and City line so well patronised by today’s Saffers. Rather apt that.


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