Frank Pick

23 Nov 1878
7 Nov 1941
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Frank Pick Hon. RIBA (23 November 1878 – 7 November 1941) was a British transport administrator.

After qualifying as a solicitor in 1902, he worked at the North Eastern Railway, before moving to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) in 1906.

At the UERL he rose through the corporate ranks, becoming joint assistant managing director in 1921 and managing director in 1928.

He was chief executive officer and vice-chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board from its creation in 1933 until 1940.

Pick had a strong interest in design and its use in public life. He steered the development of the London Underground’s corporate identity by commissioning eye-catching commercial art, graphic design and modern architecture, establishing a highly recognisable brand, including the first versions of the roundel and typeface still used today.

Under his direction, the UERL’s Underground network and associated bus services expanded considerably reaching out into new areas and stimulating the growth of London’s suburbs.

His impact on the growth of London between the world wars led to him being likened to Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses.

Pick’s interest extended beyond his own organisation; he was a founding member and later served as President of the Design and Industries Association.

He was also the first chairman of the Council for Art and Industry and regularly wrote and lectured on design and urban planning subjects.

For the government, Pick prepared the transport plan for the mass evacuation of civilians from London at the outbreak of war and produced reports on the wartime use of canals and ports.

Frank Pick was born on 23 November 1878 at Spalding, Lincolnshire. He was the first child of five born to draper Francis Pick and his wife Fanny Pick (née Clarke).

Pick’s paternal grandfather, Charles Pick, was a farmer in Spalding who died in his forties, leaving eight children. His maternal grandfather, Thomas Clarke, was a blacksmith and Wesleyan lay preacher.

As a child, Pick was bookish, preferring to read and build collections of moths and butterflies and objects found on the beach rather than take part in sports.

Before becoming a draper, Pick’s father had had an ambition to become a lawyer and he encouraged his son to follow this career. Pick attended St Peter’s School in York on a scholarship, but failed to get a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.

Instead, he was articled to a York solicitor, George Crombie, in March 1897. He qualified in January 1902 and completed a law degree at the University of London in the same year, but he was not sufficiently interested in a legal career to apply to practice.

In 1902, Pick began working for the North Eastern Railway. He worked first in the company’s traffic statistics department before becoming assistant to the company’s general manager, Sir George Gibb in 1904. In 1904, Pick married Mabel Mary Caroline Woodhouse. The couple had no children.

In 1906, Gibb was appointed managing director of the UERL. At Gibb’s invitation, Pick also moved to the UERL to continue working as his assistant.

The UERL controlled the District Railway and, during 1906 and 1907, opened three deep-level tube lines – the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (Bakerloo tube), the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (Hampstead tube) and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (Piccadilly tube).

The UERL had financial problems. Ticket prices were low and passenger numbers were significantly below the pre-opening estimates. The lower than expected passenger numbers were partly the result of competition between the UERL’s lines and those of the other tube and sub-surface railway companies.

The spread of street-level electric trams and motor buses, replacing slower, horse-drawn road transport, also took a large number of passengers away from the trains.

Biographers have characterised Pick as being “very shy”, and “brilliant but lonely”.Christian Barman described him as a person who inspired conflicting opinions about his personality and his actions: “a man about whom so many people held so many different views”.

Pick acknowledged that he could be difficult to work with: “I have always kept in mind my own frailties – a short temper. Impatience with fools, quickness rather than thoroughness. I am a bad hand at the gracious word or casual congratulation.”

His moralistic character led to friends giving him the nickname “Jonah”. Pick valued criticism and savoured challenging debate, though he complained that he found it difficult to get people to stand up to him.

UERL board member Sir Ernest Clark considered Pick to be perhaps too efficient and unable to fully delegate and relinquish responsibility: “his own efficiency has a bad effect on the efficiency of others… How can the housemaid take pride in a job to which the mistress will insist on putting the finishing touch?”Pick’s friend Noel Carrington thought that his attention to detail made him the “ideal inspector general.”

Pick ran his office on a fortnightly cycle and his workload was prodigious. Barman described Pick’s office as a training school for future managers, with a regular turnover of staff who would go on to management positions when Pick thought them ready.

Ashfield considered that Pick possessed “a sterling character and steadfast loyalty”, and “an administrative ability which was outstanding”, with “a keen analytical mind which was able to seize upon essentials and then drive his way through to his goal, always strengthened by a sure knowledge of the problem and confidence in himself.”

Charles Holden described Pick’s management of meetings: “Here his decisions were those of a benevolent dictator, and the members left the meeting with a clear sense of a task to be performed, difficult, perhaps, and sometimes impossible, as might subsequently prove to be, but usually well worth exploring if only in producing convincing proof of obstacles.

Out of these exploratory methods there often emerged new and most interesting solutions, which Pick was quick to appreciate, and to adopt in substitution for his own proposals.”

Disliking honours, Pick declined offers of a knighthood and a peerage. He did accept, in 1932, the Soviet Union’s Honorary Badge of Merit for his advice on the construction of the Moscow Metro. He was an honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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