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Secrets of the London Underground
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Secrets of the London Underground

Picture of Isabel Morrish
Updated: 15 November 2016
The London Underground first opened on 10 January 1863 with steam powered trains operating between Paddington and Farringdon Street. Now spanning over 250 miles, it carried over 1 billion passengers last year. The Tube has a varied past and continues to capture the imagination of travel enthusiasts, urban explorers and photographers alike. We delve into its pivotal role during the war and uncover the ghost stations, air raid shelters, aircraft factories and more that form the labyrinthine tunnels.
Henry VIII Wine Cellar ©Amanda Reynolds_Wiki Commons .jpg
Henry VIII Wine Cellar | ©Amanda Reynolds_Wiki Commons .jpg

Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar

Henry VIII’s magnificent court was well known for its splendour and extravagance, attracting foreign dignitaries across Europe. When Cardinal Wolsey, then Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, was removed from power, Whitehall palace was ceded to Henry. In 1536, a Tudor brick vaulted wine cellar measuring 70 by 30 feet was constructed beneath the palace and 300 barrels were delivered each year from Gascony. The cellar was the only part of the palace that survived the catastrophic fire of 1698 and remains perfectly preserved today. Following plans to build the Ministry of Defence, the Cellar was successfully relocated nine feet to the West and nearly 19 feet deeper and now is tucked away in the basement of its main building.

Cross duelling pistols ©Flickr, Joel Edegran.
Cross duelling pistols | ©Flickr, Joel Edegran

The Camden Catacombs

Built in the 19th century, the long-forgotten labyrinth of tunnels that run beneath Euston, the goods depot at Primrose Hill and under Camden Lock Market, have become known as the Camden Catacombs. However, they were not used as burial places for the dead and their original purpose as stables is evident in the cast-iron grilles set at regular intervals in the road surface, which would have been the main source of light for the horses.

The London Underground As Air Raid Shelter 1940_D1602 ©ImperialWarMuseums_Wiki Commons.jpg
The London Underground As Air Raid Shelter 1940_D1602 | ©ImperialWarMuseums_Wiki Commons.jpg

Air raid shelters

During the War, the Underground was used to its full potential and became a primary site for the government’s military and defense strategies. Due, in part, to overcrowding on platforms, the government built deep level communal shelters during the Blitz beneath Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Chancery Lane, Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common and Clapham South. The Tube housed special supply trains that provided Londoners with seven tonnes of food and 2,4000 gallons of tea each night, as well as assisting in the evacuation of over 200,000 children. Five of the eight stations were opened to the city’s inhabitants in 1944 when it fell under attack from V1 and V2 rocket bombs. At the end of the war, Stockwell housed 4000 American Troops on their way home from Germany and one of its entrances is now a war memorial.

Clapham South Mike_Knell Wiki Commons
Clapham South Mike_Knell Wiki Commons

Clapham South

The deep level shelter at Clapham South was dug by hand 30 meters below the Northern Line and remains accessible down a winding staircase inside a small black door on Balham Hill. Originally intended to form part of a crossrail line between North and South London, this shelter was designed to house up to 8,000 Londoners and was equipped with facilities including toilets, a nursing meeting point, canteen and lined with bunk beds. The shelter was never used to its full capacity, which is revealing in relation to the pervasive idea that spending too much time underground during the Blitz did not echo traditional British sprit. When the passenger liner Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks in 1948, more than 400 Jamaicans were temporarily housed for six months in the tunnels.

Clapham South Station, Balham Hill, London, SW12 9DU, UK, 0207 222 1234

Goodge Street

Made up of two parallel tunnels, the air shelter underneath Goodge Street was built between 1940-42 and, similarly to Clapham South, was fitted with bunks, medical posts, kitchens and lavatories. Towards the end of 1942 it became the meeting place for the Allied armed forces, housed Government officials and is also said to have been the headquarters of the US General and American President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is where Eisenhower is said to have announced the invasion of France on 6 June 1944.

Goodge Street Station, 75 Tottenham Court Road, London, W1P 9PA, UK, 0207 222 1234

Down Street

Situated on the Piccadilly Line between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner, Down Street first opened in 1907 and closed in 1932 when Dover Street, now Green Park, was expanded. It remained unused until the War, when it was converted into government offices. This station became the series of Cabinet War Rooms and the bunker was used by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and also as a meeting space for the Railway Executive Committee. This warren of rooms remains open to the public and gives a visceral sense of what it would have been like to work in these secret headquarters. We can retrace Churchill’s steps; visit his kitchen, bedroom, the Telephone Room where he had top secret conversations with President Roosevelt, and the Map Room. This room was a hub of wartime activity and is adorned with maps and desks piled high with important letters and documents.

Tunnel ©Flickr, bhg.jpg
Tunnel | ©Flickr, bhg.jpg

Secret tunnels

Tunnels running beneath Whitehall were built to allow safe modes of communication and so that officials could move safely during bombings. Documents reveal that tunnels reportedly stretching from Downing Street to Trafalgar Square connect to the nuclear bunker underneath the Ministry of Defence. Known as ‘Pindar’, it took ten years to build, at the cost of £126 million and remains an important part of defence management. The Prince of Wales and American author Mark Twain were passengers onboard the Central Line’s inaugural journey in 1900. During the Second World War, a fighter aircraft factory was situated between Newbury Park and Leytonstone. It had its own railway system that spanned over two miles and its existence was kept secret until the 1980’s. In 1942, two tunnels running parallel to the Central Line, accessible via two black doors in a backstreet near Chancery Lane station, were built as an air raid shelter. The two tunnels at Chancery Lane were not used as shelters and during the years after the War became the site for MI6’s enigmatic Inter Services Research Bureau. In 1954, they became a telephone exchange that housed Eisenhower and Khrushchev’s secret ‘hotline’ and remained in lockdown during the Cuban missile crisis. The once used switchboards for the Kingsway Telephone Exchange remain in situ. 60 years ago the abandoned Kingsway Tram tunnel transported Londoners from Holborn to Waterloo Bridge. It then fell into disuse, occasionally used as a film set and adorned with signs for a fictional Union Street station. It is now the focal point for the Crossrail construction project, which is scheduled to link Canary Wharf with Heathrow with up to 24 trains each hour by 2018.

Chancery Lane station, High Holborn, London, WC1V 6DR, UK, 0207 222 1234

Haunted stations

‘The forthcoming end of the world will be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into infernal regions and thereby disturbing the Devil’, warned Reverend John Cumming. It is believed that William Terriss, who was murdered by fellow actor Richard Prince outside the Adelphi Theatre in 1897, haunts nearby Covent Garden station. The renowned Screaming Spectre of Farringdon is believed to be a murdered schoolgirl Anne Naylor, who was adopted and later murdered by hat maker Sarah Metyard and her husband in a building that is now the station. The South Island Place man is regularly seen by staff in the tunnels near Stockwell, wearing overalls and a lamp that match the appearance of a worker killed during an accident on the Northern Line in the 1950’s.

Labyrinth ©Flickr, Nigel Bewley
Labyrinth | ©Flickr, Nigel Bewley

Literary and Cinematic inspiration

Director Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film The Lodger (1926) features him making a cameo on the Underground. Metroland (1973) by former poet laureate John Betjeman meditates on the residential suburbs and inhabitants that formed alongside the Metropolitan Line, which was the world’s first steam underground. Aldwych Station closed in 1994 and has since been used to test platform lighting and as a backdrop for films including Tomb Raider and the music video for the Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter.’ It is due to be opened to the public by the London Transport Museum.

Baker Street Underground ©Flickr, Sandeep Kaujalgi
Baker Street Underground | ©Flickr, Sandeep Kaujalgi

Art on the Underground

Art of the Underground is a continuing project that celebrates the Tube as a unique setting for art. This includes Mark Wallinger’s well known ‘Labyrinth’ project that marked the network’s 150th anniversary last year. Wallinger created individual artworks for all 270 stations that reflected his interest in the idea of being imaginatively or spiritually transported. This is visualised in the ancient symbol of the labyrinth, which as a single meandering path that can be traced into its centre and outwards again, is evocative of the Tube traveller’s journey. Finsbury Park station is decorated with a mosaic mural that depicts a pair of dueling pistols. This pays homage to a time when men would go to the park after hours in order to defend their honour. Baker Street station is decorated with unique tiles that commemorate treasured fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Outside the station is a large statue and nearby the Sherlock Holmes museum, which recreates the detective’s home at 221b Baker Street.

Finsbury Park station, Wells Terrace, London, N4 3JU, UK, 0207 222 1234

Baker Street station, Marylebone Road, London, NW1, UK, 0207 222 1234