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Under the Ground

A portrait of a sewer-hunter, taken from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor; theirs was a dangerous and despised occupation, but the city has always been characterised by the search for profit of any kind.


What Lies Beneath

There are always rumours of a world under the ground. Underground chambers and tunnels have been reported, one linking the crypt of St. Bartholomew the Great with Canonbury, another running a shorter distance between the priory and nunnery of Clerkenwell. There are extensive catacombs in Camden Town, beneath the Camden goods yard. Roman temples have been discovered within “hidden” London. Statues of ancient deities have been found in a condition which suggests that, for reasons unknown, they were deliberately buried. At All Hallows, Barking, a buried undercroft and arch of a Christian church were constructed with Roman materials; a cross of sandstone was also found, with the inscription WERHERE of Saxon date; it is somehow strangely evocative of WE ARE HERE. Lost beneath Cheapside, and found only after the bombing of London, was the figure of the “Dead Christ” laid horizontally in a stratum of London soil. Evidence of the passage of generations, themselves buried in the clay and gravel, was found on the corner of Ray Street and Little Saffron Hill; thirteen feet below the surface, in 1855, “the workmen came upon the pavement of an old street, consisting of very large blocks of ragstone of irregular shape. An examination of the paving-stones showed that the street had been well used. They are worn quite smooth by the footsteps and traffic of a past generation.” Beneath these ancient stones were found piles of oak—thick, hard and covered with slime—interpreted as fragments of a great mill. Beneath the oak, in turn, were crude wooden water pipes. The great weight of the past had pressed all this material of London “into a hard and almost solid mass, and it is curious to observe that near the old surface were great numbers of pins.” The mystery of the pins remains.

The author of Unknown London has remarked: “I have climbed down more ladders to explore the buried town than I have toiled up City staircases,” which may lead to the impression that there is more beneath than above. One of the characteristic drawings of the city is that of its horizontal levels, from the rooftops of its houses to the caverns of its sewers, bearing down upon and almost crushing one another with their weight. It was well said, in one guide to the city’s history, that “certain it is that none who know London would deny that its treasures must be sought in its depths”; it is an ambiguous sentence, perhaps, with a social as well as a topographical mystery associated with it.

Another great London historian, Charles Knight, suggested that if we were to “imagine that this great capital of capitals should ever be what Babylon is—its very site forgotten—one could not but almost envy the delight with which the antiquaries of that future time would hear of some discovery of a London below the soil still remaining. We can fancy we see the progress of the excavators from one part to another of the mighty but, for a while, inexplicable labyrinth till the whole was cleared open to the daylight, and the vast systems laid before them.” It is a stupendous conception, but no more stupendous than the reality.

There is indeed a London under the ground, comprising great vaults and passageways, sewers and tunnels, pipes and corridors, issuing into one another. There are great networks of gas and water pipes, many long since disused but others being transformed into conduits for the thousands of miles of coaxial cables which now help to organise and control the city. Walter George Bell, the author of London Rediscoveries, noticed how in the early 1920s Post Office workmen were laying earthenware conduits for their telephone cables within a trough created by the wall of a Roman villa lying in Gracechurch Street, so that, as he said, “our messages go whispering” through rooms where once the citizens of a lost London spoke in an alien tongue. There are deep-level tunnels for British Telecom and for the London Electricity Board, with National Grid cables carried in conduits and trenches. A great system of Post Office tunnels was inaugurated after 1945, complicating the topography of this subterranean region. There are more tunnels under the Thames than under the river of any other capital city—tunnels for trains, for cars, for foot passengers as well as for the supplies of public utilities. The whole area under the river, and indeed under the whole of the city, is a catacomb of avenues and highways mimicking their counterparts above ground.

Yet something happens when you travel beneath the surface of London; the very air itself seems to become old and sorrowful, with its inheritance of grief. The Thames Tunnel, built between 1825 and 1841, was, for example, established only at the cost of much labour and suffering. Its history is recorded in London Under London by Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman. Marc Brunel began the tunnel at a depth of sixty-three feet, using a great “shield” to take out the earth, while the bricklayers continually formed the walls of the tunnel itself. There were often eruptions of earth and deluges of water; the workmen were “like labourers in a dangerous coal-mine, in constant terror from either fire or water.” One labourer fell down the great shaft, while drunk, and died; some drowned in floods, others died of “ague” or dysentery, and one or two suffocated in the “thick and impure air.” Marc Brunel himself suffered a paralytic stroke, yet insisted upon continuing his work. He left a diary which is sufficiently compelling to need no description—“16 May, 1828, Inflammable gas. Men complain v. much. 26 May. Heywood died this morning. Two more on the sick list. Page is evidently sinking very fast … I feel much debility after having been some time below. 28 May. Bowyer died today or yesterday. A good man.” The metaphor of “sinking” is instructive in this context, as if the whole weight of the underground world were fatal. The air of dream, of hopelessness and dreariness, seems to have haunted this tunnel. “The very walls were in a cold sweat,” The Times reported upon its opening in 1843.

It is suggestive that Marc Brunel discovered his unique way of tunnelling underground while incarcerated in a debtors’ prison in London; here he noticed the activities of a worm, teredo navalis, which itself is a “natural tunneler.” The atmosphere of prison, too, is incorporated within the very structure of these tunnels. Nathaniel Hawthorne descended into the depths of the Thames Tunnel after its completion, down “a wearisome succession of staircases” until “we behold the vista of an arched corridor that extends into everlasting midnight.” Here is a depiction of melancholy anxiety transformed into brick and stone, “gloomier than a street of upper London.” Yet there were some Londoners who soon became acclimatised to the depth and the dankness. Hawthorne observed in the dusk “stalls or shops, in little alcoves, kept principally by women … they assail you with hungry entreaties to buy their merchandise.” It was his belief that these subterranean women “spend their lives there, seldom or never, I presume seeing any daylight.” He describes the Thames Tunnel, therefore, as “an admirable prison.” It was for this reason, precisely, that it never succeeded as a pathway for vehicles or pedestrians; the gloomy associations and connotations were just too strong. So it was little used after its inception, and in 1869 it was taken over by the East London Railway. In that capacity it has existed ever since, and now forms the underground connection between Wapping and Rotherhithe.

The other tunnels under the Thames have not lost their overpowering sense of gloom. Of the Rotherhithe Road Tunnel, built between Stepney and Rotherhithe, Iain Sinclair has written in Downriver, “If you want to sample the worst London can offer, follow me down that slow incline. The tunnel drips with warnings: DO NOT STOP” and he goes on to suggest that “The tunnel can achieve meaning only if it remains unused and silent.” That silence can be forbidding: the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, opened in 1902, can seem more lonely and desolate than any other part of London. Yet there are some, like the female shopkeepers pleading in the dusk of the Thames Tunnel, who seem to belong to this subterranean world.

An eighteenth-century German traveller observed that “one third of the inhabitants of London live under ground.” We may date this inclination to the Bronze Age, when underground tunnels were built a little to the west of where the Greenwich Observatory is now situated. (It has been suggested that the wells or pits which ventilate them were themselves early forms of stellar observation, which may once more suggest that continuity for which London is notable.) The German traveller was in fact remarking upon the curious basements or “cellar dwellings” of eighteenth-century London, which had already been a feature of the city for two hundred years. They were let to the very poor who “entered by steps from the street down a well which was supposed to be closed at nightfall by a flap.” In the transcripts of the poor we have some brief glimpses of this subterranean life—“I am a cobbler. I live in a cellar … I am a shoemaker. I keep a kitchen [basement dwelling] in Monmouth Street … I do not know the landlady’s name, I pay my money every Monday.” But these traps of dampness and darkness also had more nefarious uses. “I keep a public cellar” seems to have meant that vagrants or drunks or debauchees had access to a buried life.

This tendency to seek refuge beneath the city became most noticeable in the twentieth century. It has been estimated that during the First World War, one-third of a million Londoners went underground in February 1918, to shelter in the tube stations which extended below the capital. They became accustomed to their buried life, and even began to savour it. Indeed, according to Philip Ziegler in London at War, one of the principal fears of the authorities was that a “‘deep shelter’ mentality might grow up and result in paralysis of will among those who succumbed to it.” It was also suggested that the underground Londoners “would grow hysterical with fear and would never surface to perform their duties.”

In the autumn of 1940 Londoners were once more buried. They flocked to underground shelters or the crypts of churches, and certain people “lived underground, and saw less of the sky than any miner.” In each of the deep shelters more than a thousand people might congregate “lying closer together than the dead in any graveyard” while those in the crypts “sought shelter amongst the dead.” This is a constant image in descriptions of the subterranean life. It is like being dead, buried alive beneath the great city. The most famous of these caverns under the ground was the “Tilbury” beneath Commercial Road and Cable Street where thousands of East Enders sheltered from the bombs.

The tube stations were the most obvious locations of safety. Henry Moore wandered among their new inhabitants, and made preliminary notes for his drawings. “Dramatic, dismal lit, masses of reclining figures fading foreground. Chains hanging from old cranes … Mud and rubbish and chaotic untidiness everywhere.” The stench of urine was noticeable, as well as fetid human smells: this is a picture of London in almost primeval state, as if in the journey under ground the citizens had gone back centuries. “I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the train tunnels seemed to be like the holes in my sculpture. And amid the grim tension, I noticed groups of strangers forming together in intimate groups and children asleep within feet of the passing trains.” He compared it to “the hold of a slave ship” except that its passengers were sailing nowhere. Once again, as in the previous episodes of wartime bombing in London, the vision of a subterranean population alarmed the authorities. In Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, a late twentieth-century hymn to the city, the narrator had once “sought the safety of the tubes” during the Blitz, and had since that time become obsessed with “lost tube lines” and the whole world under the surface of the city. “I discovered evidence that London was interlaced with connecting tunnels, home of a troglodytic race that had gone underground at the time of the Great Fire … Others had hinted of a London under London in a variety of texts as far back as Chaucer.” It is a wonderful fantasy, but in the early 1940s there was a genuine fear that these “subterraneans” would become a reality.

“We ought not to encourage a permanent day and night population underground,” Herbert Morrison stated in the autumn of 1944. “If that spirit gets abroad we are defeated.” The prospect of defeatism was not the only concern. It was also noticed that the experience of living underground encouraged an anti-authoritarian and egalitarian spirit, as if the conditions above the ground could be reversed. Here, out of sight, radicalism might flourish; one newsletter which circulated among the subterraneans denounced the wartime authorities for “indifference amounting almost to callousness, neglect, soulless contempt for elementary human decencies.” So those under the ground instilled an element of fear in those who remained above it; it resembles the ancient superstitious fear of the miner, as an emblem of the dark world in which he works. It is the fear of the depths.

That is why the figure of the underground man is so potent, known over the centuries as the fermor, the raker and the flusher, whose employment it was to clean out the sewers and clear them of obstruction. There were sewer-hunters as well, also known as toshers, who wandered through the sewers looking for articles which they could sell. “Many wondrous tales are still told among the people,” Henry Mayhew wrote, “of men having lost their way in the sewers, and of having wandered among the filthy passages—their lights extinguished by the noisome vapours—till, faint and overpowered, they dropped down and died on the spot. Other stories are told of sewer-hunters beset by myriads of enormous rats … in a few days afterwards their skeletons were discovered picked to the very bones.” These alarming stories testify to the fear associated with the underground passages of London, and there were indeed real dangers in this enterprise of converting rubbish—iron, copper, rope, bone—into money. The brickwork was often rotten and liable to crumble or to fall, the air was noxious, and the tides of the nineteenth-century Thames swept through the sewers leaving some victims “quite dead, battered and disfigured in a dreadful manner.” They worked silently and stealthily, closing off their bull’s-eye lanterns whenever they passed beneath a street-grating “for otherwise a crowd might collect overhead.” They wore greasy velveteen coats with capacious pockets, and trousers of dirty canvas. They were, in the words of one Londoner not meaning to make a pun, “the lowest of the low.”

There are more recent accounts of the honest flushers and gangers who are gainfully employed to clear the sewers of soft mud and grit. A newspaper account of 1960 reports, of a Piccadilly sewer which drained into the Tyburn, that “it was like crossing the Styx. The fog had followed us down from the streets and swirled above the discoloured and strong-smelling river like the stream of Hades.” So the descent conjures up mythological imagery. Eric Newby descended into the sewer of the Fleet and “seen fitfully by the light of miners’ lanterns and special lamps, it was like one of the prisons designed by Piranesi.” Again the imagery of the prison emerges. One sewerman told an interested guest below: “You should see some of ’em under the City. They’re medieval. They don’t show ’em to visitors.” In that medieval spirit we read then of a “cavernous chamber … with pillars, arches, and buttresses, like a cathedral undercroft.” It is a strange city beneath the ground, perhaps best exemplified by worn manhole covers which, instead of reading SELF LOCKING, spell out ELF KING.

No account of underground London, however, could be complete without the Underground itself. It is a great subterranean metropolis covering an area of 620 square miles, 254 miles of railway connecting this extraordinary profusion of tunnels and stations with their mysterious names such as Gospel Oak, White City, Angel and Seven Sisters.

The scheme for transport under London had been broached in the 1840s and 1850s, but had met with serious objections. It was feared that the weight of traffic overhead (which an underground system was meant to relieve) would crush any tunnels beneath, and that the houses above the proposed routes would shiver and fall from the vibrations. Eventually in 1860 one scheme was accepted. The Metropolitan Railway was constructed from Paddington to Farringdon Street within three years, by means of the “cut and cover” method, and immediately proved a great success. The enterprise represented a triumph of mid-Victorian energy and ingenuity; there is an engraving of the “Trial Trip on the Underground Railway, 1863” in which the open carriages are filled with men waving their stove-pipe hats in the air as they pass beneath a tunnel. On opening day “the crowd at the Farringdon Street station was as great as at the doors of a theatre on the first night of some popular performer,” and in fact the sheer vivacity and theatricality of the undertaking were a large part of its popularity; the spectacle of steam trains disappearing under the ground, like demons in a pantomime, satisfied the London appetite for sensation.

By the early twentieth century the shape of the contemporary underground “network” was beginning to emerge. The City and South London Railway opened in 1890, for example; because the route from King William Street to Stockwell was created by means of tunnelling rather than the older “cut and cover” method, it has the distinction of being the first named “the tube.” It had the further distinction of being the first electrically operated underground system in the world, after years of steam; the carriages had no windows, on the understandable principle that there was nothing particular to see, and the luxurious furnishings gave them the nickname of “padded cells.”

The tube was followed by the Central Line in 1900, the Bakerloo and the Piccadilly in 1906, and the Hampstead (or Northern) line in 1907. It had ceased to be a spectacular or even surprising innovation, and had become an inalienable part of London’s quotidian life. By slow degrees, too, it acquired the familiar characteristics and aspects of the city. Or perhaps it is the case that the city above ground has made a replica of itself below. The Underground has its streets and avenues which the pedestrians quickly recognise and follow. It has its short cuts, its crossroads, its particular features (no escalators at Queensway, deep lifts in Hampstead, long escalators at the Angel) and, just like the city itself, areas of bright lights and bustle are surrounded by areas of darkness and disuse. The rhythms of the city are endlessly mimicked beneath the city, as well as its patterns of activity and habitation.

Like the great city, too, the thoroughfares of the Underground have their own particular associations and connections. The Northern Line is intense and somehow desperate; the Central Line is energetic, while the Circle is adventurous and breezy. The Bakerloo Line, however, is flat and despairing. The gloom of Lancaster Gate sits between the bustle of Bond Street and the brightness of Notting Hill Gate. Where disasters have occurred, such as Moorgate and Bethnal Green, the air is still desolate. But there are stations, like Baker Street and Gloucester Road, which lift the spirit. The air itself becomes quite different as the passengers travel towards the oldest sections of London in the City. As the Circle Line moves from Edgware Road and Great Portland Street towards the ancient centre, it travels through ever deeper levels of anonymity and oblivion. On one stretch of that line G.K. Chesterton noticed that the names of St. James’s Park, Westminster, Charing Cross, Temple, Blackfriars “are really the foundation stones of London: and it is right that they should (as it were) be underground” since “all bear witness to an ancient religion.”

These images are entirely appropriate for an enterprise which, in its operations, has descended so deeply that it has reached the levels of the old primeval swamp which once was London; beneath Victoria Underground Station some fossils, fifty million years old, were uncovered. These ancient depths may indeed account for the peculiar sensation and atmosphere which the Underground evokes. There are accounts of ghosts, or presences, in the subterranean depths. Certainly there are “ghost stations” with long-forgotten platforms, some of them still retaining their faded hoardings and posters. There are some forty of them remaining—British Museum, City Road, South Kentish Town, York Road, Marlborough Road and King William Street among them—silent and generally invisible.

The Underground is also a place of chance meeting and coincidence, but it generates greater fear and anxiety—of strangers, of thieves, and of the mad who haunt its endlessly running trains. Yet it has become familiar. Ford Madox Ford, in The Soul of London, wrote that “I have known a man, dying a long way from London, sigh queerly for a sight of the gush of smoke that, on a platform of the Underground, one may see, escaping in great woolly clots up a circular opening, by a grimy, rusted, iron shield, into the dim upper light.” Here is a true Londoner, wishing on his death-bed once more to see and savour the smoke of the Underground, like a prisoner dreaming once more of his confinement. And still the work goes on. As London expands, so does its buried counterpart grow and stretch beneath it.

If in the last days of the twentieth century you sat in the shadow of the great tower of Canary Wharf, you would have seen hundreds of workmen hurrying around the track of the Jubilee Line extension; the work was endless and noisy, with great arcs of light and gleams of silver fire charging the night air with power in alliance with some unknown future city.

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