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London Sewers & Pipe Subways


Reproduced from Strand Magazine - August 1898


It is a time-honoured saying that if you want to know any thing about this great Metropolis of ours, you must not go to a Londoner in search of information. This is no doubt a trite remark, but the more one goes about, and the longer one lives, the more apparent its truth becomes. The foreigner intelligent or otherwise; who comes to London is very properly inquisitive; he questions, he inquires, he seeks for all that is curious or interesting with the natural consequence that, after a few weeks' residence he can often give points to the man who has lived in the `heart of the Empire' all his life.

The average Londoner on the contrary, is apt to take things very much more for granted. He knows that, on the whole, matters affecting his safety and his health are well managed and such being the case, he does not bother his head much about the why and the wherefore. The vast organization, the capable administration, the host of details which have to be carefully thought out and rigorously applied, all these things are overlooked by the majority of people. The end is good; why bother about the means? Thus the average Londoner and not least the traveled Londoner, while he waxes enthusiastic over the wonders he has seen abroad - tells us about the admirable municipal arrangements which prevail in New York, and describes with animation the wonderful catacombs of Paris and Rome remains in total ignorance of the fact that here, in our great city, he might feast his eyes upon wonders no less remarkable did he but know of their existence.

But it is useless to dilate in this vein; the Londoner will not be persuaded to go and see the wonders which lie at his very door. Only through the medium of the ever inquisitive journalist, always prying about in the dark places of the earth, does he sometimes learn about and admire these native wonders of the existence of which he has not hitherto dreamed.

I am bound to admit, as far as the nether world of the city was concerned, until a short time back I was not much better informed than many of my fellows. It is true that I knew there were such places as subways and sewers; but that was about all. I had hardly the faintest conception of what they were like and probably should have continued to remain in ignorance had it not been for a visit I paid them a few months back. Quite by accident I came across the Report of the Improvement Committee

of proceedings in connection with the Holborn Valley Improvement' which was issued twenty five years ago and randomly turning over its pages I was struck by the various references and diagrams in connection with the subways. The thing took my fancy; I discovered how ignorant I was of the underground arrangements that so greatly added to the comfort an safety of those sojourning within the `one square mile' and I determined, with as little delay as possible, to make good the defect in my education.

So I applied to the City Commissioners of Sewers for the necessary authority and it was willingly granted. The chairman, Mr. H G Smallman, entered enthusiastically into the matter, remarking that if the thing was going to be done at all, it should be done thoroughly. Remember this was the first time it had been proposed to write an illustrated article on the subject. The Chairman was rather dubious as to whether we would be able to get any satisfactory photographs of the sewers; but at all events he expressed his willingness to do all he could to help us. So that we started our task under the best of auspices.

So one September afternoon we assembled outside the large iron gate beneath Holborn Viaduct - that gate which most people have noticed but the purpose for which it is used known to very few.

Beside the Chairman, there was Captain Robert Gresley Hall D.I. the Chairman of the Streets Committee, Mr. D G Ross the City Engineer and Mr. Montague Bates the Chief Clerk to The Commissioners who, according to Mr. Smallman, is virtually the `Permanent Chairman', the photographer with his assistant and the writer, brought our little party up to eight all told.

When the gate opened at our summons, Mr. W J Liberty, the City Inspector of Subways and under the engineer, the head of all practical matters appertaining to them was waiting to show us over his territory. The iron gate, through which the sunlight was streaming, closed with a clang and walking up two or three stairs we set out along one of the thoroughfares of the underground city. In the first instances, I experienced a feeling of disappointment; the reality was so different from what I expected. My idea had been that the subway would prove a damp sort of place, smelling of the earth, dark and with an atmosphere resembling that of a charnel-house. What did I see? A long, clean and well garnished looking passage, dimly illuminated by gas-jets which by the way were especially provided for our visit and having an atmosphere almost as healthy as that we had just left.

The feeling of disappointment soon gave way to one of admiration when we walked along the subway and the uses of the various pipes which ran along one side were pointed out to me. They include the mains of the gas, New River, hydraulic power and electric light companies, also the pneumatic tubes and hundreds of wires belonging to the GPO and the arrangements whereby the service mains are connected to the various houses show that simplicity which constitutes the high water mark of mechanical ingenuity. The usual time for making the connection is half an hour and in case of non payments of rates, a house can be cut off from its gas, water, electric light or power supply in a few minutes and this moreover, without the unfortunate tenant or the general public knowing anything about it.

Photo:Many pipe subways still exist today, but they are rarely seen by the public. This one is runs under Rosebery Avenue and is accessed from under the bridge in Warner Street
Photo by Nick Catford

I was rather amused to notice that the names of the various streets under which we were passing were posted along the walls, as were also the numbers of the houses served by the mains, thus in case of emergency or fire all that has to be done is cut off the service at the particular branch where the mischief has occurred.

As we went along, the Superintendent explained to me the exceedingly ingenious manner in which difficulties incidental to the construction of the subways had been surmounted and also pointed out how they were ventilated and generally kept sweet and clean. But this is not a technical article; I need not bother the reader with such details, interesting as they are to those with knowledge of underground engineering. Perhaps the most interesting subway of them all is the length on the southern side of
Holborn, between Farringdon Street and Shoe Lane which is lighted by gratings filled with glass lenses, placed at intervals of 40 feet.


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