Site Records

London Sewers & Service Tunnels


Reproduced from Strand Magazine - August 1898

These render it sufficiently light by day for the purposes of inspection and work. The only daylight which gets into the others comes through the ventilation gratings in the footway and this has to be supplemented by artificial light. It might be thought, in view of the possibility of leakage from the gas mains, that working in the subways might be dangerous. The idea certainly struck me and I enquired of the Superintendent whether it was safe to smoke. His answer quickly reassured me; "every morning before any work is done; a most complete inspection is made." Armed with 'Daveys' the Superintendent and some of his men make a complete tour of the subways testing doubtful looking places, if anything wrong is discovered, it is speedily put right. "Be sure an extra inspection is made before the arrival of any distinguished visitors."

Presently I was astonished to learn that we actually stood over the London Chatham & Dover Railway. There we were, after painfully making our way through a subway which necessitated walking bent double in order to avoid striking our heads against the girders directly above Snow Hill Station. Yes, there is no doubt about it, as we wait we can distinctly hear a train come in and the porters shout out its destination. It seems exceedingly close, but closer still, above us; we can hear the footsteps of the people on the pavement of Snow Hill. This is rather uncanny and especially so when one learns that only 6 inches separate us from the street above and only a bare quarter of an inch of iron girder (for we are literally in a girder) prevent us from falling some 40 feet onto the railway metals. It is a novel experience (especially when the train is moving below and the spot in which we stand is positively vibrating!) and we are glad to have had it, but everyone is

obviously concerned in trying not to allow his sigh of relief to become too apparent when we resume our journey. If anyone looks pale, it must, of course, be attributed to the cramped position in which we have been standing!

Shortly afterwards, we arrived at a spot which we were informed was immediately under the Prince Consort's statue at Holborn Circus. Coming back to the Superintendent's office I was shown a great number of coins nailed to the counter. These, I was told, came through the gratings placed at intervals for ventilating purposes. It appears that gentlemen who make a business of passing spurious coin sometimes find it necessary to get rid of their `stock-in-trade' with the utmost dispatch; they drop the coins through the gratings

under the impression that they will fall into the sewers and be eventually lost. Alas for the guilty one's hopes, the coins are found shining on the clean stone floor of the subway and go to swell the stock in the Superintendent's office.

I asked him whether other articles were ever found. He replied "yes, we get plenty of empty purses. This is what the light fingered gentry do; they take them from the pockets of ladies and after carefully emptying them, drop them down the shafts. We find most of these in the dark days of winter and chiefly in the neighbourhood of crowded Smithfield. I seldom find a gentleman's purse; they general belong to city work-girls.

The professional thieves know that when the girls draw their scanty wages on a Saturday they generally go to the great markets at Smithfield to make their little purchases and ply their nefarious trade accordingly."Another interesting object in the Superintendent's little room is the `visitors' book', In it the names of foreign visitors predominate. During the last year or so, scientific men, engineers and sanitarians from Brazil, Malta, San Francisco, Finland, Santiago, Cologne, Copenhagen, Sydney and in fact, almost every great city have visited the subways. In nearly every instance the visitor has written a few words expressing his surprise and admiration at what he has seen. I could have stayed a long time chatting to the Superintendent but the shadows were already beginning to draw in and it was time for us to start on the second half of our journey. First he took me to the subway sewers which lie under

Holborn Viaduct; these sewers are quite unique in their way. As nearly as possible they follow the natural slope of the ground as it descended originally from the hills to the level of Farringdon Street and consequently between the underside of the subways and the sewer is a large space and the effect when looking up from the latter is very striking. Standing in the sewer (by the way one is able to traverse these sewers dry-shod a platform running along one side) one seems to be in a lofty

It is; of course, pitch dark, for even the glimmer of light coming through gratings in the roadway which relieve the murkiness of the ordinary sewers is absent here.
The space under the road in Farringdon Street is utilised for business purposes, large cellars having been constructed, with which entry can easily be made from the houses in the vicinity. These sewers are ventilated by square openings and shafts which drain the houses on the viaduct. Very great care and ingenuity has been exercised in the construction of these sewers darkness of the arched passage in which we stood was dimly lighted up for a few yards around by our candles as we passed along and the lights and shadows danced and flickers up the walls and along the surface of the water like veritable `Will o' the Wisps'. On we went, our progress necessarily slow for the bottom was slippery and the stream ran swiftly past our legs.

My guide explained that when there was a heavy downpour of rain outside, the word was given and the men all went up to the surface, for the rush of water filled the main almost up to the roof and the augmented stream came sweeping along with the rush and roar of a mountain torrent. "No" he said, "we don't have accidents, we can't afford to. If a man once got caught in such a torrent there'd be no saving him unless the water happened to be lower at the junction and he managed to regain his foothold otherwise he would be carried along with the stream until it discharged itself in the river at Barking. That's where he'd be found, at least what was left of him."

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

The water, as I have said, was only 1 foot to 18 inches deep but after this little conversation I found myself taking particular care as to how and where I put my feet down. Presently the photographer ordered us to halt and arrange ourselves; he wanted to take a group.

Then a difficulty arose, his camera would rest upon its stand but where would he find a support for his flash light apparatus? Happy thought - a human stand! One of the sewer men was requested to bend down; upon his sturdy shoulders the apparatus was placed and then we all waited patiently until the magnesium wire flashed out and made us all blink.

Whether the picture was a success or not will be left to the reader to say. Possibly the subjects are not looking very well pleased, but when you are standing in a stream of running water and can feel yourself perspiring profusely under a lot of unaccustomed garments; while moreover the temperature is some 20 or 30 degrees higher than would be comfortable and your eyes are getting a little strained by the curious half light it is by no means the easiest of tasks to obey the photographer's stereotyped command to "look pleasant".

Our photographer was however a man of sense, he did not waste unnecessary time giving us minute instructions how to deport ourselves but having once got us focused and he `took us' without further ado.


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