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.
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.
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 vault.
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.”
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.
After being photographed some of the party seemed disinclined to go much farther. So leaving them in the broad main, the Superintendent, at my request took me to some of the side street and byways of the underground city.
As we went, I seized on the opportunity of questioning him on his occupation; he seemed to think it was healthy enough. “Oh yes, men get knocked up sometimes but it’s more often through catching colds than anything else. You see it’s hot down here and even if men loiter up above, especially in the cold whether, they are likely to get chills. No we don’t often have men on the sick list with fevers or anything else of that sort. Why should we; it’s healthy enough down here.” You can testify that the smell is no worse than you often encounter in the open street. Now and again of course when at a bend or a narrow passage there is an accumulation of sewage and the stream gets partially dammed; the men then have a rather unpleasant job to perform, but as a rule the job is not so objectionable as you imagine. Yes sometimes a man will stay down here for six or seven hours at a stretch and they may seem none the worse. Smoke? “Yes as you can see”, pointing at his pipe, “it’s possibly if we didn’t smoke, the smells which we sometimes meet with might effect us more.”
We entered one of the branches and conversation except for the most limited description became impossible. The roof was so low that we had to bend almost double to avoid damaging ourselves, add to this it was constructed on a sharpish incline and the bottom being slippery it was necessary to proceed with caution. Had my guide explained, had it been a wet day this branch would have been quite nonnegotiable. As it was, the water in it was only a few inches deep. This came from the surface as I very soon saw, for at the top end was one of the gullies covered with an iron grating to be seen in the roadway. Back we went as we had come passed the place where the main stream forks out into two branches, in which the current of course moves more slowly. Along one of these we then went up another branch, even smaller than the first and more difficult.
From here the water was almost knee deep and was swirling and eddying like the river around the buttresses of one of the great bridges. Previously I mentioned to my guide that if possible I should like to get a glimpse of some of the rats with which the sewers abound. He had explained that although they came out more freely at night, he might be able to show me a few in one of the less frequented portions of the sewer; and this was the place he had chosen.
Painfully we made our way for some forty or fifty yards and then placing ourselves in a niche in the wall we waited but we didn’t see a rat. Rather disappointed, we were just turning to go back when I fancied a saw a dark shape slip past our feet. It may have been a rat or merely a shadow. In all events I started and nearly lost my balance. With a clutch at my companion I regained it and as I stood upright I found that we were in total darkness. As I slipped, my sconce fell from my hand and was now being gaily borne eastwards at a rate of two or three miles an hour and in grabbing at the Superintendent I had inadvertently extinguished his candle and we didn’t have a match between us. The only thing to do was to grope our way back in the dark.
Luckily my companion could have found his way out blindfold and consequently laughed heartily at our predicament. He led the way and I followed touching him lightly every few yards to make sure I was in his tracks as the darkness was so intense that I could scarcely distinguish him. Now I have a curious fact to relate. The Superintendent declares it was my imagination but at the time I could have sworn that though no rats made an appearance when, with candles lit, we stood on the look-out, they simply came out in shoals and trotted about our feet when we were journeying slowly and painfully in the dark. Well it may have been imagination and perhaps the journey in the dark had played upon my nerves more than I cared to admit.
When we rejoined the rest of the party they were all waiting and wondering what had become of us. They laughed heartily when we told our story and frankly expressed their incredulity when I spoke about the rats but they expressed no inclination to go and find out for themselves.
So back we all went to the shaft and one by one climbed up to the surface; how glad we were to get there! It was an exceedingly interesting experience and one that few people will have and that I think all of us fully recognised.
But after a couple of hours in the nether world it was undoubtedly delightful to feel the fresh breeze blowing on our cheeks, to hear the hum and clatter of traffic and to see once again the glorious blue sky over out heads.