As part of a proposal to link the recently opened London main line railway termini, the Metropolitan Railway (MR) obtained an Act of Parliament in 1854 to construct an underground railway between Paddington and Farringdon Street via Kings Cross; this was to become the first section of London’s underground railway system.
Construction of the cut-and-cover line started in February 1860 and the new line opened to the public on 10th January 1863. The Metropolitan or ‘Met’ was an immediate success and was soon carrying 26,500 passengers daily with a short extension east to Moorgate Street opening on 23rd December 1865.
There was a junction with the Great Western Railway at Paddington and the Met’s broad gauge line was initially worked by the Great Western using its own stock. This arrangement was short lived however and after a massive disagreement between the two companies, the GWR withdrew from the agreement. The Met was now forced to work the line itself with the help of the Great Northern Railway using their standard gauge stock; the broad gauge track was finally removed in 1869.
The Metropolitan Railway extended their line southwards from Praed Street (Paddington) to Gloucester Road on 1st October 1868 with a further extension to South Kensington to join the Metropolitan District Railway (MDR) which was building a line west from Westminster. The joint MR and MDR station at South Kensington opened on 24 December 1868. The MDR extended their line east to Mansion House on 3rd July 1871 and although the companies remained independent and were indeed rivals, each company operated its trains over the other’s tracks in a joint service known as the ‘Inner Circle’ although the circular route itself wasn’t completed until 6 October 1884.
As built, South Kensington had two island platforms and two side platforms with four lines (see plan). The island platforms had a fifth track between them used for terminating and reversing Metropolitan trains arriving from the west. In 1885 the MDR opened a long pedestrian subway from the station beneath the length of Exhibition Road giving sheltered access to the newly built museums; there was a toll on using the passage until 1908.
THE DEEP LEVEL METROPOLITAN DISTRICT EXPRESS LINE
By the beginning of the 20th century, the MDR had built extensions to Richmond, Ealing, Hounslow and Wimbledon and was suffering considerable congestion on the southern section of the Inner Circle between South Kensington and Mansion House. Between these two stations it was running an average of twenty trains an hour, with more in the peak periods, which meant there was a permanent smoke-laden atmosphere in the tunnels.
Electrification was the obvious solution but this was costly and the Company felt that electric traction had not yet proved itself under such a heavy load. To relieve the congestion, the MDR planned an electrified express deep-level tube line from Earl’s Court to Mansion House. The scheme was announced in 1896 with the new line diverging from existing tracks east of Earl’s Court station from where it would descend on a 1 in 42 gradient towards Gloucester Road running in a pair of 12’ 6” diameter tubes beneath the existing Metropolitan District line to a terminus 71 feet below Mansion House station. The express line would have one intermediate station at Charing Cross, 63 feet below the existing station with hydraulic lifts connecting to the booking hall.
The MDR was still steam-hauled at this time which would have meant a change of locomotive at Earl’s Court causing delays. To alleviate this, it was proposed that the change from steam to electric traction should take place in the first 176 yards of the Cromwell Road covered way while the carriages were held by a rack-railway brake. Parliamentary approval was obtained on 6 August 1897 but little work was done although the tunnel between Earls Court and South Kensington was eventually built as part of the Great Northern Piccadilly and Brompton Railway.
THE GREAT NORTHERN PICCADILLY & BROMPTON RAILWAY (PICCADILLY LINE)
The Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (GNP&BR) was established in 1902 through a merger of two older companies, the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (B&PCR) and the Great Northern and Strand Railway (GN&SR). The GNP&BR proposed a deep level tube line from South Kensington to Piccadilly Circus. In 1902 the MDR and the GNP & BR came under the joint management of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Ltd, the planned tube line was subsequently merged with a third proposed route and opened on 15 December 1906, as the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the Piccadilly Line) between Finsbury Park and Hammersmith with the station at South Kensington opening on 8 January 1907.
The deep platforms at South Kensington were constructed beneath the sub-surface platforms and access was provided from street level by lifts from an extension to the station building. This new extension was designed by Leslie Green and built with the GNP&BR’s distinctive ox-blood red glazed terracotta tiled façade. South Kensington was unique as all the other GNP&BR stations were built with both platforms at the same level; at South Kensington the eastbound platform was above the westbound platform which meant that the lifts had two lower landings. Lifts first stopped at the eastbound landing before descending a further eighteen feet to the westbound landing.
The reason for this unusual layout was because the deep level station was planned as a junction between the GNP&BR and the MDR tube lines with the eastbound platform serving both lines but with two separate platforms and tunnels for westbound trains and a junction to the west of the station. A larger diameter tunnel can still be seen from westbound Piccadilly Line trains at the site of the junction. On the eastbound line, the larger diameter platform tunnel continues beyond the current platform with sufficient room for the District Line to branch off to the right had it been built.
A section of the westbound Metropolitan District station tunnel was built at the same time and under the same powers as the GNP&BR platforms and its walls were even tiled. As this section of tunnel is adjacent to the lift shafts it seems likely that the work was carried out at this time to avoid later disruption or damage to the lift shafts if and when the deep level MDR line was ever built; a short section of tiled subway leading from the lifts was also built. The wide junction tunnels mentioned above were also built at the same time as the GNP&BR to avoid later disruption to services.
The deep-level line was never built as eventual electrification and resignalling of the MDR increased the line’s capacity and the proposed deep-level express line was no longer required. The powers for its construction were relinquished in the MDR’s 1908 Act although there were some later suggestions that the line should still be built.
In 1909, the Underground Electric Railway Company of London announced a parliamentary bill for the formal merger of the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway, the Charing Cross Euston & Hampstead Railway and the GNP&BR into a single company, the London Electric Railway Company. This bill received Royal Assent and was enacted on 26 July 1910 as the London Electric Railway Amalgamation Act, 1910. On 1 January 1913, the UERL purchased the City & South London Railway and the Central London Railway, thereby bringing all but three of London’s underground lines at that time into common ownership under the Underground Group brand.
LATER USES FOR THE DISTRICT LINE DEEP LEVEL PLATFORM
The abandoned partially-built MDR platform tunnel found a number of later uses. During World War I it was used for the safe storage of treasures from the Victoria & Albert Museum and china from Buckingham Palace. In about 1927 it housed a signal school with some track being laid including a set of points, a train stop and examples of various different signals for staff training. At this time a section of the tunnel was also converted into a lecture theatre with seating for 60 with desks, blackboard, projector and screen.
At the outbreak of World War II, the signal school closed and the tunnel was used as an emergency headquarters for the London Passenger Transport Board’s engineering services and it was divided into two levels to increase the available space. It also housed equipment for detecting bombs with delayed action fuses that had been dropped into the Thames. Hydrophones in the river bed transmitted signals back to South Kensington. This information was used determine when to close the floodgates that had been installed at the under-river crossings on the underground railway network.
POST WAR CHANGES AT SOUTH KENSINGTON
Back on the surface, the reversing track between the two island platforms was taken out of use in 1957 and the gap filled forming one wide island. The two side platforms (Platforms 1 and 4) were taken out of use in January 1968 and March 1969 respectively. The tracks for these platforms were also removed and platform 4 was subsequently demolished.
As part of an ongoing programme to replace lifts by escalators, a reconstruction programme for South Kensington station was first announced as part of the pre-war New Works programme in 1936 but it wasn’t until 1970 that London Transport announced its intention to replace the two remaining 1907 lifts with escalators. In 1971 work on two new flights of escalators was started. The lower set of three (22.1ft vertical rise) which led up to an intermediate level concourse was ready for use from 30th September 1973; the upper pair (34.5ft) from 20 January 1974. During the construction, the new lower escalator shaft intersected the deep level MDR platform tunnel and the new westbound access subways were constructed in the space occupied by part of this tunnel. A short section at the east end of the tunnel survives and now carries cables although it is barely recognisable for what it once was.
An improved ticket hall serving both the Piccadilly and District Lines was operational from 21st October 1973 and the last two Piccadilly lifts were taken out of service and dismantled. The shaft for the emergency stairs was filled with a concrete plug top and bottom. Following the replacement of the original lifts with escalators, the GNP&BR station building on Pelham Street has not been used to provide access to the tube platforms and now houses station offices. One of the lift shafts is now used for forced air ventilation with a fan being installed on the top while the adjacent shaft remains open. The remainder of the terrace of which it once formed a part has been demolished. It is possible that the entrance may be reinstated as a means by which the mobility impaired may access the tube platforms.
The present layout of the surface platforms at South Kensington is Platform 1 (formerly Platform 3): District and Circle Lines westbound and Platform 2: District and Circle Lines eastbound. There are points east of the station which allow westbound trains to terminate here and then crossover to the eastbound track. The main station entrance is located at the junction of Old Brompton Road (A3218), Thurloe Place, Harrington Road, Onslow Place and Pelham Street. The building, which incorporates a shopping arcade is Grade II listed. Subsidiary entrances are located in Exhibition Road giving access by pedestrian tunnel to the Natural History, Science, and Victoria and Albert Museums.
In 2003 Stanhope PLC put forward a proposal to redevelop the station. The proposal, which was supported by Transport for London (TfL) was for a mixed use redevelopment which included a new station and public open space incorporating transport interchange facilities, retail outlets, residential living space and new office accommodation. A new entrance to the museum subway tunnel with new retail and visitor facilities at lower ground level was also proposed. The station would get a new ticket hall at street level with improved capacity for visitors and the local community, a large public orientation space providing a focus for South Kensington, an improved transport interchange co-locating the bus terminus, new escalator and lift access to all platforms, new fire escapes, fire-fighting lifts and staircases and efficient passenger flow arrangements.
The new station would be made possible by the commercial development of the space above ground. To complement the station, there would be about 200,000 sq ft of office space housed in a glass building, a local food store and smaller retail units and 125 residential units. Despite approval from TfL, who would not have had to pay anything for the new station, there were considerable local objections. Although TfL are still keen to redevelop the site there is likely to be a more modest scheme with a report on a recently commissioned feasibility study due in April 2009.
SUB BRIT VISIT TO SOUTH KENSINGTION STATION
We met at the station supervisor’s office on the District Line platform for a safety briefing. From here we could see the platform canopy still in place above the reversing platform which was removed in1957. We then made our way to the now disused Pelham Street entrance and the upper lift landing which now houses a staff messroom and locker rooms. Both lift shafts are now used for ventilation with a fan mounted at the top of the one shaft for air intake; the adjacent exhaust shaft is open with new safety rail and platform around two sides at the top to prevent accidents. We were able to look down the shaft to the lower lift landings below.
From the upper lift landing we descended a flight of stairs and out onto the District Line station concourse from where we went down to the site of the now demolished Metropolitan District westbound platform (No 4). At the west end of the platform site a number of circular steel shaft linings were protruding from the ground and This was the back filled emergency stairs shaft from the Piccadilly Line platforms below. This shaft was taken out of use when the escalators were brought into service in 1973. Because of its position it is assumed that this shaft surfaced on the now demolished Platform 4.
Next we saw the machine room for the upper escalators, then down to the lower machine room which cut through a large section of the deep-level District Line platform tunnel. At the west end of the machine room there is what appears to be a section of a horizontally divided circular tunnel, perhaps 40 feet in length and curving to the right at the far end. The tunnel is now also divided vertically by a brick wall and has some cables hanging on one side. We were told this was the only remaining part of the District Line platform tunnel. The position and diameter appears to be correct and there is no reason why such a tunnel would have been constructed during the installation of the escalators so the balance of probability is that this is part of the original District Line tunnel.
Finally, we saw the two lower lift landings with a subway between the two lift shafts on each landing giving access to lifts on either side, each shaft having two lifts. The subways retain some white and blue tiling, the later colour scheme of the Piccadilly line. A number of cinema and other posters survive on the tiled walls dating from the 1960s and 1970s. The upper landing was entered through a louvered door on the platform. The lift shaft on the right is now an intake ventilation shaft with a fan mounted at the top of it. The second lift entrance at the far end of the landing could be entered through a cylindrical drum of brickwork with a small door and a curved movable metal vane to direct the air flow into/out of the shaft. Passing the lifts another door led to a circular ventilation tunnel of perhaps 150 yards leading to a ventilation shaft up from the westbound Piccadilly Line, we could see the rails through a grating in the floor. It was obvious the ‘fluffers’ hadn’t been here for many a year and the whole tunnel was deep with dust.
On the bottom lower landing, a door at the end of the subway leads to another section of tiled subway at right angles, this was probably built to provide access to the District line deep level platform and is now divided into two ‘rooms’, the first room is painted orange and contains a sink and water heater and has in the past been used as a staff tea room although it now appears unused. From this room a door leads into another room with the tiles now painted cream; this room contains modern electrical racks. Finally we looked at a short subway that led to the emergency stairs; the shaft has now been filled and although the tiled entrance is still there the way on is blocked by a concrete plug.
- London Transport Museum (old photographs unless stated)
- London’s Secret Tubes by Andrew Emmerson & Tony Beard - Capital Transport Publishing 2004 ISBN-13: 979-1854142831
- Abandoned Stations on London’s Underground by J E Connor - Pub. Connor & Butler 2008 ISBN 978 0 947699 41 4
- Rails through the Clay by Alan A Jackson & Desmond F Croome - Pub. George Allen & Unwin 1962.
- South Kensington Tube Station from Wikipedia, some text reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation Licence