London, Underground, Part 1




The touchstone volume for collectors of books about what’s under our capital city is the lavishly illustrated and somewhat mechanically obsessed ‘London Under London’ (1984), but Stephen Smith’s book ‘Underground London’ has become a classic on the subject. It goes several stages deeper by broadening the brief, taking in rivers, conduits, sepulchres, subways, arches, shelters, basements, warrens, drains, ruins, ceremonies, societies and the quirky people who run them.

Far from providing us with a mere nuts-and-bolts history of tunnels and passages, Smith’s underworld is also an underside, a chance ‘to become acquainted with the things London would prefer to keep hidden: the flaws beneath the surface, the secrets under the floorboards.’ Being a reporter, he’s prepared to venture where few civilians would wish to go, and to initiate his readers gently he starts by descending into a pitch-black electrical shaft under Cricklewood Broadway, three miles from the nearest exit. His plan is ‘to find the oldest parts of this hidden city and read the book of London backwards to the present day’.

Setting off to traipse about the 630 square miles of the London Underground, he realises that the network’s weird appeal is probably rooted in it being a private rather than public space. In July 2002 a new record time was set for visiting all 272 stations in the system (it still took longer than 19 hours). Smith pins down the distinctive subterranean odour – ‘the singed smell of an electrical retailers’ – and the psychology – ‘it’s the repository of what’s precious to us, and also what we fear and abhor’ – before heading deeper into the supposedly impassable and forgotten underground rivers.

He considers the waterways to be ‘the capillary system of a sunken city’, running for more than a hundred miles, and debunks a few rote-repeated notions along the way with the aid of some over-enthusiastic guides who prove that British eccentrics are a far from vanishing breed. Sewer-flushers raise the squeamishness-stakes with a dire warning about the bloated dead rat bobbing past them, explaining that it’ll go off like a Chicken Kiev if anyone treads on it. Hard hats, body warmers, boiler suits and waders are donned as Smith sploshes off into the Dantesque drain system, and as the going gets truly emetic, he captures the true stench of the city’s waste in vivid prose. What’s more, he recognises that the rat is London’s real symbol, just as the Black Death is our signature disease.

Under London

But wait, we’re just beginning! Poking about in the effluvia under Parliament and Hampton Court, he meets men and women whose unwholesome fascination with their environment is matched only by their knowledge of plumbing. Nor are they alone – the public can’t wait to join the Thames Water tours, although one granny admits it’s not everyone’s idea of a fun day out. Mercifully it’s not all toilets. Wonderful finds are revealed in unlikely places; I remember seeing a surviving section of London’s basilica, built in AD 70, in the basement of a hairdresser’s, indicated by a sign advertising ‘Ten hairdressing positions and shoeshine. Plus ancient monument downstairs.’ London’s Roman ampitheatre, lost for 1,500 years, is now on display beneath the Guildhall, but the last time I went there was nobody else there. Bulwarks, buttresses, assorted bits and bobs pop up like columns of coral all over the city, in underground car parks and basements.

The less-examined parts of Anglo-Saxon London still have buildings with odd tales to tell. In the black museum of the Customs House Smith hears tales of international bird-rustlers and heroin-packed gherkins. At the Archaeological Archive And Research Centre he gets his hands dirty as Robin from Ceramics excitedly identifies bits of pottery. Over mugs of tea at Merton Abbey, he is told about a detonating Second World War bomb that exposed the river Effra flowing beneath its crater. The exhumations inspire him to air a few of London’s more peculiar ceremonies; he attends the beating of All Hallows’ boundaries on Ascension Day, which involves dangling a schoolboy upside down above the Thames so he can thrash it with a stick, and finds himself eligible to become a Freeman of the City of London, although the ceremony is a little lacking in pomp and privilege nowadays.

Periodically, the lure of the lavatory proves too strong, and Smith heads back down into the poo, spotting rare netherworld mosquitos, working out the best time to witness MPs’ motions or describing the appearance of Tudor thunderboxes. Scientists from the University of Wales worked out the precise amount of overkill Guy Fawkes would have created with his underground stash of gunpowder (he had enough to flatten the Houses of Parliament twenty five times over). A phonecall to the Corporation of London wins admittance to a crypt-clearance at St. Andrews Church, but only after a doctor’s examination clears Smith for contact with potential plague victims. The team employed to lift out the coffins and corpses is running a book on how many will be found. Eventually even their wildest estimates are topped as three thousand human remains are clocked with no sign of the crypt being emptied.


Sensing perhaps that at this point his readers might care for a palate cleanser, Smith adds a chapter on the higher purposes of cellars, including ‘rubicond sluicing’ in the wine vaults of Berry Brothers & Rudd, a company more than three centuries old who stock sack dating back to 1642. Here the guides are of a posher caste, but no less loopy in their enthusiasm for the capital’s historical sidebars; the vintners’ scales were faddishly used to weigh everyone from Pitt the Younger to Beau Brummel. Then it’s on to the silver vaults under Chancery Lane, and an exploration of the strongrooms that house safety deposit boxes, where Smith witnesses a bag actually labelled ‘Gems’ being stashed, and breaks a few juicy deposit box confidences.

To be concluded tomorrow


8 comments on “London, Underground, Part 1”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    I’ve read that and found it very interesting. Peter Ackroyd’s London Under is also good. I haven’t got London Under London but will look out for it (plus any other books with some combination of those words in the title!)

    Underground Overground by Andrew Martin is also worth reading. It is a fairly informal history of the London Underground, but not too “anorakish”.

    I have just started Zeppelin Nights, London in the First World War by Professor Jerry White. I have only read the first chapter so far but it seems to be more of a social history than a military history. Seems so far to be very well researched and written.

  2. Davem says:

    Underground London features marvellously in the Borrible trilogy 🙂

  3. Roger says:

    ” Being a reporter, he’s prepared to venture where few civilians would wish to go”
    Wrong image. A reporter is the ultimate civilian. A good reporter wants to find out and reveal the truth, even if – especially if – “they” – the authorities – don’t want it revealed.
    If Stephen Smith can go into “a pitch-black electrical shaft under Cricklewood Broadway,” he’s obviously much less than “three miles from the nearest exit”, unless it’s so narrow he can only go on, like those pot-holes people vanish into now and then.
    What is the truth about Guy Fawkes? “Guy Fawkes … had enough [gunpowder] to flatten the Houses of Parliament twenty five times over. ” we’re told. A few years ago other authoritative experts maintained he didn’t have anything like enough explosives to do more than make the walls of Parliament tremble. It always sounds like a Class-! botch-up.
    Pedantry over, it does sound like an interesting book, though as a mild claustrophobe, I’d rather read about it than read it.

  4. Jo W says:

    I bought this book a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t remember who recommended it – Chris?
    I have dipped into it from time to time since and in this hot weather it might be time for another dip 😉

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Corruption was so rife that Fawkes and his pals were buying their gunpowder from the army.

    The problem was that if gunpowder was stored for a long time it went ‘off’ and wouldn’t ignite, so the number of barrels were no indication of how big the explosion would be. But I’m sure people would have noticed it nontheless.

  6. Chris Webb says:

    This is seriously off topic, but I read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels over a period of about ten years. (They are about a naval captain and ship’s surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars.) In one of the books Jack Aubrey buys a load of gunpowder from a firework manufacturer and when they use it in the ship’s guns find it has been mixed with various chemicals to create colours, noises and sparks.

    The books are so meticulously researched and authentic I assume this was based on an actual event.

  7. Roger says:

    Early gunpowder didn’t go “off”. If it was stored a long time the ingredients separated by weight and it didn’t go off. I have visions of very nervous soldiers shaking barrels of gunpowder carefully in the hope the ingredients would mix properly before they exploded..

  8. Helen Martin says:

    The vision of the sparkly smoke and flashes of colour when the naval guns were fired is abouat the funniest thing I can imagine involving ships’ guns. I must look out this series, although not expecting masses of humour.
    You were always told to keep your powder dry because damp powder would not ignite. Powder bought from the army then stored in a parliamentary basement near the Thames doesn’t sound very dry to me. Fawkes and friends were not the brightest conspirators going it seems.

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