Tower Subway | The story behind London’s lost underwater railway
This short-lived river tunnel provided a test run for the engineering used to build the world’s first deep-level railway, aka London’s tube.
Situated just a few hundred metres from the Tower of London is a remnant of a lost transport system. A short circular building near the junction of Petty Wales and Lower Thames Street commemorates the former Tower Subway, which briefly transported passengers under the river in the 1870s. Although it closed 150 years ago, this 20th century reconstruction of its northern entrance reminds us of a pioneering piece of Victorian engineering.
The population of London swelled hugely during the Victorian era, prompting widespread building of bridges and transport to move the masses around the capital. The Thames Tunnel, which originally opened to pedestrians in 1843, was converted to train use by 1869. Meanwhile, the first tube, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863. Keen to capitalize on the growing demand for these new transport methods, London-born engineer Peter W Barlow (1809-1885) patented a new method of tunnelling, in the hope of creating a network of tunnels to carry people under the city. City bosses were wary of the cost after the spiralling budget, deaths in construction and the 18 years it had taken to build the Thames Tunnel. However, Barlow’s pupil James Henry Greathead (1844-1896) said he could make the first cylindrical tunnelling shield (patented by Barlow) and use it to build a transport tunnel system under the Thames for £9,400.
Greathead’s project kicked off in February 1869, with the cast iron shield used to dig through the London clay – the first time this construction method had been used. The tunnel was 1,340 ft long, connecting Tower Hill on the north of the River Thames with Vine Lane near Tooley Street on the south. Inside the tunnel was a 2ft 6in gauge railway, which carried up to 12 passengers under the river in a cable-hauled wooden carriage in about 70 seconds. The lifts from street level to the tracks, as well as the cable car, were powered by a 4hp stationary steam engine on the London Bridge side of the tunnel. The rapid construction proved the tunnelling shield was a success and it was later used to build the City and South London Railway, the world’s first deep-level underground railway.
The tunnel was completed in less than a year with it taking its first passengers in February 1870. It appeared to have a ‘soft launch’ in April 1870, before being opened to the public four months later. Robert Miles commented in the British Almanac that the brief journey wasn’t exactly pleasant: “The temperature of the Subway is certainly rather high, but it only has to be borne with for a brief space. The passage is somewhat rough, the movements of the omnibus being jerky, especially at starting.” Initially, there were plans for similar tunnels at Gravesend, Woolwich and Greenwich, Cannon Street and Borough. However, by 7 December that year, the Tower Subway cable car ceased after the company ran into financial problems. Just a few weeks later, the tunnel was converted for pedestrian use, with customers paying a halfpenny to use it. The lifts were removed and replaced by a flight of 96 stairs, with gas lights being placed throughout the tunnel. At the height of its popularity, 20,000 people a week were using the tunnel, despite its reputation for being dark and claustrophobic.
As the end of the century approached, the Tower Subway’s fate was sealed when Tower Bridge opened locally in 1894. The latter was not only free to use, but pedestrians had the choice of crossing the river at vehicle level or by using the high-level walkways – a much more pleasant option than a dark, cramped tunnel. By 1897, the Tower Subway company applied to dissolve the company and closed the tunnel the following year. It sold the tunnel for £3,000 to the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC), who used it for power mains.
The original Tower Hill entrance to the Subway was later demolished, with the LHPC building a reconstruction in 1926, with lettering commemorating the original construction date. The tunnel was damaged by a Nazi bomb in December 1940, but amazingly its lining wasn’t penetrated and it was able to be repaired. Meanwhile, the original Vine Lane entrance on the south side of the Thames was later demolished around the 1980s-1990s.
- Tower Hill Subway, Tower Hill, EC3R 5BT. Nearest station: Tower Hill, Fenchurch Street or Tower Gateway.
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Exploring the history of 55 Broadway with Hidden London
If you’re interested in London history, architecture or its transport network, then check out a Hidden London tour from the London Transport Museum. Run for limited periods, I’ve previously visited the disused Aldywch tube station and the former World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station and found them fascinating. Although the Hidden London group offers visits to other disused platforms and tube stations, my last booking with them saw me remaining above ground. The tour lasts 90 minutes and covered many of the 14 floors of the building.
55 Broadway in St James was London’s first skyscraper because of the way it was built. Standing tall at 53 metres (175ft), the Grade I listed office block is an impressive piece of art deco architecture in Portland stone. The structure was originally built in 1927-1929 to a design by English architect Charles Holden (1875-1960). As well as 55 Broadway, Holden was also responsible for the University of London’s Senate House, Bristol Central Library and many tube stations, such as Acton Town, Balham, Clapham Common and Leicester Square, among others. 55 Broadway was briefly the tallest office block in London, before it was surpassed by Holden’s Senate House in the mid 1930s. It was originally constructed as the headquarters for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited (UERL), on top of St James’s tube station.
The river runs through it | Have you spotted the river in Sloane Square tube station?
One of London’s hidden rivers is flowing through one of the capital’s busy tube stations.
London is home to many ‘hidden’ rivers. Many of these became subterranean in the 19th century as the capital’s population boomed. A host of tributaries of the River Thames and River Lea have been forced underground and now exist in pipes. While most of the secret rivers aren’t visible to most Londoners today, there is one river you can see (sort of).
The River Westbourne was originally named Kilburn – originating from ‘Cye Bourne’, which means ‘royal stream’. It rises in the Whitestone Pond in Hampstead and flows south through Kilburn, Bayswater, Hyde Park and Chelsea, before discharging in the River Thames near Chelsea Bridge. One of the crossings over the Westbourne was the Knights’ Bridge, a name dating back to at least the 11th century. Although the bridge is long gone, its name lives on in the district of Knightsbridge. There was another bridge crossing the Westbourne in the Sloane Square area named Blandel Bridge, later being renamed as Grosvenor Bridge.
The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park was formed in 1730 when King George II’s wife Queen Caroline (1683-1737) ordered the damning of the Westbourne. The river continued to supply the Serpentine until 1834, when it was deemed too polluted, so Thames water was used instead.
London’s population boom in the 19th century prompted widespread development. Increased residential dwellings popping up in the areas surrounding the Westbourne in Paddington, Chelsea and Belgravia, led to the decision to drive the Westbourne underground. The water was directed into pipes in the early part of the 19th century.
Today, commuters who use Sloane Square tube station can see the River Westbourne crossing the platform and tracks in a pipe. A large iron pipe suspended from girders carries the Westbourne through Sloane Square station, which was opened in December 1868. The pipe is the original one from the 19th century and managed to escape damage when the station was bombed during World War II in November 1940.
- Sloane Square tube station, Chelsea, SW1W 8BB. Nearest station: Sloane Square (obviously!).
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There’s an egg-cellent art installation at Gloucester Road tube station!
When commuting in the capital, it’s easy to ignore our surroundings and focus on the task at hand – getting from A to B with your sanity intact. However, next time you find yourself waiting a few minutes for your next tube, why not look around you. Art on the Underground, funded by Transport for London, has been bringing art to the tube for over 15 years. As 2018 is the centenary of women’s suffrage, this year’s programme will feature exclusively female artists.
In June 2018, a new art installation was unveiled at Gloucester Road station. Situated on the disused platform by the Circle and District lines is ‘My Name is Lettie Eggysrub’ by London artist Heather Phillipson. One of her pieces, entitled ‘The End‘, has been chosen for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which will be unveiled in 2020.
The 80-metre long platform features two 4-metre high 3D fried egg sculptures, a giant automated whisk, a dozen 65-inch screens and oversized prints. The surreal piece explores the dual role of the egg as food and part of the biological process. Among the imagery includes custard tarts, tomato ketchup, egg sandwiches and diagrams of chicken foetuses.
- ‘My name is lettie eggysrub’ by Heather Phillipson is on at Gloucester Road tube station until June 2019. Nearest station: Gloucester Road. For more information, visit the Art on the Underground website.
For a guide to what’s on in London in March, click here.
Check out the Twitter machine as TFL celebrates ‘Metroland’ at designjunction 2016
Returning this month as part of the London Design Festival is designjunction. The flagship show hosts design exhibitions at its new site in Granary Square in Kings Cross. For the fifth year in a row, Transport for London are celebrating their design heritage at designjunction. This year, TfL will be launching a series of products to mark the 2016 theme ‘Metroland’, as well as hosting a fun fair installation and a Twitter machine.
Florian Dussopt has designed a machine in the shape of the TfL roundel, which prints out tweets in the iconic Johnston typeface designed by Edward Johnston (1872-1944). The Underground Group’s Frank Pick commissioned Johnston to create the script in 1916.
The theme of this year’s TfL collaboration with designjunction is ‘Metroland’, a marketing term used to describe the suburbs of north-west London which sprung up near the newly extended Metropolitan line. London Transport’s property division Country Estates attempt to lure Londoners away from the frantic city to the green suburbs such as Wembley Park, Neasden, Pinner, Rayners Lane, Rickmansworth, Ruislip and Amersham in the 1910s and 1920s.
Among the companies taking part is online retailer Made.com, which has been inspired by TfL’s archives to create a unique collection of furniture, lighting and accessories. Kirkby Design has created new versions of the Piccadilly textile design, while Loris & Livia have created a collection of tablemats and coasters made from rubber train flooring. Meanwhile, Finnish brand Vallila have created prints, tea towels, cushions and tote bags featuring iconic scenes of London life, inspired by London Transport’s advertising poster archives.
- Designjunction is at Granary Square, King’s Cross, N1C 4AA. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras. Takes place from 22 September – 25 September 2016. For more information, visit the designjunction website. The London Design Festival runs from 17 – 25 September 2016. For more information, visit the LDF website.
For a guide to what else is on in London in September, click here.
Visit Pick pop-up restaurant and wooden tube station installation at DesignJunction for London Design Festival 2015
One of the highlights of the annual London Design Festival (19 – 27 September) is the design show DesignJunction. This year, the show is spread across two different venues in Bloomsbury and runs from 24 – 27 September. Transport For London are teaming up again with DesignJunction for the fourth year in a row as part of ‘Transported by Design’ – events and collaborations celebrating TFL’s design heritage.
This year sees a TFL-themed pop-up restaurant and an entire hand-drawn wooden tube station installation at DesignJunction. ‘Pick’ is a foodie collaboration between TFL and the East London Liquor Company, named after Frank Pick (founder of TFL’s design ethos) and designed by Michael Sodeau. On the menu will be classic British dishes with a contemporary twist, while ELLC will be serving spirits from their distillery. Aside from the food and drink, the restaurant will feature a range of British design, including Trent Jenning’s Coolicon pendant shade lighting, Lindsey Lang’s table graphics and AJ Wells’ enamel top tables and splashbacks.
Meanwhile, sculptor and illustrator Camilla Barnard is designing and building a typical Underground station made from wood. The station will feature classic and new TfL design elements. The mini tube station will include a ticket hall, platform and barriers. Also on display will be TfL’s new product ranges, including from Alice Made This, Coolicon Lighting, Michelle Mason, Mini Moderns, Swoon Editions and Homes & Gardens award winner Lindsay Lang.
- The Pick restaurant and pop-up wooden tube station installation is on at Designjunction, The College, 12 Southampton Row, Holborn, WC1B 5BP. Nearest station: Holborn. Open from 24 – 27 September 2015. To visit Pick and the installation, you must pay entry to DesignJunction. Tickets: Pre-register £10, on the door £14. Open Thu 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-7pm, Sun 11am-4pm. For more information, visit the TFL website or Design Junction website to register for tickets to enter the show.
For a guide to what else is on in London in September, click here.
Year Of The Bus: An infographic detailing facts and figures about our iconic red bus
Last year, it was all about the London Underground, but 2014 has seen the celebration of the Year Of The Bus. 2014 saw two landmarks for our beloved red transport methods – 60 years since the first Routemaster and 100 years since the B-type motor buses were used on the front line in World War I.
With so much information around about our trusty public transport methods, the team at Refresh Apartments have created a handy infographic to commemorate the Year Of The Bus and its important place within our city’s infrastructure.
The infographic dates back to 1829 when Londoners started using the inaugural horse-drawn buses, otherwise known as ‘omnibuses. The various guises London buses have grown through over the decades has been detailed, up until they went cash-free this summer.
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.
For a blog post on the disused Aldwych underground station, click here.
Celebrate ‘Year Of The Bus’ at the TFL pop-up restaurant at DesignJunction for London Design Festival
Although the London Design Festival kicked off last Saturday, one of the highlights of the annual event is DesignJunction (18-21 September 2014). Located in the old 1960s Royal Mail Sorting Office in New Oxford Street, DesignJunction is a multi-level showcase featuring the best furniture, lighting and product design from around the world. As well as host of displays and shops, the unique venue also plays host to pop-up eateries.
For the third year in a row, DesignJunction has teamed up with Transport For London to incorporate the latter’s iconic designs into a restaurant. As 2014 is the ‘Year Of The Bus’, TFL will be celebrating the centenary with a themed pop-up bar and restaurant. In conjunction with the East London Liquor Company, the space will feature a huge version of the General Map of Outer London, which was designed in 1921 by MacDonald Gill. With furniture provided by Modus and seating upholstered in familiar TFL-style moquettes by Kirkby Design, the restaurant will feature vintage enamel bus flags and poles by Trueform dotted around as well as archive shots of buses and the people who work on them.
The pop-up will offer ‘urban international’ food with old favourites such as smoked bacon sarnie, scotch egg and sausage roll to continental choices including croissants, pastel de nata and broad bean, pea, mint and feta toast, as well as a range of salads. The East London Liquor Company will be serving special cocktails using their own gin, vodka and rum, as well as locally brewed beer.
There will also be the opportunity to buy 10 limited edition Oyster card holders featuring the bus theme, including a central London bus map and different interpretations of the London bus. All items in the restaurant will be available to buy from the TFL Shop, including the limited edition original Bus Stop flags.
- The TFL-themed pop-up runs at DesignJunction from 18-21 September 2014. Opening hours: Thurs 18th 11am-9pm, Fri 19th and Sat 20th 11am-8pm, Sun 21st 11am-5pm. Entrance to DesignJunction costs £8 in advance or £10 on the door. DesignJunction is located at The Sorting Office, 21-31 New Oxford Street, WC1A 1BA. Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road or Holborn. For more information, visit the TFL website.
- The London Design Festival runs from 13-21 September 2014. For more information, visit the LDF website.
For a guide to what else is on in London this month, click here.
For Metro Girl’s review of the 2012 TFL 1950s-themed pop-up restaurant at DesignJunction, click here.
Classic British grub at the London Transport 1950s pop-up Canteen
I love a good pop-up restaurant or cafe and am a fan of retro interiors, so I was excited when Canteen and London Transport teamed up to create a 1950s-themed canteen for this year’s London Design Festival. TFL delved into their archives of photos of the staff canteen which used to fuel the bus and tube staff back in the 1950s, to recreate a contemporary vision of their former catering division.
The Canteen pop-up was located in Design Junction – one of the main venues of this year’s London Design Festival. The huge space within the Old Sorting Office in New Oxford Street was transformed into several levels of design celebration – mini showrooms, a cinema and pop-up bars and restaurant.
Like a staff canteen, we got in a small queue to choose our food and drink from the menus on the wall, against a backdrop of the familiar London Transport symbol. As it was lunchtime, we opted for the traditional British dish of pie and mash with gravy with a cup of Rosie Lee (slang for tea to those who might not know!). I loved the novelty of getting the food on a tray and trying to find a seat.
The seats in question were vintage patterned benches and lovely curved wooden chairs from furniture brands Very Good & Proper and Modus. As we sat down and tucked into what I would describe as tasty, comfort food, our scenery was old photos of transport workers tucking into their lunch on the wall. I was fairly peckish, so after my pie and mash, I ended up ordering fresh, hot scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam – yum!
All in all, the service was fast and friendly, the food was good value and tasty and the interior was cool… I just wish it was permanent. But isn’t that what makes pop-up venues so special?
After our leisurely lunch – fortunately as we weren’t actually TFL workers on a break, there was no clock-watching or work to rush back to – we checked out the displays and showcases on the three levels at Design Junction. Lots of treats for the eye and inspiration for the home.
- London Transport pop-up Canteen is open from now until Sunday 23rd September 2012 at Design Junction, 21-31 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1BA. Nearest tube: Holborn (Piccadilly and Central line).