IMG 0618 - The South Kensington Subway

The South Kensington Subway

IMG 0682 copy - The South Kensington Subway

Its the most heavily used foot tunnel in the UK, carrying many millions of people, and a subway that links the tube station at South Kensington with the museums alongside Exhibition Road.

IMG 0648 - The South Kensington Subway

Despite its huge popularity, very little is known about the South Kensington subway, and since it is a very overlooked part of London’s history, here is an attempt at cobbling together some rarely known facts about it 🙂

A brief history

IMG 0663 - The South Kensington Subway

The Metropolitan District Railway Act (7 August 1884) made provision for a foot tunnel 22 chains (that’s 447 metres or 484 yards) long. The foot tunnel was built 1884-1885 to link the underground station to the Exhibition Road area where some of Britain’s most noted institutions could be found, including the Natural History and Victoria & Albert museums.

It was opened on 4th May 1885, the same day as the International Inventions Exhibition.

As Punch noted in 1885, one celebrated though unintended effect of the new subway’s opening was the clearance of the local “ragamuffins that used to be drawn up… opposite the ralings to the Gardens of the Natural History Museum.”

By 1887 people viewed the subway as ‘useless’ – since it was very rarely open. To make it useful the tube promoters of the time wanted it to be incorporated into a new Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway.

The Brompton & Piccadilly Circus tube’s proposed route would have run alongside Hyde Park beneath Kensington Road, before turning into Exhibition Road and utilising the subway tunnel to reach a new terminus at South Kensington station. The plans were soon ditched and the routing which now forms the Piccadilly Line was adopted.

The foot subway was closed for the duration of the First World War. By 1919 it still had not reopened. Parliament went so far as to debate the great inconvenice this was causing. Part of this delay may have been due to construction of the Science Museum’s East Block.

Not the first!

It has been claimed by Wolmar & others that the subway was the UK’s first for pedestrians. This is not true. The first underpass of any sort was the Nursemaid’s Tunnel at Regent’s Park, built under the New Road (now Marylebone Road) in 1821-2. Of course the many subways created by the construction of the Metropolitan Railway and its associated lines prior to 1885 should also be considered.

The subway’s northern end

The subway originally was shorter that that seen today. The first northernmost exit to be built, pre-1908, was roughly were the present Science Museum entrance is.

The image shown below tells us what the original entrance to the subway looked like:

The pre 1908 entrance near the Imperial Institute apparently was this temporary building with a canopy. Source: Science Museum
The pre 1908 entrance near the Imperial Institute apparently was this temporary building with a canopy. Source: Science Museum
The same view today. The canopy stood by what is now the main museum entrance
The same view today. The canopy stood by what is now the main museum entrance

It seems the canopy originally denoted in large words “Metropolitan and District Railways, SOUTH KENSINGTON.” By 1905 that been replaced with a plain sided canopy.

On the few maps that bothered to indicate the subway’s presence, it was indicated by an ‘Entrance to Ry Subway’ legend. Otherwise South Kensington station was merely indicated with an arrow as shown below, no subway being shown.

albertomap - The South Kensington Subway

The construction of that huge edifice known as the Imperial Institute in 1887 ended hopes for an extension of the subway right up to the Royal Albert Hall.

Given these limitations, instead a short extension of just 40ft was made in 1908 to reach the rear of the Imperial Institute’s new post office, which is as far as it could go. At least the subway could now claim to serve the Imperial Institute too.

Originally this 1908 exit was stand-alone like its precessdor. In 1919 it was merged into the new Science Museum building.

The 1908 Science Museum exit at 25 Exhibition Road. The structure was re-built in the 1920s
The 1908 Science Museum exit at 25 Exhibition Road. The structure was re-built in 1919

The original section of tunnel can be defined by its uniform width throughout as far as the Science Museum’s East Block. The construction of a much wider section beyond is a mystery and its not know why it was built as such. It may have been for the purpose of providing space for museum exhibits or stands.

The wider northern section of tunnel
The wider northern section of tunnel

The missing exit!

The exits from the subway were (from south to north) at the junction of Cromwell Gardens/Cromwell Road (now replaced by a newer side entrance adjacent to the Ismaili Centre); the Natural History Museum gardens; Victoria & Albert Museum (plus possibly a small exit a short distance north & indicated on some maps); the original (pre 1908) exit; a later (post 1908) Science Museum exit.

Info board facing a blank wall gives a clue!
Info board facing a blank wall gives a clue!
The same info board facing towards the wall hiding the old Cromwell Road exit
The same info board facing towards the wall hiding the old Cromwell Road exit

The original Cromwell Gardens access point with its stairs in fact still exists however it takes knowledge to know where it was. A mysteriously placed information board pointing towards a wall a few metres north of the Ismaili centre exit in fact gives the game away because the entrance to that other exit used to be at that point! Clearly the underground staff at the time the changes were made couldnt be bothered to move the original board’s location!

The site of the old Cromwell Rd entrance - now a skylight that cannot be seen from the subway!
The site of the old Cromwell Rd entrance – now a skylight that cannot be seen from the subway!

The pictures below were difficult to take nevertheless they show the old lower entrance from the subway and the flight of steps to street level.

IMG 0642a - The South Kensington Subway   IMG 0647a - The South Kensington Subway

As well as that information board there are other clues to this missing exit. Three skylight locations can be seen above ground. Nevertheless only two of these can be seen from the tunnel! This third skylight is in fact concealed behind the wall I have just mentioned and the stairs are accessed by a door marked ‘Private – Danger High Voltage’ etc. There’s nothing of the sort, no high voltage equipment!

The 'high voltage' door & different style of wall hide the fact an old exit point once stood here
The ‘high voltage’ door & different style of wall hide the fact an old exit point once stood here

When was this exit replaced? I am not sure but certainly remember it being used. There is no record of the changes, but it may have been during the early 1990s.

The new Thurloe St/Ismaili Centre exit - the original Cromwell Road exit is at far left
The new Thurloe St/Ismaili Centre exit – the original Cromwell Road exit is at far left

One little-known fact re this old entrance is it was the last centre-island access-point to London’s underground transport system. Other examples have included Holborn, Manor House, Turnpike Lane. Obviously crowds of commuters (or tourists) emerging onto very narrow islands right in the middle of busy roads were quite disapproved of.

Continued in Part Two

6 Replies to “The South Kensington Subway”

  1. Alec Latham

    Brilliant. When I was 10 years old growing up in North Wales, the underpass is one of the memories I have of visiting the Natural History Museum (I wanted to be a palaeontologist). From Bangor station it took about 12 hours to get there. I’m waiting for the Diplodocus to be swapped for the Blue Whale aren’t you?

    • admin

      Thanks! I remember the subway too as a kid and loved playing in the coal mine in the Science Museum. Nowdays its the Natural History Museum’s architecture that I like seeing! Not really sure about Dippy, I suppose the whale will make a change 🙂 It’ll be more difficult to photograph the Hintze Hall though!

  2. Nick Barber

    The entrances were re-jigged around the time that the Ismaili Centre was opened (this was in 1985,according to Wiki).
    The Centre was lavishly funded by the Aga Khan,who paid for the new entrance to the subway,I believe.

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