The Imperial Institute as it would have been from this very spot. At least one…
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.
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
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:
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.
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 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 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.
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 pictures below were difficult to take nevertheless they show the old lower entrance from the subway and the flight of steps to street level.
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!
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.
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.