Lurking deep beneath London is a labyrinth of tunnels incorporating underground railways, secret passages, drainage systems and subterranean chambers. The “Tube” is famous as the oldest and most extensive underground railway network in the world, but what about less well known forms of subterranean transport? The long-abandoned Kingsway Tram Subway is an elusive place that offers a unique glimpse into the past…
The Kingsway Tramway Subway, as it is officially known, opened on February 24, 1906 in the Holborn district of London. The only one of its kind in Britain, it was constructed to connect existing tramways on the north and south sides of the River Thames. Inspiration came from the other side of the Atlantic, where tunnels had already been adopted in Boston and New York. In the latter, the Murray Hill Tunnel passes under Park Avenue heading for Grand Central Station. Now used by cars, it once carried the New York and Harlem Railroad and later the company’s streetcar line.
Trams began to be phased out in London as early as 1935 – long before other British cities – to be replaced by trolleybuses. The last tram was decommissioned on July 5, 1952, at which point the street-level tracks were lifted and the Kingsway Tram Subway gates were firmly bolted shut.
Today the murky subway is a treasure trove of local history for anyone fortunate enough to gain access. More than half a century on, the tram lines can still be seen, while a Victorian era tube map (above) clings to the old brick wall. In addition, the crumbling remains of Holborn and Aldwych tram stations can still be found deep within the stygian gloom dank tunnel.
The Kingsway Tram Subway was used in 1953 to store 120 surplus buses and coaches as backup vehicles for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Today, the tunnel’s southern end is used as a road carrying traffic under The Strand, while the portal beneath Waterloo Bridge has been reincarnated as a branch of the Buddha Bar chain of bar/restaurants.
But the northern portal remains as it was in 1952, hiding an older world from the clamour of modern London on the other side of the iron gates. Kingsway Tramway Subway has been featured in several films, including The Escapist and The Avengers, where it served as the entrance to a secret underground base. The peeling sign (above, left) is a prop from The Escapist, depicting the fictitious Union Street Tube station.
In late 2009, the Kingsway Tram Subway hosted a site-specific art installation called Chord, by artist Conrad Shawcross (examples of what to expect can be seen above). While many undoubtedly went to enjoy the avante garde offerings, others will have taken the rare opportunity to gain easy access to this living chapter of local history.
In addition to the abandoned tram stations inside the tunnel, the nearby Aldwych tube station also lies disused today. For those who do manage to gain entry to the Kingsway tunnel, keep your eyes peeled for an old tiled corridor that connects the tram subway to the derelict tube station (above). To read about one person’s experience exploring the tunnel and see some great photos, check out Underground History.
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