(All images by Simon Sugden; the secret subterranean shopping street beneath Keighley’s Royal Arcade)
At Urban Ghosts, hidden history is our forte, and we’re forever intrigued by what lies beneath our towns and cities. From the expansive salt mines beneath Detroit to secret subterranean passageways and chambers, ghost stations and, most recently, the abandoned Victorian platform under Glasgow Central Station, the urban underground abounds with the relics of days gone by, from recent times to the distant past.
One compelling example came to light in 2003, when construction workers renovating the Royal Arcade in Keighley, West Yorkshire, were amazed to uncover an entire underground ‘shopping street’ seemingly frozen in time. Plans are now afoot to restore or repurpose the street and bring it back into the public domain.
This haunting retail relic of the Victorian age, which was once at ground level, was abandoned around 1890. Destined to remain strangely silent and hidden away for more than a century, the subterranean shopping street was reportedly buried when Keighley’s Royal Arcade was built over it in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died and Edward VII ascended the throne.
When builders found their way into the secret street more than a century later, while working in the cellars of the shops above, they are said to have discovered the original wooden shop-fronts and stable pens hauntingly frozen in time.
Electric lighting was installed to make the space easier to navigate during reconstruction work and it’s understood that various period items were also added for the benefit of future tours. Other items, however, may have been left over from the Victorian era, largely undisturbed since the abandoned underground street was sealed off and forgotten.
As Adam Fowler of ITV News reported in 2013: “The street was discovered by builders 10 years ago while they were working on the arcade. Since then some of the displays have been added, but most of the artifacts were found here, like this doorway to a bacon and general goods shop, or this advert for a radio with micrometer accuracy.”
Elsewhere, horse brasses and other items reveal the presence of stables in several units. Horses would have entered the now-abandoned street at ground level before the entire row of shops was entombed beneath the West Yorkshire town’s Royal Arcade. The door knockers are interesting too, including the image of a legendary Dartmoor Pixie, below.
Adam Fowler reported: “The owners would like to develop this street and are currently canvassing ideas to turn it into arts and crafts shops, a swanky wine bar, or even just preserve it as a piece of history.”
He added that “they may even get help. They’ve been approached by the production companies behind Mary Portas and The Restoration Man.”
However, Royal Arcade manager Nick Holroyd told the Daily Mail that any future uses of the forgotten subterranean street would be strictly governed by health and safety guidelines.
“We’d be very restricted for what we could do,” said Mr Holroyd. “It’s mainly on safety and fire assessment grounds. If we can get these things sorted then we definitely will develop it. We’ve looked at opening it up with craft shops. It will be a working environment – shops that would fit in with what it used to be. We’ll utilise what’s in there.”
Keighley’s Royal Arcade has been at the heart of the town’s retail industry for more than a century. When it opened in 1901, local ironmongers Gott and Butterfield soon moved in and the covered shopping street even became known popularly as Butterfield’s Arcade. The company, which according to ITV News was once described as “an Aladdin’s cave selling household goods, bicycles and camping equipment”, finally closed in 1983.
But for generations, Keighley’s abandoned underground street remained hidden away, sealed off and forgotten by many. However, though it remained firmly off the radars of most shoppers visiting the Royal Arcade, the secret subterranean space may have been known to those working in the shops above. But if so, few clues were uttered of its existence.
According to one reader commented on the Daily Mail website: “I once worked in one of the (ground floor level) shops… Each shop had a cellar (basement door) [and] if you dared venture down there it was rather eerie[.] There was what we called a grand hall where lots of old fireplaces were stored. I reckon from the old fireplace shop that was once there but all the shops were connected and you could enter any shop from the cellar. If you ventured that little bit further thats where the old street was hidden away. What im [sic] trying to say is most of the shopkeepers if not all knew about this for a long time but it was just an unspoken or maybe forgotten subject.”