Monday, June 10, 2013

London Under

Home of the Morlocks...?

Peter Ackroyd has written a slim volume on the subterranean history of London -- London Under (  All Londoners are aware of an astonishing second city of London that lies beneath our feet.

Descend below the surface and one will discover under London a shadow world filled with crypts, corpses, secret passages, transportation, treasure, bomb shelters, cellars, swimming pools and much more.  Ackroyd writes, "Good and evil can be found sure by side; enchantment and terror mingle.  If the underworld can be understood as a place of fear and danger, it can also be regarded as a place of safety."
Commander K. and Nelson
Crypt of St. Paul's, London
This shadow city of London that lies below the surface is an unknown world, a secret world.  In the crypt of St. Paul's (see earlier post one will find notables buried such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson and Christopher Wren (  Ackroyd informs us that "When Christopher Wren was digging below the remains of the Great Fire, he found Anglo-Saxon graves lined with chalk stone.  Saxon coffins of the same material lay beside them."
London Comedy, 1988
The title character in the hysterical comedy A Fish Called Wanda, played by Jamie Lee Curtischides the idiotic Otto, "Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement."

Indeed it is not.  Ackroyd tells us that "The London Underground is an old system.  Its pioneer and prime mover (Charles Pearson) was born in the eighteenth century...Jack the Ripper (1888) could have travelled on the Underground to Whitechapel."
London Tube Map
Today the Tube whisks commuters, tourists, school groups and packs of "beastly" teenagers around London with surprising efficiency and reasonable cleanliness.  During the Zeppelin raids of the First World War and the Blitz in Second World war, Londoners sought refuge in the Tube stations and would sleep in the Underground.
London Underground / Slave Quarters?
During the Blitz
According to the historian Rick Atkinson, "Tens of thousands sheltered at night in the Tube, and the cots standing in tiers along the platforms of seventy-nine designated stations were so fetid that the sculptor Henry Moore likened wartime life in these underground rookeries to the 'hold of a slave ship'".  (Source: The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson, 2013

"They had no choice."
Old black and white photos from World War II show the entrance of the Tube stations piled high with protective sandbags.  One can hardly imagine the assault on the olfactory sense created by the organic contributions of the hounds of wartime London to these sandbags, greeting all those who entered these sanctuaries.
Commander K. in Churchill's bedroom
Churchill War rooms, London
Under London visitors should seek out the Churchill War rooms ( where the British Cabinet would meet during the Second World War to plot war strategy.  Winston Churchill ( despised the necessity of spending time in the Cabinet War rooms -- his expansive personality was pinched by the cramped quarters.  In the Interactive Churchill Museum one can find locks of the ginger hair of his youth and a record of his schoolboy infractions and the beatings that resulted.  The rooms were sealed up after the war and nearly forgotten about for many years.

Even today cold war era bomb shelters and various secret military HQ's can be found beneath the streets of London.
Napoleon III, Museo Napoleonico, Rome
Emperor, Wine Champion, Refugee
A veritable "underground lake" of fine wine lies aging to perfection and, quite often, beyond in the cellars of wealthy Londoners.  Berry Brothers & Rudd ( was founded in 1698 and is England's oldest wine merchant.  Their store on St. James features wine tastings, dinners and other events in their "Napoleon cellar".   After his humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Napoleon III escaped across the English Channel to London and threw himself upon the mercy of his wine merchant.  Napoleon III, having presided over the creation of the Bordeaux first growth classification system of 1855, had a reasonable expectation of succour from Berry Brothers.

Rich Londoners today are burrowing underground and adding subterranean square footage to their properties with garages, wine cellars, home theatres and even swimming pools.  A Canadian media mogul, for example, is adding four floors below ground to his home in Knightsbridge (

Vast fortunes lie beneath our feet in London.  Ackroyd writes, "It is estimated that 250 million ounces of gold are concealed beneath the ground.  But no London cellar is more wonderful than the vaults of the Bank of England.  They contain the second biggest hoard of gold bullion ion the planet.  A network of tunnels, radiating out from the bank, run beneath the the City streets.  Several thousand bars of 24 carat gold, each one weighing 28 pounds, are stored within them.  They may be said to light up the bowels of the earth."

The SPDR Gold Trust ( ticker symbol GLD) has its physical gold -- an estimated 1,200 metric tons worth over $70 billion -- stored by HSBC in a secret London underground vault.  Bob Pisani of CNBC recently took viewers on a fascinating tour (see video below) of this glittering part of secret subterranean London.

The presence of so much treasure below the ground may help to explain the phenomenon of "the mole man," William Lyttle, who spent forty years digging 60 foot long tunnels beneath his property in Hackney.  "'Tunnelling', he said to journalists, 'is something that should be talked about without panicking.'"  (

Peter Ackroyd's Notes from Underground London concludes that, "London is built upon darkness."  Commander Kelly says, "An exploration of the darkness below London's surface can be most illuminating."

Special thanks to Dom Driano Jr. for the gift of Atkinson's book The Guns at Last Light.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's 
first book, America Invades or on


Unknown said...

Mind the gap! Great stuff, Chris! My understanding is that the Londoners would bring booze along whenever they had it and also have singalongs in the tube during the air-raids. Like most harsh situations, though, my guess is that it brought out some of the best and worst in people....

Commander Kelly said...

That practice has, sadly, been outlawed in recent years. London remains a "drinks" culture though.

They shut the Tube down at midnight every night to clean it out for re-opening the next morning. Also helps with setting curfew for those "beastly" teenagers!

Elizabeth Kilbride, Author & Host of "Assignment America Radio Show" said...

Great post...filled with history, I love it.

Bill Dietrich said...

I liked this one, as usual. Fodder for future plots...Paris's catacombs made it into "The Barbed Crown."

Jim Hooper said...

Enjoyed the post. I recall being told the slight 'dip and curve" on the Jubilee tube line between Swiss Cottage and St John's Wood was to bypass an ancient plague pit.