This is part two of a feature on the subway at South Kensington. Part one is here.
It seems there were originally six sets of pavement lights in the subway – including two small lights in the turn from the main tunnel to the steps leading into the station. They can be seen from outside adjacent to 32 Thurloe Street.
The other four sets of pavement lights were provided in the northern end of the tunnel. King’s (Glascrete) provided four pavement lights alongside the Science Museum during 1916-19. Clearly there were older pavement lights at these four locations, quite possiby they were removed during the building of the museum’s East Block.
A further set of three pavement lights were included as part of the subway’s 1908 extension. These can be seen immediately by the northern exit adjacent to the Science Museum, as shown below.
The subway was built by and the floors by Wilke’s Metallic Flooring & Eureka Concrete Company, who provided the flooring in some of London’s grand buildings and for other railway companies. Some reports suggest work was also done by the Patent Metallic Paving Company. This may have been for the 1908 extension. Extolling the endurance of the new type of flooring surface, it was claimed that by 1905 that over 27 million people had walked the subway in just three years!
Wilkes was apparently a very short lived company. By 1891 it had wound up due to what appears to have been a legal dispute with the Midland Railway.
The floor of the subway was originally heralded as being entirely non-slip. This is somewhat true except in certain conditions when a thin film of water of certain viscosity does make the floor’s surface slippery, as confirmed by tests made in 1986. According to the experimenters’ findings the more water there is the less slippery the floor is. Clearly the amount of footfall over the years has affected the floor’s original capabilities.
The Museum Exits
As well as the one by the Science Museum, two other dedicated exits were built. The first at the Natural History museum leads into its gardens, the second leads directly into the basement of the Victoria & Albert museum. The V&A tunnel was closed for several years but reopened in 2004.
Above & below: Images showing the entry points of the Victoria & Albert museum’s connecting tunnel to the South Kensington subway.
Young and Company of Pimlico did the casts for the skylights that can be seen along the southern end of Exhibition Road. Young’s was based in Eccleston Road and were a noted company especially for the art bronzes it casted, and the bronze sphinxes at Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment are examples of its work.
There are currently five of these skylights at three locations, all very close to each other. The northernmost one was a single unit which and originally formed part of the Cromwell Road exit. When this exit was closed it appears a spare curved end section was utilised to close off the stairwell and this is why that particular skylight differs from the other four.
A strange matter concerning the skylights is that at one time there were only four. Photographs show just one half of the pair right by Thurloe Place, the other, nearest to the road was a pavement light instead.
Below Thurloe Street (originally known as Alfred Place West) there is a strange, fully tiled, hole in the ceiling. I am not sure what it was, it may have been a small skylight or an air shaft.
How Many Windows?
There were originally ten windows that looked from the subway directly onto the gardens of the Natural History museum. Extensions to the museum over the years has meant that only four of these windows have survived. Nevertheless the 1908 extension to the subway also involved a further window – the 11th. Nowadays it seems strange that a window was put here but for about 15 years it did look out on a small patch of land belonging to the Science Museum.
There was a smaller additional 12th mystery ‘window’ approximately where Museum Lane is now, a short distance north of the V&A exit. Maps show a short tunnel heading west from here so it may have been a service access point of some sort.
The Subway’s Route
People may be surprised to learn the tunnel doesn’t really use the centre of Exhibition Road or Thurloe Street for that matter. First of all it exits the tube station down some steps and then turns to run at an angle towards the southern side of Thurloe Street. That enables the turn into Exhibition Road to be executed at 90 degrees.
The first two skylights indicate a partial centre alignment under Exhibition Road as the picture below shows.
As soon as the tunnel reaches Thurloe Place it turns to run diagonally towards the exit for the Natural History museum.
Just before the Natural History museum exit, the tunnel changes to head along the west side of Exhibition Road right up to the Science Museum’s exit.
Brickhouse Dudley was a manufacturing company in West Bromwich it closed down in 1999. It had began life as Brickhouse Foundry and expanded considerably. A second plant, Prince’s Foundry, in Tipton was acquired to complement the business. The manhole cover see in the subway is an example of its work.
Those mysterious holes regularly spaced along the sides of the subway tunnel are an enigma. Many of them, very similarly sized and shaped. What could they have been for?
The subway barely ever featured in the public domain despite the copious amounts of publicity printed by the underground over the years. Perhaps knowledge of it was good enough? Below is an example of an old tube guide to the museums, no mention of any subway! Might as well walk the streets, there’s no subway to be seen ok?
Here’s a good photo guide to the underpass.