This is part two of a feature on the subway at South Kensington. Part one is here.
The subway’s floors are not slippery…
The subway was built by and the floors largely 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.
It seems Wilke’s work was however largely focussed on the longer straight sections of the subway. The short bit out of South Kensington station underneath Thurloe Street seems to have been delegated to a company known as Roadamant based in the City.
Roadamant’s presence evident in the subway floor.
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
The steps down from the Natural History Museum grounds to the subway.
Above & below: Images showing the entry points of the Victoria & Albert museum’s connecting tunnel to the South Kensington subway.
V&A museum: Up the stairs to street level, down the stairs for the subway.
Stairs leading to the Science Museum in Exhibition Road.
View from the subway up to one of the skylights in the southern end of Exhibition Road.
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 a ventilation shaft. Whichever it was it would have had to rise up in the middle of the roadway. However as old maps do not show anything of the sort these cavities might have been for lights rather.
Cavity for lights perhaps? Like a chandelier of some sort?
How Many Windows?
One of the four remaining windows that open onto the Natural History museum’s gardens.
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.
One of the original recesses in the Natural History Museum’s grounds for the subway’s windows. This is how all the windows at the northern end of the subway once looked.
Additional 12th window/exit by Museum lane, likely to be a service access point of some sort.
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.
Some of the windows were in fact blank and these are now used for a display on the District Line’s 150th anniversary.
The Subway’s Route
The subway at the South Kensington station end where it joins the station’s ticket hall.
This isn’t the original entrance but rather it was from a footbridge below which directly linked to the platforms. There seems no records of when these alterations were effected but it appears it was in the late 1920s that this work was done.
The original layout consisted of steps up to the ticket hall which was formerly in the arcade where the shops now are. The ticket booths were on the north side of this thoroughfare and the stairs on the south side. Both sides have since been built over with shops. The aforementioned footbridge was totally separate from the old ticket hall/stairway arrangement.
The rebuild consisted of an extended ticket hall area which did away with the other staircases and this utilised a raft across the site where the original subway access was located. This had to be at a level which could also afford escalator access to the Piccadilly Line. Thus it meant a new entrance (with steps) to the South Kensington subway had to be built.
Originally passengers alighted from the platforms and walked up to the footbridge which then led directly into the subway – there was no change of level at all. In the rebuild (which is the current arrangement) passengers have to first take the stairs up to access the ticket hall and then take the other stairs DOWN into the subway itself.
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.
What this means is it veers to the south away from the centre of Thurloe Street. When it reaches the junction with Exhibition Road it is almost underneath the houses on the south side of Thurloe Road. That enables the turn into Exhibition Road to be executed at 90 degrees. But its curious how they did it, or even whatever reasons had been given for this somewhat curious alignment, because for example, a 120 degree turn would have worked just as well and that would have resulted in a slightly shorter tunnel too!
The tunnel isn’t heading straight down Thurloe Place (which is in a north easterly direction.) Instead its heading due east and by the time the turn shown is reached, the subway is actually right against the south side of Thurloe Street.
The subway just to the north of where it turns from Thurloe Street into Exhibition Road. The turn also marks the start of the subway’s gentle rise northwards.
The first two skylights indicate a partial centre alignment under Exhibition Road as the picture below shows.
The tunnel under the first part of Exhibition Road where it aligns with the centre of the roadway. As soon as the tunnel reaches Thurloe Place it turns to run diagonally towards the exit for the Natural History museum. The first skylight can just be seen at the top of the picture.
The subway changes direction from the centre of Exhibition Road to run along its west side. This section is characterised at street level by the section between the two northernmost subway skylights.
Further along Exhibition Road the subway passes under Thurloe Place where it changes to the west side of Exhibition Road and heads directly for the Natural History Museum exit.
The tunnel’s switch to the west side of Exhibition Road. The Natural History Museum’s exit is on the left, just before the subway makes a final straight run up the side of Exhibition Road.
The subway where it meets the exit for the Natural History Museum.
The lengthy northern section of the subway underneath Exhibition Road.
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, other than being the extension to the new 1908 entrance. This extra space may have been for the purpose of providing museum exhibits or stands.
Parts of the subway can be prone to flooding. This is the section near the northern exit.
The northern end of the subway. I’m not sure what the space to the right was for – by the time this section was built it seems any further extensions that had been mooted (such as that to the Royal Albert Hall) never got off the ground.
Here’s an earlier view of the northern exit area. I’m not sure what was going on here – perhaps the area behind the hoarding was being used for storage – rather than any renovation work for example being done.
Directions at the top of the subway exit by the Science Museum. In the older days of the subway the locations would have included places such as the long vanished Imperial institute, the Imperial War Museum (now to be found in South London), and the Royal School of Art & Needlework.
The 1908 Science Museum exit at 25 Exhibition Road. The structure was re-built in 1919 to blend in with the new Science Museum buildings. The doorway at right once led into the Post Office Building.
The subway entrance/exit in relation to that for the Science Museum.
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.
Brickhouse Dudley drain cover in the subway.
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 to the museums!
Here’s a good photo guide to the South Kensington subway.
Originally published April 2016 – Updated 2022.