Friday, 2 August 2013

"A great intestine in the enormous belly of the river."

The interior of the Tower Subway 1870
The 2 August 1870 saw the Tower Subway, the world's first underground tube railway, open in London.

The subway ran in a tunnel beneath the River Thames between Tower Hill on the north side of the river and Vine Lane (off Tooley Street) to the south. A 2 ft 6 in (0.76 m) gauge railway was laid in the tunnel. The underground railway opened on 2 August 1870 charging 2d for first class and 1d for second class, first class ticket holders merely having priority when boarding. However, the system was unreliable and uneconomic and closed that December after the company went bankrupt.

The tunnel was subsequently converted for pedestrian use and the car and steam engines were removed, gas lights installed and the passenger lifts replaced with spiral staircases. The tunnel opened to pedestrians at a toll of 1⁄2d and became a popular way to cross the river, averaging 20,000 people a week (a million a year).Its main users were described as "the working classes who were formerly entirely dependent on the ferries". In September 1888 the subway briefly achieved notoriety after a man with a knife was seen in the tunnel at the time when Jack the Ripper was committing murders in nearby Whitechapel.

In his Dictionary of London, Charles Dickens, Jr. commented on the smallness of the tunnel: "there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty's lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value."

The Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis (1846–1908) gave a description of a passage through the subway in his Jottings about London:


"As I was thinking of these things I disappeared from the world indeed, going down a lighted spiral staircase which buries itself in the earth on the right bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower. I went down and down between two dingy walls until I found myself at the round opening of the gigantic iron tube, which seems to undulate like a great intestine in the enormous belly of the river. The inside of this tube presents the appearance of a subterranean corridor, of which the end is invisible. It is lighted by a row of lights as far as you can see, which shed a veiled light, like sepulchral lamps; the atmosphere is foggy; you go along considerable stretches without meeting a soul; the walls sweat like those of an aqueduct; the floor moves under your feet like the deck of a vessel; the steps and voices of the people coming the other way give forth a cavernous sound, and are heard before you see the people, and they at a distance seem like great shadows; there is, in short, a sort of something mysterious, which without alarming causes in your heart a vague sense of disquiet. When then you have reached the middle and no longer see the end in either direction, and feel the silence of a catacomb, and know not how much farther you must go, and reflect that in the water beneath, in the obscure depths of the river, is where suicides meet death, and that over your head vessels are passing, and that if a crack should open in the wall you would not even have the time to recommend your soul to God, in that moment how lovely seems the sun!"

When the toll-free Tower Bridge opened in 1894 this caused a drop in income and the tunnel closed in 1898, after being sold to the London Hydraulic Power Company. The tunnel today is used for water mains.

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