London UnderLondon Under
by Peter Ackroyd

This book is subtitled “The Secret History Beneath the Streets”. It’s not a systematic and chronological history, but a series of topical meanderings, each chapter a relish of assorted tidbits and trifles. The life of a great city, hidden beneath the streets and surfaces, is considered as though we were considering the bones and blood vessels of an organism, the life lived just beneath the skin.

One bit that impressed me was this: While Manhattan’s bedrock is solid schist, London’s foundation is gravel and clay. For all the centuries of its habitation, London has been slowly sinking into the muck beneath. The surface structures of Roman Britain have gradually become the cellars and basements and underground crypts of more modern buildings. Even the rivers and streams which once flowed on the surface of the land have gone to earth over the centuries, roofed over and left to flow in the darkness under the city. When new foundations are dug, the clay “weeps”, and this watery substratum continually seeps into the city, a reminder of the marshes from which it rose. A statistic that stopped me and made me read it again — every day 15,000,000 gallons of rising groundwater are pumped out of London.

There’s an entire chapter on the greatest of London’s underground rivers, the Fleet. There was a time, long ago, when it was a navigable waterway, spanned by beautiful bridges. By the time Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift wrote about it, it could only be described as a sewer. By the eighteenth century, it had been covered over and hidden underground, although in 1846 it escaped in an explosion of foul gases and a deluge of filthy water which flooded the neighborhood. Archaeologists have found the debris pulled from the muck of the Fleet a treasure-trove — everything from carved Roman deities to medieval toilet seats, from floor tiles to buckles, from children’s toys to decapitated skulls.

Another chapter describes how Londoners took to the tunnels of the London subways to shelter from the bombs during WWII. At first, the city authorities and the subway companies tried to discourage this behavior, fearing the presence of panicky people loitering idly underground. But it proved impossible to stop people from buying the cheapest ticket to anywhere and then riding from station to station at random. As thousands of people began lying down wearily on the platforms, blocking the way, creating a sanitation and fire hazard, the authorities decided to accept the inevitable, and set some rules to control the situation. People were allowed to shelter in a particular assigned station, lines were painted on the platform to indicate spaces to be kept clear, wooden bunks were installed for sleepers, and sanitary rules were enforced by inspectors.

There are several chapters discussing various aspects of the London Underground, one of the most legendary subway systems in the world. One is a recounting of the ghost stories that haunt the tunnels, another is a look at the explosion of art and literature inspired by the Underground. There was a 1928 silent movie called Underground which preserved a view of the life beneath the streets in the era between the wars, and a Seamus Heaney poem “The Underground” which sets the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the vaulted tunnels and tiled stations.

The London sewer system is the subject of a fascinating chapter. I had first read about this as one of several great engineering projects in a book called Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury. Revisiting the story here, I met with bits I didn’t recall having heard before. Workmen digging the sewer line in Smithfield uncovered ashes and human bones, and were startled to realize that they had stumbled on the site of the burnings of 16th-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. People known as “toshers” made a living off the sewers, entering at low tide from the points where the sewers emptied into the Thames, scavenging underground armed with bullseye lanterns and long protective coats with capacious pockets in which to stow their findings. Modern-day tourists who visit the sewers are dressed in waders, hard hats, and coveralls, taken on tours by guides who read them the safety rules before setting out on this strange odyssey.

Deep dungeons, gas lines, aqueducts, pneumatic tubes, buried rivers, Roman baths, medieval crypts, holy springs, air raid shelters, mudlarkers and toshers, mole men and miners, all the life under the skin of the city, flow through this little book as the Fleet flows under the streets of London.

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