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Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets (original 2004; edition 2005)

by Stephen Smith

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3411132,181 (3.49)11
Member:birdsam0610
Title:Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets
Authors:Stephen Smith
Info:Abacus (2005), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:non fiction, history, london, underground

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Underground London: travels beneath the city streets by Stephen Smith (2004)

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I bought this on my last trip to London (years ago, sadly) and didn't finish it on the plane ride home - and somehow it got set aside. Suddenly now seems the time to remedy that. (I left my bookmark in the book too - I was using a ticket stub from the Tower Bridge Exhibition, dated 8 May 2007.]

...I'm now on the part about London's hidden rivers and remembering how much learning about them delighted me. Multiple, entire rivers vanished from sight, but still flowing under the city and other built over areas. It sounds completely unreal.

p. 31 "...But shipping still preferred to steer clear and the river continued to fill with waste. As London has grown, so the Fleet has disappeared. It has been landscaped out of sight. This trend, affecting not only the Fleet but other lost rivers too, has had very little to do with sanitation and everything to do with the demand for land in central London. Broadly speaking, the covering of the Fleet has proceeded in the opposite direction to the flow of the river, beginning close to the point where it discharges into the Thames and retracing its route back towards its source."

p. 32 "...As London expanded, so did the demands on its sewers. In 1846, the pressure of trapped gases became too much for the Fleet and a section of it spectacularly blew up. Traffic couldn't move for effluent at King's Cross, three poorhouses in Clerkenwell were swept away in a tidal stream of sewage, and a Thames steamboat rammed into Blackfriars Bridge on a bow wave of crap.

If you've been leafing through this book in the hope that subterranean London will be a respite from the vulgarity of the world above, I'm afraid I can only apologise. Dear reader, it gets worse."Obviously I'm really enjoying rereading this part.

...Ok, I don't remember this bit, and though I've read about bear baiting and dog and cock fighting, this scenario is new:
p. 51 "...A landlord called Jimmy Shaw claimed to buy 26,000 rats a year, at 3d each, from farm labourers in Enfield and Essex. Never likely to attract the Marquess of Queensberry's seal of approval, these bouts were bloodbaths involving dogs and scores of rats at a time."And that's all there is on that point - I'm not being coy and withholding any more from that story. But then this is the sort of detail that I'm always going to glom onto and wish for more, when there probably aren't more details provided in the original sources anyway. Still, rats vs dog fights are going to sink into that part of my brain that likes to ponder the nasty bits of history.

...I think I'm jealous of the author's childhood field trips:
p. 77 "...I had vivid childhood memories of visiting the Guildhall. ...School outings were always to one or other of London's celebrated institutions: St. Paul's, the Monument, the Stock Exchange. These excursions were referred to as city visits and they always culminated in the ritual of tea with the Lord Mayor in Guildhall crypt."From the Guildhall website: East and West Crypt, and from Flicker: 1, 2, 3 (stained glass of the hall on fire).

...Another quote, this time about a London ceremony at All Hallows:
p. 85 "...In a few minutes, one of their peers, by tradition the smallest boy among them, would be dangled upside down over the river from a barge linked to no less a London personage than the Lord Mayor. The child would be lowered so that his head was within a foot or two of the water. From this precarious and tortuous position, he would then batter the river with a bamboo pole. This spectacle was a curtain-raiser to the annual rite of beating the bounds, the marking out of parish boundaries on Ascension Day."Imagine wandering by that scene and having no idea what was going on.

...I'm going to have to make a list now of obscure places the book mentions because I know eventually I'm going to want to refer to them.

[And because that tangent went on a bit too long - I tucked it away over here.]

...So far my favorite chapter is Lifting People which combines the stories of clearing the bodies in the crypt of Saint Andrew's (Holborn), the team of "lifters" moving the bodies, and local history of the plague. The lifters have some great stories:
p. 197-198 "...They recalled a previous job, in which they had been engaged to lift bodies from beneath the car park of Guy's Hospital near London Bridge. 'We found loads of arms and legs,' Mark told me.
'By themselves?'
'By themselves. People used to get paid to donate their limbs. The doctors would practice amputations on them and then get rid of them.' There's also lots of great pondering about the fact that stirring up the bodies potentially means stirring up the plague itself and fun things like smallpox.

...It's always likely that I'm going to enjoy almost anything having to do with cemetery history, and so the chapter Going Out With a Bang, which involves both history and a guided tour of a crypt, is another favorite. In the following, Kevin is the tour guide at the catacombs of the General Cemetery of All Souls at Kensal Green
p. 248-249 "...If the embalming was not carried out correctly, Kevin continued, watching our faces, there was a risk that the coffin could explode. There were gasps and giggles. Kevin went on quickly that the blasts were caused by a build-up of waste gasses in the caskets. Exploding coffins! We were all thinking the same thing. What noise would it make? What would it look like?...
...Kevin said that old fashioned clay pipes were used to forestall detonations...
...'Down here we only really make use of the pipe stems,' said Kevin. These were thin enough but also sufficiently hardy and discreet to be slotted into apertures in the caskets. Tin plates were slid aside like peepholes, and the clay pipes were put into the narrow punctures behind them. The decomposition gases were burnt off. I imagined Kensal Green flaring at night like an oilfield."

The chapter on the Underground (Euston, We Have a Problem), forgotten/closed stations, and use of Tube stations during the bombings of World War II makes me think I need to dig up a book specifically on the Underground and the war. Holding back on quoting because I've probably thrown out quite enough quotes at this point. Oh and there are two ghost stories related in that chapter.

...In the chapter Post Restante about the Post Office and its miniature railroad system to transport mail - and this comes up about Mount Pleasant:
p. 296 "...Mount Pleasant was where I had paused in my walk along the route of the buried Fleet [river] and learned from Jane the guide that the locale had been named ironically, after a high-smelling rubbish dump."One of my favorite Noel Coward plays is Present Laughter, and in the play Gary (an Actor) tells his secretary to put a letter he doesn't want to answer "in Mount Pleasant." And only now do I get the joke. (Stage directions earlier had specifically noted that at the secretary's feet is a waste basket.)


...Summing up!
Smith hops a bit from topic to topic, and while his facts all are relevant to the point he's making or the area he's visiting, some may not like this style of telling history. He also cited English authors that you may not have heard of, but those are usually in either the index or the bibliography. He'll often tell more than one story at the same time - hopping from a present day tour he's taking to the distant past and the history of the area. Smith's writing style is very much that of a long magazine article in each chapter, which is nice if you want to pick up the book, read a few chapters, then set it aside for a bit.

Depending on what subject you're researching this could be a problematic source because Smith doesn't footnote anything, though you can track down most of his sources via the bibliography. ( )
  bookishbat | Sep 25, 2013 |
Even though I’m Australian, I’ve always been fascinated by London. When I was on holiday this year, I saw some fantastic books about London’s varied history (from fashion to the Tube) but stupidly didn’t buy them. Later on, I spied this book and immediately had to have it. This is a book not just looking at London’s history, but the history of London beneath the streets. You may think this is primarily about the Tube. There is a chapter about the Tube, but other chapters discuss such varied topics as Churchill’s secret bunkers, sewers and Henry VIII’s tennis courts.

Each chapter covers a different topic and time period of London. There’s in depth information on such wide ranging topics as rats in the sewers to exhuming bodies from a Blitz-bombed church. Smith should be commended on the depth of his research, as he demonstrates detailed knowledge of the underground feature and the history surrounding it. It’s strange to think of part of an underground car park containing part of a Roman wall, or mail rapidly dispersed across the city by a tiny train. But it’s all true and just exemplifies how much history is contained in everyday London. Who knew that new building sites were regularly checked by archaeologists?

I found Smith’s writing style easy to follow and clearly understood. He covered the various underground features in enough detail so that I didn’t feel cheated out of a thorough explanation. (I would still have liked to know more about Churchill’s bunkers and the Tube though). For the topics I wasn’t so interested in, the narrative didn’t last so long that I felt bored. There’s also a long bibliography at the back of the book should you feel inclined to research further on your own.

A different view of history with some interesting and quirky facts. Worth a read.

http://samstillreading.wordpress.com ( )
  birdsam0610 | Dec 23, 2012 |
"On another day when I was deep below London, down where it's dark and cold and wet, I was puzzling over this unfathomable side of the city when a jellyfish went past my head like a think bubble."

In underground London there are ex-miners digging utility tunnels, culverted rivers, miles of sewers, a Roman wall in an underground car park, an amphitheatre under the Guildhall, a mediaeval abbey under a supermarket, the wooden funeral effigies of kings and queens, a Tudor tennis court in the basement of the Cabinet Office, crypts, undercrofts and plague pits, wine merchants' cellars, safety deposit vaults and silver vaults under Chancery Lane, cemetery catacombs, London Underground tunnels and stations both working and abandoned, air raid shelters, Turkish baths, the Post Office's miniature railway and a short-lived pneumatic railway, secret government tunnels from the Cold War, the Cabinet War Rooms, service tunnels for the Thames barrier and the Thames Water ring main.

This book is a mine of information on the city's history, and includes digressions to such surface activities as the beating of the bounds of All Hallows parish on Rogation Day and how to become a Freeman of the City of London, as well as a side-trip to an old radar station in Lincolnshire. ( )
  isabelx | Apr 8, 2011 |
A fascinating tour around all kinds of things to be found under London: sewers, tube tunnels, Roman remains, wine cellars, flood defences, to name but a few. Of course the author's really after the truth about secret government tunnels and the like as well. All really interesting - there were a few chapters I cracked open thinking "hmm, not very exciting" but even if the locations weren't great the author got some decent stories out of them.
  nocto | Dec 8, 2010 |
A wealth of information here--there are many times where I felt (and methinks rightfully so) that I was being treated to some deeply-buried gems, secrets of which only a select few could know the true nature. Some chapters are as surprisingly naughty and funny as what Smith is unearthing for readers in a particular strata. One or two are extremely dry--an agonizingly detailed and technical chapter on a dam system is a violent break in pace and interest. It seemed a well-meaning tribute not to readers or the subject matter but to a guide who had done Smith a big favor in letting him tour a normally off-limits area, nevermind that it didn't turn out to be as worthwhile as rumored. The rumor-mongers are a community of London Underground enthusiasts and the chapter might have been dedicated to the purpose of appeasing/impressing them as well, a testy issue Smith does mention several times in the text (in more amusing chapters). Despite this major mistake and some minor detours of the blander kind, Underground London is a rich feast of an adventure, presenting wonderful stories and spaces and journeys in an entertaining, intimate manner studded with important historical moments and fabulous little anecdotes. I will definitely be revisiting this. ( )
  olivetwist | Jan 23, 2009 |
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It's a sorry old solipsist who goes around telling people that the way things hash themselves out was somehow fortold in his jammily opportune book. (Preface to the paperback edition)
Of all the men and women who live and work in London, all the diverse castes of Londoners, none is more extraordinary than the miners.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0349115656, Paperback)

In this marvelous work, Stephen Smith explores the life and history of London from an unusual angle—underneath. Beginning with the rivers that run under the capital and ending in the system of tunnels beneath the Thames Barrier, Underground London is an enthralling journey into a subterranean world. We find the author descending into St. Andrew’s crypts, where the dead are being raised; joining miners digging tunnels; and exploring the culverts beneath Hampton Court, a stunning feat of engineering designed as a secret passageway for Henry VIII’s mistresses. Smith visits Victorian sewers, wartime bunkers, and secret vaults. He explores tube stations and the now-defunct Mail Rail, the miniature railway that once transported twelve million letters a day.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:57 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Stephen Smith provides an alternative guide and history of the capital. It's a journey through the passages and tunnels of the city, the bunkers and tunnels, crypts and shadows, and also an exploration through time - including Dick Turpin's escape below ground along passages leading from a cellar.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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