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London Subterranean

By Marcia Allen
Technical Services & Collections Manager

City fathers decided the city of London required a new county hall in 1910.  When construction crews began excavating the site, they stumbled upon the immense ruins of a Roman galley.

The bombings of London during World War II obviously caused massive destruction.  From the ruins, however, were exposed the foundations of an ancient Roman fort.  Further reconstruction revealed a complete Roman bath-house located beneath Thames Street.

Treasure-seekers frequently stumble upon dusty mugs and other half-hidden artifacts near the Fleet River.  The site once housed the Gaol of London, an 800-year-old prison that was leveled in 1845.

Those fond of reading history, archaeology, or travel literature will find a rare treasure in Peter Ackroyd’s new book entitled London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.  This thin book is an astounding guide to the unexpected ruins left behind by the passing of the years.  As Ackroyd says in his opening paragraph:

“Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts sand sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day.”

Given that caution, who could resist the promise of Ackroyd’s expertise? What follows immediately captures readers’ attention.  There is, for example, an entire section on London sewers.  The oldest known treatment of sewage is said to have occurred during the thirteenth century, when pipes were installed in some areas to carry waste underground.  As early as 1531, London had a formal board of officials who supervised the sewers and authorized the installation of new ones.  That was certainly an improvement over the open fetid pits previously used, but still there were some serious problems.  Methane gas explosions and “the great stink” of 1858 were major setbacks for human hygiene.  And the horrifying tales of cholera outbreaks and the reports of gargantuan rats roaming the dark tunnels go on and on.

Yet another section describes the burial grounds, some of them quite old, located throughout the city.  The grave of Celsus, a policeman from long ago, was located in Camomile Street.  Ackroyd assures the reader that there were as many as 200 separate burial sites located within the city, many of which are no longer marked.  He reminds us that the cemetery of Christ Church, Spitalfields, was open for 130 years beginning in 1729, and that during that time, an unbelievable 68,000 people were interred within its walls.

Obviously, London has undergone great cosmetic change.  The first established community, for example, began to sink almost before it was completed.  This was due to the mixture of sand clay, chalk and gravel upon which the city was built.  As a result, above-ground housing soon became basement-level dwellings.  How did the citizens deal with the sinking?  They continued to build atop ground level, so that now the original dwellings lie some 30 feet below the surface.  Of course, old roadways, houses and personal belongings became part of the well-packed detritus of history.

Ackroyd’s accounts of found treasure are perhaps the most fascinating tales of the book.  He reminds us that a huge stone head, crafted to resemble the emperor Hadrian, was discovered in the bed of the Thames in 1832.  Further, an intact crypt of a long-forgotten monastery was exposed when workers were digging on Bouverie Street in 1867.  A long-hidden trap door was uncovered in 1865 when workers were repairing Oxford Street.  Curious investigators pried open the door to reveal a large room, in which a formal pool or bath was still being fed by a bubbling spring.

Ackroyd’s London underground is surely a place of evil, of trepidation.  Prisons, he reminds us, were originally built underground.  And the tunnels beneath the city were used extensively by criminals for hundreds of years.  A natural fear of the unknown adds to uneasiness toward what lies beneath the surface.
But Ackroyd’s underground is also a place of grand adventure.  The forgotten booty of another age frequently astonishes those who find such treasures.  And the old reminders of past lives tell their own wonderful stories.  This lovely little book is a brief glimpse of the world as it once was.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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