'London Under': New Book Uncovers London's Subterranean Layers

London Under: From Roman ships to subway tunnels, a chronicle of the city’s underground. Raul Belinchon / Gallery Stock

In the mid-19th century, workers digging on Oxford Street in London discovered a strange trapdoor. Beneath the hatch were brick steps, descending downward into the darkness. At the bottom, the men discovered a room with arched walls and a pool at the center with a burbling spring. What had they stumbled upon?

The room was “in all probability a Roman baptistery,” says author Peter Ackroyd. It’s just one of the many treasures to be found over the centuries beneath the city, in a subterranean world chronicled in Ackroyd’s new book, London Under. Ackroyd has tackled his hometown as a subject before, in 2001’s London: The Biography. Now he’s focused his penetrating gaze on London’s sinews and bones: sewers, rivers, pipes, tunnels, archeological settlements, the Underground. And that baptistery? It was destroyed “to make way for new building.” When it comes to London’s growth, the old is frequently lost for the new.

There’s plenty of marvelous information in the book about what lies beneath. In St. Paul’s Churchyard in the 1500s, enormous bones were discovered by a man who thought they were proof of giants. (They turned out to be from a woolly mammoth.) During the construction of County Hall, the remnants of a sunken Roman ship came to light. But for all the gems beneath the surface, there is much that is unpleasant. In the 1300s, one poor fellow met his end by falling into an underground sewage pit. In the 19th century, “toshers” scoured the underworld for coins and valuables called “tosheroon”; they were “beings of the underworld who entered the sewers on the banks of the Thames at low tide, armed with large sticks to defend themselves from rats.” (In a sense, Ackroyd himself is a literary version of these toshers.)

Ackroyd mines historical anecdotes to great effect. He presents the story of Marc Isambard Brunel and his arduous project to tunnel beneath the Thames: construction began in 1825 and took almost 20 years. Among the casualties were a digger who died of “delirium,” several who perished during floods, and a foreman who ended up in a lunatic asylum. There was also the constant hazard of flammable gas. Nevertheless, the city was entranced when the tunnel finally opened. The queen attended the dedication ceremony, and the structure was, “for a time, the wonder of the earth,” even though it was rumored to be “the haunt of thieves and prostitutes.”

London Under book cover London Under. By Peter Ackroyd.

The most fascinating chapter in Ackroyd’s book dwells on the creation of the London Underground. Its first route, the Metropolitan Line, opened in 1863. Steam locomotives with names like Kaiser and Hornet plowed along its tracks. These behemoths accommodated three classes of carriages; the first-class cabins boasted mirrors and carpets. The Metropolitan Line alone transported 30,000 people daily back in 1863; 1 billion rode the entire system in 2007.

Throughout the book, Ackroyd is not just interested in London’s hidden relics; he’s interested in what they—and the idea of an underground—mean to a culture. London’s underworld is a “shadow or replica of the city,” and it is also a shadow of ourselves and our thoughts, the stuff that’s discovered when we open the trapdoor.