Hidden London: The Kingsway Tram Tunnel
Kingsway Tram Tunnel
“I have done something nobody else here today has!”
So said Bobby to fifteen visitors on the Hidden London tour together with four staff from the London Transport Museum.
He had caught there attention, but only because the guide had asked if there were any questions and got more than he expected!
“I am the only person here today who has actually been on a tram down the Kingsway Tram Tunnel. With my dad, in 1951. Just seven years old, I remember that we got off at an underground tram stop just to say we had done it.”
Clearly older than everybody else there, it wasn’t exactly a monumental achievement. The tunnel closed, with the remains of the tram network, in 1952.
Ever since those far off days he has been fascinated by the ‘ghost tunnel’ at Kingsway. Looking through the railings to see the cobble stones and tram tracks leading down into who knows what? Seventy years later, when the Hidden London team of the London Transport Museum got permission to open the tunnel to visitors, their tour was sold out before it even came on sale.
More dates were added and here we were on 18 August 2021 about to enter the secret world of ancient and ghost trams. Not here, but on Clapham Common. Neddie Seagoon, Eccles, Bluebottle, Henry Crun et al found ‘the last tram’.
Back to 2021.The museum guides gave an excellent description of the tram network of London and how it became focussed on this tunnel. Or should we say subway. The concept, and the tramcars themselves, were all born the other side of the Atlantic in New York’s extensive system.
We learned that, in class conscious London, certain forms of transport were regarded as working class. Not the sort of thing you would want in Hampstead or Belsize Park. Look at the map and note the big gaps round the posh areas.
But this story is just about Kingsway Tram ‘Subway’. Probably the most important stretch of tram track in London. It was built to link the extensive tram networks of north and south London. Trams would have to cross the river Thames on a bridge somewhere. Look at the map. Only one crossing, on Westminster Bridge. The original plan to go straight over Waterloo Bridge was abandoned and the trams went along the embankment to Westminster Bridge.
Waterloo Bridge came into the equation by being at the southern end of a massive redevelopment of Holborn and Aldwych. Originally a vast slum, the plans to completely clear it included the subway. On top of which would be built a widened road bounded by impressive large buildings in the style of the day.
The crescent at Aldwych all part of the grand design. Six hundred homes were demolished. Standing at the top of the ramp leading down to the subway, the scene is easily recognisable by pictures taken when the subway opened in 1906.
Trams were original single decker, but eventually it was decided that to continue to be an economic proposition they would need to be double decker. To achieve this, they dropped the floor of the subway by five feet and added a top deck to the existing tramcars. Simple wasn’t it over 100 years ago!
The original southern entrance to the subway was to the side of Waterloo Bridge. When the new Waterloo Bridge was built in 1937, the entrance was relocated under the bridge itself. Nowadays that entrance is a night club. Part of the southern section of the subway was converted into the Strand underpass for vehicles. The remaining section is now a listed structure and this was the first time the public had been down since it closed in 1952.
The Kingsway Tram Tunnel (Subway)
Then came the double deckers in 1929. They lowered the floor of the tunnel and put an extra deck on the existing tramcars. In the tunnel, you could tell how much they had lowered the floor as the refuges were now twelve feet high!
The Hidden London Tour
Bertie: “Corr Bobby . Just imagine the view from upstairs. You must have been about the same age as the boys in the picture. Isn’t it a shame they have all gone!”
Bobby: “Not all, Bertie. One is in the London Transport Museum at Acton and you have actually seen it.”
Bobby: “But most importantly, there is still one working. Restored at enormous expense by the National Tramway Museum at Crich. I have actually been on it.”
Bertie: “You never took me!”
Bobby: “It was before we started writing stories. It closes soon for the winter. I promise to take you there next spring.”
The National Tramway Museum Crich, Derbyshire.
We have had a fantastic time putting this story together. Our research has led to a number of films/clips. What ever you do, make sure you watch the first one. ‘Remembering London’s Trams’, that includes the iconic film ‘The Elephant will never Forget’. The last day of London Trams.
Most of the films include the Kingsway tunnel.
Remembering London’s Trams
‘Hidden London’ goes to the Kingsway Tunnel
‘Unfinished London’ (quirky but worth watching)
Short clip showing the tunnel and a very gloomy fifties London
Crossrail in The Kingsway Tunnel
Lighting a Candle for Diddley