Going Underground – Kingsway Tram Tunnel

The entrance to the Tram Tunnel on Kingsway, Holborn

Dear Readers, I have crossed the road here at Kingsway many, many times en route to the London Review of Books bookshop on Bury Place (major plug for one of the best bookshops in London), but have never really paid attention to this long tunnel to nowhere. However, in the 1930s this was a major part of London’s extensive tram network, linking the lines north and south of the river Thames and contributing greatly to the ‘joining up’ of the metropolis. Sadly, this all came to an end in 1952, when the powers that be decided that trolley buses, and then motorised buses, were the way to go instead. 

I should declare an interest here: my Dad, though just too young for the trams, was for several years a conductor on the trolley buses, and remembers the trams in Stratford, East London. The anecdote here is that, having spent a considerable sum on a tandem bicycle, Dad (who was steering) managed to get the vehicle stuck in the tramlines, and when the bike fell over, bashing Mum on the head and leaving her stunned in the middle of the oncoming traffic,  he rushed to pick up not my 18 year-old mother, but the tandem. When quizzed as to his priorities, he responded with

“Well, the bike might have got run over”.

I’m not sure my Mum ever one-hundred percent forgave him.

Anyhow, Hidden London (part of the London Transport Museum) organise tours ‘behind the scenes’ at various London Underground stations and other important historical locations, and they are always interesting, plus there’s that certain frisson of being somewhere that you wouldn’t normally be allowed to go. So, off we trot, down a 1 in 10 incline, into the site of the Kingsway Tram station.

The guide tells us that this incline was quite the challenge for a double-decker tram to climb, and on some occasions the tram would instead roll backwards back into the station, much to the delight of any small boys aboard.

The ’tiles’ are not tiles, but specially-coated bricks.

This light, in the centre of the entrance, is the original lamp from when the station opened in 1908. The ones at the top of the incline are copies.

The photo below shows the station (known as a subway, probably because of contemporary developments in New York) when it first opened. To begin with, the trams were single decker (later the station was remodelled to accommodate double-decker trams) and they would have operated alongside horse-drawn transport.

Down we go, into the subway itself. It is very mucky down here, and is largely now used by Camden for storage. It’s also often used as a film set – several of the Batman films had scenes here, one of the episodes of Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch) was filmed in the tunnel, and the film The Escapist was also shot here.

It takes a bit of imagination to recreate the station itself from what’s left. Passengers would have come down two flights of stone stairs, one at either end of a central platform. The trams would have been on either side, and at its peak there were 30 trams an hour passing through the station. You could, at various times, have travelled from Highbury to Waterloo, Hackney to Wandsworth, Leyton to Westminster and Archway to Kennington. The more London-savvy will have spotted that the starting stations were, and in some cases still are, in some of the more deprived parts of London, and the trams were always seen as being working-class transport – they were cheaper than other methods of travel, and although often cramped and grubby they did the job of conveying people from home to work with minimal fuss.

This is what’s left of the platform itself – you can see the stairs down in the middle of the photo. The concrete pillars would have been new and shiny, and to the right you can see the remains of the poster frames that would have held advertisements and maps.

The top of one of the pillars.

This is how the station would have looked in its heyday. I think it would have felt rather exciting to jump onto a tram here. Once the station had been updated to take double-decker trams (it closed in 1929 and reopened for business in 1931) it was hoped that, by doubling the number of passengers the tram system would be more profitable.

Efforts were made to encourage people onto the trams: have a look at this rather stylish poster from the 1930s.

But sadly, it was not to be. It seems all the more sad these days, when we are looking for cleaner modes of transport, that the very extensive tram network no longer exists. Trams can work (there are great examples in Berlin and Vienna for example), but only if there is some way of giving them priority over traffic.

The last tram ran in 1952, and if you have ten minutes to spare, it’s well worth watching this film, though have some hankies ready….

The tunnel itself now ends in a dead end – the part at Kingsway is owned by Camden Council, while the southern end, owned by Westminster Council, was converted to make the underpass which takes traffic to Waterloo Bridge.

Various ideas have been floated about how to use the Kingsway tram subway, but fire regulations have thwarted most of them – the Ford motor company apparently wanted to use it as a central London showroom, and the Royal Opera House wanted to store some of its scenery and props here, but both plans came to nought. It will be interesting to see what happens to this historic space. Surely it deserves better than to be nothing more than a storage depot for heaps of Camden Council paraphenalia?

And on the way out (with my Bugwoman hat firmly back on) I noticed this burgeoning fernery popping out from amongst the brickwork.

There is Maidenhair Spleeenwort and Hart’s Tongue Fern here, plants that I have noticed anywhere else in the vicinity. Are they gradually trying to change the walls into the Hanging Gardens of Fitzrovia? It’s rather nice to see something alive and thriving, though I am rather puzzled as to why they’ve popped up in this gloomy, polluted spot. I’m sure they’ll have their reasons.

6 thoughts on “Going Underground – Kingsway Tram Tunnel

  1. Liz Norbury

    I used to walk past this tunnel every day on my way to work in the ’80s, and I had no idea that there was a disused tram station there. And what a wonderful film! I love the song – especially its assertion that “many a Miss will one day be Mrs” through riding on the top deck of a tram!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I know, I love the song too! Did you ever watch ‘The Good Old Days’ on the television? I used to love all the old music hall songs. I had no idea what the tunnel was either, London has so much hidden history…


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