The South Kensington subway is the most heavily used foot tunnel in the UK, carrying many millions of people, and it links the tube station at South Kensington with London’s famous museums along Exhibition Road. These are the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum.
The subway is owned by London Underground (TfL) and its management falls within the scope of South Kensington station itself. Station staff are responsible for keeping the subway clean, monitoring it (CCTV for example) and ensuring it is in good repair.
One could say the northern exit of the subway in Exhibition Road is without a doubt the furthest possible distance any official London Underground entrance/exit can be found from a tube station anywhere.
The subway is approximately 300 metres (985 feet) in length. It has four entrances/exits, a number of skylights, pavement lights, and the whole alignment is on a gentle rise from Thurloe Street to the northern most exit by the Science Museum.
The Johnston font on the opening times board belies the fact the South Kensington subway is owned and managed by London Underground on behalf of TfL.
These smart cast iron skylights in the centre of the road form the southern part of the original subway. What is discerning about this view is the skylights are at different levels, and that is because the subway rises gently as it progresses towards the Science Museum.
Despite its huge popularity, very little is known about the South Kensington subway, and since it is a very overlooked part of London’s history, here is an attempt at cobbling together some rarely known facts about it 🙂
A very busy moment in the subway! (This picture was taken before the COVID pandemic.)
A brief history
The Metropolitan District Railway Act (7 August 1884) made provision for a foot tunnel 22 chains (that’s 447 metres or 484 yards) long. The foot tunnel was built 1884-1885 to link the underground station to the Exhibition Road area where some of Britain’s most noted institutions could be found, including the Natural History and Victoria & Albert museums. The subway was opened on 4th May 1885, the same day as the International Inventions Exhibition.
As Punch noted in 1885, one celebrated though unintended effect of the new subway’s opening was the clearance of the local “ragamuffins that used to be drawn up… opposite the railings to the Gardens of the Natural History Museum.”
One interesting aspect of the subway was it was originally connected to the South Kensington station directly. A set of footbridges led up to a pedestrian bridge/passageway which passed underneath Alfred Road West (now Thurloe Place) and directly into the subway itself. Changes that were made however eliminated this and that made the access into the subway directly from the station’s ticket hall instead.
By 1887 people viewed the subway as ‘useless’ – since it was very rarely open. To make it useful the tube promoters of the time wanted it to be incorporated into a new Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway.
The Brompton & Piccadilly Circus tube’s proposed route would have run alongside Hyde Park beneath Kensington Road, before turning into Exhibition Road and utilising the subway tunnel to reach a new terminus at South Kensington station. The plans were soon ditched and the routing which now forms the Piccadilly Line was adopted.
The subway was closed for the duration of the First World War. By 1919 it still had not reopened. Parliament went so far as to debate the great inconvenience this was causing. Part of the delay may have been due to construction of the Science Museum’s East Block.
Not the first!
Its been claimed by Wolmar & others the subway was the UK’s first for pedestrians. This is not true. The first underpass of any sort was the Nursemaid’s Tunnel at Regent’s Park, built under the New Road (now Marylebone Road) in 1821-2. Euston Square was also the site of a very early subway underneath the main road. Of course the many subways created by the construction of the Metropolitan Railway and its associated lines prior to 1885 should also be considered.
The subway’s northern end
The subway originally was shorter that that seen today (although it was longer to begin with!) The first northernmost exit to be built, pre-1908, was roughly were the present Science Museum entrance is. The image shown below tells us what the original entrance to the subway looked like:
It seems the canopy originally denoted in large words “Metropolitan and District Railways, SOUTH KENSINGTON.” By 1905 that been replaced with a plain sided canopy.
The subway was originally longer and it first ventured further north before turning west. It led to the celebrated Royal Horticultural Gardens which stood on the site at the time. The subway’s exit was adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery which once stood on Exhibition Road.
That original section lasted just a few years and was soon closed and that was because of the need to construction the huge edifice known as the Imperial Institute. The space where the subway originally ended was needed for the new wide avenue to be known as Imperial Institute Road. The task of demolishing the northern bit of the subway and laying the new road fell to Mowlem and Company – a noted British construction business which was first established in 1822 and bought out in 2006.
With the construction of the Imperial Institute any hope of an extension of the subway right up to the Royal Albert Hall were dashed. Instead the northernmost exit to the subway was further south for several years until a new and short extension was built to enable it to reach the Post Office Buildings which is on the corner of Exhibition Road and Imperial College Road.
On the few maps that bothered to indicate the subway’s presence, it was indicated by an ‘Entrance to Ry Subway’ legend. Otherwise South Kensington station was merely indicated with an arrow, no subway being shown.
Given these limitations, instead a short extension of just 40ft was made in 1908 to reach the rear of the Imperial Institute’s new post office, which is as far as it could go. At least the subway could now claim to serve the Imperial Institute too. As it stands the new extension was wider than the remainder of the subway.
Some while back TfL had an exhibition that covered aspects of what was known as ‘Albertopolis’ (its the name the Victorian’s once called the area.) The museums are featured too and there’s this poster that featured the subway (without so much as mentioning it though!)
What is interesting is the diagram showing the subway’s route. To the uninitiated it might seem correct but its actually way off. The alignment is shown very simply as a straight line up Exhibition Road but its certainly not straight. Plus the alignment in Thurloe Street (Alfred Place West) is completely wrong.
The subway as shown on the 1925 poster featured by TfL a couple of years ago.
The missing exit!
The exits from the subway were (from south to north) at the junction of Cromwell Gardens/Cromwell Road (now replaced by a newer side entrance adjacent to the Ismaili Centre); the Natural History Museum gardens; Victoria & Albert Museum (plus possibly a small exit a short distance north & indicated on some maps); the original (pre 1908) exit; a later (post 1908) Science Museum exit.
The subway exit at the junction of Cromwell and Exhibition Roads in its early days.
Was this an original exit from the subway? It seems probably not. There’s no detail of any sort in terms of the history of that particular access to the subway, but judging from maps it seems the site originally consisted of skylights, one of which was removed to provide for a new staircase down to the subway. Earlier maps show just the skylights, whilst later maps clearly show a staircase added.
The Cromwell Road exit is no longer in use – but its certainly still there – its just not visible to those who use the subway! No doubt barely anybody has any inkling there was once an entrance the the subway slap bang in the middle of the roadway!
Information board facing a blank wall gives a clue there was once an exit opposite that led into Cromwell Road!
This wall in the subway looks much newer – and out of place too! This is where the former exit into the southern end of Exhibition Road once stood – where its junction with Cromwell Road is. The stairs are still behind the wall – unused of course.
There is still access to the stairs and space behind the wall. There’s a door marked ‘high voltage’ (seen at far left) yet basically there’s nothing behind the door. There’s definitely equipment such as electricity facilities here but that is in the space away from the stairwell area itself. Also it turns out the bottom of the stairs have been removed – presumably to make way for some equipment too.
The original Cromwell Road access point with its stairs in fact still exists however it takes knowledge to know where it was. A mysteriously placed information board pointing towards a wall a few metres north of the Ismaili centre exit in fact gives the game away because the entrance to that other exit used to be at that point! Clearly the underground staff at the time the changes were made couldn’t be bothered to move the original board’s location!
The site of the old Cromwell Rd entrance – now a skylight that can’t even be seen from within the subway itself! Its replacement entrance is in the background on the left.
As well as that information board there are other clues to this missing exit. Three skylight locations can be seen above ground. Nevertheless only two of these can be seen from the tunnel! This third skylight is in fact concealed behind the wall I have just mentioned and the stairs are accessed by a door marked ‘Private – Danger High Voltage’ etc. There’s nothing of the sort, no high voltage equipment that can be seen from the skylight. Clearly those unused stairs are behind this newer brick wall 🙂
A picture that was difficult to take because of the mesh that surrounds the skylights – nevertheless what can clearly be seen are the old steps down from Cromwell Road into the subway.
When was this exit replaced? I am not sure but certainly remember it being used. There seems no record of the changes, but it may have been the mid 1980s. The Ismaili Centre opened in 1985.
The new Thurloe St/Ismaili Centre exit – the original Cromwell Road exit can be seen in the distance on the left.
One little-known fact re this old entrance is this was the last narrow centre-island access-point to London’s underground transport system. Other examples have included Holborn, King’s Cross, Manor House, Turnpike Lane. Obviously these days crowds of commuters (or tourists) emerging onto very narrow traffic islands right in the middle of busy roads has now become a considerable safety issue.
Originally published April 2016 – Updated 2022.