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URBAN LEGENDS OF THE LONDON UNDERGROUND

Posted on: April 29, 2015

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I think Urban Legends are fun. Whether you believe them or not, they often show an impressive dose of  creative imagination, and sometimes the better ones will also leave you with a “but what if it’s really true?” feeling. Subterranean London is a particularly rich source of ULs, and naturally they often involve the London Underground, or the Tube as it’s known here in Blighty.

One of my favourites is the legend that Buckingham Palace has it’s very own tube station, there for if Her Majesty needs to do an emergency flit to Windsor Castle in the event of a nuclear strike, or an armed revolution. There is very little real substance to this story, although in his book ‘Behind Palace Doors – My Service as the Queen Mother’s Equerry‘, Major Colin Burgess relates the tale of the Queen Mother telling him how she and King George VI had grabbed some torches one evening in the 1940s, and decided to explore Buckingham Palace’s rabbit-warren of basements. Down there they met a man with a Geordie accent they had never seen before. They had no idea who he was, or what he was doing there, but they said he seemed contented enough!  It’s a bit reminiscent of a tale from Queen Victoria’s time, of a young homeless boy who managed to live undetected in Buck House’s basement for several months.

Rumours of secret tunnels beneath London abound.  In the early 1980s journalist Duncan Campbell wrote a book called ‘War Plan UK’ about Britain’s top secret defence locations.   Whitehall moles gave him access to hitherto unknown tunnels which included Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms.  In the recent docu-drama ‘Coalition‘, about the 2010 General Election, there is a scene where Peter Mandelson shows the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown how to use one of the tunnels to avoid the press pack waiting outside Downing Street.  On one Internet forum I viewed when researching for this piece, I came across an ex-Whitehall employee, who said he had once got into a lift which had buttons going to levels far below ground.  He said it was a great source of regret that he never had time to explore where the buttons would take him.

According to a fascinating article on the blackcablondon website this area is known as Q Whitehall, and runs for miles below Whitehall, up to Trafalgar Square.  Although this would seem to be one of those open secrets that you often find in Britain, official documents about Q Whitehall’s existence apparently won’t be released until 2026!

The London Underground dates back to the 1860s, and has it’s fair share of ghosts and strange stories attached to it, as you would expect from what can be a very very atmospheric place.  One such legend is that of a ghostly Egyptian who was said to haunt the now-disused British Museum station in the 1920s.  People claimed to have heard ghostly wailing coming from behind the walls on numerous occasions.  The station was closed in 1933, but in 1935 a British film ‘Bulldog Jack’ was released, which touched on the legend (although the station in the film was re-named Bloomsbury).  Very curiously, on the night the film premiered in London, two women were said to have disappeared mysteriously from Holborn station, which was next along from Museum.  Strange marks were found on the walls where they vanished.

If you’ve read James Herbert’s nuclear war novel Domain, you may be familiar with the Kingsway Telephone Exchange, which is in fact a top secret nuclear bunker, lying beneath Holborn and the Central Line.  Apparently it is said to be connected to Chancery Lane tube station via a private staircase.  The ventilation shafts to it can be seen on the pavements above.  It was built as a shelter during WW2, and expanded during the Cold War.  It claims to hold the deepest bar and cafeteria in the UK.  There, the elite would hole up presumably, whilst the rest of us peasants fried up above.

I’m not sure the Kingsway  technically qualifies as an Urban Legend, as we know it exists, a more fantastic legend is that of the cannibalistic troglodytes who are said to lurk in the underground tunnels around Aldwych station (now disused).  Any horror film buff will instantly think of the 1972 cult British horror  ‘Death Line’ (released in the United States as ‘Raw Meat’), which starred the splendid Donald Pleasence as a police officer investigating the murders of unfortunate commuters at Russell Square tube station.  The culprit turns out to be the last surviving member of a gang of workers who had become buried in an accident whilst building the line.  He survives by abducting people from the station and eating them.  The film was actually shot at Holborn and Aldwych stations.

It’s very easy to see that this film is what started the whole Urban Legend of the cannibalistic trogs lurking under London’s streets, and yet in his book ‘Keep Out!’ Nick Redfern claims the story may have some basis in fact after all.  He cites a police officer Frank Wiley who told him there had been a spate of unsolved murders on the Underground between 1967 and 1969.  Commuters and homeless people were attacked, usually after 10 o’clock at night, and would later be found in the tunnels with their limbs gnawed off, and their innards ripped out.  The murders, 7 in all, were hushed up by the British government.  He said ‘Death Line’  had been deliberately based on information the film-makers had received.

In 1968 workmen repairing a track on the Bakerloo line claimed to have seen a bearded, wild-haired man looming out of the tunnels at them, dressed in tattered, filthy clothing.  This unsettling apparition bared his teeth at them, and went to lunge at them, but one of the workman raised a hatchet at him, causing the strange person to retreat back into the tunnels.

Fast forward several years to the Noughties, and TV series ‘Most Haunted’ did an investigation at Aldwych, which led to Derek Acorah claiming that cavemen haunted the Underground.  Yvette Fielding clearly looked rather nonplussed by this information.  As you would really.  These days the ‘Paranormal Database’ also includes the trogs in it’s exhaustive compilation of all things British and supernatural.

More recently Holborn has been in the news for pavements exploding from fires caused by an electrical fault.  This is unnerving enough on it’s own, without the possibility of any mad trogs emerging and going on the rampage!  There are plans to re-open some defunct tube stations to the public as museums, possibly including Aldwych.  I will be surprised if  the urban legend of the troglodytes will get a mention in the tourist information though.

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