This post is by Guy Shrubsole. Updated 16th Dec 2017 with post-script on Birmingham’s secret tunnels.
The existence of a secret network of Cold War-era tunnels beneath central London can be confirmed by recently-released Land Registry data, Who Owns England can reveal.
There’s growing public interest in opening up previously hidden parts of subterranean London – from the unearthing of buried rivers, to the success of underground tourist ventures like the Cabinet War Rooms and the Mail Rail. But the authorities have remained reluctant to publicly confirm the existence of some of London’s most secretive tunnel systems – until now.
Last month, the Land Registry released free of charge its Corporate & Commercial dataset, which lists the 3.5 million land and property titles owned by all UK companies and corporate bodies. Some careful sifting of this vast dataset has uncovered various tunnels and underground chambers beneath London owned by the Post Office, BT, and the Ministry of Defence.
1. The Postmaster General’s secret tunnel beneath Whitehall
Browsing through the dataset, I stumbled across a very intriguing entry: a “Cable Chamber at the corner of Parliament Street and Bridge Street”, owned by ‘His Majesty’s Postmaster General’, who registered the freehold on 10th July 1951. Using the property title number, I decided to buy the title plan, to see precisely where this Chamber lies; it’s the small red square on the map below:
That puts it just outside the Parliament bookshop, near one of the exits to Westminster tube – here, on Google Street View:
Why this small cable chamber is interesting is because it appears to corroborate other stories about Post Office tunnels beneath Whitehall, long the subject of legend on urban exploration internet forums.
In 1980, Duncan Campbell, a journalist at the New Statesman investigating the government’s preparedness for nuclear war, found an entrance to some of the Post Office’s tunnels and rode a bike along them, somehow evading security. “A manhole cover, gently raised, gives access to one of the Post Office’s thousands of subsurface cable chambers”, he wrote, before following the tunnels down towards Westminster, “a Post Office lair called Q-Whitehall.”
Campbell published the resulting photos in the Christmas edition of the NS, in a brilliant piece that both mocked and excoriated the Cold War security state. This, after all, was the era of Protect and Survive and When The Wind Blows, when the government was pretending that households could survive nuclear attack simply by painting their windows white, whilst building themselves ever-deeper concrete bunkers. He went on to publish maps of the tunnel network in his book War Plan UK; the one of Q-Whitehall is reproduced below:
The Post Office tunnels were built in the 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II and with the prospect of atomic warfare looming. Aerial bombardment during the Blitz had forced the machinery of government underground, into the Cabinet War Rooms and elsewhere; now with the far greater threat of atomic strikes, it was decided that vital telecommunications channels should be buried deep beneath the surface so as to survive assault. One blogger has located an article about the construction of the Whitehall tunnels from a January 1946 Post Office engineers’ journal, published during the “short lived period where the government talked openly about what it had done during the war, before everything clamped down again as the Cold War started.”
Stephen Smith, a more recent chronicler of underground London, reckons that “no outsider has been into the tunnels since Campbell”. But at least with this new data from the Land Registry, we have official confirmation of their existence.
Campbell’s map of the Whitehall tunnel suggests that it has exit shafts under various government departments. So I decided to look through the Land Registry Corporate & Commercial dataset for any evidence of these. Sure enough, registered to ‘the Secretary of State for Defence’ (aka the MOD) is one “Vertical Shaft At Basement Level, Old War Office, Whitehall, London (SW1A 2EU)” – just as Campbell’s map shows. This raises fresh questions, however; since the Old War Office has been recently sold to the Hinduja Brothers, who are turning it into a hotel. Will access to the Whitehall tunnel remain closely guarded by the MOD, or will it become a tourist attraction for hotel guests?
2. The Atom Bomb-proof telephone exchange beneath High Holborn
Up until the 1980s, all telecoms was dealt with by the Post Office. Thatcher’s privatisation drive saw the hiving off of these functions and the creation of British Telecommunications Ltd (aka BT). Searching the Land Registry’s corporate dataset for BT’s land and property holdings throws up an even more intriguing set of secret underground tunnels, which it has inherited from its Cold War era predecessors.
In particular, this land title with a lengthy and mysterious description caught my eye: “That part of the subsoil which forms part of the underground works which became vested in Her Majesty’s Postmaster-General by virtue of the Post Office Works Act 1959 known as the London Works”. Interest duly piqued, I bought the title plan, and what it showed astonished me; a vast set of tunnels, shown in pink, stretching beneath High Holborn and Chancery Lane, deep beneath the level even of the Tube:
Digging further, I googled ‘Post Office Works Act 1959’, and turned up the transcript of a 15-minute debate held in the House of Lords on 20th January 1959. Lord Chesham, introducing the Bill for the government, assures his fellow Peers: “I do not think I need keep your Lordships very long in moving the Second Reading of this Bill… its purpose is to vest in my right honourable friend the Postmaster General certain deep-level chambers which were constructed under the Emergency Powers… Shortly after the war small underground shelters which had been constructed mainly in the borough of Holborn for the Ministry of Home Security were taken over by the Post Office. They were extended and they were adapted… All these works are now complete, and consist of underground rooms with connecting passages more than fifty feet below the surface of the ground. They are used for essential Post Office purposes”. Scant further details of the tunnel complex are supplied, but Lord Chesham had “arranged, for your Lordships convenience, for a copy of the book of reference and of the plans to be in the Library.”
In other words, the plans reproduced above were never made fully public at the time.
Authors Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman, in their book London Under London (1985), provide some more details of what became known as the Kingsway Exchange. “The Post Office pressed on with building its empire underground. Excavations began in 1951 for a vast underground telephone exchange at Kingsway. The backbone of the exchange was a twin tunnel 100 feet down on the northern side of High Holborn, between Hatton Garden and Red Lion Square, with Gray’s Inn Road running over it… Telecommunications plant, generators and repeating stations occupy most of the Hatton Garden side, while four extension tunnels, running beneath Chancery Lane Underground station, house switching units and an artesian well. A short cable tunnel links the exchange to the Post Office’s Holborn cable tunnel. The exchange, opened in October 1954, could handle two million calls a week”. (p.186)
After the end of the Cold War, Subterranea Britannica, a society of underground explorers, has been permitted to enter the Kingsway Exchange on two occasions. Their expeditions and photographs are online here. I took a walk around the area at ground level, and one sign of something odd going on below the surface is Number 39, Furnival Street, which looks to be one of the shafts where goods were sometimes transported in and out of the tunnels:
I’ve also discovered that the Kingsway Exchange appears in the Land Registry’s INSPIRE Index polygons for Camden, meaning that it’s easy to make a digital map of the tunnels (reproduced here for purposes of journalistic reporting):
The Land Registry records show that BT also owns a number of other tunnels and underground chambers:
- “Basement and Sub-Basement Cable Chambers, Cable Ducts, Tunnels and associated areas of Faraday Building North, Carter Lane, London”. A friend’s brother works for BT in their Faraday Building and has told me he’s seen evidence of these tunnels in the basement. Wikipedia notes that: “During the Second World War, the Faraday Building was transformed into a redoubt where the Cabinet could retreat if the need arose and the Prime Minister could run the war in greater security than Downing Street could provide.”
- “Cable chamber beneath Silver Street, London” and “the site of a cable chamber beneath part of the former site of Silver Street”. The title plan shows this to be near the Museum of London on London Wall.
- “Shafts and Tunnels at Moorgate Telephone Exchange, Fore Street, London (EC2Y 5BJ)” – again on London Wall, perhaps the same cable tunnel.
The Cold War is mercifully long over, and the paranoid secrecy of the state that accompanied it appears to have softened, at least in places. It’s a nice twist of history that some of the most secret Cold War sites are finally being revealed through the Land Registry’s embrace of more open data.
Post-script: Birmingham’s secret tunnels
After publishing this post, I was given a tip-off by @joolz_mc on Twitter that Birmingham, too, had similar secret tunnels under its city centre:
Similar to London I think. Evidence of ventilation shafts near the BT tower. I read when they were excavated workers were told they were for Birmingham’s underground. Can you access MapSearch on the Land Registry? I wonder if they are shown on there?
— joolz (@joolz_mc) December 16, 2017
So I took a look at the Land Registry’s INDEX Inspire polygons for central Birmingham, around the BT Tower (Brindley House and Telephone House) – and sure enough, there they were, a similar squiggly shape to the Holborn tunnels, buried beneath other more regular surface land parcels. (If you’re using QGIS to look for more tunnels like these, set the layer style to 50% transparency to reveal such ‘hidden’ polygons). Here’s a quick Google Map:
(It looks like one of the tunnels exits into a pub, The Queens Arms – might be worth asking the landlord if they have any really deep cellars…?!)
I bought the title plan for the Birmingham tunnel system [PDF], ownership of which was transferred to the Postmaster General in 1959, just like the Holborn network. Here’s a screengrab of the plan (North is on the right hand side):
If you know of any other secret tunnels, whether beneath London, Birmingham or elsewhere, please post details in the comments thread below!
92 thoughts on “How Land Registry data reveals London’s secret tunnels”
I worked in Hillgate House opposite the old bailey in the early 1970’s – it was 13th floor offices of a Japanese travel agency which was located adjacent to St Paul’s – near the site of the now popular First Dates restaurant. There was an underground tunnel between Hillgate House & those offices which we used although I always found it quite scary
I worked for the Pru in Furnival Street in 1962’ish and have vague recollections of walking along an underground tunnel to get to the main Pru building( in Holborn) to eat in their restaurant. How I got down into the tunnel, I have no idea .
Are you joining the iceberg project to map the underground assets – OS are leading the way…
Many years ago I spoke to an old veteran residing in the London borough of Ealing. He told me that there is a humongous shelter/tunnels under Walpole Park in Ealing.
Would be nice if you could find any details on this.
Hi, I live in Ealing and I’ve never heard about this, do you have any more details about this you could share or do you have any idea what year you had this conversation? Thank you for your time! 🙂
I worked for a time working with antiques dealers in Oswestry, Shropshire, and throughout a lot of the town is a fair laberynth of tunnels originally dug for the gasworks, with 6 places around half the town ( the other half was built after the gas tower was removed) where small access depots allowed people to get down to these. the depots were sold and sealed by BG after the gasworks closed, but reopened by British Telecom to run cables easier, and the depots sold to antiques dealers as storage spaces. These ran above and below pre-existing drains and tunnels between the old town hall and jail. about a mile of the BG tunnels are now closed, but there are still quite a lot of tunnels around. Generally, people don’t go in them but they’re still accessed for checking cables and piping. One “tunnel” actually runs on the surface down the backs of shops, though that’s firmly locked up.
I live in the medway towns, and there is definitely a lot of tunnels running under most the towns here, some are ww2 era and are acknowledged as real. But after years of scouting and hear say from the old timers there is alot that the mod and council won’t admit exist yet we found the entrance’s, would go in but need to use power tools and they are all watched and in public places, don’t suppose you could have a dig around for gillingham near the hospital, Rochester Castle, historic dockyard chatham, andv Higham/Strood temple House?
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Thanks Gavin. Just to say I had a look into this but couldn’t find anything pointing to the tunnels in Land Registry data, at any rate. But that’s not to say they don’t exist! I’m sure you’ve already seen this blog compiling some of the rumours and evidence: https://www.historicmedway.co.uk/chatham/strange.htm
Sub Brit has some brilliant photos of high Holban on there website – http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/sites/k/kingsway/
I researched the Whitehall tunnel at the national archive, post of it is all available, only two files are restricted at the moment!
I undertook some surveys at The Grange St Paul’s hotel and from street pavement level in Knight Rider Street London is a set of metal doors that lead down a metal staircase to vaulted doors where a bunker has been built underneath the new hotel,
Actually the reverse, the hotel was built round wartime entrances to the BT cable tunnels.
The Post Office Tower or BT Tower is connected to the “Deep Level” tunnels,and before Thatcher hived-off BT, BT used to give conducted tours to the Public. The tunnel from the BT Tower radiates south to Whitehall and north, near to Lords Cricket ground.
I know at least two people in Kingston upon Hull who say they have been in tunnels near queens gardens and where the central police station used to be. I found a reference to these once in a paperback called Beneath the City Streets.
I’ve heard multiple rumours of there being loads of underground room/ passages/ tunnels underneath Alexandra Palace in London. I’ve been down into the basement myself but would love to know more about what lies beneath .
Also in the same vicinity, my Dad once told me a story of when he was a child in Crouch End. There was an site where a building had been bombed in the war. He and his mates climbed over the fences to explore. They looked down a big (house sized) deep hole and saw plant machinery driving about and operating below. I’ll try to remember to ask my Dad if he remembers exactly where this was…
Yes they exist, I managed the security install. Don’t even think about illicit entry now.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have 50’s era bt tunnel systems, the Edinburgh one is little known. Would be interesting if it appears on your mapping software..
I worked in Moorgate telephone exchange in the 80’s into the 90’s. There was entry into the deep level tunnels via a lift, i went down many times and could walk around central London, sign posts and small trolley like electric cars were available to get about. Moorgate also had two huge bomb proof doors maybe 3 metre square that were always open, located about 3 floors below the surface. Inside were rooms with what you would say looked like living last resort living space, exercise bikes to generate electricity, shower cubicles and sleeping areas, it looked water proof / airtight also It looked unkept or maintained. Moorgate exchange was also called Forestress Moorgate i guess a good name as it was on Fore Street as well.
Moorgate exchange was demolished around 2007 -08 but i bet the access to the secret tunnels still exist as they carry telecoms cables. Let me know if you would like more detail. cheers Mark
Thanks Mark – that’s fascinating! 🙂
Kelvin House (123 Judd Street) also provided lift access down to the tunnels, eerie as the Piccadilly line seems close but above you.
I worked at the BT Tower in the late sixties and up until 1977. Our department had clearance to access to what we called the deep level. The tunnel was underneath the Northern Line tube and You could hear the trains running above you. Gas testing was supposed to be carried out but generally it was ignored. I think the tunnel was about 150ft below ground level and we never had a lift! I never walked the complete length of the tunnel but rumour said it went as far north as Hampstead and as far south as New Cross. It certainly linked to Horseferry Road, Whitehall and Faraday House. There were light switches about every 100 yards and the tunnels were about 10 feet wide and about the same height. Comms cables ran throughout the tunnels resting on a series of cable bearers on both sides. I don’t know if the tunnel pre-dated the tower, but the depth of the tunnel is about the same as the depth of the tower foundations. Co-incidence or planned? It’s certainly an interesting place. Oh, and there’s plenty of furry wildlife down there.
Whitehall deep tunnel has entrances from Craig’s court telephone exchange and run under Whitehall with ladders going up to various government buildings along it’s length. The Craig court entrance has a tiny ( two or three person) lift . Partway along tunnel is active telephone exchange.
I knew a old engineer here in dublin who told me he worked in Birmingham on a 2 mile tunnel for British telecom in the 60s.He said it was a cold war telecommunications tunnel and he had to sign the official secrets act.He said a lot of the workers on building the tunnels where Irish.Its right under the middle of Birmingham city.
This brings back a few memories. I worked for the best part of 20 years in the Birmingham tunnels from the late 60s.
When I worked in High Holborn we used to hire meeting rooms in an office block on the north side. One time looking out of the window while waiting for a meeting to start I realised there were some very large exhaust pipes and silencers mounted vertically on the exterior wall of the adjacent building. I then realised that they were above the generator room on the sub-brittanica plan so I assume they were the exhausts for the emergency generators. I beleive they have now been removed when the tunnels were sold.
In Bromsgrove street in bham as you enter from Bristol at. Directly behind the building on the corner next to the apartments there a set of double doors which my friend said lead down a secret tunnel, probably to mailbox. Also in Digbeth when it was a dual carriageway right next to the church by the markets there was a locked gate that went underground in between the roads, that gate still exists but as a part of sel fridges car park entrance, it’s on the left hand side as you go in. Why is it still there??