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Gimme Shelter

Not quite subterranean as in below the earth, but none the less below street level is the story of the tunnels that once lay beneath the area today known as Adelphi which sits in between Charing Cross station and the Savoy Hotel.

The northern fringes of the park area in the photograph were prior to the building of the Embankment the line of the River Thames. Fronting the river standing where today the Adelphi Hotel sits was the monumental Adelphi Terrace built in 1768.

Adelphi Terrace

The development by Robert Adam called for the building to sit on top of a huge foundation of brick arches and a labyrinth of interconnecting tunnels. There was also a roadway installed beneath the terrace called Subterranean Way to convey carriages and carts into the undercrofts and riverside warehouses.

When the Embankment was completed in 1870 the river frontage was lost, and as a result, the arches and undercrofts used for trade were abandoned, but not for long. They swiftly became populated by some of London’s poorest inhabitants turning the area below the terrace into something akin to a small town. The area quickly became notorious for activities as down market as the occupants in the grand houses above were well to do.

A publication of the1850s notes “the most abandoned characters used to lurk; outcasts and vagrants came there to sleep; and many a street thief escaped from his pursuers in those subterranean haunts, before the introduction of gas-lights and a vigilant police. Even now tramps prowl in a ghastly manner down the dim-lit passages.” A contemporaneous magazine article put a rather more flowery slant on it describing the residents as having “quaffed the cup of suffering to its dregs”. Around this time there were several pieces in the popular Victorian press, however far from decrying the state in which the inhabitants found themselves the articles appear to have promoted the tunnels as a visitor attraction.

Years rolled by and tastes changed and by the 1930s Adelphi Terrace was earmarked for demolition along with its vaulted warehouses for the more modern Art Deco buildings that stand there today. Most of the passageways were closed off, but the road used for vehicular access now known as Lower Robert Street was kept as it was in constant use by Taxi’s.

Lower Robert Street (named after Robert Adam) is short brick tunnel, it has a slightly sinister charm as it winds it’s way under the buildings above and gives you just a little glimpse of how the underneath of Adelphi Terrace would have looked.

Lower Robert Street

You do somewhat take your life in your hands if you decide to walk through the tunnel as there are no pavements and it is very infrequently used by pedestrian, on the most part because very few people know that it exists apart from the frequent Taxi Cabs that use it as a cut through. If you stand inside and wait until there is a gap in the traffic it’s easy to imagine how these dark and dingy tunnels would have been like, some with people huddled along it’s sides in order to find shelter during the hours of darkness. On windy days there can be heard a low moan as the breeze eddies through the passageway and it is said that when the wind is stronger you can hear the screams of Poor Jenny a young prostitute who plied her trade in the tunnel where she worked, eat and slept on a nest of greasy rags. One night she was strangled by one of her customers and her cries can still be heard today.

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