A short history of the Kingsway Tram Subway

In 1895, the newly elected London County Council (LCC) began carrying out the first major urban improvement scheme in central London. The intension was to clear the slum of Holborn to make way for a new, broad avenue, reflecting the council’s vision of London as a modern day metropolis.

The LCC wished to electrify the then horse driven tram system and expand lines not only through central London, but also across the river. By 1898, thousands of people had been re-housed and a tree-lined avenue named Kingsway in honor of Edward VII had replaced the slum.

The tram system now blossomed on either side of the river, but the wealthy upper class upheld reservations against expansion through West End and City of London. The opposition was mainly due to the fact that the tram, because of its efficiency and low fares, had become a symbol of the working class. Central Londoners were afraid that letting in the plebian would affect the value of their property. Thus, central London stayed tram-free whilst the rest of the city’s lines were electrified.

Because of further opposition against overhead wires amongst the upper class, the ambitious LCC took on using electric traction, the electrification method hailing from the USA that made the tube possible in 1890. Inspired by public transport in Boston and New York, LCC wished to unify all London tram lines and use shallow subways where necessary.

A subway was recommended under Kingsway in 1901, partly to ease traffic and make the streets safer, but mainly to facilitate a connection between tramlines north and south of the river. On February 24, 1906 the first section of the cut-and-cover tram subway, running under Kingsway from Southampton Row to Aldwych with an intermediate station at Holborn was opened by the head of the L.C.C. The first journey from the Angel, Islington to Aldwych where the tram terminated took 12 min northbound and 10 min return.

In 1908, permission was granted for through fares, and the subway was extended southwards to Victoria Embankment under old Waterloo Bridge. Because of the need to pass under one of the city’s main sewers (a branch of the river Fleet), descending a 10% slope from Theoband’s Road, Kingsway subway was build only to accommodate single deck trams. Besides, coupled single deck trams were thought as a more efficient alternative to the double-deck tram at the time. Over the next few decades, a weekly amount of 200,000 Londoners were commuting through the subway; it’s maximum capacity.

Finally, in February 1930, the LCC decided to raise the roof and deepen the tunnel as appropriate to accommodate double-deck trams. In January 1931 the subway opened to double-deck trams, only to be closed for good little over 20 years later, in 1952. The London Passenger Transport Board was formed in 1933, quickly taking over the trams.

In contrast to the LCC, LPTB wished to introduce more modern vehicles to London’s streets, and plans for several other tram subways across town were ditched. Trams were gradually replaced by trolley busses, running on the old tram overhead wires, and later by diesel busses.

Since the closure of Kingsway Tram Subway, the tunnel has mainly been used for storage. In the early 1964, the southern part of the tunnel was converted into the Strand Underpass for light road traffic. The northern part of the underpass has been abandoned since the completion of the Thames Barrier in 1984. Until then it was used as London’s Flood Control Centre. Today, the subway is being restored in order to maintain its support under Kingsway, but inside both the original tiles and the electric traction tracks still remain as a little pocket of surviving London history.