diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Famous Secret places on under the street where I work
Kingsway Telephone Exchange

I know I said I wouldn't go back to the history of buildings down the street where I now work, but I couldn't resist just one extra report. I wanted to take a more careful look at the door to number 32 High Holborn...

How ordinary this door looks. It's an unloved and unlabelled door, tucked anonymously between the newsagents at number 31 and the boarded up shop at number 33. If you were passing you wouldn't give this door a second look, which must have been the idea when they installed it. Even a closer look would reveal no more than a dirty brown door in a thick concrete frame, a small letterbox beneath, a small extractor fan overhead, and a doorbell and intercom set into the right-hand lintel. Peer through the dusty glass and you might catch sight of the two thick yellow metal doors behind, jammed tightly shut with no obvious opening mechanism. But you'd never guess what really lay behind.

During World War Two the Government constructed eight Deep Level Shelters at Underground stations across the capital. These were to give civilians a place of shelter during bombing raids, and one was built at Chancery Lane station. After the war the tunnels were taken over by the Post Office for the construction of a secret international telephone exchange. The Kingsway exchange was planned to be both bombproof and self sufficient, with a permanent staff of 150 and facilities including generators, an artesian well and storage for six weeks' food supply. Kingsway went into service 50 years ago next month, and was soon handling up to 2 million of the UK's long distance calls every week. Entrance was through the unassuming door at 32 High Holborn.

Unfortunately the secret bombproof Kingsway exchange wasn't particularly secret. In 1951 the Daily Express ran a series of front page articles revealing the existence of a 'secret network of tunnels' under London, much to the Government's embarrassment. Unfortunately, again, the secret bombproof Kingsway exchange wasn't particularly bombproof. In 1954 the Russians successfully developed their own atomic bomb, one direct hit from which could have wiped out the new complex. The Government decided to build another secret bunker elsewhere, this time beneath Horseguards Parade (a hideous and extremely obvious ivy-clad brick building at the top of the Mall). The Kingsway exchange continued to be used, its tunnels full of cables and switching equipment, before being sold off by BT in 1996. You can read more here, including photos from journalist Duncan Campbell's illicit subterranean bicycle ride in 1980. But, standing in High Holborn today, who'd ever imagine what was going on beneath the streets of London, behind the yellow door.

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