Monthly Archives: November 2021

Beneath the City Streets

BT Tower, Fitzrovia, London

I’ve always been interested in the rumours, urban legends and hard evidence for secret government installations underground, both in urban settings and in remote country areas, quietly inserted before, during and particularly after the Second World War, ever since I first read Peter Laurie’s book, Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), shortly after it was published.

Peter Laurie (b 1937), a freelance journalist, had written an article for the Sunday Times in 1967 about how wartime civil defence had been transformed, with hardly any public attention, ostensibly in response to the peculiar threats of nuclear warfare.

He became sufficiently intrigued to develop his research as a hobby, which he published as a book which ran to two editions.

He concluded that “civil defence in its higher manifestations deals with the brute realities of government…it encases the central essence of political power”.

All this he accomplished on paper, using information that was in the public domain, stringing together data sometimes from unlikely sources, such as the GPO trunk dialling codes and the London Underground map, and throwing up facts that fascinated me at the time.

He pointed out quirks in the alignments of the horn aerials of the GPO microwave system that, while providing the nation with colour television signals, bent back and forth to serve as an impenetrable communication system between sites that would protect government and military operations in the event of warfare or civil unrest. 

He showed that the locations of the GPO towers at Bagshot and Stokenchurch were aligned with RAF Medmenham, a secret installation at Warren Row (identified by the Spies for Peace [Spies for Peace – Wikipedia] in 1963) and the RAF Staff College Bracknell.  Each site had sufficient altitude to tap into the microwave signal overhead making them independent of more vulnerable underground cables.

He drew attention to the existence of Second World War facilities in the underground quarries adjacent to Box Tunnel on the Great Western main line, providing easy transportation for an emergency evacuation from central London and from Windsor to National Seat of Government under the village of Box [Closely-guarded secret | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].

Much of this infrastructure subsequently became outmoded, and some of it is now common knowledge.  Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, for instance, is a celebrated attraction:  Visit Churchill War Rooms – Plan Your Visit | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk).

Nuclear bunkers are open to the public in York [York Cold War Bunker | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)], Cheshire [Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker], Holderness [Home – Home (visitthebunker.com)] and Essex [The Secret Nuclear Bunker – Kelvedon Hatch – Kelvedon Hatch – Secret Nuclear Bunker].  Another is under restoration in Edinburgh [Barnton Quarry Rotor SOC and Regional Seat of Government – Subterranea Britannica (subbrit.org.uk)].

Others, rarely mentioned in the public domain, may still be operational:  Hidden depths at Manchester’s Arndale Centre | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Peter Laurie’s book has long been out of print, though copies are still available [Beneath the City Streets: 9780140033816: Amazon.com: Books], and the content is inevitably dated, but it remains worth reading for insights into the effort expended to preserve government control, and the ubiquity of secret activity hiding in plain sight.

Top Forge

Wortley Top Forge, South Yorkshire

South Yorkshire boasts two of nationally significant historic metal-working sites, the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet on the southern edge of Sheffield and the Wortley Top Forge between Sheffield and Penistone.  Both are scheduled ancient monuments and contain Grade I listed buildings.

They exist because of the foresight of the individuals who formed the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society who recognised the significance of each site and campaigned to protect them from the risk of demolition before the Second World War – back in the prehistory of industrial archaeology and historical conservation.

Abbeydale Works became part of Sheffield City Museums and, along with Shepherd Wheel and Kelham Island Industrial Museum were transferred to Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust in 1998.

Wortley Top Forge, abandoned by 1929, was acquired by the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society in 1953, and the Society continues to maintain and develop the site and open it to the public through its operational arm, the South Yorkshire Trades Historical Trust Ltd.

The leading light of the project was the late Ken Hawley (1927-2014), the celebrated saviour of much of South Yorkshire’s tools and machinery.  His collections are now divided between Wortley and Kelham Island.

The Top Forge, along with the now-obliterated Low Forge, was operating by 1640, though water-powered metal-working was practised in the area from the thirteenth century onwards.

Alongside the remaining original buildings, the Trust has restored and built new structures to accommodate the growing collection of artefacts, including stationary steam engines – a very recent innovation, because the Forge was always powered by water.

A succession of enterprising and innovative lessees imported new techniques to the two forges:  James Cockshutt brought Henry Cort’s reverberatory furnace from Wales to South Yorkshire in the 1790s and in the nineteenth century Thomas Andrews Jnr made Wortley renowned for the quality of its wrought iron for railway rolling-stock axles.  Both these men became Fellows of the Royal Society;  indeed, Thomas Andrews belonged to the Royal Societies in both London and Edinburgh.

Visiting the Top Forge is challenging.  Its site is at least 1½ miles away from Wortley village, deep in the depths of the Don Valley, and access is encumbered by tight bends and the low bridges of the now closed Woodhead railway.  Signage is minimal:  a Yorkshire flag indicates the entrance:  Flag of Yorkshire – Flags and symbols of Yorkshire – Wikipedia.

Those who have the determination to arrive are made warmly welcome, but on ordinary Sunday working days there is little provision for tourists.  The location is beautiful.  The loos are impeccable, but the place is otherwise innocent of visitor amenities.  Donations are gratefully received, guided tours run ad hoc and rides on the miniature railway are free. 

It’s not so much a tourist attraction as a man-cave, populated by friendly, welcoming gentlemen of a certain age in overalls, working with metal and tweaking their engines, who are more than happy to discuss the technicalities of the machinery they tend.

I was shown round by an admirable young guide, Emily, who, once she realised that I know very little about engineering, pitched her tour to my level of understanding.

Open days are a different matter:  then the Top Forge is en fête.  Details are announced on the website events page, which has been understandably disrupted by the pandemic.

The Society’s website provides a detailed history and description of this fascinating place: Wortley Top Forge – The oldest surviving heavy iron forge in the world.

Colonel Lance Newnham GC MC (1889-1943)

Stanley Military Cemetery, Hong Kong: grave of Colonel Lance Newham GC MC (1889-1943)

Stanley, on the southern shore of Hong Kong Island, dates back to the foundation of the British colony in 1842 and has always been the location of the main military base.

A short walk from the beach lies Stanley Military Cemetery, used for burials up to 1866, and then again during the brutal Japanese occupation from Christmas 1941 to the end of the War.

It has the hallmarks of a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery – the Cross of Sacrifice overlooking rows of uniform gravestones and immaculately kept lawns – interspersed with nineteenth-century gravestones, civilian burials and the improvised memorials erected during the occupation:    https://gwulo.com/node/9180/photos.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission identifies 595 burials within the cemetery, each denoting a story of hardship and fortitude. 

Elsewhere on the island, the post-war Sai Wan War Cemetery contains 1,528 Commonwealth and Dutch burials and commemorates a further group of Indian personnel who were cremated according to their religious beliefs.

In Stanley Military Cemetery one gravestone in particular caught my eye – Captain L A Newnham GC MC of the Middlesex Regiment, who died on December 18th 1942 aged 54, “shot while a prisoner of war for refusing to betray his comrades”.  The motto at the foot of his gravestone is simply “True to the end”.

He earned his Military Cross in the First World War.  His posthumous George Cross was awarded for his heroism in working to arrange escapes and for defying Japanese attempts through torture and starvation to make him divulge details of his connection with an MI9 unit, the clandestine British Army Aid Group:  https://vcgca.org/our-people/profile/153/Lanceray-Arthur–NEWNHAM.

Colonel Newham was not alone.  Two others, Captain Douglas Ford (1918-1943) and Flight Lieutenant Hector Gray (1911-1943), were executed by firing squad alongside him.

Another notable victim of Japanese brutality was Captain Mateen Ahmed Ansari GC (1916-1943) of the 5th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment, in the Indian Army, who was beheaded for repeatedly refusing to renounce his allegiance to Great Britain.

Hong Kong under Japanese occupation was a bad place to be, and the catalogue of atrocities is lengthy.

For me, as a casual visitor, Colonel Newnham’s stone and story stood for the unimaginable hardships endured by those who happened to be on the island at the time.

Thomas Hawksley’s grand designs

Former Bestwood Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire, now Lakeside Restaurant (2021)

A pair of remarkable linked architectural experiences are to be found north of Nottingham, where two of the magnificent pumping stations associated with the Victorian engineer Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893) are open to the public.

When I first planned my Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness tour to take place in 2020 I couldn’t include Bestwood Pumping Station because the restaurant that occupied the building had closed.

The slightly later Papplewick Pumping Station is so important and so spectacular that I determined the date of the tour to coincide with the steaming-day programme at Papplewick, and I did exactly the same when I had to postpone the tour, first to 2021 and latterly to 2022.

By the time I did final checks for the 2022 dates – Thursday August 25th-Monday August 29th 2022 – the newly refurbished Lakeside Restaurant had reopened, providing the opportunity to enjoy both buildings on the same day, with lunch included.

When Bestwood Pumping Station was built between 1869 and 1873 the landowner, the 10th Duke of St Albans, had only recently completed his grandiose retreat at Bestwood Lodge, and His Grace specified in the lease to the Nottingham Waterworks Company that the waterworks should embellish his estate.

Consequently, the engine house is an elaborate brick essay in thirteenth-century Gothic, with a 172-foot high chimney that’s encased in a Venetian Gothic staircase tower leading to a viewing platform.  (This will be open to the public when building works are finished in due course.)

The engines were dismantled in 1968 and the empty building reopened as the Lakeside Restaurant in 1997 with a décor strongly reminiscent of Victorian country houses, later replaced by an understated colour scheme of sage green and gold.

The latest refurbishment has transformed the interior to a dramatic charcoal and white scheme with tiny touches of gold that admirably brings out the decorative detail of the Victorian structural ironwork.

Papplewick is even more ornate, and for different reasons.  By the time it was started in 1882 the Waterworks Company had been taken over by Nottingham Corporation, and their engineer, Marriott Ogle Tarbotton (1835-1887), closely followed Hawksley’s design at Bestwood.  The Papplewick project was finished below budget, so the surplus cash was spent on a riot of craftsman decoration, all on the theme of water and water creatures.

When I visited the Lakeside to update my photos, and to have lunch, my hostess Theo mentioned that she hadn’t ever visited the Papplewick Pumping Station, and she was sufficiently enticed by my friend’s videos of the engines in steam to arrange to visit the next steaming day with her colleague Katie.

They’re in for a treat, as my guests will be on next August’s tour.

To walk through the imposing front door of Bestwood Pumping for an excellent lunch, and then to drive over to Papplewick and walk through a very similar front door to witness two huge beam engines quietly turning is a profoundly satisfying contrast.

In the warm, hypnotic environment of the Papplewick engine house it feels as if the earth moves.

Bestwood is visually dramatic, and Papplewick is a multisensory theatrical experience.

The Lakeside Restaurant in the former Bestwood Pumping Station is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.