Deep beneath the streets of South Kensington lies a hidden labyrinth of service and utility tunnels which reach beneath the wider Albertropolis area, criss-crossing the Imperial University Campus and connecting to basements of The Science Museum and Natural History Museum.
The tunnel network dates back to the period of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, when a public pedestrian tunnel was constructed that linked South Kensington tube station to the exhibition site in the park. After the exhibition was dismantled the tunnel was cut short and diverted to the newly built Science and Natural History museums, forming what we know now today as the pedestrian tunnel from South Kensington Station.
During this period an extensive network of service tunnels was also created to serve the wider Albetropolis area, with steam heating being supplied by enormous boilers in the Natural History Museum basement to the V&A and Royal Albert Hall. Whilst this is no longer the case, some of the tunnels still remain, instead carrying the utilities needed for the Imperial University buildings.
The map above shows the extent of the tunnels beneath the Imperial College site, however it omits various smaller tunnels and the connections to Science and Natural History Museum. There are also rumors that they potentially connect to the barracks which face Hyde Park to the North (although I find that hard to believe).
Electronic swipe doors in the basement of the Imperial buildings guard the entrance to the tunnels, which are strictly off limits to students. Unauthorized access was known to be somewhat easier before such security was implemented, with many stories of student adventures within the tunnels during the 80s and 90s.
The highly complex plant machinery required to support the scientific functions of the buildings above is hidden deep within the basements, into which the tunnels intersect.
Red doors exist every 100 meters or so and can only be opened with card access – this means even if one was to gain unauthorized access it would not be possible to proceed very far without tripping the emergency exit releases.
The temperature within the tunnels is extremely warm due to heat radiating from the steam pipes, as is evident from condensed water in certain sections of the network.
In order to cross Exhibition Road the tunnels dive vertically down into a deeper level section in order to reach the Southside buildings – this is presumably to avoid the public pedestrian tunnel which runs parallel to the road. Interestingly, in 1877 there was a proposal to construct a pneumatic railway along the length of the pedestrian subway to the Royal Albert Hall, however the scheme never materialized.
The tunnels run right beneath the Queens Tower, a 285 ft ornamental structure that exists as the only remaining part of the Imperial Institute (The Imperial Institute dates back to 1887 and was demolished in the 1950s to make way for Imperial) From the basement here it is possible to squeeze through into the concrete foundations of the tower, which are surprisingly hollow, and covered with historical graffiti from the various Imperial faculties.
There is a locked trapdoor here which leads up into the tower itself. There are also internal vertical chimney like flutes on all four sides of the tower of about 1x1m rising up the full height of the structure, some which have ropes hanging inside. I have been told these ropes were once rigged by members of the Imperial Caving Society and then ascended with abseiling equipment during late night adventures many years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t have the necessary equipment to try that out, but I’m not sure I would trust the ancient rope either.
There are many mysteries still to be uncovered within the tunnels, the photograph above showing a deeper level link, which presumably leads to the Science and Natural History Museum basements…
If anyone has any more information / stories please contact me!