In 1860, a Scottish apocalyptic prophet by the name of Reverend John Cumming declared, “The forthcoming end of the world will be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into infernal regions and thereby disturbing the Devil.” Anyone who has had the chance to travel in the London Underground might be inclined to believe him. It can be crowded and damp, the air tinged with the lingering cacophony of street musicians and urine, between the thunderous rumbles of passing trains forcing a rush of air along the curved white platforms splashed with advertisements for everything imaginable. Yellow paint on the floors reminds travelers to “mind the gap” (a polite way of saying “stay back from the tracks”) or they might become instant barbecue—if they aren’t splattered across the tracks by an oncoming train.
For all the possible complaints we might have with “the Tube”, it really is a marvel of the world. The Underground is the oldest underground railroad system in the world, and today marks the 150th anniversary of its opening. What began as a four-mile stretch of track between Paddington Station and Farrington Road known as the Metropolitan Railway is now a network of rail lines spanning 250 miles of city and suburbs. And in this labyrinth of subterranean tunnels can be found a long history of accidental deaths, murders, rediscovered plague pits, and abandoned stations (or “ghost station”, as they’re called) giving rise to many strange stories dealing with unexplained events below the busy streets.
Aside from the occasional passenger dying en route and approximately 100 annual suicides in the Tube, there have been numerous reports over the years of hauntings within the network of tunnels and stations. The most famous of these is at Aldgate on the Circle Line. Unconfirmed rumors insist that there was a log book kept at the station documenting the countless paranormal incidents taking place. One of the best-known stories to come from Aldgate in recent years is that of a worker who fell onto the electrified third rail and miraculously survived the 20,000 volt shock. A nearby worker who witnessed the event saw a ghostly old woman stroking his head seconds before he hit the rail. She is believed by some to be the ghost of a woman who was electrocuted in that area after falling onto the rail during World War II.
There are many other stories of the Underground. Bethnal Green Station is said to be haunted by the screams of women and children who were crushed to death on the stairs on March 3, 1943, in the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War. Covent Garden is the home of the well-dressed ghost of William Terriss, an actor stabbed to death by fellow actor Richard “Mad” Archer Prince outside the nearby Adelphi Theatre in 1897. The “Screaming Specter” of Farringdon Station is said to be Anne Naylor, a poor 13-year-old apprentice murdered by her sadistic employer. Then there’s the “Bakerloo Line Passenger”: travelers on Northbound trains are said to see someone sitting in the empty seat next to them in the reflections in the windows.
But it’s not just passengers who’ve encountered weirdness in the Underground; employees have also experienced strange events and some have even quit because of it.
One of my favorite stories took place in 1984 in the tunnels of the Northern Line between Oval and Stockwell Stations (just south of Kennington Station, home to the Kennington Loop: a turnaround point with the most paranormal reports of anywhere in the London Underground). As part of his management training, Paul Fisher was scheduled to be a track walker—a nightly routine where maintenance workers walk the tunnels by flashlight alone to inspect the lines. As he neared a step plate junction on the tracks, he saw an old man working beside the tracks aided by an old Tilly lamp. Fisher struck up a casual conversation, assuming he was a fellow employee, and asked the man where he was. The man told him the spot was South Island Place. Fisher continued down the tunnel to Stockwell and mentioned the man and the spot where he was working, but no one was supposed to be working there that night.
An exhaustive tunnel search ensued, causing the first trains of the morning to be delayed. Fisher’s supervisor called him into his office to find out what caused the problems. He recounted his story, and his supervisor thought it was a prank. Clearly, Fisher had heard about the ghost story at South Island Place and was having a bit of fun, yet Fisher was confused. Unbeknownst to him, a maintenance worker was killed at the exact same spot where Fisher had talked with the old man in the 1950s while working on a compressor in the tunnel. The last thing the driver saw before the accident was an old man carrying a Tilly lamp.
Of all the unusual stories from the Underground, there is only one ghost proven beyond a shadow of doubt to have existed: Fowler’s Ghost. Not some transparent revenant of an old man wandering the tunnels, Fowler’s Ghost was a failed attempt at a smokeless locomotive. This steam engine—designed by John Fowler in 1861—used heated firebricks instead of a constant fire to produce the necessary steam for locomotion. Unfortunately, the boiler leaked creating a high risk of explosion, and it never produced enough steam to travel more than 7 ½ miles. Never passing any of its trial runs, the locomotive was eventually sold for scrap in 1895.