Home > Architecture & Urban Design, History, Science & Technology, Things I Like... > 39 Furnival Street – The Gateway to a Secret Underground World…

39 Furnival Street – The Gateway to a Secret Underground World…

October 31, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few weeks ago now, me & And went to visit some of the many buildings that formed part of the Open House weekend here in London. We had an excellent afternoon exploring buildings usually closed to us commoners, and we saw some amazing things, any number of which could easily form the basis of a future post…

But the one thing that has really stuck with me was a building that we didn’t even go into, only walking past it on the way to somewhere else.

Since taking these photos, I’ve found out that the intriguing facade on the left belongs to No. 39 Furnival Street (which is just off High Holborn near Chancery Lane Tube) and is a far more interesting thing than I ever could have imagined…

Hidden behind the heavy duty hoist, the oversized ventilation grill and the formidable steel doors is a goods lift, that dates back to the late 1940’s and which leads down to an endless warren of tunnels known initially as The Chancery Lane Deep Shelter, and latterly as the Kingsway Trunk Exchange, a secret underground installation that began life at the end of WWII…

To hugely summarise the contents of the numerous websites on the subject (of which Subterranea Britannica is the most scarily in depth and where much of this post has been gleaned from) it was after the Blitz of London in 1940 that the idea of deep shelters began to develop. A number of locations were chosen across London, one of which was below the Central Line tunnels that ran along Chancery Lane. Two parallel tunnels approximately 380m long were constructed over the next 5 years, with the primary access being off Furnival Street.

After the war, the tunnels were briefly occupied by nearly 400 tons of Public Records Office documents, until in the late 1940’s, with the Government’s increasing realisation of how vulnerable the Capital’s communications networks would be in a time of conflict, it was decided to transform the tunnels into a protected trunk telephone exchange.

This huge undertaking was completed in 1954 and the resultant “underground town” became home to (at its peak) over 200 workers a day, who could variously enjoy the delights of the canteen, the recreation areas and the sick bay, confident in the knowledge that if the world was to end, they would still be able to connect phone calls from America…

Under the auspices of The Post Office, the Kingsway Exchange continued to operate secretly until the early 1980’s, when as the equipment became increasingly redundant and the telephone industry developed its  digital and mobile formats, the decision was finally taken to abandon the installation to obscurity.

And there it has remained. Other than a few visits from interested Societies and enthusiasts, it looks like it has been more or less empty ever since, although my impression is that much of the equipment is still there and the space itself is just waiting for a new use…

The original shaft that sits behind the facade of 39 Furnival Street..

One of the main tunnels of the Kingsway Exchange sometime in the 1960s.

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  1. October 31, 2012 at 20:33

    Very interesting topic. Thanks for sharing!

  2. SteveWhite2008
    January 17, 2013 at 13:18

    I remember this I used to work around the corner from it.
    The one at Camden Town is more impressive.
    Also there is the one at Goodge St too.

  3. leonardo s.estrada
    January 29, 2014 at 10:39

    I worked at the Kingsway Trunk Exchange in its early stages…..as an installation wireman,between Dec.1952 and Dec.1953….and reading your article has brought back many memories of having been there…..like a lifetime ago!!!

  4. luke
    January 29, 2015 at 22:25

    there’s also tunnel leads to MI6 headquarters and other places round London

  5. October 6, 2016 at 16:41

    i like things like this makes you wonder what else is out there that we do not know of

  6. Alan Edwards
    October 12, 2016 at 16:10

    I worked there between 1974 and 76. As an exchange construction engineer. You arrived at 8 in the morning in the dark and left at 5 in the dark. It was strange to see the sun at weekends. A fascinating place to work

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