subterranean-scares

Dead End

The following story may contain triggering and/or sensitive material. Topics discussed include detailed and graphic descriptions of a train crash.

Image courtesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Image courtesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Image courtesy of Richard Vince.

Image courtesy of Richard Vince.

There have been some dark days in London’s history, and in the history of the London Underground, amidst bombing raids and outbreaks of the Black Death—but perhaps one of the darkest days during peacetime is what happened at Moorgate Station in 1975.

I begin this story at some point in the early 1970s, before what will come to pass three or four years into the future. Passengers and workers at Moorgate Station on the Northern Line report seeing the apparition of a man in blue overalls, sometimes in the tunnels, sometimes in the terminus. When approached, the expression on the apparition's face becomes one of absolute horror before he vanishes into the walls.

It is worth noting, for reasons that will soon become evident, that this particular station is a dead end. Trains approaching the station must slow to 15 mph and come to a complete stop, but there is a twenty metre overrun track and buffer just in case of a minor overshoot. After that, there is a solid concrete wall.

On February 28th, 1975 at 8:46 AM, a train coming from Drayton Park arrives at Moorgate station, platform 9. However, it does not slow to the aforementioned speed. The train actually accelerates into the terminus, travelling at somewhere between 30-40 miles per hour. To some witnesses, the driver, Leslie Newson, appears to be in a trance, staring straight ahead. The train goes right through the station like a bullet, into the overrun tunnel, where it slams into the wall at the end.

As the first compartment collides with the wall, it is forced upwards into the tunnel ceiling, crushing the driver's cab and the first fifteen passenger seats. Before the crash, the first compartment is sixteen metres in length, but after the crash, what remains is just six metres long. Upon impact, the second compartment collides with the first, essentially collapsing it like an accordion, and the third rides up over the second. Forty-three people, including Newson, are killed, and seventy-three people are injured.

Image courtesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Image courtesy of the London Fire Brigade.

Rescue crews begin arriving within five minutes of the crash, where they discover a scene of true horror. First responders describe all-encompassing darkness, thick dust-laden air, screams of pain, bodies heaped on top of one another and arms reaching out for help from the twisted metal. To make matters worse, the ventilation is no longer working, as air travels through the tunnels via the force of trains travelling back and forth, otherwise known as the piston effect.

With no trains running, oxygen levels drop and the temperature shoots up to 49 degrees Celsius in the tunnels. Rescuers are also unable to communicate via radio between the station and the surface, as they are separated by twenty-one metres of soil and concrete. They have to make do with runners, though messages often do not arrive on the surface as they have been given at the station.

The last survivor is removed from the mangled wreckage at 10:00 PM, eighteen hours after the crash. At that point, the rescuers cease all noise, to listen for anyone left alive, but only silence greets them. Anyone left has most certainly perished.

In the following five days, members of the Fire Brigade endure the heat and the stench of decomposition in order to remove all the bodies, detangle the compartments and then winch them out of the tunnel where they can be properly examined. The last body to be removed is that of Newson, on March the 5th. At the same time, the wreckage is taken away, and the investigation begins.

The train, one of many built in 1938, is thoroughly examined, but no technical defect or equipment fault can be found. So it seems like the only one responsible is Leslie Newson, a father of two who rarely drank, who was carrying money on him to buy his daughter a car that day.

The investigation concludes that it was Newson to blame for the crash, but they still don’t really know what happened. His blood alcohol levels were above average, but the body produces alcohol after death, especially after five days of decomposing in the heat, so investigators turn to his co-workers. They all say that Newson was behaving normally that day, and he’d been running the train for two and a half hours before the crash without fault. All of this makes the crash that much stranger.

At the moment of the crash, experts deduce that Newson was sat bolt upright, still holding the dead-mans-handle to keep the train going, making no attempt to shield his face from what was coming right towards him. What could cause a person to behave in such a way? Well, no one ever figured that out.

What we did figure out from Moorgate is that the London Underground needed multiple fail-safes to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, and that’s exactly what happened. Three years after the crash, the ‘Moorgate Control’ was installed at all dead-end stations. Should a train approach a dead-end at a speed above 12.5 mph, the Moorgate Control automatically applies the emergency brakes, and the train will come to a stop before the hydraulic buffers, not after it hits a concrete wall. Another six years after, tracks were fitted with resistors to prevent acceleration into stations.

And now, we think back to that apparition at Moorgate, which appeared several times before the crash. Was it an omen, trying to warn us of the horrors to come? Maybe, maybe not. That’s up to you.

1,324 firefighters, 240 police officers, 80 paramedics, 16 doctors and several nurses were involved in the valiant rescue and clean-up efforts. 43 people perished in the crash, 73 people were injured. If you happen to pass by Finnsbury Square, lay some flowers at their memorial.

Image courtesy of David Holt.

Image courtesy of David Holt.


What do you think happened at Moorgate? Tell us in the comments or tweet at @atticvoices!


20181225_162803erwe.png

Natascha Wood

Say her name three times and she will appear.

Twitter: @oldvvitch

London Underground: Commuting with Corpses

Metropolitan_Underground_Railway_stations.jpg

In 1863, the world’s first rapid transit system opened beneath the city of London, running from Farringdon to Paddington with steam locomotives and gas-lit wooden carriages. On its first day, the steam trains carried 38,000 passengers. It was a massive part of London’s industrial revolution, allowing for people living in the squalid, overcrowded slums to move further out of the city while still being able to commute to work.

However, constructing the tunnels meant engineers had to tackle a unique problem—London’s unmarked burial sites, scattered underneath the city, some so densely packed with bodies that they could not be easily tunnelled through. It was originally suggested that the rail lines curved to avoid them, but according to historians, the curvature of the lines was simply to save money. In actual fact, the construction teams tunnelled right through the burial sites, only stopping when human remains were recovered in order to have them hastily removed and reburied elsewhere.

There are many incidents recorded in newspapers and publications that tell of construction crews encountering unmarked mass graves. In 1862, a year before the line went into service, tunnelling from Paddington to Kings Cross hit remains twenty-four feet beneath the surface. The London Metropolitan railway then sent payment to the London Necropolis Company for swift removal and reburial at Brookwood.

Image courtesy of The UK National Archives.

Image courtesy of The UK National Archives.

It happened again in 1865, wherein an investigation was launched into the treatment of remains found during construction on West Street by the North London Railway. Having discovered the remains, the company didn't know what to do with them immediately so they put them into one of the railway arches until a solution was decided upon. Eventually, they did retrieve the bodies and had them reburied at Ilford. I can’t imagine the owners of the bodies were all too happy with the North London Railway though.

In more recent times, similar problems were encountered during excavations for the new Crossrail Elizabeth Line, a seventy-three mile long high-speed train from Reading to Heathrow, passing through the heart of London. But the Crossrail team were more careful than their Victorian predecessors. Before they began work at Farringdon, they conducted a preliminary forensic geophysics survey, because a previous dig nearby in the 1980s had unearthed 759 confirmed bubonic plague victims. So it should come as no surprise that, when Crossrail did a test dig, they discovered an additional twenty-five skeletons, all confirmed victims of a plague outbreak that occurred during the late medieval period.

The same thing happened again during the excavation of the Liverpool Street Station, which unearthed the Bedlam cemetery. Crossrail dug up three thousand five hundred bodies there. But forty-two of them, in cheap coffins, had been buried on the same day, stacked four deep with no earth between them. These bodies too tested positive for Yersinia Pestis, the bacteria responsible for the dreaded bubonic plague.

Image courtesy of  Crossrail .

Image courtesy of Crossrail.

All told, Crossrail did a pretty stellar job of treating the dead with the dignity that they deserved and gathering vital missing pieces of London’s history, while completing a major part of London’s infrastructure. The same cannot be said for the 2002 Eurostar extension at St. Pancras Station, where no one expected to hit the Camley Street cemetery, because it was assumed that the bodies had been cleared out during the nineteenth century. It turned out that this was not the case at all.

When they discovered just how many bodies were left, they sought and were granted an act of parliament which allowed them to remove the bodies via mechanical means. They employed the use of bulldozers and conveyor belts so they could dig out the bodies and coffins, then put them on the belts that dumped them in trucks. Two thousand bodies were desecrated in the 2002 operation, some buried there as late as 1854. They could not be identified, as the process of digging them up led to them being scattered and separated from the nameplates on their coffins.

The moral of the story here is, well, always expect corpses if you’re digging in London.


Have you heard any gruesome stories about the London Underground? Let us know in the comments, and tune in next time for more tales of the Tube!


20181225_162803erwe.png

Natascha Wood

Say her name three times and she will appear.

Twitter: @oldvvitch

Empire of the Dead

I will preface this story with a short disclaimer, for those of you with weak stomachs, about the grizzly and grim details contained within. For my story today is about the Catacombs beneath Paris, and how they came to be.

We begin in the mid-eighteenth century, at which time Paris is the second largest city in Europe. Louis XV, described by historian Jerome Blum as “a perpetual adolescent called to do a man's job”, rules from his great-grandfather’s 300 billion dollar palace, Versailles, twelve miles away from the cramped quarters of the city and the seething ranks of poor Parisians. His reign is marked by extravagant spending, incompetent management, and a widening rift between the monarchy and the common people, especially those living in Paris.

Cimetière des Innocents  (1550) engraving by   F. Hoffbauer, courtesy of  Getty images .

Cimetière des Innocents (1550) engraving by F. Hoffbauer, courtesy of Getty images.

Thus, the State ignores the needs of its people until problems become severe, and let me tell you, the problems that necessitate the Catacombs are severe. At some point, Paris runs out of space for its half a million living residents and the six million deceased, specifically in Cimetière des Innocents.

Now, Cimetière des Innocents opened in the twelfth century as a small burial site consisting of individual burials. But as time and several plague outbreaks pass, the cemetery gets bigger, and individual burials turn into mass graves twenty feet deep, each containing about fifteen hundred corpses. Most of the burial pits are barely covered too, so it’s not uncommon to see dead bodies sticking out of the mud.


What is it like for the people unlucky enough to live nearby? Well, it’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered peasant want to guillotine the King. The stench of decomposing flesh is overwhelming, the water is poisoned, and the air is so impure that even candles won’t light. And people are actually falling into burial pits.

And you thought your commute to work was bad.

Photo courtesy of Nathanael Burton via  flickr.

Photo courtesy of Nathanael Burton via flickr.

Finally, after a particularly bad rain storm, a burial pit bursts through the wall of a private home, filling some poor family’s living room with corpses in various stages of decomposition. That is when the State intervenes.

King Louis XIV issues an edict in 1780 to finally halt burials at Cimetière des Innocents, and all other cemeteries within Paris. Sounds like common sense, but it's not for these people.  Fortunately, Paris has a disused limestone quarry waiting in the wings. So the work begins!

The task of moving the six million corpses happens only at night, in carts covered by black shrouds, accompanied by chanting priests and a lot of incense. They then have to be taken down to the tunnels, which are about five stories underground, and stacked in rooms called ossuaries. Additionally, the city must maintain fires to purify the air, and resourceful citizens collect the large deposits of adipocere left behind, otherwise known as ‘corpse wax’, to make candles. (When life gives you corpses, make corpse candles).

Photo taken in 1861 by  Felix Nadar .

Photo taken in 1861 by Felix Nadar.

Twelve years later, the cemeteries are empty, Cimetière Des Innocents is raised to the ground for the health and sanity of all, and spoiler: the King is dead, he lost his head. After the revolution, bodies go straight into the catacombs—including that of revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, who shoots himself in the face and then gets guillotined by his former comrades during the “Reign of Terror”. It’s a really bad day for Max.

The catacombs remain in use for another twenty years—by which time the decapitating has slowed down—until Louis-Étienne François Héricart de Thury renovates the catacombs and transforms them into the work of macabre beauty they are today.

The whole complex finishes up at about two hundred and two kilometres of tunnels and ossuaries, only two of which are open to the public. Above the entrance reads the infamous inscription; “Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la mort.” It’s a warning that should be heeded by all who enter.

That brings our story to an end, for now. However, should you choose to visit, always be respectful, and don’t get lost.


Have you been to the Catacombs? Share your experiences below, or tweet at us.


20181225_162803erwe.png

Natascha Wood

Say her name three times and she will appear.

Twitter: @oldvvitch

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.