[From Photos. by George Newnes, Limited]
¼in. of iron girder (for we are literally in a girder) prevents us from falling some 40ft. on to the metals ! It is a novel experience (especially when the train is moving below, and the spot in which we stand is positively vibrating!), and we are glad to have had it, but everyone is obviously concerned in trying not to allow his sigh of relief to become too apparent when we resume our journey. If anyone looks pale, it must, of course, be attributed to the cramped position in which we have been standing!
Shortly afterwards we arrived at a spot which, we were informed, was immediately under the Prince Consort's statue at Holborn Circus.
When all were ready, out we sallied into Farringdon Street. About 100yds. from the Viaduct is one of the familiar iron plates let into the pavement, and this was our objective. Quite a crowd assembled to witness our descent; so large, indeed, was it that the kindly offices of two constables had to be requisitioned to enable us to get through. Many and diverse were the surmises with regard to our object. In spite of the fact that we were all smoking cigars, it never seemed to occur to any of the spectators that we were not the ordinary sewermen. Most of the bystanders thought something was wrong ; this opinion rapidly gained ground, and in a few seconds it was freely whispered around that we were a " rescue party" going to succour some poor fellow who had been overpowered by the noxious fumes down below!
Down each one of us stepped into about a foot of swiftly flowing water ; the Superintendent of the Sewers, accompanied by some of his men, placed himself at our head, and in single file we commenced our novel march.
The water, as I have said, was only from 1ft. to 18in. deep, but after this little conversation I found myself taking particular care as to how and where I put my feet down. Presently the photographer ordered us to halt and arrange ourselves. He wanted to take a group. Then a difficulty arose : his camera would rest upon its stand, but where was he to find a support for his flash-light apparatus ? Happy thought - a human stand! One of the sewermen was requested to bend down ; upon his sturdy shoulders the apparatus was placed ; then we all waited patiently until the magnesium wire flashed out and made us all blink. Whether the picture was a success or not may be left to the reader to say. Possibly the subjects are not looking very well pleased, but when you are standing in a stream of running waters and can feel yourself perspiring profusely under a lot of unaccustomed garments ; while, moreover, the temperature is some twenty or thirty degrees higher than would be comfortable, and your eyes are getting a little strained by the curious half-light, it is by no means the easiest of tasks to obey the photographer's stereotyped command to "look pleasant." Our photographer, however, was a man of sense ; he did not waste unnecessary time in giving us minute instructions how to deport ourselves, but having once got us focused, "took us" without further ado.
After being photographed, some of the party seemed disinclined to go much farther. So, leaving them in the broad main, the Superintendent, at my request, took me to some of the side-streets and by-ways of the underground city. As we went, I seized the opportunity of questioning him upon t occupation. He seemed to think it was healthy enough.
"Oh, yes, men get knocked up sometimes, but is more often through catching colds than anything else. You see, it's hot down here and if men loiter about up above, especially in the cold weather, they're likely to get chills. No, we don't often have men on the sick list with fevers or anything of that sort. Why should we? Its healthy enough down here; you yourself can testify that the smell is no worse than that you often encounter in the open street. Now and then, of course, when at a bend or narrow passage, there's an accumulation of sewage, and the stream gets partially dammed, the men have a rather unpleasant job to perform ; but as a rule the work is not so objectionable as you would imagine. Yes, sometimes a man will stay down here for six or seven hours at a stretch, and they seem none the worse. Smoke ? Yes, as you see" (pointing to his pipe), "I smoke, and so do most of my men; possibly, if we didn't, the smells which we sometimes meet with might affect us more."
We entered one of the branches, and conversation, except of the most limited description, became impossible. The roof was so low that we had to bend almost double to avoid damaging ourselves ; added to this, it was constructed on a sharpish incline, and the bottom being slippery, it was necessary to proceed with caution. As my guide explained, had it been a wet day this branch would have been quite unnegotiable; as it was, the water in it was only a few inches deep. This came from the surface, as I very soon saw, for at the top end was one of the gulleys covered with an iron grating, to be seen in the roadway.
Back we went as we had come ; past the place where the main stream forks out into two branches, in which the current, of course, flows more slowly. Along one of these we went, then up another branch even smaller than the first and more difficult, for here the water was almost knee-deep, and was swirling and eddying like the river around the buttresses of one of the great bridges. Previously I had mentioned to my guide that if possible I should like to get a glimpse of some of the rats with which the sewers abound. He had explained that, though they come out more freely at night, he might to show me a few in one of the less-frequented portions of the sewers. And this was the place he had chosen.
Painfully we made our way for some forty or fifty yards, and then, posting ourselves in a niche in the wall, we waited, but ne'er a rat did we see. Rather disappointed, we were just turning to go back, when I fancied I saw a dark shape flit past our feet. It may have been a rat or merely a shadow ; at all events, I started and nearly lost my balance. With a clutch at my companion, I regained it ; then, as I stood upright, found we were in total darkness. As I slipped, my sconce fell from my hand, and was now being gaily borne eastward at the rate of two or three miles an hour, and, in grabbing at the Superintendent, I had inadvertently extinguished his candle; and we had not a match between us! The only thing to do was to grope our way back in the dark. Luckily, my companion could have found his way about blindfold, and consequently laughed heartily at our predicament. He led the way, and I followed, touching him lightly every few yards to make sure I was in his tracks, as the darkness was so intense that I could scarcely distinguish him. Now, I have a curious fact to relate. The Superintendent declares it was my imagination, but at the time I could have sworn that though never a rat made his appearance when, with candles lit, we stood on the look-out, they simply came out in shoals and rioted about our feet when we were journeying slowly and painfully in the dark. Well, it may have been imagination, and perhaps the journey in the dark had played upon my nerves more than I cared to own.
When we rejoined the rest of the party, they were all waiting and wondering what had become of us. They laughed heartily when we told our story, and frankly expressed their incredulity when I spoke about the rats. But they expressed no inclination to go and find out for themselves.
And so back we all went to the shaft, and one by one climbed our way to the surface. And how glad were we to get there! It was an exceedingly interesting experience, and one, that it falls to the lot of few to have, and that I think all of us fully recognised. But after a couple of hours in the nether world, it was doubly delightful to feel the fresh breeze blowing on our cheeks, to hear the busy hum and clatter of the traffic, and to see once again the glorious blue sky over our heads.