‘Great Safe Places Down Deep’: Subterranean Spaces in the Early Novels of H. G. Wells
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‘There is a tendency’, the Time Traveller explains in H.G. Wells’s novella The Time Machine (1895), ‘to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply’.1 Unattractive as the Time Traveller figures these spaces to be, such purposes nevertheless speak of the innovation and progress surrounding the utilisation of subterranean space that took off in the mid-nineteenth century. While man had been excavating mines, tunnels, sewers and catacombs in the earth for many thousands of years prior to this, the 1860s saw a marked shift in our understanding of the possibilities offered by the hitherto-unexploited underground spaces lying silently beneath the noisy, crowded and ever-sprawling cities. The opening of the first line of the London Underground network in 1863, the completion of the main part of a monumental new sewer system beneath London in 1865 and the subsequent introduction of electric underground trains in 1890 all heralded a new age of the subterranean. Londoners could walk beneath the city in the Crystal Palace subway and Tower subway, while Joseph Bazalgette’s Thames Embankment housed a utility subway that carried gas, water and hydraulic power pipes. Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, opened in 1843. The Tunnel was originally built to transport freight efficiently without affecting traffic on the river, but due to insufficient funding for cargo ramps, the tunnel instead became a tourist hotspot, a place of shopping, entertainment and sex. If the train slows down a little, commuters today can still see the traces of this subterranean world in the arcade’s classical arches that flit by between Rotherhithe and Wapping stations. The London Silver Vaults, used by Hatton Garden silver dealers as a secure space in which to store their goods, were established in 1876, and it was even proposed in 1872 that an underground shopping arcade should be built along the riverbed of the Thames. If space in the congested city streets appeared to be running out, then the freedom offered by developing beneath the earth’s surface seemed limitless.