One of the things I love about family history projects is how they tie into community and world events. To provide a thorough picture of a person’s history, it’s important to consider the context, i.e. their community, geography, local history and world events shaping their life. Houses, buildings, shops, farms, playgrounds, sports fields, museums, activities, nature and so much more round out a person’s life. By knowing more about what surrounded them, a researcher is much more able to learn about an ancestor's world, values and general outlook on life. Sometimes a family mystery can be solved by visiting and exploring the small town where an ancestor once lived. What better treat than to discover your ancestor lived near a secret tunnel? Minds instantly race to wonder if they explored inside, what they did, how long they stayed and if they ran afoul of the authorities. It’s true: obscure, dark tunnels with checkered histories have long fascinated people. Whether they are human made or naturally formed, these often spooky locations occupy special places in our hearts and in history. Did you know that tunnels have a multitude of historical purposes? In today’s blog post we'll take a look at wartime, transportation, smuggling and escape tunnel usage.
Sometimes a family mystery can be solved by visiting and exploring the small town where an ancestor once lived. What better treat than to discover your ancestor lived near a secret tunnel?
Wartime Tunnel Usage
There is perhaps no greater underground complex than that serving Sir Winston Churchill in the 1940s. "Churchill’s War Rooms" is a vast, former top-security bunker with numerous rooms, now a fantastic museum open to the public. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and was absolutely thrilled by the flat screens which allowed visitor interaction with historical timelines and images. One can see Churchill’s famous jumpsuit as well as crucial documents that helped the Allies win World War Two. The quirkiest and perhaps most telling remnant of the war, one that perfectly showcases the British Prime Minister’s apt sense of humor, is the private lavatory. When the door lock was turned to "engaged", it meant the Churchill was inside. What the world didn’t know until many years later, was that inside the lavatory was where he’d installed a hotline telephone to the United States. It was here that the British Prime Minister spoke with the American President to craft war strategy. In my mind, this has got to be one of the best historical underground complexes ever. Learn more: https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms
Another now famous wartime use of underground tunnels was commissioning slate mines in Wales for storing priceless works of art during World War Two. Seeking a location well away from Hitler’s Luftwaffe’s Blitz attacks, the remote Welsh mountains offer the perfect solution. The slate mines were dug deep underground and provided dark, cool temperatures shielded from damaging UV rays. On a mission of the utmost secrecy, British museums were emptied of their framed masterpieces, marble statues and unique artifacts, which were carefully packaged and squirreled away in vehicles to Wales for storage. The location remained secure for the duration of the war.
The vast London Underground rail system, fondly known as ‘the tube’, is part of an intricate set of infrastructure layers that run under the City of London. The recent opening of the new "Elizabeth Line", named after Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, brings rapid access to London for hundreds of thousands more people. Over time, we’ve seen politicians move from building to building using underground tunnels, tube stations used as bomb shelters and movie sets, plus Britain’s Royal Mail once even had a mail train called “Mail Rail”, now a museum attraction: https://www.postalmuseum.org One of the most fascinating diagrams I’ve seen is a cutaway section of all the various layers of underground pipes and tunnels that keep the City of London working. Even images from Victorian times demonstrate how complex it is to dig new tube tunnels or other water, sewage and services work lines. In my grandmother’s day, long tunnels located near London’s wharfs were referred to as “London’s Larder” because that’s where all of the incoming food cargoes from ships were stored before being split up into smaller shipments sent out all over London and beyond. Today, vast, environmentally friendly, vegetable-growing gardens are housed underneath London in former wartime bunkers. With millions of residents, London needs to build up and down as opposed to left and right. This means vast usage of underground tunnels, structures and access alleyways to keep up with population growth. More about the labyrinth underneath London can be found here: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/london-underground/ And also here: https://www.reddit.com/r/london/comments/gi79yu/cross_section_of_the_tube_and_other_services/
Tunnels played a large part in helping smugglers escape the law. Tunnels leading up from beaches and sheltered coves have long been a favorite spot for smugglers. Hundreds of years ago when taxes on tea, salt, alcohol, lace and velvet were sometimes 100% more than the value of the actual item, smuggling became an all too easy answer for those looking to save significant monies. Tunnels were favorite places for smugglers to store large cargoes on the beach as they awaited further distribution. In the dead of night, long lines of ponies and people would be commandeered to quietly trudge the illicit goods up cliffs so the goods could be moved on towards their final destinations. Smuggling was at its height during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and tales abound of scuffles with customs and excise men, many of whom were also in on the game!
Certain lucky prisoners stuck in damp prison cells concocted handy escapes digging secret tunnels by hand, using miniature scoops made out of small bits of wood. Some tunnels from castle prison cells were even connected to former priest holes, tiny hidden wall cabinets where a priest could hide to avoid prosecution or worse for his chosen religion. It is rumored that a seventeenth-century English king escaped the clutches of anti-monarchists by securing himself inside an empty priest hole for the evening, thus bringing new meaning to the words, “Can I stay the night?”
All of this is an enormous amount to take in, and we haven’t even touched on some of Mother Nature’s other wonderful underground spaces such as the glow worms caves in New Zealand and the vast number of brilliantly hidden, deep sea caves that attract divers from all over the world. Whether it’s history or adventure you’re after, secret tunnels never fail to deliver. You'll learn much about your ancestor's way of life, law-abiding or not, by researching secret tunnels in the area. Urban exploring can be fascinating when done safely; just don’t be the one who ignores warning signs and ends up at the bottom of a dark tunnel with no way out!
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