Regular users of London Bridge station will doubtless be aware that the mainline platforms are raised a couple of stories above the surrounding road, supported on massive brick arches.

These arches are visible in the form of roads that run under the station, and following opening of the Jubilee Line, some clearing out of some of them for the new underground station and “shopping mall” route through to some of the platforms.

However, a vast space lies under the concourse unused – but soon to be cleaned up and turned into a public space.

Although it was for a time inhabited by the art/events space, Shunt, it is typically quite difficult to see the structure when lit by artists instead of architects – so this weekend was a chance to see the building instead of the art.

A nondescript door hides the delights within and a long corridor that was lined with large arches leading off to either side.

Behind this door, delights await

Along the main axis.

A wander around looking at the roof arches, some of the old signs still lingering and a modern intrusion – some support works for the Shard skyscraper above.

Part of The Shard skyscraper

It was around another corner that the industrial mystery was revealed, and no one knows what this structure was used for.

Strange "oven" like structure

Each chamber within is lined with tiles and have what looks like joints for pipes to flow through them – possible heated gases? There are no flue vents as might be expected with ovens, and the entrance gaps look a bit small compared to the space within.

Inside the "oven"

Although there is no sign of hinged doors being fitted, bakers often put a wooden panel in the gap and sealed it with dough – so it is still possible that they were heated spaces for food.

Then again, it is a double height structure, and it seems odd to have food on long poles being fed into the top containers.

Frankly, no one really understands what this thing is for, and the historians associated with the site would really love to know. It might be quite important after all.

Brick arches

Apart from the mystery, this was a chance to look around the arches, smell the damp, and in one spot, hear the tourists in the neighbouring London Dungeon.

It’s not the first time I have been in an undercroft at London Bridge though – as I once spent the night in the vaults under the train station’s namesake.

A few more photos in the gallery.

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42 Comments

  1. What about storage for ice pre-fridges? The small doors would help prevent heat escaping.

  2. Trudi

    That structure doesn’t look like something you would build for cooking or baking. Why would you tile the inside of an oven? Could it have been a place for cold storage? An ice house or perhaps even a mortuary?

    • Jan

      I had wondered whether it was used as an ice house or mortuary. I think it is for storing something cold not hot. It would interesting to see what was at the top of the structure to see where the pipes came from … It has a spooky feeling about it !

  3. Kit Green

    There are holes in the wall that seem to be of three types.
    1) small holes forming a rectangle around each opening, mainly visible on the top row. These are probably to hold a door in place.
    2) Large holes that may have been to support wooden beams of a floor construction for access to the top level.
    3) Middle size holes, some of which appear to hold drainage pipes.

    My first thought is that this was an ice store. Meltwater could leak out. The recesses are raised so that there is no contamination from horses. Trouble is they seem a bit small as ice stores go, although it is difficult to get a sense of scale from the picture.

    Second thought is a mortuary waiting room. Ice may have been part of this too. The Victorians had a whole industry based around out of town, rail connected cemeteries. Somewhere would be needed for storage between arrival and train departure.

    Third thought is a very early example of a Japanese city hotel!

    The position and access in relation to other buildings and parts of the station may help with identification of the real purpose. I’ll keep thinking.

  4. Bea

    My guess? Crematorium for the plague? and you’d have stairs or something.

    Or maybe primitive kilns?

    • Roobz

      The Plague? Primitive kilns? Just how old do you think this structure is? This is late 19th century at most.

  5. The plaque on the outside of the oven would say “BORSARI”, a company based in Zollikon, CH.

    They existed until quite recently and made tiles and tank coatings. A google shows a few patents. They probably did the tiling, and it probably means they were tanks and not ovens. But not much more to go on.

    When I first saw them I thought they might be some form of bund and oil tanks would be contained within them. The tiles and wells would catch any leakage. But the cleanliness would go against this.

    • Chris

      If Cybergibbons is right about the company name, which I think he is, one of the best places to look would be the company history, which is helpfully set out in a book, published in German and French under the titles:

      ‘Centenaire de la maison Borsari & Cie, Zollikon-Zürich, 1873-1973′ and
      ‘Hundert Jahre Borsari & Co., Zollikon-Zürich, 1873-1973′

      The German version is available in quite a few Swiss libraries, as you can see on worldcat.org. There is also a copy of the French version available for sale on Amazon.co.uk:

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/1873-1973-CENTENAIRE-MAISON-BORSARI-ZOLLIKON-ZURICH/dp/B001I5ESKY/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316847001&sr=1-1

      I’d be quite happy to help with the German translation, but I couldn’t help you with the French version unfortunately.

      If that doesn’t work out, it should be possible to gain access to the actual company records via surviving members of the Borsari family, who appear to have been involved in the business right up until it was wound up in 2010.

  6. Hmmm … Well the cold store/ice house/mortuary theory seems a good one; they could have been used for any or all of that. Why else would they have been so nicely tiled and be so clean. It doesn’t necessarily mean this is all they’ve ever been used for though.

    I’m slightly surprised that no-one can unearth the early plans for the building/development of the station. If they still exist they may give some clues. Is any further dating possible from the “manufacturer’s” enamel sign?

    Of course they could always be secret wartime gas chambers?

    • IanVisits

      The problem with the mortuary idea is that the doors are just too small for that. You can barely get a child in through those, let along a large adult.

      I tried to avoid references to railways and gas chambers ;)

  7. Another thought … Is it worth someone putting this in front of Sub Brit?

  8. Alison

    I like the mortuary idea… was this perhaps a terminus for the London Necropolis Railway?

  9. Chris

    It is most likely a meat store. Ovens tend to have some evidence for burning and are generally not lined with nice, easy to clean tiles.

  10. Ian N

    It’s the old British Rail Pork Pie Aging and Storage Facility, I think? :)

    I vote for storage of butter or similar (or meat as someone else has said). Amazing that the function of something so relatively new (i.e. since the station was built around the 1830s/40s) can be totally lost and baffle historians. Or are they saying it was built before that?

  11. It’s obvious. That’s where the Lizard People lay their eggs before they hatch and become Illuminati.

  12. Rosemary Morgan

    According to the Shunt website (http://www.shunt.co.uk/shunt.php), the vaults were used as a bonded wine warehouse. Could this explain things better?

  13. Steve Thomas

    Well, the more I look at this strange structure, the more I think it’s connected with cold storage, but it looks more complicated than just a cold store, so I think it might be an early form of heat exchange refrigeration unit. If you filled those tiled chambers with ice, and then pumped water around the chambers, then you’d have a supply of chilled water to be used at more remote locations such as other parts of the vaults, or even chilled water pumped up to the railway station platforms above, for all kinds of useful things?

  14. Andrew

    Why are they spaced so far apart? You could easily squeeze them up and fit a few more in. To make use of the thermal mass of the wall, perhaps?

    My first thought was a mortuary, but the person just visible to the left suggests that is not right. Storage for something small and valuable that needs to be kept cold? Meat? Fish or shellfish? Caviar?

    • IanVisits

      Why are they spaced so far apart? You could easily squeeze them up and fit a few more in. To make use of the thermal mass of the wall, perhaps?

      The doors/holes are only half the width of the empty space behind them.

  15. Wolstan Dixie

    The vertical slots are clearly liquid level indicators, they would have had glass tubes in them, you can see the level marks. So it is an array of tanks, with a glazed hole in the bottom of each. Why not one big tank?

  16. Adam DB

    Shunt!

    I miss it, I wish it was still there. Best day of my life was the first tim I walked through that door in to the world of Shunt.

    :(

  17. Adam DB

    *time

  18. lisa m

    When I went there, I was at the door trying to get away from the damp / mouldy smell and had my head out the door to get some fresh air from the road full of passing cars and exhaust and the man who worked there from the Brit Rail said it was propported? to be the place that they brought the victims of the plgue,,,which is probably true and so I really resist going there ever again and feel sick thinking of people puting other people;s health at risk for the sake of their cruddy event which is always expensive as well,,,,yuck all that dust…..smellof damp mould..
    .up yer nostrilles… and all these people thinking they are so cool to be there.

    • IanVisits

      You do realise that it is impossible for that to be true – don’t you?

  19. Sid Price

    They look like buriel chambers.

  20. Robert W

    Obviously, Victorian accommodation for vampires. These are placed under all major cities to allow vampires to sleep during the day and feed at night.

    This is why they can be at such a height without a ladder as the vampires simply fly in just before dawn.

    Further information is that werewolves live on Hampstead Heath and Mummies are found in the British Museum… I thank you.

  21. David Lucas

    It would make sense to be a bonded warehouse for storage of wine, tea etc. the area did have wharves along the riverside

  22. Taash

    Looks like refrigeration 1800 styley to me. Could keep fruit, plant bulbs or seafood cold. You wouldn’t want to be too close to a neighbours fridge incase something in theirs spoiled yours. I wonder if the pipes feed a tank around each structure maybe with just salt water. This is fascinating. Or..it could be so many other things. Wish I’d been looking at this when I was there last instead of trying to find performance art while trying to breath properly! Thank you for the post.

  23. Chris R

    I like the suggestion by Robert W, yesterday. Sleeping quarters for vampires ! Brilliant. Would make a good Dr Who story.

  24. Wendy B

    I passed this on to a friend, who suggested as follows:

    There were wooden walls between each bay, one imagines for privacy.
    There was a second floor of wood.
    The tiles are the key. They are very late nineteenth century and not heat proof. They are of the “self cleaning” or easy clean type. That suggests something messy happened there without heat. The real killer point is that the floor edges are bevelled for easy wash out and there is a central drain hole in the floor of the compartment (as far as I can see). The pipes going into the space may either be chiller pipes (unlikely at that date but perfectly possible) or water pipes for regular wash out. The large drain in the wall would enable washout and easy removal of bits!
    The location is another clue. In a poorly lit area under a murky station, on a level with the Thames. Material could come and go from the premises with minimal fuss.
    I think it’s a holding mortuary for bodies pulled out of the Thames in central London. They were VERY common in the Victorian period, sadly.

    • IanVisits

      Nice idea – except that the entrance “doors” are too small for bodies.

    • TRT

      Well, there is a hospital next door…

  25. JohnHB

    What an intriguing story ! I come back every day to see if anyone has posted another plausible hypothesis or even the killer solution. My feeling is that the answer may be provided by linking Rosemary Morgan’s note that the location was once a bonded wine warehouse, Wolstan Dixie’s suggestion of structures remaining from level indicators, and the page of the Borsari website (link provided by the second post from Wolstan Dixie) marked “special work tanks” which actually shows tanks in a wine cellar which appear to be finished with nice shiny tiles – QED ? Ian – I hope you can keep the link to this story visible on the front page of your blog for a bit longer than usual, with the hope of garnering some late readers who might be able to provide further insightful input – it would be a shame if this item was archived before the solution appears. Many thanks for giving your many loyal readers the opportunity to puzzle over this.

  26. Fascinating! I’m in and out of London Bridge all the time at work, but never knew any of that was there.

    [tongue in cheek]

    They’ll probably turn it into the new traincrew accommodation when block B is demolished – it looks dark and dingy enough (but probably still an improvement on what we have at the moment, which is looking quite ‘tired’).

    [/tongue in cheek]

  27. TokyoDon

    Ian – please remove above reference to vampires from your this post asap. Planning permission was granted for redevelopment of the space on the specific proviso that former use of this facility would remain classified. Appreciate your sppedy co-operation in this. Cheers.

  28. peter adsett

    We are about to start work in this area, building new toilets.
    I’ll take some more photos and post them.
    They look like storage which has had ice stored on the smooth tiles.
    Apart from a bit of dust they are in perfect condition inside.
    To small an opening for storing bodies.

  29. Steve the spark

    Am working in the area mentioned and have come across some more with cast iron doors. The same swiss nameplate is there and also a date plate for 1935 and the taps and valves are in place. Will upload pics soon.

  30. derene cansdale

    i have been led to believe that my great great grandfather rented space in the arches under London bridge station for a smoke hole (for smoking fish) the smoke interferred with the trains & he was paid £5’000 to move out. It is possible that this structure was used for smoking fish.

  31. cm leonard

    If not storage for meat fish given the size of the chambers That or things in barrels or cases coming of the wharf once close by.

  32. Derene Cansdale

    It was close to Billinsgate so would have been fish. the structure probably would not have been for storage. It would have been too difficult to get items in & out. It would have been built lower.
    There was a smoke hole built under London Bridge station. It would make sense that this was it.

  33. sophie trench

    Hi Ian –
    Fab find! I’m looking for a venue to hire for an event and this is the perfect space!! I’ve been trying to find out who it ‘belongs’ to and was wondering – seeing as you were lucky enough to visit it – if you might know who ‘manages’ it? or who I should contact for this.
    Thanks ever so!

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