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May 6

Forgotten Heritage: Subterranean Cisterns of Victorian England

A Victorian cistern beneath North London. (All photos: Forgotten Heritage Photography)

The word “cistern” conjures a rather humble image: toilet tank. But to residents of Victorian England, the term had another, much more majestic definition: a cathedral-like subterranean reservoir built to store rainwater.

Unlike the Basilica Cisterns of Istanbul, the disused cisterns beneath London and Leicestershire, located in the English Midlands, are not open to the public. But armed with a camera and caving lamps, Matt Emmett, the urban explorer behind Forgotten Heritage Photography, found a way in to three of these 19th-century reservoirs. These photographs reveal what he saw, but location details are scant in order to prevent a stream of visitors from following in his footsteps.

“All of these locations are not public access and from experience would not be possible via requesting permission,” says Emmett. “In all cases we made our own way into them, photographed them and left without incident. I am of the opinion that they need to be photographed as part of their historical preservation.”

The circular cistern above, located in London, “was built in 1844 to supply clean water to a large historic naval hospital,” says Emmett. This part of the cistern, the central hub, is notable for its acoustic features. According to Emmett’s experience, “standing at the curved outer edge, you could whisper and hear [what you said] returning to you seconds later.”

The cistern above, built in North London in 1868 to store drinking water, has a dozen arched corridors identical to the one pictured. Each such passage measures about 120 meters long, or 394 feet. It, too, has marvelous acoustics.

“The echo in here had fantastic delay to it, my whoop coming back to me around four seconds after it left my mouth,” Emmett recalls.

Assuming you don’t shout, the vast space would be eerily quiet if not for the Tube line that runs directly beneath it. “Every now and again there is a rumbling that builds and then fades before the silence descends again,” says Emmett. 



The above reservoir, located in Leicestershire, about two-and-a-half hours’ drive north of London, “was not used for storage of drinking water and so not technically a cistern,” says Emmett. “Instead, this was part of a waterworks and served as a filtration mechanism.” The structure was built in 1896.

Find more of Matt’s photos of abandoned sites at the Forgotten Heritage Facebook pageTwitter account, and on forgottenheritage.co.uk.