The Glasgow Subway has been serving the city well for the last 116 years and has a special place in the heart of many a Glaswegian. It’s the third oldest underground railway in the world, after the London and Budapest systems. From the start, it proved to be something of a novelty. On its first day of operation, December 14 1896 it ended up closing early. Attracted by the cheap fares and the thought of travelling around on a train under the ground, people flocked to use the new amenity. Unfortunately, the boisterous crowd was more than the staff could handle and a crash meant that the service was shut down until January the following year, whilst all the hiccups were ironed out.
The subway came into being in 1890, when the Glasgow District Subway Company won its application to build a small six and a half mile circular underground railway in the city and surrounding region. The two tunnels, which still carry the system today, took several years to build. The builders had quite a tough job carving out the huge tunnels underground. They encountered all manner of gory obstacles that had to be moved out of the way, from cemeteries to forgotten plague pits – large mass graves where the bodies of plague victims were disposed of. By time the subway opened in 1896, there were already a few nasty tales associated with it. Workers digging the tunnel between the Shields Road and West Street stations noticed that the soil they were removing had a somewhat strange feel to it, and were taken aback when they began to find teeth and bone fragments within it. They were digging through a plague pit. Soon, tales of a strange haunting began to circulate, making the men nervous of the Shields Road/West Street tunnel. A small apparition, no bigger than a golf ball, emerged from one of the tunnel walls. It rapidly expanded, engulfing the entire area and anyone working there. It was given the name “The Clatter” after the noise it created, described as akin to the sound made by several pots falling to the ground. Those caught inside the massive apparition witnessed the tortured visages of the dead, thought to be the plague victims displaced by the digging of the tunnel. It stopped after the subway reopened in 1897.
This particular section of the subway seems to be the most haunted. Another supernatural entity reported in the Shields Road/West Street tunnel was known as The Ghoul. It was witnessed several times by subway workers and thought to be a demon. Disappearing as quickly as it appeared, it was described as having a face that was half boy, half-animal, and appeared to be eating something. It was last encountered in 1955 by subway men, who thought it was an insane young boy who had wandered onto the tracks. They saw it eating was appeared to be raw meat, which they thought had been stolen from a butcher shop near the station. West Street station is associated with the ghost of a once well known Glasgow character, Robert Cobble. He had come from a rich family, but had fallen on hard times and took to begging and living in the streets. He was a regular in all the pubs, regaling all and sundry with a dubious claim to the British thrones and tales of his wealthy upbringing. He was severely mentally ill and an alcoholic, but was popular. One night, Cobble was attacked and robbed. The assault left him visually impaired and needing a stick to get about, but it didn’t prevent him from telling his tall tales and he was quite a happy person. In the early 1900s, he died from the cold outside West Street station. Sometimes his blue, shivering apparition can be seen huddled in the station entrance.
Back along the line at West Street, another ghost can be found haunting the station and tracks. This one, the Grey Lady, dates back to 1922. By now, the Glasgow District Subway Company had renamed itself the Glasgow Subway Railway Company. The company was in financial difficulty. The day to day running of the service was carried out by the Glasgow Corporation Tramways, who took the subway into public ownership in 1923. However, before this, tragedy had occurred at Shields Road. A young woman either fell or deliberately jumped onto the tracks just as a train was pulling into the station. Unfortunately, she was hit and died from her injuries. She also carried a young child in her arms, who was saved by the quick thinking stationmaster. The young woman’s ghost now haunts the station. She is known as the Grey Lady as she is seen either dressed in grey or having a greyish complexion, and has a sad look upon her face. The sounds of footsteps have been reported from the tracks, and the sound of weeping and whispering. Workers reported seeing strange lights moving around them as they repaired the tracks in the station during the 1960s.
During the 1930s, Glasgow Corporation updated the subway network by electrifying the system in 1935. Prior to that, the trains functioned by means of a cable system. A long cable, 1 ½ inches thick, weighing 57 tonnes, pulled the trains along the tracks between each station. The cables were operated from a large winding engine in Scotland Street. The cables were replaced when each train was fitted with 600-volt engines and pickups, which took power from a third rail, supplied by Pinkston Power Station, which also powered the city’s trams. A colour light signalling system was also installed. In 1937, the Corporation changed the Subway’s name to the Underground.
An unofficial addition to Hillhead Station from this time seems to be the ghost of an enigmatic young lady wearing a 1930s evening dress and who appears to be incredibly happy. One maintenance man probably remembers her fondly after quite a significant encounter. He was replacing tracks in the station during the 1970s, when he felt a blast of cold hit him. Looking up, he saw a young woman standing on the platform. As the station was closed, he immediately went after her, but didn’t get far as she vanished. What was extra puzzling was that the sole exit was locked from the inside. The following day, the same worker was back doing maintenance with a colleague, when the apparition appeared again. Also bizarre was that just before this, a new padlock had been found rusted shut. Quite a few people have reported seeing the strange woman over the years. They have been quite taken by her good looks, fancy clothing and the sound of singing, which seems to come from the tunnel going to Kelvinbridge.
Another story behind the female ghost at Hillhead I heard through the grapevine. In this version, the ghost is of a distressed mother who approaches passengers waiting on the train in the station, asking if anyone has seen her son. She quickly disappears. Quite a difference from the story of the happy young woman in what appears to be a residual haunting. Ghostly singing has also been heard in the tunnels between Hillhead and Kelvinbridge Stations.
Kelvinbridge has also seen some interesting phenomena. Once, a cleaner heard disembodied voices coming from the station after it had closed and the staff left. The police were called in, but they couldn’t find anything after searching. The officers also reported hearing the voices, describing it as cursing, swearing and threats of violence that sounded like they were coming from someone standing just in front of them. Another haunting seemed to be taking place in the tunnels just outside Kelvinbridge station, when nightshift staff working in a nearby building kept hearing tapping noises coming from its empty basement. All sorts of theories were trotted out until it was discovered the subway tunnels ran close to the building’s basement. The ‘ghost’ turned out to be the subway maintenance man tapping the track as he went along the tunnels at night. Owing to how busy it gets during the day, maintenance on the subway is carried out at night, very much a necessity in such an old system. The next station along from Kelvinbridge, St George’s Cross, has associations with a nearby haunting also. People near the station have encountered the harrowing apparition of a hideous male figure in Victorian garb suspended in mid-air, head twisted to one side as if a rope was wrapped around his neck.
Moving on from the 1930s, the subway didn’t manage to get through the Second World War unscathed. The Glasgow area was bombed on a relatively frequent basis, the most famous being the Clydebank Blitz of 1941, which levelled the entire town and killed several. Merkland Street station was put out of action for several months after it was hit by a bomb in 1940. The station was later replaced in the subway’s overhaul from 1977 – 1979, by Partick station, a few yards along the line. After a bombing raid on Glasgow City Centre in 1942, again where many people died, reports circulated of poltergeist activity in the castellated ticket office of St Enoch’s. The building still stands, although today it is used as a cafe. At the time, staff saw things move of their own accord, vibrate and float. Strange greyish green goo oozed from the wall in one room. A secretary was pushed to the ground, whilst a company director got a shock when he found his shoelaces mysteriously tied together during a meeting. Things seem to have calmed down a tad and it is possibly to enjoy your cappuccino without the sugar bowl levitating to the next table. St Enoch’s station also has reports of a small ghostly black cat tootling around the platform.
Another vague ghost story attached to the subway is that it has ghost horses, though there are no details of any encounters. The subway was in something of a state by the 1970s, so the system was closed down for renovation in 1977. This saw some stations being renamed, or replaced and moved up the street. For a while, Glaswegians were treated to great big gaping holes in the ground whilst the work was carried out. Back at St George’s Cross, workers building the new station in 1978 came across a seam of top quality coal in an ancient mine dating back to the middle ages that had been worked by monks. During their lunch breaks over a period of five months, the workers apparently mined out 16 tonnes of coal for their own use. The event is recorded by Geoff Holder for posterity in two of his books on Glasgow lore. The new system was opened by HRH The Queen in 1979, but, as it is with these things, it wasn’t running properly until mid 1980, when yet more kinks were ironed out. The subway also got a new fleet of trains and carriages, replacing the old one that had been running on the system since 1896! These new ones were in a resplendent orange livery, which hurt your eyes, until it was replaced with a modern version of the old red and tan livery. Or an advertising spray-paint.
The orange trains did, however, earn the subway the new moniker, the Clockwork Orange. It’s not particularly known by that term by my own generation of Glasgow residents, although some of us do enjoy getting an all day ticket to participate in a ‘Sub Crawl’ – a trip around the circle stopping at every pub near a station on the way for a pint. It can take a while, and the wobbling of participants after a few stops can’t necessarily be put down to the motion of the train! Another happy fact is that the Strathclyde Passenger Transport, who now operate the system, switched its name back to the original ‘Subway’ from ‘Underground’. Many disgruntled Glaswegians outright refused to call it by the latter.
To end, we have another strange story associated with the subway, this time an urban myth originated by John Braithwaite. As a student during the 1960s, John ran a bet with some of his friends. The bet involved him cooking up an urban legend, which then had to be heard being repeated by a stranger at the end of a weekend. At the start of the weekend, John and some friends went to some of the finest alehouses across the city and told the following tale. A young man was getting on the subway after an evening’s frivolity on the town involving copious amounts of beer. Waiting on the platform at Kelvinbridge station for the train to arrive, the young fellow was caught short by a call of nature that required immediate attention. Therefore, off he went up the service platform that ran into the tunnel and he proceeded to pee on the electrified rails. Being an electrician by trade, he really ought to have known better. Up the arc of liquid shot several thousand volts, which vaporised him on the spot, leaving only his leather boots welded to the platform. These can still be seen to this day.
That Sunday, the story was heard being repeated by a stranger in a Glasgow bar, who attested to its truth. It had apparently happened to a friend of a friend. The story must still be doing the rounds. John Braithwaite unfortunately passed away earlier in 2012. I have passed some memorable evenings with him in the pub. He was a very nice man.
Sources: Geoff Holders “The Guide to Mysterious Glasgow” and “Ghosts of Glasgow Subway” on http://www.british-paranormal.co.uk