Thames Tunnel tour | Discover the Victorians’ Eighth Wonder of the World
A rare walk through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe.
The Thames Tunnel, once one of Victorian London’s greatest attractions, hasn’t been open to the public for nearly 150 years. While thousands pass through it every day on a London Overground train, many wouldn’t be aware they are travelling through an impressive feat of engineering. In May 2014, the London Transport Museum hosted special Hidden London tours for people to follow in the footsteps of Victorian Londoners by walking the tunnel as it was originally used for.
As you may have noticed, after Tower Bridge going east there is no bridge crossing the River Thames until you reach the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, Kent. In Victorian London, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the docks and factories east of the city were booming and it became apparent of a growing need for a river connection between docks on north and south of the river. Various ideas were considered over the years, but it wasn’t until 1823, Anglo-French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) produced a plan for an underwater tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping using his and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806-1859) new tunnelling shield patent, which revolutionised tunnel building.
With the tunnel originally planned for use by horse-drawn carriages, Marc found funding from the Duke Of Wellington, among others, and construction began in February 1825. Brunel’s team started building a shaft at Rotherhithe – which is still there today and forms part of the Brunel Museum – which is where pedestrians and (ideally) horse and carriages would enter the tunnel. In November 1825, the shaft was complete so the tunnelling could begin. Using the Brunels’ tunnelling shield, work progressed slowly, with only about 8-12 foot of tunnel being built a week. Conditions were horrible, with many workers falling ill from the sewage strewn water seeping into the tunnel. Marc’s son Isambard ended up taking over the project at just 20 years old when resident engineer William Armstrong fell ill in 1826. At one point, they started allowing visitors in to see the shield in action, charging a shilling each, to boost the spiralling budget.
In November 1827 – while the tunnel was still being built – the Brunels hosted a banquet in the tunnel for 50 guests with music provided by the Coldstream Guards. In May 1827 and January 1828, the tunnel flooded, with the later incident resulting in the loss of six men and Isambard himself narrowly escaping death. Following this, there was loss of confidence in the project and it was put on hold for seven years. However, by December 1834, Marc managed to raise enough money – including a loan from the Treasury – to resume the project. Despite more floods, fires and gas leaks, construction was finally completed in November 1841. It measured 35 feet wide, by 20 feet high and 1,300 feet long, at 75 feet below the Thames surface. It was swiftly fitted out with lighting, staircases and roadways. An engine house was built next to the shaft for machinery used to drain the tunnel, which can now be visited as the Brunel Museum. The tunnel had taken so long to build, there was no money left to construct two further shafts to transport the horse and carriages down to tunnel level. So with the original design brief unfulfilled, it was opened to pedestrians in March 1843, who entered via the Grand Entrance Halls in the shafts using spiral staircases.
After hearing so long about the delays and dramas of the tunnel construction, unsurprisingly Londoners and those from further afield were curious to see the engineering wonder. It was initially hugely popular with tourists, with 50,000 people visiting on opening day, with a total of 1 million visiting in the first three months – equivalent to half the population of London at the time. Billed as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, visitors paid a penny to pass through the tunnel and soon found plenty of occupy them as stalls were erected in the arches between the adjoining east and west tunnels. Among the products on sale included snuff boxes, paper weights and gin flasks. In 1852, organisers hosted the Fancy Fair, the world’s first underwater fair, featuring entertainment such as tightrope artists, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and magicians. Despite the initial popularity, the novelty soon wore off and 10 years after opening, the tunnel was home to some very unsavoury characters, including thieves and prostitutes.
Investors were relieved when the East London Railway Company purchased the tunnel in 1865, with trains eventually running through it four years later after they had extended it further south. In 1884, a disused shaft was used to create Wapping station. Eventually the line came into ownership of London Underground for the East London Line and then in 2010, became a line used by London Overground.
- The London Transport Museum very rarely conducts tours to the Thames Tunnel, but keep an eye out on their events page for further openings. The Brunel Museum is open all year round, with regular tours to visit the Grand Entrance Hall. Brunel Museum, Railway Ave, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF. Nearest Overground: Rotherhithe. For more information, visit the Brunel Museum website.
Metro Girl Likes: When you’re in the area, check out the nearby 17th century Mayflower pub with a deck overlooking the River Thames.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused Aldwych tube station, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s London history posts, click here.
Cellar Door review: Cocktails, cabaret and popcorn in converted Victorian conveniences!
Cellar Door is perhaps one of the most unique drinking spots in the capital. Located at Zero Aldwych on the junction with Wellington Street, this intimate bar and club is actually in a former Victorian men’s public toilet! According to their website, it was previously one of the most infamous men’s toilets in Theatreland, with Oscar Wilde, Sir John Gielgud and Joe Orton among its former users. However, don’t be fooled and think you may be drinking among porcelain urinals. This small space has been cleverly converted into an entertainment venue, with just the square windows from the street above the only hint at its former incarnation.
The entrance certainly gives a hint of the grandeur which lurks below with red VIP-style velvet rope outside the door. Once you’re downstairs, a doorman sweeps open the velvet curtain to reveal the space – a bustling well-lit bar to the left, a mix of sofa and bar stool seating and a little ‘stage’ area in the corner. The venue includes just two actual toilets – which, fortunately, could not be further from the ones which would have stood here over 100 years ago. The cubicle doors appear to be worryingly clear when you first step in, but cleverly ‘frosts’ over when you lock it… so make sure you do! Entrance is free and so is the entertainment, but a service charge is added to your drinks to cover both.
A few female friends and I visited on a Saturday night and were lucky to get the last table and stools. As you would expect, there isn’t much space so it’s worth arriving early or reserving. The bar is open from around 6pm and includes entertainment from 9pm nightly and gets full pretty quickly. We managed to get in a round of cocktails during the Happy Hour (1/3 off), which finishes at 8pm. Their extensive menu features a range of original and classic cocktails, with many themed around the bar’s style icons Marilyn Monroe, Betty Page and Dita Von Teese. I started with an Angel Eyes (Nicaraguan white rum, Blackberry liqueur, Campari, lemon juice and soda), a sharp but refreshing long drink. I followed with an old classic – a Moscow Mule (Vodka with fresh line, sugar and ginger). As well as cocktails, wine, hot drinks, they also sell snuff, which fits in with the retro basement dive vibe. The Cellar Door ‘Angel’ waitress serves your drinks with complimentary popcorn, although there is a small bar menu, serving food like olives, nuts and pitta plates.
At 9pm every night, the entertainment kicks off. Includes cabaret, DJs, magic acts, film screenings, drag queens and open mic nights. On the night we were there, we were provided with a soundtrack and some laughs by a flamboyant drag DJ. Unfortunately, we missed the burlesque act which performed later on, so I will have a make a repeat visit to see more of the entertainment. Overall, I really liked Cellar Door. The venue was cosy and intimate, the bar staff were friendly and what we saw of the entertainment was good. The clientele was a friendly crowd ranging from 20s to 40s. The cocktails were really delicious and I was tempted by many of the original concoctions, so will have to make a return visit to try those out.
- Cellar Door, Zero Aldwych, WC2E 7DN. Open from 6pm until 1am nightly (sometimes opens earlier for weekend events). Nearest stations: Covent Garden or Temple. For more information and listings, visit Cellar Door’s website.
To read more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, check out our contents page.
Going Underground… Easter Holiday Camp @ Old Vic Tunnels
London has always been a subterranean place. Aside from the obvious tube network, there’s a host of amazing spaces underground – basements, World War II bunkers, toliets…
But so many of these underground places are off-limits to the public. In the opposite direction, rooftop bars are becoming more popular every year, but unfortunately given our unpredictable weather, these open-air venues never reach their full potential.
However, when it comes to weather, the unique London venue that is the Old Vic Tunnels has nothing to worry about. Having been curious about this venue for quite some time, I was intrigued when I found out about the Easter Holiday Camp taking place over the Easter Weekend, which turned out to have disapointing weather.The large venue had been turned into a retro Easter Holiday Camp spread over several tunnels – think Hi-De-Hi meets school fete. What was so appealing was it had things on offer you hadn’t done since your schooldays, such as the coconut shy, a badminton court and bouncy castle. A bonus was there were no children… as much as I like children, their presence would have made the camp feel like a normal school fair. Having attended a few children’s parties over the years, I’ve always lusted after a good jumping session on the bouncy castle, but it’s socially unacceptable for adults to do this alongside little kids. Unsurprisingly at the Easter Camp, there was a bit of a queue for the bouncy castle, with a host of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings desperate to relive their childhood. Once on it with my friends, we and the other people on it found ourselves laughing our heads off – it really is quite hilarious being hurled into the air when your friend has landed on the next bump.
Another element which made the fair an altogether adult experience was several bars serving a selection of alcohol and the ultimate British summer beverages, Pimms. Who needs sunshine when you’re chilling out on a deckchair with a jug of Pimms and a stick of candy floss (which was free BTW… a nice touch!)? As we chilled out on the chairs, we were entertained by the retro sounds of girl band, the Tootsie Rollers, who got the crowd going, despite looking rather chilly in their outfits.
Overall, the camp itself was entertaining and an unusual way to spend some of the Easter Weekend. I loved the venue of the Old Vic Tunnels and will definitely be keeping my eye out for future events in such a unique venue.
- The Old Vic Tunnels are located on Leake Street, Waterloo, SE1 8SW. Nearest tube/overland Waterloo.