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.
The history of the disused London Underground station Aldwych.
I have always been fascinated with derelict and abandoned places since I was a child. It was probably the result of reading too many Enid Blyton books and dreaming of being an explorer. Growing up in London, I have seen a few stations renamed or cease to exist over the years – such as the King’s Cross Thameslink station where I used to pass through on my way to work in the early Noughties or the Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross. I had read about the disused underground station Aldwych online – and passed the familiar red tilework of its former entrance on The Strand many times and found there were rare opportunities to actually visit it.
After ages of keeping my eyes peeled for a potential chance to visit, the London Transport Museum occasionally opens the doors for its Hidden London tours of Aldwych for a limited time only so a friend and I jumped at the chance to go. The one hour tour was arranged by the London Transport Museum with volunteers generously providing their time to share their knowledge of the history of the Grade II-listed building.
Finding out the history of Aldwych – a station just a stone’s throw away from Temple – could easily make you question why it was even opened in the first place. Owners knew it wouldn’t be a busy station and despite building three lift shafts – which could hold six lifts – only one was ever used. It was the lifts which prompted the final closure of the station in 1994 because the expense of fixing them could not be justified for such a lightly used station.
Aldwych station was originally conceived as the southern terminus for a new underground railway line owned by Great Northern and Strand Railway in the late 1800s. However when the tube project merged with another – becoming the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway – the Piccadilly line was born, with Strand station – as it was known in the early parts of its life – becoming a branch off the main line.
After the demolition of the Royal Strand Theatre on the site, construction of The Strand station started in October 1905 and was opened in November 1907. The design followed that of architect Leslie Green‘s standard station design – distinct dark red glazed brick on street level, with platform walls tiled in cream and green. Above the entrance, featured arched windows with office space. Green also designed Oxford Circus, Elephant & Castle and Leicester Square stations, among others. Strand station was a L shaped building with entrances and exits on The Strand and Surrey Street – which can still be seen today.
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I love a good pop-up restaurant or cafe and am a fan of retro interiors, so I was excited when Canteen and London Transport teamed up to create a 1950s-themed canteen for this year’s London Design Festival. TFL delved into their archives of photos of the staff canteen which used to fuel the bus and tube staff back in the 1950s, to recreate a contemporary vision of their former catering division.
The Canteen pop-up was located in Design Junction – one of the main venues of this year’s London Design Festival. The huge space within the Old Sorting Office in New Oxford Street was transformed into several levels of design celebration – mini showrooms, a cinema and pop-up bars and restaurant.
Like a staff canteen, we got in a small queue to choose our food and drink from the menus on the wall, against a backdrop of the familiar London Transport symbol. As it was lunchtime, we opted for the traditional British dish of pie and mash with gravy with a cup of Rosie Lee (slang for tea to those who might not know!). I loved the novelty of getting the food on a tray and trying to find a seat.
The seats in question were vintage patterned benches and lovely curved wooden chairs from furniture brands Very Good & Proper and Modus. As we sat down and tucked into what I would describe as tasty, comfort food, our scenery was old photos of transport workers tucking into their lunch on the wall. I was fairly peckish, so after my pie and mash, I ended up ordering fresh, hot scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam – yum!
All in all, the service was fast and friendly, the food was good value and tasty and the interior was cool… I just wish it was permanent. But isn’t that what makes pop-up venues so special?
After our leisurely lunch – fortunately as we weren’t actually TFL workers on a break, there was no clock-watching or work to rush back to – we checked out the displays and showcases on the three levels at Design Junction. Lots of treats for the eye and inspiration for the home.
- London Transport pop-up Canteen is open from now until Sunday 23rd September 2012 at Design Junction, 21-31 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1BA. Nearest tube: Holborn (Piccadilly and Central line).