Brunel’s Thames Tunnel Tour
When something happens twice in 150 years, you tend to grab the opportunity to experience it. Although historically geeky, that’s just what MrsDannyUK and I did when we had the chance to go under the Thames.
At £18 per ticket, the entrance fee wasn’t overly cheap. Weighed up against the promise of seeing the original tunnels and arches designed by Brunel nearly 190 years ago made it a price worth paying, though.
With a designated start time, groups of fifty ticket holders were taken into Rotherhithe station, which was one of several stations shut over the bank holiday weekend for line repairs, and each group was given a tour leader. Armed with rubber gloves supplied by the station, so as not to run the risk of catching an infection whose name I can’t recall, we followed our guide into the tunnel.
The tunnel was originally conceived as a vehicle tunnel to help ease congestion on the London ports which were the busiest in the world at the time. A tunnel was the alternative to a bridge which was deemed to have needed to be at least 100ft high to allow the tallest ships to pass under it. With such a height, the horses pulling cargo that would use the bridge would have to have a steady ramp to allow them to cross comfortably. The technology that allowed engineers to make Tower Bridge, which alleviated this problem, was still decades away.
A joke made at the time said that the area was full of traffic that you could get from New York to London in a week, but it then took two weeks to cross the banks of the Thames. Thus, Marc Brunel’s tunnelling idea was adopted, with work beginning on 25th November 1825.
The tunnel was built by sinking cast iron rings into the ground and then using steam and people digging to get to the correct level. The earth and clay were then dug out using a tunnel shield which had been invented by the Brunels. This allowed many men to dig at once, placing bricks in the newly formed hole to make the tunnel walls and slowly moving forward. In total, it took over fifteen years to build.
The original brick structure that the Brunel’s designed and built still survives at the Rotherhithe end of the line and is a listed structure. Only four arches survive in their original state, whereas the rest of the tunnel was concreted over in the 1990s by London Underground.
Unfortunately, midway through building the tunnel, they ran out of money, and so the idea to use it as a tunnel for horses and carts was abandoned as they were not able to afford to build the spiral ramps needed for the horses.
One idea that Isambard Kingdom Brunel came up with in 1827 to raise money to complete the tunnel was to hold an underwater banquet in it before it was completed. They had the Coldstream Guards playing and a banquet stretching along the tunnels. The idea was a success and enough money was raised to continue the build. Unfortunately just a week later they hit an ingress of water and work was again ceased for some time.
Eventually, after several setbacks, it was decided to complete it as a pedestrian tunnel, which finally opened in 1841.
Because it was the first tunnel of any kind in the world to run underwater, it was also seen as a tourist attraction. On it’s the first day of operation more than 50,000 people used the tunnel, each paying a penny to do so.
To give some idea of scale, London Transport organised three days of tours through the tunnels over the bank holiday weekend, starting every ten minutes and in those three days saw 4,000 visitors. In the first year over a million people used it.
Due to the initial popularity, each arch was utilised as a shop. When you see the size of the arches, it’s barely believable, but apparently each arch was filled and all of them sold various tunnel-based goods.
By 1852 the novelty of the tunnel was wearing off. In order to bring more customers in, an underground fancy fair was arranged in the tunnel which included sword swallowers, fire eaters and various Victorian curiousities. Given the volume of people using the tunnels though, they were not only an attraction to Victorians, but also to pickpockets and prostitutes. Although the fair was a success, even that was wearing thin by the mid 1850s.
By this time railways were on the up and up in Britain, and although the tunnel was never built to take trains, the dimensions happened to be just big enough for trains to use the tunnels, and since 1869 - four years after the East London Railway Company bought the tunnels - it has been been used for good and passenger trains.
The takeover was marked by a visit from Queen Victoria, who insisted that she wanted to go down the tunnel itself. In order to prevent the monarch getting her feet dirty, someone put down a handkerchief for her to stand on. There were rumours that pieces of this cloth were still being sold some thirty years later, though the more astute shoppers would have noticed the footprint on these items being somewhat bigger than the one left by her royal highness.
At either end of the tunnel, the roof is no more than 10-20 feet below the surface of the water, depending on the tide. This is made scarier by the fact that parts of the tunnel are no more than three bricks wide, though in some places there is the original three layers of bricks plus 1,200mm of spray concrete before you hit the London clay. The spray concrete was only added between 1995-1997 and cost £35m.
The arches vanish towards the Wapping end of the tunnel due to the area being hit by bombs in the second world war, and neccessity meaning that repairs had to be made to get things running again as soon as possible.
In the 1940s the rail was electrified when London Underground took the line over, and they continued to run trains between Shoreditch (which is now closed) and New Cross until 2007 as part of their East London line. It closed in 2007 before reopening three years later as part of London Overground.
Today the line that runs through the tunnel carries 65 million passengers per year, running up to 16 trains per hour in both directions. There are plans afoot to connect the line to other services which would create an orbital railway around London.
The guided foot tours through these tunnels are rare, though London Transport does offer tours by train which are more common. All money raised from this walking tour was split between two charities - The Thames Tunnel Museum and the Railway Children Charity.
Official website - http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk/history/the-thames-tunnel/