Victorian London - Thames - Tunnels - Thames Tunnel

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   This great work has been watched with anxiety throughout Continental Europe, and had not modem ingenuity extended “the wonders of the world” to seventy times seven, the Thames Tunnel would long rank as the eighth wonder; for this bold attempt to effect a communication between the shores of a wide and deep river, without any interruption to its navigation, has had, and prohably will have, no parallel for many ages. In 1823, Mr. (now Sir M. I.) Brunel, completed a design, which received the sanction of many gentlemen of rank and science, among whom was the Duke of Wellington. The spot between Rotherhithe and Wapping selected is, perhaps, the only one between London Bridge and Greenwich where such a roadway could have been attempted without interfering essentially with some of the great mercantile establishments on both sides of the I river. Early in 1824 a company was formed for executing the Tunnel, Mr. Brunel being appointed the engineer; and he began, in March 1825, by preparing for a shaft 50 feet in diameter, which he commenced at 150 feet from the Rotherhithe bank of the river. This he effected by constructing, on the surface of the ground, a brickwork cylinder of the above diameter, 42 feet in height and 3 feet thick. Over this he set up the steam-engine for pumping out the water, and for raising the earth to be taken from within the cylinder, which he then sunk en masse into the ground. By this means he passed through a bed of gravel and sand, ‘26 feet deep, full of land- water, and, in fact, quicksand, in which drift- makers formerly had been obliged to suspend their work. When the shaft was sunk to its present depth of 65 feet, another shaft, of 25 feet diameter, was sunk still lower, till, at the depth of 80 feet, the ground suddenly gave way, sinking several feet.
   The shaft and reservoir completed, the horizontal excavation was commenced at the depth of 63 feet, 38 feet in breadth, and 22 1/2 feet in height. It was to be defended by strong walls, and to have room within for a double archway, each 15 feet high, and wide enough for a single carriage-way and footpath. The mode in which this great excavation was accomplished was by means of a powerful apparatus termed a shield, consisting of twelve great frames, lying close to each other like as many volumes on the shelf of a bookcase, and divided into three stages or stories, thus presenting 36 chambers of cells, each for one workman, and open to the rear, but closed in the front with moveable boards. The front was placed against the earth to be removed, and the workman, having removed one board, excavated the earth behind it to the depth directed, and placed the board against the new surface exposed. The board was then in advance of the cell, and was kept in its place by props; and having thus proseeded with all the boards, each cell was advanced by two screws, one at its head and the other at its foot, which, resting against the finished brickwork and turned, impelled it forward into the vacant space. The other set of divisions then advanced. As the miners worked at one end of the cell, so the bricklayers formed at the other the top, sides and bottom. There were completed-
   In 1886 117 feet
   In 1837 28 feet
   In 1838 80 feet
   In 1839 194 feet
   In 1840, in two months, 76 feet leaving only 60 feet to complete.
   The opening ceremony was on Saturday last. At the Rotherhithe shaft two marquees were erected, flags were hoisted, bells were rung, and the entire scene was a demonstration of triumph. At four o’clock a signal gun was fired, and the procession started from the directors’ marquee down the staircase, along the western archway of the Tunnel, and, on arriving at the shaft at Wapping, the procession ascended and crossed the landing, and then retumed by the eastern archway to Rotherhithe. Sir I. Brunel, in his passage through the Tunnel, was cheered with heartfelt enthusiasm.
   The great circular shafts are now provided with handsome staircases for foot-passengers-that at Rotherhithe being shown in the engraving. The carriage-ways have yet to be constructed: each will consist of an immense spiral road, 200 feet in diameter, winding twice round a circular excavation, 57 feet deep, in order to reach the proper level; the road itself being forty feet wide, and the descent very moderate. The cost of the Tunnel has been about £614,000, very much more than was at first contemplated. Since Saturday the Tunnel has been open to foot-passengers at ld each, and many thousands have already cheerfully paid the toll.

Illustrated London News 1843

Thames Tunnel, The ... is open daily from 9 to 7. Admission, 1s.

The THAMES TUNNEL, near Rotherhithe Church. This very novel and curious structure was projected by J. K. Brunel, Esq., under whose direction, although it has in its progress encountered many impediments, is, with the exception of the approaches, now completed. The intention of the engineer was, the formation of a passage for carriages and pedestrians under the Thames; and will, when finished, be one of the most extraordinary and stupendous works of ancient or modern times. The tunnel consists of two brick archways, thus forming two paved roads, with paths for foot-passengers. In the centre, between these two roads, runs a line of archways, by which persons may pass from one side to the other; and in each of these arches is a gas-light. The approach to the entrance of the tunnel is by a spacious flight of steps, of very gradual descent; and the general effect of these sub-aqueous roads, when viewed from the end, the whole being brilliantly lighted with gas, is imposing in the extreme. This vast work, now extended entirely across the river, excites the admiration of all visiters, and, regarded as an exhibition, is perhaps the most interesting of which the metropolis can boast.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

see also David Bartlett in London by Day and Night - click here

    Our boat, too, turns to the left bank, and stops near an apoplectic grey tower, which reminds us strongly of the donjonkeeps of the city of Linz in Upper Austria. A similar tower rises from the opposite bank. These towers are the gates of the famous Thames Tunnel. We leave the boat to look at this triumph of British science and perseverance. The tower covers the shaft into which you must descend if you would enter the broad pathway under the water, and the sinking this shaft to the depth of eighty feet was the first step inn an undertaking which, since its completion, has commanded the admiration of the architects and engineers of all nations. The broad comfortable stairs and the pathway beneath the river, devoid of ornament and lighted with gas, do not indeed present any striking features to the unscientific visitor. Our railway tunnels are a good deal longer; and what mortal, unless he be a practical engineer, has a conception of the difficulties of this particular undertaking? Still those difficulties were enormous. The breadth of the river is above two thousand feet at high water— the weight pressing on the arches is about double the low water weight—among the strata which the workmen had to pierce there was a layer of floating sand—and, in spite of all precautions, the water broke in not less than five times, and several lives were sacrificed. On one occasion, Mr. Brunch, the architect, had a narrow escape. Through a breach of several thousand cubic feet, the water entered the tunnel, which had then advanced to the middle ; the masonry and the machinery were destroyed; it took many weeks before the water was pumped out, and the disastrous hole stopped up with sand-bags; the workmen refused to go down again; the contractors had to double their wages; the works lied to he carried on by day and by night without cessation, and the strictest watch had to be kept on the river itself, its tides, and its movements. At length, after an enormous outlay of capital and ingenuity, when even the most sceptical part of the public understood that the construction of a tunnel under the Thames was not an impossibility; it was found that the funds advanced by the shareholders were exhausted. The Parliament, however, granted a loan ; the whole of England took arm interest in the execution of this great undertaking; fresh machinery was invented; fresh workmen were engaged; the second shaft was sunk on the Wapping side of the river; and the English may say—” We carry out whatever we undertake to do. With us great undertakings do not languish for want of  public interest and assistance. A crane standing for many years on a half-built tower, as is the case with the tower of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany—no! thank God, such cranes have no locus standi in England. May be, we are are awkward, square-built people; but after all we are a people, and that’s what not every nation can say of itself.”
    Life in the Thames Tunnel is a very strange sort of life. As we descend, stray bits and snatches of music greet our ears. Arrived at the bottom of the shaft, there is the double pathway opening before us, and looking altogether dry, comfortable, and civilised, for there are plenty of gas-lights; and the passages which communicate between the two roadways, are tenanted by a numerous race of small shop-keepers, offering views of the tunnel, and other penny wares for sale. These poor people never see the sun except on Sundays. The strangers in London are their best, and indeed I may almost say, they are their only customers.
    As we proceed, the music becomes more clear and distinct, and here it is : a miniature exhibition of English industrial skill. It is an Italian organ, played by a perfect doll of a Lilliputian steam-engine. That engine grinds the organ from morning till night ; it gives us various pieces without any compunction or political scruples. The Marseillaise, German waltzes, the Hungarian Rakowzy march, Rule Britannia, Yankee Doodle, etc., does this marvellous engine grind out of the organ. Those London organs are the most tolerant of musical instruments that I know of; they appeal to all nations and purses. And what is more marvelous still, they are not stopped by the police, as they would he in Vienna or Berlin, even though the cosmopolitan organ-grinder might descend tens of thousands of feet below the bed of the Spre or the Danube. In the present instance, the organ and the engine are mere decoy-birds. You stop, and are invited to look at “the panorama”—at the expense of “only one penny.” You see Queen Victoria at that interesting moment in which she vows to “love, honour, and obey” Prince Albert. You also see a Spanish convent, which no panorama can be without; and the Emperor Napoleon in the act of being beaten at Waterloo—the chief scene of every London panorama, exactly as if the great Napoleon had passed all the years of his life in being beaten at Waterloo. The next view shows you M. Kossuth on horseback, arm an Hungarian battle-field, which looks for all the world like an English park ; and Komorn, of which the impregnability is demonstrated by its being, Venice fashion, immersed in water, with canals for streets, and gondolas for cabs.
    Of such like spectacles the tunnel has plenty, but we cannot stop for them. We hasten to the shaft, ascend the stairs, and feel quite refreshed by the free air of heaven.
    “There will be a Greenwich steamer in five minutes,” says Mr. Baxter, encouragingly.
    “What was the expense of that affair under the water?” asked Dr. Keif, while we stood waiting for the boat.
    “One penny each.”
    “I don’t ask what we paid. I mean the tunnel, what did it cost?”
    “Something like £455,000. The shareholders gave £180,000, and the rest was advanced by the nation. It would take another £200,000 to make the tunnel fit for carriage traffic. Say £650,000.”
    “A mere trifle as Sir John would say,” remarked Dr. Keif with a sarcastic smile; “£650,000 make, without agio, six millions five hundred thousand florins in Austrian money. Give Mr. Struve that sum, and he will liberate the whole of Germany and a large piece of France into the bargain. What, in the name of all that is liberal, can be the use of that tunnel, I should like to know ? Isn’t a good honest bridge ten times cheaper and handsomer? You’re a practical people, you are but crotchetty, my dear Sir’, crotchetty, that’s the word.”
    “Most amiable of all German philosophers,” said Mr. Baxter, are you, too, among the Philistines? Hundreds of foreigners have said exactly what you say; and none of them seem to understand what practical purpose the originators of this tunnel had in view.”
“They wanted to prove to the barbarous nations of the Continent, that Britons may walk under water without getting wet and without umbrellas.”

“And also that theme are some things which are not dreamt of in the philosophy of a German Doctor. Why, that alone would be worth the money! But now, let me tell you that this tunnel cost very little more than one-half of what Waterloo-bridge cost. Besides, how can you bridge the river so low down as this? Why you would stop all the vessels, and spoil the London harbour, for you cannot raise a bridge high enough for large sailing vessels to pass in under. Well, we’ve tried another plan; since the vessels cannot pass under the bridge, we make them go over it. We’ve tried it, and we’ve done it. There’s the tunnel ! It is not the architect’s fault if it does not pay. Westward the course of empire takes its way in the world generally, and in London especially, and the east suffers accordingly. Hence it was not worth while to add a carriage-road to the tunnel. The more’s the pity!”

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

The Tunnel is reached by a round hole a hundred feet deep, painted in light colours, flanked by two stairways. The struggle for life gives rise here to depressing industries. As soon as you enter the barrel-shaped galleries the atmosphere becomes dense and icy; a cold, damp mist laden with sepulchral fumes shits off the view at twenty paces, although 128 gas jets are alight. One feels that one would die if one had to spend even a couple of hours in this hypogeum, where the perpetually dripping water forms large black viscous puddles underfoot. Between the pillars there are stalls kept by quite young girls. Pallid and smiling wanly, they offer odds and ends of glassware for sale, spectacles through which you can see views of London, and endless rubbish such as is found in country fairs. There are puppet shows and concertina players, pathetic but hopeless attempts at enlivening this brutal crypt. What a wonderful breeding ground this must be for all germs that fear the air and the sun! The only people who could find any advantage to the existence of this place or any interest in it, would be scientists who wished to make experiments on the development of strange new diseases. These booths ought certainly to be closed by the Government, both for the sake of hygiene and morality, as it is patent that trade here is only a thin clock for prostitution. If the Tunnel is made practicable for vehicular traffic it will be of the greatest advantage. The Thames here is so wide and so packed with shipping that it cannot be bridged and carriages have to cross the river by New London Bridge, which is a five miles detour.

Francis Wey, A Frenchman Sees the English in the Fifties, 1935

The Thames' Tunnel is the greatest novelty in London. This was designed and commenced many years ago, but the water broke through, filling the place in less than ten minutes, thus destroying the work of many months. In this state it remained until 1828, when I. Brunell Esq., formed a new design for the Tunnel, and simultaneously invented a machine, called the "Shield." This shield was formed of platforms one above the other, each platform large enough for several men to work on; the whole affair being moveable as fast as the work of the digging progressed. There was room enoughon the shield for two dozen men to work; thus, as fast as a the Tunnel was dug, masons put up the sides and arched ceiling. The work in this manner proceeded at the rate of one foot at day. It was not completed until 1841. It now consists of two shafts, fifty-five feet in diameter, and seventy-five feet deep; placed one of each side of the river, about one feet from the water edge. Over each shaft is built a rotunda thirty feet high, thus making the shaft from the roof, one hundred and five feet deep. The rotundas are painted with landscapes of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, towers, palaces, and cascades, including a very good painting of Niagara Falls. From the top of the shaft aronud the wall, is a winding staircases leading to the Tunnel. There are over one hundred steps in the descent. The echo is very great, and music, (of which there is at all times great abundance in the Tunnel,) as the strains echo along the arches and up the shafts, sounds particularly fine, though seldom proceeding from anything but hand-organs or wandering-street musicians.
The Tunnel is built of brick paved with stone, and consists of two rows of arches, each row twelve hundred feet long. The arches meet arch other in the centre, and there rest upon stone columns thus forming two avenues divided by a tier of columns. From each shaft towards the centre the Tunnel inclines, thus resembling a vast stone suspension bridge under water rather than over. I have heard that the Tunnel has not answered the original purpose; what that purpose was, I do not know. One thing I do know - it is of no use except to foot passengers, and the expenses of gas and attendance are met by charging a toll of one penny on each visitor. One row of arches is divided into a number of apartments, each apartment opening on the other avenue. In these apartments are penny shows, refreshment rooms, and fancy stores. Considerable value is attached to anything bought in the Thames Tunnel, and almost every article sold there, even the cakes and confectionary, has some picture or sentence concerning the work. . . . . Exactly under the middle of the river is a refreshment room, kept by an eccentric old manm who has not been a half mile from the Tunnel since it was completed. Daylight to him is almost unknown. He does not sleep in the Tunnel, but he enters before day in the morning and does not leave until late at night. This old man on account of his many wonderful stories and jokes, in addition to good cakes and wines, has many visitors.
The sensations experienced as one sits here are very peculiar. A thin brick ceiling over head, covered with a few feet of mud, and many feet of water, with water trickling from the ceiling and through the walls;- and steamers, ships and barges sailing along far above you!- Many bright eyes of timid beauties, and ominous glances of frightened old men, have I seen directed to the walls and ceiling as the crowd hurried along.

W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859

The THAMES TUNNEL may be properly classed with the public commercial works of the Metropolis, as it connects two busy trading districts on opposite sides of the River - Wapping and Rotherhithe. Though it has not answered the expectations of its projectors in a commercial point of view, it is not the less admirable as a monument of engineering skill and adventurous enterprise, and must be regarded as the most eminent of Sir Isambard Brunel's successes. Its length is 1200 feet; its cost was 615,000l. It was commenced on the 2d of March 1825. An inundation, which filled the whole of the Tunnel as far as it was completed (Aug. 12, 1828), obstructed the works for nearly seven years. Recommenced in January 1835, when thousands of sack-fulls of clay had been poured into the chasm opened by the in-rushing waters, it was carried on in the face of every difficulty until completed, and thrown open to the public on the 23d of March 1843. This success was obtained by Brunel's invention of a moving shield, or teredo - a cylindrical machine divided into twelve compartments, and each compartment into three cells, in which the miners securely wrought, with a stout shelter above and before them; while the bricklayers in their rear ran up the brickwork arches as they advanced. There is a double roadway, divided by a wall, which at intervals is pierced by open arches, and abundantly lighted by gas. A few stalls are scattered through the Tunnel, which is occasionally enlivened by a cosmoramic exhibition and a band of music; but, sooth to say, though a wonderful triumph of engineering skill, it is as a promenade immeasurably dull and wearisome.
    Steamboats from Hungerford, Blackfriars, and London Bridges run to the Tunnel Pier, on the Wapping side of the River, two miles below London Bridge.

THE THAMES TUNNEL,  between Wapping and Rotherhithe, has already been described under the head of "Public Buildings connected with Commerce." It is 1200 ft. long; was designed and carried out by Sir Isambard Brunel; cost 620,000l., and occupied from March, 1825, to March, 1843 (with an interval of about seven years) in its construction. It is in contemplation to make use of this tunnel as a railway communication between the north and south banks of the Thames.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

Thames Tunnel.-This great, but for many years comparatively useless, work of Sir Isambard Brunel was carried under the river from Wapping (left bank) to Rotherhithe (right bank) at a cost of nearly half a million of money. For about twenty years after its completion it was one of the recognised sights of London, and a kind of mouldy and poverty-stricken bazaar established itself at the entrance of the tunnel. The pence of the sightseers and the rent of the stalls proved wholly insufficient even to pay current expenses, and in 1865 the Tunnel Company were glad to get rid of their white elephant at a loss of about half its original cost. It now belongs to the East London Railway Company. NEAREST Steamboat Pier, Tunnel; Railway Stations, Wapping and Rotherhithe; Omnibus Routes, Blackwall and Rotherhithe.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

THAMES TUNNEL ... This subterranean road forms a communication under the River Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe. It was formerly open to the public at a toll of one penny, but is now converted into a portion of the East London Railway.

Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here