Thursday, 31 July 2008

History in everyday use: the Thames Tunnel

While the East London Line is closed, we’re missing out on the opportunity to sample an amazing piece of engineering history as we make our daily commute. Between Wapping and Rotherhithe, the line runs through the amazing Thames Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father Marc.

In the nineteenth century, the Port of London was at its height and ships had to queue for berths. As well as the problem of delays, there was another difficulty: if the ship moored south of the river and its cargo was destined for the north bank, or vice versa, it all had to be transported slowly overground along the riverside, across hectic London Bridge and back down the opposite bank. The solution proposed: a tunnel allowing horses and carts to quickly pass from one side of the river to the other.

Brunel’s tunnel was an engineering marvel, the first to be built under a navigable river. It required the invention of a new tunnelling technique: the tunnel shield, which provides support as each new section is built. (Previous tunnels tended to be ‘cut and cover’, where a big trench was dug and then roofed over – the unsuitability of this for tunnelling under a river is obvious!). Even with such revolutionary techniques, the tunnel took 18 years to build and was only completed in 1843.

However, as is often the way with such grandiose projects (think Millennium Dome), things went rather wrong. Money ran out, and although there were stairs down to the tunnel, the ramps for horses were never built. Instead the tunnel became a pedestrian attraction. There were under-river banquets, a shopping arcade, and even fairs. Souvenirs were sold, some of which can be seen at the fascinating Brunel Museum by the tunnel’s Rotherhithe entrance. However, over time it came to attract dodgy characters and declined in popularity.

Eventually, in 1869, the tunnel became part of the new East London Railway and was closed to pedestrians. The tunnel will continue to be an important part of London’s transport network when it reopens as part of the extended line (ironically named the Overground) next year: not bad for a pioneering tunnel well over 150 years old!


DDKK said...

There was a major refurbishment of the tunnel in the 1990s which resulted in the majority of the original structure being covered up by new concrete. A campaign led by New Civil Engineer magazine and English Heritage protested against the refurbishment, but in the end an agreement was reached and I believe a couple of the original arches were left uncovered and restored, while the remainder were concreted (albeit in a fairly sympathetic style).

CarolineLD said...

Yes, you could still see the arches if you looked carefully as the train went through, but coated with new concrete. The nearest thing you get to a view in an underground tunnel, so I always had a soft spot for it!

Jane said...

Caroline... please please can you add a search gadget to your site.
I know you wrote about the gates of the Red Lion Brewery a while back and i can't find it.

CarolineLD said...

It's there - in the very top left-hand corner!