Friday 26 October 2012

Pedestrian centenary

Happy 100th birthday to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel! There wasn't much of a party - the council are presumably too embarrassed about the botched refurbishment - but a small group of London Historians took a walk through this historic passageway to mark its centenary. (There was also a marathon starting in the tunnel earlier this morning - although in obedience to its 'no running' rule the first section was walked.)

A hundred years ago, the local riverscape was very different, edged with working docks and lined with industry. In consequence, thousands of people worked on one side of the Thames but lived on the other. However, getting across the river to work was a bit of an issue. A free ferry service (founded by Bazalgette and still running today) was very helpful but couldn't always operate - especially during London's then-frequent fogs

A weatherproof, cheap-to-use solution was needed. Luckily, there was a local champion: Will Crooks, working-class trade unionist, MP for Woolwich and former Mayor of Poplar. Thanks to his efforts, London County Council commissioned the tunnel which was designed by their chief engineer Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, who had already built Rotherhithe Tunnel and Vauxhall Bridge. It was dug by hand using the shield method; a tube of cast-iron rings was formed, then hidden by a concrete lining and tiles. There is also visible cast iron in the structure: the treads of the spiral staircases in each shaft.

On 26 October 1912, the 504-metre-long Woolwich Foot Tunnel opened. Since construction had begun on 1 May 1910, the whole process took less time than the current refurbishment which began on 19 April 2010 but is still incomplete. The rotunda entrances are shrouded by scaffolding, the lifts are closed, and there is an air of despondency about the place. It currently feels very much the aging centenarian - quite undeservedly. 

Although the last hundred years have seen dramatic changes to the local area, so that thousands of dockers and factory workers no longer walk through to work each day, the tunnel continues to provide a valued local service. Hopefully, a completed refurbishment will soon reflect that. 

The rotunda in sunnier, scaffolding-free times.


Alan Burkitt-Gray said...

One of the oddities about that part of the world is that the old Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich had a couple of tiny enclaves on the north side of the river, surrounded by what was then Essex (the London County Council and its boroughs extended further east on the south side than the north). I wonder if that cross-river political interest helped get the tunnel built?

Hels said...

Isn't that interesting in that with all the times I have seen the rotunda, I had no idea about the free ferry service - not in Bazalgette's time and not today. Even historians don't ask the important questions, unless something triggers a bit of lateral thinking.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel opened on 26th October 1912, exactly 100 years ago :) Happy birthday! Those late Victorians and Edwardians were great infrastructure builders.

Unknown said...

Glad to see Will Crooks get acknowledgement. Did you know that he was also responsible for giving us the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the Greenwich Foot Tunnel (and the Island gardens on the Isle of Dogs side). Before that he was also known as the face of the Blackwall Tunnel thanks to his tunnel lectures which he gave all over London promoting the project. These were just a few of his many contributions to the British way of life that we still take for granted today. I know this because I recently read a book on his life:

Happy 100th birthday Woolwich Foot Tunnel!

CarolineLD said...

Alan, I don't know but I suspect it did. North Woolwich still feels somewhat like a separate enclave to me, although as I don't know it very well, that may be unfair.

The service doesn't seem all that well-known, Hels - a shame, as it's London's only free boat trip!

Rhonda, thank you for the book details: definitely one for my reading list. I had some idea that Crooks was involved in the Greenwich and Rotherhithe tunnels, and will love reading more. Perhaps I'll give him his own blog post later!