Friday, February 09, 2007

Walking Underwater: The Thames Tunnel

It must have been something of a surprise to visitors to the Thames Tunnel one day in the 1840s to see a group of American Indians gazing in wonder at that marvel of contemporary engineering. According the George Catlin,

When they entered the Tunnel, and were told that they were under the middle of the Thames, and that the great ships were riding over their heads, they stood in utter astonishment, with their hands over their mouths (denoting silence), and said nothing until they came out. They called it the “Great Medicine Cave,” and gave the medicine (or wa-be-no) dance at the entrance of it.
Started in February of 1825, the world's first underwater tunnel was opened to pedestrian traffic on 25 March 1843, and is still in use today. The “Great Bore” as it was affectionately known was originally designed to provide for carriages to be driven through its length and to house a walkway for pedestrians, including shops and exhibitions. During its construction, such was the interest in the project, that for a fee it was possible to arrange to be lowered down to watch the work in progress.

Today, passengers on the East London Line of the Underground would probably be surprised to know that as they rush to and from work and home, travelling under the Thames from Rotherhithe to Wapping, they are using that very same tunnel designed by Sir Marc Brunel and built, in large part, by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

During its construction and immediately after its completion, the tunnel was one of the wonders that everyone seemed to want to see. It was opened for pedestrians in March, 1843 and two months later the Queen, accompanied by Prince Albert and a party of notables visited the Tunnel. The party arrived by Royal Barge and the Queen descended into the Rotherhithe Shaft. Her Majesty was presented with a gold medal with a view of the Tunnel on one side, and Brunel's head on the other; a memento of her visit.

Later it was visited by Sarah Rogers Haight, a traveller from New York who described it in glowing prose.

Only to think of all these marvels! My mind aches with thinking, as does my head and eyes with seeing; and what an accumulation of wonders of the world might we now have if the days of wonders as well as miracles had not ceased. The Tunnel itself is a wonderful creation; standing in the centre, and looking each way, you get a fine idea of its extent, you see about a quarter of a mile each way, and the perspective is very good; the arches are small at the bottom and larger at the top—a division running between the two archways forms a footpath, and a place for the stands of the venders of different articles.
In the Tunnel, arches and Doric columns, pilasters and porticos lined an arcade with stalls and shops. On her visit to the Tunnel, Sarah purchased a candlestick and a medal similar to the gold one struck for the Queen.

During the first three or four months of its opening, the tunnel had over one million paying visitors and from the beginning of construction until 1865, twenty-four million paid to either visit or pass through the Tunnel. .Sadly, however, like many such attractions, its appeal soon faded after its completion, possibly in part, because of its less than salubrious location. Open 24 hours a day, all year round, its primary clientele was workers who found it a useful passage from one side of the river to the other, a convenience for which they were charged one penny.

By 1846, the directors were being informed that the numbers passing through the tunnel, and therefore its income had declined for the second year running. In fact, in 1844 the Tunnel’s revenue was £6137 declining four years later to £3796. It is difficult to know just how dangerous the Tunnel was to pedestrians. Certainly, a robbery was reported in May of 1845, in which, around midnight on the 18th of that month, three men attacked a pedestrian, dragged him down the Rotherhithe staircase and robbed him of 5s. 8d. and his house key before kicking him in the forehead and leaving him unconscious. The same report, from The Times of 23 May 1845, complained “that after a certain hour of the night the tunnel is infested with loose women”.

From a financial point of view, the Tunnel was never a success. One writer to The Times in January of 1863 referred to that “desolate Thames Tunnel” as “that Gulf of Capital and by-word of profitlessness. The Tunnel was finally closed to pedestrian traffic on 20 July 1869, having been sold, in 1865, to the East London Railway Company for little more than one-third of the £600,000 expended in its construction.

To see what the Tunnel looked like in 1843 when opened for pedestrian traffic, click here.