12 June 2008
By Jessica Chandler
TO SOME it may just be another part of that congested daily drive to work, but there is far more to Rotherhithe Tunnel than a black hole of car fumes.
In fact residents, councillors and other dignitaries got together last Sunday at a special concert in Southwark Park to commemmorate it 100 years after it was officially opened.
In 1908 the Rotherhithe Tunnel was regarded as a feat of engineering, and was touted as a symbol of London’s growing prosperity and progress.
But the link between north and south was not always chock-a-block with cars, in fact it was originally built for horse and cart and pedestrians. Some lucky Londoners who could afford a motor occasionally drove through the tunnel, but the number was a drop in the ocean compared to the 34,000 vehicles which now travel through it daily.
The tunnel, which was named the tenth most dangerous in Europe in a 2003 survey, took four years to complete and cost £1million to build.
Sir Maurice Fitzemaurice, an engineer with the London County Council, designed the tunnel taking advantage of Sir Isambard Brunel's tunneling techniques that were used to build the nearby Thames Tunnel. It was Price and Reeves under the direction of resident engineer Edward H. Tabor who oversaw the construction with hundreds of men working in the stinking mud of the Thames to dig under the river. Brunel's shield method was a cast iron circular cross section, 30ft in diameter that kept the banks of the river in place, protecting the miners while they dug into the soft clay and moved the shield forward. The original cutting edges of the shield mark the entrances today. The job was highly dangerous and many lives were lost. The men worked in the dark with the constant risk of flooding and walls caving in, with no hard hats to protect them from falling debris.
The construction itself although able to withstand the heavy traffic use of today, has its limits. Large vehicles, flammable goods and loss of radio and mobile phone signal hamper its modern day utility. The primary bore tunnel is made from cast-iron rings bolted together to form the lining and is 1,481m (4,860 feet) long and 48 feet below the high water level of the Thames. The tunnel boasts a sub-tunnel under the roadway and the lanes are only some eight feet wide. Four shafts were sunk for access and ventilation, two of which were fitted with spiral staircases for pedestrian access, which were closed due to war damage. Mechanical ventilation was installed in the 1930's and replaced in 2001. The tunnel’s right-angled bends were engineered to avoid the docks on either side and to prevent horses from seeing daylight and bolting for the exit.
Originally, the plan for the tunnel was met with great controversy and anger, as it would cause the displacement of 3,000 residents. The uprooted tenants were moved to an estate after the tunnel was authorized to go ahead.
The tunnel was officially opened by George, Prince of Wales (later King George V) on June 12, 1908.
Southwark Mayor Eliza Mann said at the ceremony: "It's important to pay respect to the sacrifices made for something we depend on so much today. Hundreds of people died in the building of the tunnel, and for the 3,000 residents that were displaced to make way for change we need to celebrate and appreciate their sacrifices. It brings community together to remember our history."
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