Not to be confused with the Thames Tunnel built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Rotherhithe Tunnel, currently better known for backing up traffic along Bermondsey’s Jamaica Road, was opened in 1908 to connect Tower Hamlets at Limehouse with Southwark at Rotherhithe by way of horse and carriage, writes Alex Yeates…
The tunnel was authorised by the Thames Tunnel Act 1900 in the face of mass local opposition where an estimated 3,000 residents were displaced by its construction. Designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, work started in 1904.
A reporter from the Daily News, a national newspaper founded by Charles Dickens, wrote of his experience seeing the construction at the time:
“By exercising a little care you step into a lift, an Iron cage open at each end, on the floor of which are a pair of rails to take a skip. A little bell rings somewhere, and you cling to a rod overhead as the lift tumbles down a dark hole at an ever-Increasing speed.
“It seems hours, but it is really only a few seconds, and you step out of the lift into a new world, a world full of more eerie men with clay wigs, pale faced, and almost naked, for the temperature lies in the neighbourhood of the eighties, and the work is very hard indeed.
“Tram lines, baulks of timber, puddles of water, and bags of cement, all these have to be carefully negotiated, and you at last reach the shield that cuts its way through the soil at the rate of about five feet per day.
“Presently you become painfully aware of the closeness of the atmosphere, and understand better than ever the economy in clothing exercised by the workmen, who rush about like ants in a nest, some pushing the skips, loaded and empty, others trimming, yet more wrestling with a huge segment of cast iron that is to be immured in its cell of concrete and be buried in the walls of the tunnel for perhaps thousands of years.”
The tunnel, which was opened by King George V while he was the Prince of Wales, was designed with the popular methods of transport of the early 20th century in mind, which consisted largely of horse drawn vehicles and early cars. When it first opened it saw some 2,600 vehicles use it each day, which was dwarfed in 1955 when 10,500 a day were seen zooming through.
A newspaper report at the time detailed its opening:
“The tunnel under the River Thames between Rotherhithe and Stepney was formally opened yesterday by the Prince of Wales. The length of the tunnel is 6883 ft., including 1500 ft. under the river.
“This is the largest boring work in the world, and the total cost is about £2,000,000. In declaring the tunnel open, his Royal Highness said, he rejoiced that this great work had been accomplished entirely by British minds, muscle, and material.
“The total length of the tunnel and approaches, from Union-road on the south to Commercial Road on the north, will be about a mile and a quarter, and the dimensions will be slightly larger those of the Blackwall tunnel, 30ft. diameter, external measurement, sufficient to obtain a carriage way of 16ft. or 17ft and two foot ways of over 4ft. each.”
Due to being underneath the River Thames and an ambitious engineering feat, it was vulnerable to occasional flooding, which notably happening in 1928. By 1939, a floodgate was erected in Shaft One in Brunel Road as part of Air Raid Precautions. The gate was intended to protect the East London Railway and low land south of the tunnel in the event of it being breached.
A survey carried out in 2003 found the tunnel to be the tenth most dangerous in the whole of Europe due to its “poor safety features”, which has since led to nine CCTV cameras being constantly monitored by police, a 20mph speed limit, air monitoring and emergency points. Since its 1955 record of 10,500 vehicles using it a day, in 2008 the figure came in at 34,000 – leading to the much feared rush hour queue on either end.