The Northern Entrance and Dock Entrance were demolished in 1958
Like many other Londoners I am fascinated by the River Thames which winds itself through the great city. I also have to admit I am also fascinated by the underwater crossings under the river, to this end I have walked through the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels and even braved the car fumes by walking through the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
Today we may view these tunnels as a pleasant novelty, however when these tunnels were built they represented cutting edge technology and were a testament to Victorian engineering.
This was certainly the case with the Blackwall Tunnel whose completion in 1897 was heralded as a wonderful example of British innovation and according to one newspaper was ‘The Twenty First Wonder of the World.’
It was not the first tunnel built under the Thames, that honour went to the nearby Thames Tunnel built between Rotherhithe and Wapping built by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel between 1825 and 1843.That tunnel was built to be used by horse drawn carriages but was only ever used by pedestrians until it was used as a railway tunnel.The Blackwall tunnel was designed on a much grander scale to offer access to pedestrians, cycles, horse drawn carriages and other vehicles,
A Pall Mall Gazette report of the time regarded the tunnel as a source of national pride.
A Twenty-first Wonder of the World.
The Thames Tunnel at Blackwall.
For some eight years Londoners have been ignorant of the fact that they themselves were carrying out one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of the world.. The Blackwall Tunnel, undertaken and paid for by the County Council as representing the people of London, Is now as good as finished, and perhaps London will wake up and realise what it has accomplished.
A large number of engineering experts, of County Council and other local rate expending bodies, as well as the Mayor of Colchester and other authorities of Sir Wheatman Pearson’s parliamentary borough, went down to Poplar at the invitation of Messrs. S. Pearson and Son. the contractors for the big job. and walked through the tunnel. It is a huge affair. The river from Blackwall to Greenwich Marshes opposite is 300 yards wide. To make an easy gradient on either side, so as to get the roadway down to the depth of the river, it has been necessary to carry out the work to the total length of nearly 2700 yards.
The height of the tunnel from the roadway to the centre of the arch is 17ft. 6in., so that even tall men on seventeen-hands horses will be able to ride through it without stooping. But the outside- diameter of the tunnel that is, measuring from the outside of the great cast-iron plates which form the tube — is no less than seven yards.A subaqueous luncheon such as has probably never been prepared before in the whole history of the world was the feature of yesterday’s function. Nearly 2000 people, among whom were many ladies, sat down at little elegantly-appointed tables in a luncheon-room a-quarter of a mile long under the very middle of the River Thames, and while ships were sailing and the celebrated County-Councll-purified fish were carrying on their pranks overhead they sat in comfort and toasted the persons responsible for the great achievement in the driest of champagne.
When it was officially open in 1897 by the Prince of Wales, it was the longest tunnel under a river in the world, much was made of the cost (estimated at one million pounds) and the fact it had taken 600 men to build it.
Other than financial costs the building of the tunnel caused widespread disruption in Blackwall and Greenwich with many old buildings being demolished, most notable being the Walter Raleigh House in Blackwall.
Plaque marking the opening of East India Docks
Later work on the tunnel destroyed the old East India Dock entrance and the large plaque from it was removed and placed at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.
At first the tunnel was well used by pedestrians and horse driven vehicles but eventually they were banned because over time motor vehicles became the main users.
Because the tunnel was not specifically built with motor vehicles in mind, when there was a build up of vehicles, fumes began to cause problems. In 1928 , 43 people had to be treated in one incident when the fumes caused dizziness and fainting.
Other less likely problems arrived when a lorry carrying bags of soot lost its load in the tunnel in 1950, the black fog coated everyone and everything with soot, the tunnel was closed and it eventually had to be cleaned out with water.
Even as early as the 1930s it became clear that the Tunnel could not cope with the scale of traffic and another tunnel would be needed but due to the war and lack of investment it was not until 1967 that another tunnel was finally opened, the new tunnel handling southbound traffic while the earlier 19th century tunnel handled northbound.
The Blackwall Tunnel today is often seen as a source of frustration with frequent closures but the next time you go through it, think about the time that 2000 people had their lunch in the middle of it and when it was proudly acclaimed as the Twenty First Wonder of the World.