Thames Tunnel – William Tombleson (19th Century)
In a previous post I related the idea of the time that the Blackwall Tunnel was considered the 21st Wonder of the World, however when the Thames Tunnel open in 1843 it was considered the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The excitement about the tunnel was well founded for it was the first tunnel constructed successfully under a navigable river, and it was the first use of a tunnelling shield technology invented by Thomas Cochrane and Marc Isambard Brunel that would revolutionise Tunnel Building around the world.
However for all its technical brilliance, the tunnel was an economic disaster. The tunnel was created to enable the safe transfer of cargo from the north at Wapping to the south of the river at Rotherhithe.
However by the time the Tunnel opened in 1843, there was insufficient money to build the shafts to enable horse and carts to descend into the tunnel.
Therefore originally the Tunnel became primarily a tourist attraction where people paid a penny each to enter, gradually shops began to appear in the many arches and entertainments were laid on for the large number of people who walked through the tunnel.
It was estimated up to 1 million people used the tunnel in the first ten weeks.
However when the “Tunnel Mania” died down, the tunnel began to gain a more unsavoury reputation as a haunt for criminals and prostitutes.
In 1860 a British born writer Richard Rowe (Peter Possum) who had made his name writing for Australian newspapers and journals returned to Britain and began to write articles which were sent back to Australia. The following article illustrates another use for the tunnel, namely a night shelter especially in Winter. “Peter Possum” is kicked out of his lodgings in Deptford and is down to his last penny when he decides to get out of the freezing cold and descend into the “Hades Hotel”.
“With all my worldly wealth I did endow the sleepy janitor. The metal turnstile jerked with a jar upon its pivot ; one arm of its Maltese cross gave way before me, another propelled me smartly into the interior of the extinguisher-like building that caps the shaft. I stayed not to admire the seedy works of art -damp-stained and peeling from the plaster-which decorate the walls, but hastened down, down, down the swollen belfry tower, eager for the comfort of the crypt.
Passengers were ascending the opposite staircases. I pitied their misfortune in having to issue into the bitter outside night, but their merry voices proved that they had homes to go to ; and then I pitied myself, with that unmixed compassion which even our Howards and Miss Nightingales, I think, reserve for personal distress.
Cramp had tied knots in my calves by the time I had reached the bottom of the well-when you are very, very tired, going down stairs is almost as wearisome as going up-but here, thank God, was my dormitory, and shaking the snow off me, as a dog shakes water, I prepared to make the best of my long bedroom. The right-hand roadway was blocked up with boards ; the other, it’s nearly circular strong arches growing less and less in the perspective, stretched on and on to a horizon of dim distance. A gas-jet in the centre of each arch of the dividing wall cast a bilious light upon the pavement and the opposite pie-crust coloured masonry. The stall-keepers had long since departed. Are they colliers’ relatives, I wonder, or “Puseyite penitents, those melancholy pale-faced women, who keep those ever gas lit stalls ? No music-drearier there, than ‘the sound of subterranean winds’, now echoed along the bald, vaulted corridor.
I thought it was quite deserted,…. when I carne upon a party of gesticulating Frenchmen, crowing over their English cicerone to the genius of their illustrious compatriot, ‘ Sir Brunel.’ ‘ De Tunelle,’ they asserted with much emphasis, ‘ vos de von only leetle ting in veech Londres bate Paris, and dat had been made by a Frenchman.’
They passed on, and presently a clatter of clogs on the stairs behind me announced that my Lancashire friend was coming. His Evelyn-street potations had evidently taken a powerful effect upon him. Hideously did he howl as he staggered along like a collier-brig under press of sail ; hideously did the low roof reverberate his howl. I prudently gave him a wide berth. The poor little Frenchmen scattered like seething foam before him, when he floundered into their previously self-complacent throng.
Again there was silence, broken only by the footsteps of rare driblets of passengers from either side. Longing, and yet not liking to lie down, until I should have the tunnel to myself, I patrolled its fatiguing length, quickening my foot-sore pace when I saw any one coming, in order to impress him with the belief that my passengership was no more permanent than his. I had done this three or four times, when I fancied that I had seen the face of a man who crossed me, at least once before. The look-half-shamedfaced, and half-I’m-as-good-as-youish-with which he returned my scrutinising glance, convinced me that I was right. He, like myself, was going to make a night of it in the Tunnel.
At first, I felt irate at having a witness of my poverty ; but remembering that he must be a sharer in it, I soon mastered the feeling, and determined to accost him as a brother in misfortune. His clothes, of a clerical cut, and faintly suggesting the clerical colour, but the slimy gleam of the poor man’s gloss, how different from the bloom of the rich man’s broadcloth creating the fancy that he generally slept in gardens with snails crawling over him. His muddy stockings budded from his heelless boots. His face was witheredly red and nose was like a galled leaf in autumn ; his eye was watery wild; his forceless lips hung limp ; he smelt of gin.
It was almost unnecessary for him to tell me his history, which, however, with the easy, egotistic openness of his class, he did begin to tell me before I been five minutes in his company, as we snuggled beneath a piece of tarpaulin in one of the stall-recesses, jamming our shoulders together to increase our warmth, or rather decrease the cold. He was a Cambridgeshire man, and had been a London curate. His love for liquor soon lost him his cure ; and then he had been a tutor and a bookseller’s buck; but his irregularities soon deprived him of these employments also, and now he was what is euphemistically called an ‘ occasional reporter for the press ‘ -that is, a penny-a-liner ; getting drunk when his “flimsey ” was accepted, roaming about roofless when his pocket was bare. He had just been carousing on the proceeds of an inquest, found, when he came to himself, that, strange to say, he had a penny left in the corner of his waistcoat, whither it had slipped through the tattered lining ; and being in Shadwell, had turned his steps to the Tunnel, an old sleeping-place of his he called it his Hades Hotel.
I had just fallen asleep, and was dreaming that I was a whale compelled to swallow one of those loathsome lures, when I was awakened by feet scurrying past my covert, I peeped out and saw a woman’s garments whisking from side to side to side as their owner rushed towards Wapping, whilst from the opposite direction came two pursuers, one with an open bull’s-eye in his hand, which shot out an expanding triangle of light, like arms extended to stop the quarry, should she double. The heavy boots of the policeman, and of a seafaring man with him, clumped echoing along the corridor, I taking care to keep well within my curtain as they went by me, and in a minute the fugitive was overtaken.
Then shrillest shrieks that had a most infernal sound down there and hysterical protestations that she had never so much as seen the fellow’s watch ; she didn’t believe the cowardly fellow had one, startled the stillness of the night ; and then she flings herself upon the ground, kicking and screaming like a passionate child, and swearing that they shall carry her then ; what time the policeman waits in ruthless stolid patience-a sort of Dutch Erinnys, until she shall be tired, finding that there is not much chance of this, he loses his patience, shakes her roughly, pulls her from the pavement, and, in a gruff voice, bids her hold her noise and come along, they’ve had enough of that there nonsense.
The trio repass me on their way to the Surrey side’ in company-the girl alternatively striving to propitiate the policeman by appeals to his gentlemanliness and gallantry, and vowing that she will have her accuser’s heart out ; the sailor, now that he has recovered his property, desirous to release the sobbing and vindictive thief, but prevented from yielding to his cowardice or kindness by the constable, who sternly tells him that he’ll be no party to ” crumplymising a felony.”
“When next I wake, my clerical companion is gone, and workmen, with tool-baskets at their backs, and swinging little tin coffins of bread-and-butter over wind-mills of coffee, are passing from both sides to their doily toil, With teeth clinking like castanets, and the rheumatism gnawing with icy teeth at every bone, I creep from my kennel, saddest of sad dogs. The world is all before me where to choose, but where or whatever i may choose, I feel I cannot get a breakfast. ” The Way Out, says the zinc-plate on the finger-rubbed Wapping shaft-door, with the pitiless imperativeness of a policeman’s “Move on ! ” The morning outside air gives me the spiteful, Miss Murdstone-like peck of a kiss which it always gives to those who meet it before they have washed. Broad-wheeled waggons are already crunching the nights snow into a viscous slush. Disconsolate indeed, I am standing at an open-air ” coffee” stall in the neighbourhood of the Docks, covetously sniffing its fumes of scalding decoction of chicory, when whom do I see but the rosy little mate of the vessel in which I sailed from Australia ! Something stronger than coffee puts life into me in the cabin of the good ship Burra Burra and the loan that I obtain secures me “-at all events., for a week to come, from having to pass another night in the Tharnes Tunnel” .
The days of the “Hades Hotel” did not last for long because in 1865 the tunnel was converted for use to be part of the underground railway system.
To find out more about the Thames Tunnel and events at the Brunel Museum based above the tunnel , go to the Brunel Museum website press here