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The Story of the Rotherhithe Tunnel

Rotherhithe Tunnel1medal

A few days ago, regular contributor Coral Rutterford sent a photograph of a medal marking the opening of the Rotherhithe Tunnel in 1908. The medal belongs to her brother Tony Holmes who found it many years ago.

Regular readers will know that I  am fascinated by the tunnels under the Thames and have written articles about the Blackwall and Thames tunnels. However the Rotherhithe tunnel is often forgotten, which is a shame because it has an equally interesting history.

Construction was authorised by the Thames Tunnel (Rotherhithe and Ratcliff) Act 1900 despite considerable local opposition, it was estimated that up to 3,000 residents were displaced due to its construction.


Date Taken: 13 June 1906   Photo English Heritage NMR

Designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, the Engineer to the London County Council the  work took place between 1904 and 1908.
In the construction stage an intrepid reporter from the Daily News went into the tunnel to see its construction, here is part of his article.

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.

english heritage 1907

Date Taken:  1907   Photo English Heritage NMR

When finally the Tunnel was completed it was the source of some pride and was given a grand opening by George Prince of Wales (later King George V).

rotherhithe t 1908

South entrance Date Taken: 13 June 1908   Photo English Heritage NMR

Another newspaper report quoted the Prince’s pride in the scheme.

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.


North Entrance 1908

The tunnel was designed to serve foot and horse-drawn traffic on either side of the river. This helps to explain some of the anomalies that you may spot if you ever walk through the tunnel.  Unlike the Blackwall Tunnel, the Rotherhithe Tunnel is open to pedestrians who walk along the narrow footpaths at the side.


It is not widely used by pedestrians because the car fumes are quite overpowering at times. Ventilation was obviously not a high priority  and the air does not flow through the tunnel due to the sharp bends at each end of the tunnel. Supposedly they were put there to prevent horses from seeing daylight at the end of the tunnel, which might make them bolt for the exit.


Once in the tunnel, there is no shortcut to the surface, that was not always the case, two riverside shafts  had iron spiral staircases that were used as pedestrian entrances. These still can be seen but are closed to the public because they are in a dangerous condition.

It is easy to underestimate what a wonderful engineering achievement these tunnels represented, many thanks to Coral and Tony for sharing the memento of the opening of what was considered at the time “the largest subaqueous tunnel in existence” and one of the ‘largest boring schemes in the world’.




  1. Diane says:

    The East End of London and the Isle of Dogs has become my favourite part of London over the last couple of years. I find the history of the place fascinating and have loved exploring the Isle on foot the last couple of visits. I’ve just found your blog – it is brilliant.

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