Centenary of the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel



This  item is from a pack containing the main text from the exhibition on the Centenary of the Opening of the Blackwall Tunnel at the Greenwich Borough Museum. The biographies of “The Men who made the Tunnel” are taken from London, May 13, 1897.

Tunnels: History

As compared with fords, ferries, and bridges, tunnels are a very modern method of crossing a river. A project of a tunnel under the river at Gravesend was put forward in 1798, but the scheme was soon abandoned. This was followed by an attempt to form a tunnel from Rotherhithe to Limehouse in 1804, under the authority of an Act of Parliament, at which a shaft of 11 feet in diameter was sunk to a depth of 42 feet, but from the difficulties, it was for a time suspended. It was continued for a time in modified form, but finally it was given up as impracticable. In 1812 a proposal was made to form a tunnel, practically between the same points as the Greenwich Tunnel but it remained nothing more than a proposal. In 1825 Brunel began the construction of the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, using a rectangular “shield” in connection therewith, and the tunnel was opened in 1843. This tunnel was intended for foot passengers, but it was not a financial success, and in 1865 it was sold to the East London Railway Company. The next tunnel under the Thames was the Tower Subway, designed by Peter Barlow FRS, the construction of which was commenced in 1869. In this work a cylindrical “shield” was used, the “shield” being forced forward as a whole by six screws worked by men inside the “shield”. When first opened, passengers were conveyed through the tunnel in. a vehicle drawn by small steam engines fixed at two ends. This plan however, had to be abandoned and the passengers made to walk. The subway was closed in 1897. In neither of the above tunnels was compressed air employed. In 1876, however, in connection with the formation of a subway to connect North and South Woolwich preparations were made for the use of the “shield” with air locks, etc., but owing to difficulties elsewhere, the contractors were obliged to abandon their contract. The work was continued by T. A. Walker, who preferred not” to use a “shield,” but although compressed air was tried, it was found impossible to proceed far, and the undertaking was abandoned. In 1897 the Blackwall Tunnel was opened, being the first tunnel under the Thames adapted for vehicular traffic, and was an immediate success. Greenwich Tunnel (1902) followed, a portion of the same scheme of trans-communication, but on a smaller scale than its predecessor. G. L. Gomme, Clerk of the Council Report to the London County Council (LCC), Bridges Committee, 24 November 1900 pp.14-15.

The Campaign for Blackwall Tunnel 1866-1891

Thames Subway -A crowded public meeting has been held at the Literary Institute, Deptford, to take measures for promoting the formation of a subway for foot-passengers and vehicles under the Thames from Deptford Green to the Isle of Dogs. Sir Charles Bright, MP for Greenwich, occupied the chair; and it was stated that the plan was to have two iron tubes, 17ft. in diameter, each tube to have a roadway for vehicles of 14ft., and two pathways of 3ft. 6in. on either side of the roadway.  Resolutions were adopted in accordance with the objects of the meeting, and a local committee was appointed to promote the carrying out of the project, the bill for which has been making progress in Parliament. The Builder, March 1866.  New Thames Subway Act: –

A Local act, passed in recent sessions (Greenwich Board of Works), has just been printed, to make a subway under the Thames, from Deptford to the Isle of Dogs. It is declared that a subway, with the necessary approaches, would be of great local and public advantage. It is to be completed within five years, and compulsory purchase of land is to take place within three …years. The Builder, October 1866.  Such was the feeling of uncertainty (fog-lateness) engendered in the case of the Greenwich Ferry that some employers on the Isle of Dogs would not allow their principal men to live on the Greenwich side of the river, but insisted on their living on the island.  The Local Government Act of 1888 was a milestone event for the broader trade union and labour movement in London. Poplar became the hub of the agitation for the commencement of the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel and started the campaign for the footway tunnel under the Thames between the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. Sunday morning meetings outside East India Dock Gate, was organised by the Poplar Labour League, the Gasworkers’, and Dockers’. It was said. Poplar’s municipal life began with these meetings.  In January 1889, the London County Council took over the Metropolitan Board of Works responsibility for public utilities. Including the Thames Communications, Blackwall and Greenwich Subways Bill of 1887. The Metropolitan Board of Works representatives, mostly political Moderates (Conservatives) were badly beaten in the LCC election; the Progressives (Radical Liberals), 70 votes. Moderates 48 votes. John Benn became the Progressive Chief Whip. Among the Progressives elected who helped push through legislation dealing with the Blackwall Tunnel were Lord Monkswell, LCC, Homerton Division, Stepney (Tower Hamlets) and John Burns, Social Democrat, Battersea.

The LCC obtained permission to build the tunnel in 1887. LCC’s chief engineer Alexander Binnie, who drew up the plans, wrote in the London Magazine, 13 May 1897: We must not forget that credit is due to the men who had gone before: to that remarkable genius, the elder Brunel, who conceived the idea of the shield, although he himself was  unable to use it; to Bramah, to whom we are indebted above all others for the hydraulic press,-and to Dundonald who, in 1830, invented the mode of tunnelling under compressed air, without which the Blackwall Tunnel could have not been constructed. The contract to design and construct the Blackwall Tunnel was awarded to Sir Weetman Pearson’s company, S. Pearson & Son, which had pioneered many of the safety features to be used in the tunnel contract and worked with J. H. Greathead who had developed Brunel’s original concepts of the tunnelling shield. Pearson’s knowledge and experience was to prove invaluable:  about half the 800 employers worked in compressed air but none lost his life from caisson disease. Sir Weetman himself, however, did not remain unscathed in his endeavours to make conditions safe for the workers but suffered paralysis as a result of spending too much time in compressed air. The chair of the LCC Bridges Committee (1897) was Sir William Bull, MP.tunnel ad

The Fair Wages Clause

The LCC Fair Wages Clause was the first time that trade union rates of wages, hours of labour and conditions of work was included in contacts by any public authority. It was first employed in the Blackwall Tunnel contract. The Bridges Committee during this period were involved in major work. A contract for £871,000 had been agreed for the cutting of the tunnel at Blackwall in 1891. Work started on sewage relocation in early 1892 and a schedule of wages adopted. Will Crooks, County Councillor for Poplar (1892-1910), first speech at County Hall was a proposal to insert a For Wages clause into the contractual obligation of the Council on 6 December 1892, the final form of which was settled on the principals he laid down The proposal was: That all contractors be compelled to sign a declaration that they pay the trade union rate of wages and observe the hours of labour and conditions recognised by the London Trade Unions, and that the hours of labour be inserted in and form part of the contract by of schedule, and that penalties be enforced for any breach of agreement LCC, Minutes of Proceedings, 1892  Will Crooks, (Woolwich MP, 1903-1921), was on the Bridges Committee during the making of the Blackwall Tunnel. From the time he joined the Council to May 1897, when the Prince of Wales went to Poplar to open the Tunnel, on behalf of Queen Victoria, Crooks was among the keenest of the public men engaged in carrying this great engineering feat through. So satisfied were his fellow County Councillors with the practical work he did at Blackwall that on its completion they elected him chairman of the Bridges Committee. In this capacity he steered through the Council and through a Committee of the House of Commons two other schemes for tunnels under the Thames, one for foot traffic only between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, and the other for general traffic between Shadwell and Rotherhithe. The Municipal Journal said of him:  Mr. Will Crooks, more than any other man, has made Londoners acquainted with the tunnel. His popular lecture on the Blackwall Tunnel has been given in all parts of London to all kinds of audiences… Mr Crooks himself has been identified with the construction of the tunnel. As one of the representatives of the Poplar districts, he has turned has membership of the Bridges Committee to good account by giving to the tunnel his special attention.  … The workmen had just cause to bless the Poplar County Councillor. It was owing to Mr. Crooks’s efforts that a revised schedule of wages was adopted. The result of this was that the contractors paid an additional £26,000 in wages. Municipal Journal, June 1997.  This bore out the statement made in his first speech to the Council, that no contractor ever lost by paying the trade union rate of wages.

The Men who made the Tunnel



Mr. William Bull, the present chairman of the Bridges Committee, who has .been closely occupied during the last three or four weeks in making arrangements for the opening ceremony of the tunnel, has been a member of the Bridges Committee since he joined the Council in 1892 as one of the representatives of Hammersmith. He was first connected with the West Bridges Sub-Committee, and in 1893 was made vice-chairman of the whole Committee. He succeeded to the chairmanship in the following year, and has been chairman of the Committee twice since. The chairmanship of Mr. Bull has been no ornamental position. He has taken a keen interest in every stage of the enterprise. He was not satisfied by receiving reports and by general supervision and inspection; he insisted on going into details, and in visiting the works under compressed air, at no small danger to his health. In fact, the medical officer received private instructions from kindly Mr. McDougal not to allow Mr. Bull to go into the compressed air section. Mr. Bull’s first experiences under compressed air were not very pleasant, as he bled at the nose and ears. But he showed great pluck and determination to overcome these physical difficulties, and succeeded, and was ultimately able to endure the compressed air with no more discomfort than any other member experienced. Besides always examining the work in progress, Mr. Bull took a warm interest in the condition of the workmen employed. He also contributed not a few suggestions which have been adopted. For instance, he suggested that the approaches to the tunnel should be made more attractive in appearance, and this suggestion led to the ornamental structure designed by the architect. Indeed, Mr. Bull has been far more intimately associated with the tunnel than any other member of the Council. The Bridges Committee, however, did not occupy exclusively his attention. He has been connected with other committees, particularly the Parks Committee, and has for three years been chairman of the Games Sub-Committee, which makes the arrangements for cricket, lawn tennis and other games in the parks.  Mr. Bull is one of the most popular members of the Council, and one who is esteemed by all parties for his excellent work and his and his public spirit. In Hammersmith, where he lives, Mr. Bull has been of great service in various departments of local work. Mr. Bull is a member of the firm of Bull & Bull, solicitors. Hammersmith and Essex Street, and belongs to an old Somersetshire family. He was born in September, 1863. He has been largely instrumental in enabling the Council to take advantage of Mr. Thorneycroft’s statue of Boadicea, which is now being cast, and will shortly be erected on the Embankment, opposite the Clock Tower.


Before Mr. Binnie became chief engineer of the County Council, in 1890, he already held a high position in his profession. He had executed many important works of great diversity, and had distinguished himself as an administrator as well as an engineer. Immediately before coming to the London County Council he had, as chief engineer of Bradford, carried out a large waterworks extension scheme for that town at a cost of about a million and a quarter. Mr. Binnie was fourteen years in Bradford, and during that time carried out many important works. He was also frequently consulted by other municipalities as to sewage and water schemes and town improvements. His most difficult engineering works have, perhaps, been those which fell to his care in India. He was selected out of many candidates by the India Office in 1868 as an executive engineer in the Indian Public Works Department.  In that capacity he designed and constructed roads, bridges, public buildings, sanitary and water works. The water problems he had to tackle in India were of great difficulty. Among his other works may be mentioned the introduction of water supply to the city of Nagpur, and the partial construction of a State railway. He was promoted in the Indian service several times, and, before he resigned his appointment in 1875, held an administrative position in the Public Works Department of the Central Provinces. Among his other works in India was the discovery of a coalfield. Mr. Binnie had been connected with India in a professional capacity since he returned. For instance, he reported on the water supply and drainage of Delhi in 1884. He has been frequently entrusted by the India Office with the training of students at the Royal Engineering College, Cooper’s hill. The engineer of the Tunnel had had considerable experience before going to India. He was born in London, of Scottish parentage, in 1839. Leaving school in 1858, he entered the service of an engineer— the late Mr. Flanagan, whose office was near Spring Gardens. Here Mr. Binnie was first introduced to questions of water supply. After the death of Mr. Flanagan, Mr. Binnie became a pupil of, and afterwards assistant to, Mr. J.F. La T. Bateman, F.R.S., the engineer of the Manchester and Glasgow waterworks,  and other great municipal undertakings. From 1862 to 1864 Mr. Binnie was engaged in the construction of the Mid-Wales and Neath and Brecon Railways — working in a scene which he recently went over for another purpose. Between that time and his appointment Mr. Binnie was in private practice, and was connected with large undertakings. While the Blackwall Tunnel, for the moment, overshadows all other municipal engineering   works in London for which Mr. Binnie is responsible, he has done many other great things for the County Council. He has, for instance, charge of the Main Drainage Department, the largest department of the County Council. The disposal of the sewage is a matter of the first importance to the people; and the enormous extent of the main drainage works under Mr. Binnie’s management may be gathered from the fact that -they have cost £7,750,000 to construct, and cost £200,000 to maintain. The outfall works deal daily with 200,000,000 gallons of crude sewage, and over 2,000,000 gallons of sludge are carried to sea by a fleet of six ships; while the staff employed at the works and on the ships number 540. Since Mr. Binnie’s appointment, a system of sewage precipitation then begun has been developed, until the Thames is purer now than it has ever been known to be. Mr. Binnie has also constructed several important sewers. In fact, our sewage system — which serves districts outside the area of the County Council — always needs very close watching, and calls for constant improvements. Then there is the great scheme for bringing water from Wales to London, which Mr. Binnie is responsible for. London will undoubtedly have to seek • new sources of supply in the near future; and Mr. Binnie has fixed upon the best source, and suggested the best plan of bringing it. His scheme has been endorsed by Sir Benjamin Baker and Mr. G. F. Deacon, who made an independent report to the Council on the subject. This question may be in abeyance for the time, but cannot be lost sight of, no matter who is to have the future control of the water supply. Mr. Binnie has read many papers before learned societies and produced numerous reports. He was lecturer on waterworks at the school of Military Engineering at Chatham, and his lectures, printed and published by the Government, have run into a second edition. He produced numerous reports on Indian engineering works and on other schemes in this country on which it was his duty to advise. He is the author of a whole library of reports on the problem of London water supply as it is and as it ought to be.  Mr. Binnie is a member of the Institute of Civil and Mechanical Engineers; he is the President of the Junior Engineers’ Institution, a Fellow of the Geological and Royal Meteorological Societies, and has read important papers before these bodies. We have not space to refer to the many works carried out by the engineer of the Council, such as the building of bridges, and minor works; but it s worth noting that the way in which the engineering jobs have been executed has been commended by both parties on the Council. In fact, the Moderates think so highly of the way the engineering works have been executed that they recommend that Mr. Binnie should take the place of the Works Committee and be his own contractor. A notice of Mr. Binnie’s record as an engineer would not be complete without a reference to his high reputation and extensive experience as an expert witness. He has been examined before innumerable Parliamentary and other committees and commissions, and given evidence in all manner of engineering undertakings. Mr. Binnie has also acted as an engineering assessor and arbitrator on many occasions. The Mayor of Bradford was able to say of Mr. Binnie, in recommending him to the County Council, that he was a man untiring in energy, pleasant in his intercourse, a man of high principle, and singularly happy in his manner; and everyone who has been brought into contact with him in London will endorse these statements. All members on the County Council hold him in high regard, and the large staff under his direction work with a zest and devotion that unmistakably attest to their appreciation of their chief. Notwithstanding the fact that during the last six years Mr. Binnie, besides, the superintendence of the great department under his charge, has had to devote much attention to water supply and other new questions, he has been able to devote a great deal of personal attention to the Tunnel. He has visited the works regularly once a week, and also made many other visits, so as to keep in close touch with the development of the work. Mr. Binnie has a son, engineer in charge of a section of the Central London Railway.



A young man, not yet turned 20, went into Sir William Arrol’s office in Glasgow about 14 years ago, without any introduction, and asked for work. He was willing to do anything which the great contractor and iron- master liked, and to be paid whatever he was worth. That young man has since superintended the construction of the large caissons of the Forth Bridge, the erection of one of the huge cantilevers, he has constructed a section of the tunnel under the Hudson, and he has carried through the Blackwall Tunnel for the contractor. Never was there such a young engineer at the head of such a gigantic engineering undertaking as the case of Mr. E. W. Moir and the Blackwall Tunnel. One can understand Sir William Arrol’s faith, for Mr. Moir has the appearance of a man of great vigour and determination, and he has certainly made his mark in the engineering world. Mr. Moir, as his name would suggest, is a Scotsman, but he was born in London, and educated at University College School. He early showed a bent for mechanics, and was skilled in mechanical and engineering work before he left college. When barely 15, he entered the works of Messrs. Robert Napier and Co., in Glasgow, and served an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer. Before returning to Glasgow to present himself at Sir William Arrol’s works, Mr. Moir studied engineering at University College, under Professor Kennedy. The incident in his career which we have recounted above, as told by Sir Wm. Arrol, happened when he was about 20. Mr. Moir began at the bottom of the ladder, working in Sir William Arrol’s drawing office. His gifts soon showed themselves, and his first leap up was when he went to the works to superintend the construction of the caissons. His responsibility was increased when he had to erect one of the huge cantilevers of the Forth Bridge. Mr. Moir was about five years at the Forth Bridge, and during that time another important event happened in his career: he married an Edinburgh lady.  Mr. Moir had next to tackle a very difficult job. He went to New York to carry on the work of boring a tunnel under the Hudson. This tunnel was first begun In 1879, and 2,000ft. had been driven by means of an imperfect system of compressed air before Mr. Moir went to New York. Sir John Fowler, Sir Benjamin Baker, and Mr. Greathead became the engineers, and Messrs. S. Pearson and Son, of the Blackwall Tunnel, were the contractors. Mr. Moir went out to supervise the work of the shield, which had been constructed by Sir Wm. Arrol; but was soon placed in full charge of the works. He revolutionised the system of working. It was exceedingly difficult and dangerous work driving the shield through the silt which was found under the bed of the river. But Mr. Moir in 12 months executed as much as had been done in 12 years. He also introduced the medical air-lock. When he went to New York, the men were dying at the rate of one per month out of 40 or 50 employed. The medical lock was the means of curing many men of paralysis, and also the means of saving lives. Unfortunately, although rapid progress was made with the tunnel, it had to be stopped for want of funds when only 1,600ft. out of a total of 5,600ft. had to be completed. Mr. Moir just came back in time to undertake the Blackwall Tunnel— for which he designed the shield and other special plant— the contract for which Messrs. Pearson had secured. Here he has been for six years, and the contractor could not have had a more capable representative. As regards his capacity as an engineer and the way he has executed the work, those who know him best are best qualified to speak may be quoted. At a discussion at a meeting of the Society of Arts, in May, 1896, Sir William Arrol congratulated Mr. Moir on his success, and said that his experience of Mr. Moir at the Forth Bridge and New York showed “that he was a man to whom the contractor might trust the execution of the work with the most perfect confidence. ” But Mr. Moir received his best testimonial from the head of the firm, Sir Weetman Pearson, who said, at the same meeting, that — No one could appreciate the work Mr. Moir had, had to do, or the magnificent manner in which he had performed it, better than himself. He could endorse every word which Sir William Arrol had said about him. He had had the full responsibility in carrying out the work, and, if any mistakes had been made, they had been on the right side — viz., of excessive caution; and if it had not been for that, the tunnel would certainly not been so advanced as it now was. Mr. Moir had practically had a free hand, and it was very largely to his credit alone that the work was now in the state to  which it had arrived. He could not overstate the care and determination which he had devoted to it. Mr. David Hay, one of the County Council’s resident engineers, bore testimony to “the originality, zeal, determination and genius which Mr. Moir had shown in carrying out the work. ” Apart from the engineering feats which Mr. Moir has accomplished, he is an excellent type of our “captains of industry.” He is a good organiser, and while he maintains the best discipline among a large staff, works harmoniously with his men. The best evidence of this is that many of the men who worked at the tunnel were under Mr. Moir at the Forth Bridge, and also at New York. While directing operations at the tunnel, Mr. Moir has added to his responsibilities the construction, for Messrs. Pearson, of a new dock for the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, where Mr.Ernest Pearson has acted jointly with him. Mr. Pearson has also filled Mr. Moir’s place at the tunnel during periods of enforced absence.



Messrs. S. Pearson and Son, who have constructed the tunnel, are an old established firm, and passed their Jubilee several years ago. They are at the top of the tree in their business. They are men who deal in millions, and may at one time have huge jobs in hand in three continents. They were admirably qualified, from their previous experience to undertake such a difficult work as the Blackwall Tunnel. The senior partner at the time the contract for the tunnel was taken was Mr. George Pearson, of Brickendonbury, Hertford, but he retired from the business a short time later, after a connection with it of some 40 years. At the risk of repetition we cannot refrain from emphasising one or two of the special features of the work, as viewed by the contractor. When the construction of the tunnel was undertaken, nothing like it had been attempted. How to construct a tunnel through ground consisting exclusively of coarse gravel full of water, for a length of 600ft. under the River Thames, without interfering with the navigation, was a problem which was not generally considered to come within the range of practical engineering. When the problem was further complicated, as it was in this scheme, by the crown or top of the proposed tunnel reaching within 5ft. of the bed of the river, in which there was a depth of 40ft. of water at high tide, and a consequent water-pressure in the gravel in which the tunnel had to be constructed of 201b. per square inch, it cannot be a matter of surprise that the profession generally considered the scheme to be one that could not possibly be carried out. As a matter of fact, an engineer in the foremost rank, with an experience greater than that of any other engineer in difficult sub aqueous tunnelling, deemed it his duty, from the regard he had for Messrs. Pearson, to advise them not to risk their fortune and reputation in undertaking a task that was incapable of fulfillment. This advice was too valuable and too friendly to be ignored by the contractors; and, had it not been that Sir Benjamin Baker gave them a sketch of a shield that appeared to solve the problem, and that the contractors’ experience in constructing the tunnel under the River Hudson, at New York, had given them full confidence in their own judgement, they could not have begun the work with that absolute belief in the feasibility of the scheme they have invariably possessed. Everyone will admit that they have overcome all obstacles, and made an excellent job. Mr. Binnie speaks in the highest praise of their readiness to co-operate with him in every matter. Their first thoughts were not how cheaply the work could be got through, but how well it could be done. Sir Weetman Pearson, Bart., the third generation of the firm, is at present the sloe member. If he had not already achieved such huge and unfailing successes — not at home merely, but in many parts of the world — it would strike one that such a gigantic and responsible business as he conducts could not be profitably controlled and directed by one man. The secret probably is that he began business young; he went through every department and mastered its essentials, and has worked a full 10 hours a day since. He is a genius as an organiser; he possesses cool judgement, strong determination, and has with him a large staff of able, experienced, and devoted assistants. It may be interesting to note that at the present time he has contracts on hand, in various stages of progress, amounting to from eight to nine millions sterling. And yet he has time for public affairs. He represents Colchester in the House of Commons as a Liberal. He won the seat in 1894, and has kept it.

The Men who made the Tunnel

THE COUNTY COUNCIL’S STAFF MR. MAURICE FITZMAURICE The two resident engineers at the Tunnel, representing the Council, have been Mr. Maurice Fitzmaurice and Mr David Hay. Mr. Hay left in left in November, 1896, when the compressed air work was complete, in order to join Sir Benjamin Baker in the execution of the extension of the City and South London Railway. Mr. Fitzmaurice remained at the Tunnel. The duties of the resident engineers were to closely supervise the whole of the work, to see that the proper material was used, and that the specifications were complied with. All instructions to the contractors with reference to alterations in work, or as regards the execution of work, were in their hands, and all designs of permanent work beyond the contract drawings was carried out by them. A staff of inspectors was under their control, and supervision extended not only to the principal work in the construction of the Tunnel, but also to the installation of the electric light, the construction of the approach roads, and every other branch of the work. It was also their duty to make weekly reports to the Council, and to make a longer monthly return showing the exact state of the work done month by month, and to pay the contractor accordingly. Sometimes the monthly payments amounted to £40,000. Mr. Maurice Fitzmaurice’s professional career began with Sir Benjamin Baker, and he was one of the assistants on the Forth Bridge, an appointment which he held for five years. After this great work was completed Mr. Fitzmaurice went, on behalf of Sir Benjamin Baker; to Nova Scotia, where he was the engineer in charge of the great Chignecto Ship Railway and other works. These undertakings were stopped after the financial crisis in 1891, and Mr. Fitzmaurice returned to this country, when, on the recommendations of Sir Benjamin Baker, he was appointed one of the Council’s engineers. Mr. Fitzmaurice is a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers (and has read papers on various subjects before that Institute), the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland, and the British Association. He is also the author of some well-known books on engineering subjects.



Mr. David Hay, the other resident engineer, left the tunnel in November 1896, when the work became less, and joined Sir Benjamin Baker. Before his appointment under the London County Council, Mr. Hay was engaged for about seventeen years upon the construction of railways and docks. For the latter three years he was occupied upon the construction of the City and London Railway from the Monument to Stockwell. This work was designed by the late Mr. Greathead, and was the first electric railway built in this country. It was constructed wholly in tunnel, and several sections passed through water bearing strata— principally gravel — and it was here Mr. Hay had his first experience of compressed air work. In December, 1891, he was appointed by the Council as resident engineer on the Blackwall Tunnel, and upon its completion became, as we have said, associated with Sir Benjamin Baker, K.C.M.G., as engineer of the Moorgate-street extension of the City and South London Railway


Description of the Tunnel

The Blackwall Tunnel is 6,200ft in length and 27ft in internal diameter, which, in 1897, made it the largest sub aqueous tunnel constructed. Only about a fifth of the tunnel (1,200ft) is under the bed of the river. The tunnel is divided into three sections. The first is “cut and cover” work, where an inclined trench is excavated and arched over with brickwork and concrete. This work was carried out on both north and south sides of the river until the depth and the water made this method impossible. Next, on both sides, the sections between the cut and cover work and the level section under the river. There are 4 shafts : one at the border of the river on each side; the other two near the point where the cut and cover work begins. The tunnel is not straight end to end, but it is straight between the shafts, apart from the north side where it curves to avoid sewers. The gradient on the north side is 1 in 34 and the south side 1 in 36. The shafts make convenient points to deflect the tunnel and also provided staircases. The third section is the level section between shafts No. 2 and No. 3. About half of the tunnel is lined with cast-iron plates to form rings which are lined with cement concrete and faced with white glazed tiles. The roadway, carried on a 9 inch brick arch, was 16ft wide and under the river was paved with Val de Travers asphalte and, the rest of the roadway was paved with granite setts laid on pitch and tar. The entrances, which were designed by T. Blashill, F.R.I.B.A, combined ornamental arches with residences for the superintendent and caretaker of the tunnel, as well as providing a gauge to measure the “height of loads entering the tunnel. The arch and abutments are of brown Derbyshire sandstone, and above the arch a red sandstone from Dumfriesshire was used, with bands of the Derbyshire stone at intervals. On the entrance faces are shields in relief supporting the arms of Middlesex and Kent, with Colchester for Essex, and Guildford for Surrey. Above each arch in raised letters is carved “Blackwall Tunnel,” with the date of completion “1897”.


The Tunnelling Shield

Marc Isambard Brunel first patented the idea of using a wrought iron shield for the construction of tunnels in 1818. A version of this design was used by Brunel to bore the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe in 1825. The shield used for the boring of the Blackwall Tunnel was designed by E.W. Moir, the Engineer of Pearson the contractors, but was originally invented and patented by J. H. Greathead. The shield was fabricated by Easton & Anderson of Erith. The shield was 19ft 6ins long, 27ft 8ins in diameter and weighed 220 tons. It was designed for use with compressed air to prevent water entering the tunnel at the working face, which was divided into 12 working compartments where workmen excavated the face by hand. When gravel or loose material was encountered the inner face of the shield was fitted with shutters on a long screw threads. As the shield was driven forward by the action of 28 hydraulic rams, the shutters were released allowing the cutting edge to advance, and secured when the material behind them had been excavated. Sealed into the tunnel behind the shield was a wrought iron screen that hung halfway down the tunnel with an air lock door at high level connected to the working face and the bulkhead by a walkway. In the event of flooding an air pocket would be formed in the tunnel allowing the workman to escape. As the work progressed bulkheads were built at the limits of the compressed air working. In the tail of the shield, as the face moved forward, cast iron segments were erected by two hydraulic erectors and bolted together to form the lining of the tunnel. The shield was erected on the surface in a dock excavated close to the top of shaft No. 4. The dock was then connected to No. 4 shaft, with part of the shaft caisson being removed for this purpose. Water was then admitted into the dock which also flooded No. 4 shaft at the same time, and the shield was floated out until it was above the shaft. By pumping the water out of the shaft the shield was gradually lowered into position at the bottom of the shaft.

Construction of the Tunnel

In 1890 Alexander Binnie, the engineer in chief of the London County Council in consultation with Sir Benjamin Baker and Mr J. H. Greathead decided that tunnel of 27ft external diameter was the best option to adopt and tenders were invited for its construction. The tender of Messrs. Pearson and Son of £871,000 was accepted and work began early in 1892. Mr D. Hay and Mr FitzMaurice were appointed by the LCC as resident engineers on the work under Binnie and Mr E.W. Moir took charge of the work on-behalf of the contractors. Constructing the Shafts Four vertical shafts were sunk up to 98ft deep, each shaft being a wrought iron caisson 58ft external diameter at the base and 48ft internal diameter throughout and lined with brickwork. The caissons are made of two skins 5ft apart and filled with concrete. The caissons sunk by excavating the ground from the centre and allowing them to sink under their own weight, increased by weights in some cases. Once sunk concrete filled the bottom up to depth of 11ft with a wrought iron sealing plate. Caisson No. 4 on the south bank close to the tar distillery was the first to be sunk and without problems. Difficulties in alignment were encountered with the other shafts due to water levels and the caissons had to be weighted or battered with baulks of timber to realign them. The Tunnel Once the shafts were constructed the tunnelling shield was positioned at the bottom of No. 4 shaft and the drive to towards No.3 shaft beneath the Tar Distillery begun without the use of compressed air. Progress was slow as the gravel encountered was saturated not only with water but tars, oils and creosote from the distillery. It took two months to complete only 125ft. The shield then hit a large boulder which bent the cutting edge. Work continued with care until 192ft had been completed and the cutting edge needed to be repaired. This could not be done until the shield reached No. 3 shaft, and so a 10ft wide heading was dug along the line of the bottom of the shield and a concrete bed laid for the damaged shield to slide along. When No. 3 shaft was reached it took 13 weeks to repair the damaged bore beneath the River Thames. The Drive Under the Thames After the shield had been repaired and strengthened at a cost of £10,000 the drive under the river to No. 2 shaft began. This section was done entirely working under compressed air. Initially progress was good, driving 500ft in 8 weeks, but after 700ft from the south bank sands and gravel began to appear at the top of the shield. At this point 5ft of gravel separated the river and the shield, where a clay blanket had previously been dumped onto the river bed. Progress was now down to 1ft a day as the gravel had to be dug out of the shutters using shovels and sometimes hands with the men working in water at the face of the shield. Despite these precautions the first major blow out occurred on 30 April 1895. Water entered the tunnel and had risen to a depth of 8ft in a few seconds. Despite the air lock being 700ft behind them, the high level gangway not fully completed and a dense fog which formed as the water poured in, the men were safely evacuated. The collapse of the river bed brought down the clay blanket and helped to seal the face of the shield. Clay continued to fall in, which was replenished with more clay being dumped on top, for the next 190ft and progress was very slow, as little as 5ft per week. In November 1895 the tunnel finally reached No. 2 shaft. During this period the Contractor invited guests to visit the works and held an historic grand luncheon at the midway point of the river section. Tunnelling Completed In December 1895 the drive of 437ft to No. 1 shaft btegan, which was completed by 10th April 1896. Work on the 800ft to the cut and cover section continued in compressed air as the ground remained saturated. Another blow out occurred as the shield passes 2ft below the Great Eastern Railway tracks, although, with only 30ft of tunnelling remaining, no attempt was made to pressurise the works and by September 1896 the tunnelling was complete.

“In the name of the Queen I declare this tunnel open for ever” On Saturday 22 May 1897 the Royal procession left Marlborough House in four carriages accompanied by a captain’s escort of the 2nd Life Guards. The procession passed through assembled crowds down Pall- mall on its way to the East end and the northern approach to the tunnel, where there was a guard of honour of the 1st London Rifles. Meanwhile thousands of privileged visitors made their way to the tunnel, walking up and down the cool white tunnel illuminated by electric lamps. The circular shafts providing access for foot passengers were strewn with palms and ferns and flowers. At the southern approach was: …the long and spacious pavilion, where the final ceremony was to take place, and it -was under its canopy of canvas in broad stripes of maroon and fawn-colour that it was possible to note the arrival of notable persons. The Times May 24, 1897 The Chairman of the Council, Dr Collins, together with the Bridges committee met the Prince and Princess of Wales at the northern approach where he presented the Prince a golden key which Dr Collins unlocked the northern gates. With the cheers and applause of the spectators lining the tunnel the procession drove through the tunnel to the pavilion. After the National Anthem had been played Dr Collins read his address followed by the Prince of Wales, who after the applause had subsided and had received the gold key to the tunnel from the from the Chairman said in a loud voice:   “In the name of the Queen I declare this tunnel open for ever”. A flourish of trumpets sounded and the Honourable Artillery Company began their Royal salute of 21 guns. Then the Bishop of London pronounced a short prayer and following the presentations and refreshments the Royal procession, with bands playing and spectators applauding, went on their homeward journey through Greenwich (and three triumphal arches) and Deptford bedecked with bunting and festoons of coloured flowers.

Blackwall Tunnel Special Buses

 1897 Thomas Tilling Ltd provides a horse bus service between Poplar and Greenwich through the Tunnel. 1912 London General Omnibus Company takes over the service and . introduces new single deck motor buses. These are standard B class with the upper deck structure removed, as it is regarded as dangerous to carry passengers on the open upper deck. The service is numbered 69. 1914 In March the service number is changed to 108, the number which has been used for ‘Tunnel’ buses ever since. (Origin of 99) During the Great War in 1916, another route. No. 99 is introduced under Government subsidy for war workers, running between Poplar and Erith and Crayford. Withdrawn at the end of the War, it is soon reinstated by public demand, but not through the Tunnel. 1927 Due to increased passenger demand new double deck buses are introduced. 25 buses from the NS class have specially built bodies shaped to fit the curves of the tunnel. These are the first buses in London to be totally enclosed, with the stairs inside. (Drawing shows the peculiar seating arrangements). 1937 40 buses from the STL class again with specially shaped bodies. These have pneumatic tyres, specially made with extra thick side walks to restrict the constant scrubbing on the kerbs. 1953 Alterations to the road levels in the Tunnel mean that special type buses are no longer necessary, and apart for the need to fit the reinforced type tyres, standard buses replace the STL’s. (The special buses are run from Athol Street Bus garage in Poplar and also serve the Rotherhithe Tunnel).

New Blackwall Tunnel

The reopening of the Blackwall Tunnel completes the doubling of the traffic capacity of the river crossing at Blackwall. On 2 August 1967 the new downstream tunnel was opened and the old one closed. Since that date the original upstream tunnel has undergone an improvement which has resulted in the widening of the carriageway and an easing of the bends. With the improvements to the upstream tunnel completed, the Blackwall Tunnel is fully in operation. Traffic going north now goes through the upstream tunnel and southbound traffic through the downstream. The capacity of the new system is a maximum of 25,000. The tunnel is a vital link in the transport system for London and its communications with key areas. To the south, the £8 million Blackwell Tunnel Southern Approach motorway will soon be completed and will join the. A2 route to Dover and the A20 to Folkstone. At the north end of the tunnel, work on two more sections of motorway and limited access road is due to be started within the next two years and these will complete the eastern side of the timer ring of the proposed primary road network up to Hackney Wick from where, with the building of the northern side of the inner ring, there will be a link to the Al and Ml. The tunnel will thus carry a large volume of fast moving traffic and because of this it has been necessary to ban horse traffic and cyclists.

Further Reading

Engineering, January 4, 1895 Februarys, 1895 February 15, 1895 March 15, 1895 March 29, 1895 London, May 13, 1897

The Engineer,    March 28, 1892 May 21, 1897

The Kentish Mercury,   May 21, 1897 May 28, 1897

The Sketch, May 26, 1897

The Times, May 22, 1897 May 24, 1897 *.


5 thoughts on “Centenary of the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel”

  1. I have an old Photograph of an early double-decker bus with my Grandfather standing at the back in “clippy uniform” on the back of the photo it is written ( Dad’s bus was first through the Blackwall Tunnel when it was finished ) I do not think that open topped busses would have gone through, but perhaps he was on a single decker when he went through, he died at the age of 42 when my Mum was only 7—- she was 90 on 29th July 2013 and is still going strong , she found this photo when going through some old case. If you can enlighten me in any of the details at all I could give her some information, yours in anticipation, Rodney R Blackman. PS my Grandfathers surname was HIGBEE.

  2. Thank you Mary, I do hope so, as I stated, my Mum is still very much with it ! Born in 1923 and her Father died when she was 7 years old, leaving my Nan to bring up 3 Boys and my Mum, they were also Bombed out during the Blitz and were evacuated to the Cotswolds were my Mum has lived ever since.

  3. Borrowed some books from the Library on buses in the 1920’s , so far nothing relevant to report about my Grandfathers London bus history, a long shot I know , but someone may well know something ? I live in hope. Rod.

  4. Post script. Just had another look at the photo and the bus registration number is LE 9433, Service 15,Putney Common—-East Ham, advert on the side for ” Maples easy chairs ” I suppose they became Maple Waring and Gillow . on the front of the Bus it has —Commercial Road, Ludgate Circus, Charing Cross, Hyde Park Corner, Brompton Road, Fulham Road. I think it has solid tyres too, must have been a bumpy ride. Rod.

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