Monthly Archives: May 2014

Walking Brunel’s First Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping

I have always been fascinated by what is beneath the surface of London and I can trace this interest back to the late 1970’s when I read one of my father’s books “Under London, A Chronicle Of London’s Underground Life-Lines And Relics” by F.L. Stevens and published in 1939. This contained stories of the infrastructure hidden under the streets of London including the Thames Tunnel.

Within this book, there were chapters on the Fleet Drain, Tube Tunnels, Roman London, Crypts and Vaults, Rivers, Wells and Water and Tunnels under the Thames. There is also a final chapter titled “London Takes Cover” which at only 10 pages looks to be a last-minute addition and starts “Queer things are happening under London to-day” and then talks about the preparations being made for Londoners to seek shelter underground from possible terrors on top. I wonder if they could have imagined what would happen to London over the next few years and what those terrors would be?

The chapter on Thames Tunnels starts with Brunel’s tunnel connecting Wapping and Rotherhithe, not only the first tunnel driven under the Thames, but also that the Thames Tunnel was the first tunnel under any river. It was an opportunity to walk this tunnel during closure of the line for maintenance work that I found on the London Transport Museum web site and tickets were ordered.

And so today, Saturday 24th May I was in the queue at Rotherhithe station for the 1:40pm walk through the Thames Tunnel. Blue disposal gloves were provided (there is still a risk of picking up a virus despite a much cleaner Thames. Demonstrates what the risks would have been during construction) Once in the station it was down a short flight of stairs, on to the platform and at the entrance to the tunnel.

Thames Tunnel

The Rotherhithe – Wapping Thames Tunnel was not the first attempt at a tunnel under the Thames. In 1799 a tunnel between Gravesend and Tilbury had been started, given up as a bad job then started again a couple of years later. A shaft was sunk and the tunnel reached within 150 feet of the other side of the river but was again abandoned.

A Thames Tunnel was badly needed. It was a four mile circuit between Rotherhithe and Wapping via London Bridge and ferries carried 4,000 people across the Thames every day at Rotherhithe.

Marc Brunel was convinced that a tunnel could be built and had the concept of a shield to protect workers at the face of the tunneling work. A meeting with investors was held on the 18th February 1824 and a company formed with Brunel appointed as engineer.

The shaft was started in March 1825 and all appeared to be going well, however in January 1826 the river burst through, but work pressed on and by the beginning of 1827 the tunnel had reached 300 feet.

As work progressed, in addition to the risk of the river breaking through, there were all manner of problems including strikes, mysterious diseases (the River Thames was London’s main drain, polluted with a considerable amount of sewage) and explosions from “fire-damp”.

The river continued to burst through. On Saturday 12th January 1828 six workman were trapped and drowned and despite the hole being filled with 4,000 bags of clay the project was temporarily abandoned due to lack of funds. The tunnel was bricked up and no further work carried out for seven years.

Work started again on the 27th March 1835 and carried on for a further eight more years.

In March 1843 staircases were built around the shafts and Marc Brunel  led a triumphant procession through the tunnel. Marc Brunel’s son Isambard worked with his father during the construction of the tunnel and was appointed chief engineer in 1827, however his work with the Great Western railway took him away from the tunnel during the later years of construction. Marc Brunel worked on the tunnel from start to finish.

As one of the sights of London, the Thames Tunnel was a huge success. Within 24 hours of the tunnel’s opening fifty thousand people had passed through and one million within the first fifteen weeks.

The Thames Tunnel was purchased by the East London railway in 1866 and three years later was part of London’s underground railway system.

Looking through one of the arches between the two tracks in the tunnel:

Thames Tunnel

Starting from the Rotherhithe end of the tunnel, we walked down the centre of the rail tracks avoiding carefully marked obstructions and walking over small bridges put in to avoid signaling equipment. The tunnel started with a gentle downwards slope towards the halfway point where an upwards slope took us into Wapping station.

Regular archways between the two tracks appeared to be spaced equally the length of the tunnel.

Walking through the tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping:

Thames Tunnel

Looking back down the tunnels from the Wapping end. The walk from Rotherhithe was through the tunnel on the right, walk back through the tunnel on the left:

Thames Tunnel

Looking back on an empty Wapping station:

Thames Tunnel

I am glad they turned the power off !!                                        Signpost and distances in the tunnel:

Thames TunnelThames Tunnel

Looking down the tunnel from Wapping:

Thames Tunnel

Original brickwork exposed:

Thames Tunnel

At the Rotherhithe end of the tunnel large pipes with the sound of running water descended below the level of the tunnel. According to the guide, if the pumps that drain this water failed then the tunnel would flood within a matter of hours.

Large pipes at the Rotherhithe end of the tunnel with the sound of water running through them:

Thames Tunnel

All too soon we had returned to Rotherhithe station and it was time to leave the tunnel. A fascinating glimpse of what is beneath London and the challenges of pushing the boundaries of early engineering.

Thames TunnelThe building that was originally the boiler house during the construction of the tunnel has been restored and is now an excellent small museum. It has a very well stocked bookshop with what must be one of the largest collection of books on Brunel I have ever seen.

The following picture shows a mural at the museum which illustrates the shield method of digging used by Brunel. This surrounds the original shaft down to the tunnel. It is now empty and the original stair case long removed. It was originally left open to the skies however fears that tunnel lights would act as guides to enemy aircraft in the 1940’s resulted in the shaft being capped.

Thames Tunnel

The tunnel passes underneath the paved area outside of the museum and heads towards the Thames.

Just to the north of the museum is a paved area that overlooks the river and provides an excellent view back towards the city.

Thames Tunnel

Lower Thames Street and the view to the Tower of London

A few weeks ago I was at the Monument and comparing how Monument Street has changed over the past 60 years. This week, I am still at the end of Monument Street, but now looking along Lower Thames Street towards the Tower of London.

The following is my father’s photo from about 65 years ago:

Dads lower thames street photo with copy

The building on the right is Billingsgate Market. The building on the left with the colonnades is the Coal Exchange and the building straight ahead with the sign on the wall is a pub, the Yarmouth Arms.

My 2014 photo from roughly the same position is shown below:


Rather than standing on the left side of the road, this is now a thin strip in the middle of a considerably widened road. The corner of the pub in the original photo is roughly where the green traffic light in the centre of the road is now.

The buildings on the right of Lower Thames Street are the same (or at least the front of the buildings), however the big difference is the demolition of the buildings on the left to allow for the considerable widening of the road, along with the buildings at the end of the street which totally obscure the Tower of London.

The following photo taken around 1900 shows the Coal Exchange taken from the opposite side of Lower Thames Street.

Coal Exchange 1

Lower Thames Street and Upper Thames Street were originally just Thames Street, the main thoroughfare that ran east – west through the city and against the buildings that faced the River Thames.

The following map is the 1720 Tower Street Ward map and shows Thames Street as it was with the Customs House and Billingsgate Dock. The illustrations of ships tied up against the side of the Thames shows the main functions of the buildings along this stretch and the activities that would have taken place.

Thames Street Map

The first customs house (which stood a little to the east and was built in 1275) was rebuilt on the current location in 1385. Since then there have been four successive buildings on the same location. In excavating the foundations for the 1814 building, numerous Roman relics were found along with three lines of wooden embankments which demonstrated how the position of the bank of the Thames had moved further into the river thereby reclaiming more land.

In building the Coal Exchange in 1847 the remains of a Roman villa were discovered 13 feet below the level of Lower Thames Street on a foundation laid upon wooden piles driven into the marshy ground.

The Billingsgate Fish market ceased trading in Lower Thames Street in 1982 when it moved to east London (now in the shadow of Canary Wharf). It was the oldest market in London, dating from the ninth century and was a general market until the 17th century when it became a specialist fish market.

The Yarmouth Arms was at 88 Lower Thames Street. There are records of publicans for the Yarmouth Arms starting with a Lydia Estridge in 1816 through to Mrs Lily May Blow in 1944.

In “A Survey of London” by John Stow in 1603, he refers to the area as Belinsgate  saying that “it to be builded by King Beline a Briton, long before the incarnation of Christ”  and that it is “a large Watergate, Port or Harbrough for shippes and boats, commonly arriving there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell fishes, salt, Orenges, Onions, and other fruits and rootes, wheate, Rie and grain of divers sorts for service of the Citie, and parts of the Realme adioyning“.

Referring to the Customs House, John Stowe mentions “the auncient customes of Belinsgate in the raigne of Edwarde the Third everie great ship landing there, payd for standage two pence, every liitle ship with Orelockes a penny, and lesser boat called a Battle a halfpenny“.

Customs payments were also due on corn, coal, ale and herring.

Thames Street was also instrumental in the spread of the Great Fire of 1666. from the records of the cause of the fire “a strong east wind carried sparks from the burning timbers (of the bakers) across the narrow lane on to hay piled in the yard of an inn opposite. The inn caught, and from there the flames quickly spread into Thames Street, then, as now, a street famed for its wharfs. Stores of combustibles – tallow, oil and spirits – were kept in its cellars, whilst hay, timber and coal were stacked on the open wharfs nearby. The fire leapt to life.”

Today, Lower Thames Street is a dual carriage way with the main aim of getting traffic quickly between the east and west sides of the City, with little time to appreciate the history of the area, which is a shame as it perfectly sums up the layered history of the city and the dependency of the City on the Thames in becoming such a major centre of trade.


An AESD March and a St. Pancras Draughtsman

The title of my post this week is “An AESD March and a St. Pancras Draughtsman”. The AESD was the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsman, the trades union established in 1912 to represent Draughtsman working in these industries.

After National Service, my father worked as a Draughtsman for the St. Pancras Borough Council Electricity and Public Lighting Department.

The job of the Draughtsman is one of those long replaced by computer based applications. It was the role of the Draughtsman to draw up plans, whether these be the design of a ship, train or plane, along with all the components that make up these complex systems along with drawing up street plans, building construction plans etc. It was a key role that enabled the installation or manufacturer of almost everything in an industrial society.

Within the photo collection, there are photos of a march by the AESD. I have no idea of whether he was a member of the AESD, was participating in the march or just there to take photographs.

The following photo shows the AESD march about to reach Oxford Circus (I have included the rest of the photos of this march at the end of the post).

AESD March 2

I suspect this photo may have been taken in 1953. From what I have been able to find out, the AESD did not take much action, however there was an AESD strike at the Middlesex
Tool & Gauge Company in 1953. This lasted for five weeks from late August 1953 and did get national support, so this march may have been in support of this action. The dates fit well with other photos on the same set of negatives.

Like many small Associations and Unions representing specialised groups of workers, the AESD had to evolve and merge as the working landscape changed.

The AESD changed into the Draughtsman and Allied Technicians Union (DATA) to broaden the scope of membership. DATA then grew into the TASS (Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Staffs) which then became the MSF (Manufacturing, Science and Finance) following merger with the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, which then merged with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union to form Amicus which then merged in 2007 with the Transport and General Workers Union to form Unite (I did not think it would be that complicated when I started checking !).

The benefit of working for the St. Pancras Borough Council Electricity and Public Lighting Department is that this work took him across much of London, drawing street plans and where electrical installation work was required. A perfect job for someone who loved walking London.

Plans were recorded onsite in a sketch book, then taken back to the office to be converted into large scale plans ready for work to be carried out.

The following is a sample page from one of my father’s sketch books:


The left page covers Belgrave Square whilst the right shows the area around Grosvenor Gardens with Victoria Street, Buckingham Palace (B.P.) Road and Ebury Street. The markings are for the position of electric street lamps. The red line across the plan indicates that the transfer to a working plan had been completed.

Street surveying and documenting was all done manually. This is before the days of GPS, theodolites with integrated electronic distance measuring etc.

Within my father’s photo collection there are some photos he took of the St. Pancras Draughtsman’s office in which he worked. These show a very different working environment to that you would find today where this type of work is carried out on a computer with large screens showing the plans being developed.

Drawing up plans:

draughtsman 4

Tea break:

draughtsman 1This type of work was very tiring as it required concentration, drawing to an accurate scale, very neat and standardised lettering, good eyesight and attention to detail.

Note in the following photo the drawing tables placed against the windows. Natural light was still the best form of lighting in which to work. Also the magnifying glass for detailed work.

Taking a quick sleep at lunch break:

draughtsman 2All calculations were performed manually and a good knowledge of maths was required. Complex calculations were performed using aids such as Logarithm tables and slide rules:

draughtsman 3

The tools of the trade. Some of my father’s old drawing instruments:

Draughtsmans tools

The instrument hanging on the wall in the following photo is a draughtsman T-Square. The shorter length was placed up against the side of the drawing table and the long edge ran across the table. This was then used as a guide for drawing horizontal lines and as a rest whilst general drawing.


The face of experience:


Other photos of the march:

AESD March 4

The solitary police escort:

AESD Marcg 3

AESD March 5


The South Bank – Before the Festival of Britain and the Royal Festival Hall

A common theme throughout my blog is that since the 1940’s many areas of London have changed so dramatically that they are almost unrecognisable, however there are almost always some points that have remained fixed and remain to this day to allow a photo from over 60 years ago to be compared with today from very similar points of view.

One of these areas is the South Bank, and for this post specifically the area bounded by Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges and Waterloo Station.

In my father’s photo collection there are a series of photos covering the South Bank as it was starting just after the war and through to the Festival of Britain which was held on the site, with the Royal Festival Hall being the legacy from the Festival.

Over the coming months I will cover this area in detail, however as a starter I have three photos that show the area as the demolition started in preparation for the building of the Royal Festival Hall.

The first photo was taken from the area of Waterloo Bridge looking towards County Hall.

The road in the centre of the photo is Belvedere Road and the bridge is taking the railway line from Hungerford Bridge across the Thames and Charing Cross station to Waterloo East.

The area to the right was ready for demolition and the construction of the Royal Festival Hall. The white sign to the right of the road is for “North London Demolition” indicating that demolition had already or was about to start. The sign just to the right of the bridge is for “Southern Railways Sale Room”. Not sure what would have been sold here as it is some distance from the station, perhaps unclaimed lost property?

Southbank 3Although it should have been easy, I had some challenges trying to find the location for this photo. Firstly it was not taken from ground level and as far as I can tell was not taken from Waterloo Bridge, but may have been taken from some derelict building adjacent to the bridge.

I spent some time working my way round the back of the Hayward Gallery and the closest I was able to get is shown in the following photo. The perspective is almost right, but I could not get into the exact position (see the slight difference where the slope of the roof of County Hall touches the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster)

Southbank 3 new

DSC_1163Belvedere Road still runs in almost the same position and the bridge is still in the same location although obscured by trees.

I moved to the left and took the photo on the right which shows the road and bridge. I suspect the original curve of the road has been smoothed out slightly during the construction of the Royal Festival Hall, however it is still in almost exactly the same place.

As far as I can tell, the three photos I am featuring were taken from roughly the same position.

If we now turn to the left we can compare the view towards Waterloo Station as it was:

Southbank 1

The main entrance to Waterloo Station just to left of centre of the photo is almost the same as it is today. The railway still runs across the same arches, however the arches are now mainly occupied by bars and restaurants.

Southbank map 1The map extract to the right is taken from the 1913 edition of Bartholomew’s Handy Reference of London & Suburbs. I have circled the area being covered in this post. The map identified the two roads shown in the above photo. The road in the centre of the photo was Tenison Street and the road to the left was Rowley Place.

There are no obvious people in these photos, however look just to the right of centre in the above photo and there is a man standing on the site of the demolished buildings. Had he lived here and was returning to see what had been done to the area or just a curious passer-by? In the first photo there are a couple of children in the street with a cyclist just behind them.

Despite the horror and destruction of the war and the bombing of London, the large number of derelict sites across London during and after the war effectively became an adventure playground for children. Reading through my father’s account of his childhood in London during the war he tells of exploring and playing across the old bomb sites. They were not fenced off, there were effectively no health and safety rules as there would be today and London was free for a child to explore.

The same view today is very different:


For this one it was very difficult to get the position right as the view of Waterloo Station is now totally obscured. I suspect that in the original photo Belvedere Road runs behind the brick walls. Waterloo Station is just behind the office blocks. All these were part of the original Shell Centre complex built for the Shell oil company between 1957 and 1962 after the closure of the Festival of Britain. The building to the left was the “Downstream Building” and the building and tower to the right was the “Upstream Building”. All part of the same complex  connected by tunnels under the railway so that employees could move between buildings without going outside.

The Downstream Building on the left was sold by Shell in the 1990’s and was converted into residential apartments.

Now turning to the right we can look across the site that will be occupied by the Royal Festival Hall.

Southbank 2

The large building is what is left of the Lion Brewery, the white Lion which used to stand on top of the building has already been removed and now stands at the southern end of Westminster Bridge. The building in the distance under construction with the cranes is the Ministry of Defence building that still stands on the north bank of the Thames.

Again, it was difficult to get the exact location, but the following picture shows roughly the scene as it is now:


The South Bank is a fascinating place that sums up in a small area the changes that have and continue to take place across London, the change from light industrial use to service industries, entertainment and expensive apartments.

Over the coming months I will continue to explore the South Bank with the development of the Festival of Britain and the Royal Festival Hall.