Tag Archives: Thames

Tower Subway

A little way north of the Uber boat station by the Tower Of London you might notice a small cylindrical building called the Hydraulic Tower,

Today it carries a water main, hence the name, but its heritage is rather different.

Quite possibly you have used the nearby Tower Hill underground station which is not far from the site of the old Tower Of London station which opened in 1882 as a terminus for the Metropolitan Railway.

Even this, though, was not the first railway on Tower Hill.

In 1870 the Tower Subway, a 2’6” narrow gauge railway, was built from Tower Hill under the Thames to Vine Lane off Tooley Street by London Bridge station. There was a single carriage which was pulled by cables connected to a static steam engine at each end. It proved unreliable and a passenger died in an accident with the lift.

In 1871 the railway was taken up and it became a pedestrian tunnel with a toll of a halfpenny. It attracted a million transits each year. A bit of maths: 480 halfpennies to the pound, divide by 52, works out at £40 per week which was not a bad bit of bunce in the late 1800s – equivalent to £4,700 in 2020.

In 1898 it went out of business because of the free crossing afforded by Tower Bridge which opened in 1894. Today it carries a water main and phone lines. You can, however, see the original entrance.

The tunnel was bored by pioneer engineer James Greathead using an adaptation of Marc Brunel’s tunnelling shield as used to build the Wapping Tunnel.

The Tower Subway features on my Tower Hill tour.

Wapping Tunnel and Station

Wapping station opened in December 1879 as part of the East London railway but its story began over 50 years earlier.

in the early 1800s there was a need to connect the north and south docks. There were two unsuccessful attempts to dig a tunnel but these were thwarted by the soft clay and quicksand which caused the tunnel rooves to collapse. The project was declared impractical.

A French engineer, however, believed that he had a solution. Although he he no record of tunnel building he persuaded investors to finance a tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping. One of those investors was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. That engineer was called Marc Brunel who had patented a device called the tunnelling shield.

How did this work? Brunel had chanced upon a marine creature called a Shipworm. This bored tunnels through wood but in its wake secreted a coating of limestone particles on the tunnel walls to stop them collapsing.

The shield had similar principles, a round framework accommodating a dozen or so men who would dig into the sand and mud whilst bricklayers reinforced the tunnel walks behind them.

Construction started in 1825 and progress was slow, about a foot per week. There were often leaks and noxious river water would poor through. Other hazards were methane which was inflammable and hydrogen sulphide which was poisonous.

In 1827 the roof was breached and Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, repaired it using a diving bell lowered from a boat. Afterwards they held a dinner party in the tunnel to celebrate!

It was finally completed in 1843 at a cost of £630,000. Instead of being a thoroughfare between the docks it was ornately decorated and accommodated London’s second shopping arcade!

The tunnel was fashionable to visit, charged an admission fee of one penny to over 2 million people each year.

In 1865 is was purchased by the East London railway and became it’s northern terminus.

It is now the deepest underground station on the Overground network.

In the 1860s a young engineer called James Greathead, inspired by Brunel’s shield, developed his own version and used this to build the second tunnel under the Thames from Tower Hill to Southwark (if you want to know more, come on my Tower Hill walk). Greathead’s shield was subsequently used to build the first tunnelled underground lines including the Waterloo & City and Northern Lines.

The Wapping Tunnel is part of my Docklands North Bank walk.

Port of London Authority

To the west of Trinity Gardens by the Tower of London you will see a tall white building called the Four Seasons hotel. It was built in the Beaux-Arts style by Edward Cooper and is 100 years old this year.

Near the top, a statue of a bearded figure holding a trident. One might think of the god Neptune but this is our very own watery deity, Old Father Thames, and this gives a clue to the first occupants of the building: the POLA

In the early 1900s things were not well on the river. The Thames was unregulated, many docks and wharfs were in need of improvement, and businesses serving the river were in chaotic competition. In short, something of a shambles and it was felt that ships would start favouring rival ports, especially in Europe.

In 1908 the Port Of London Act was launched in parliament and successfully navigated through the House of Commons by a Liberal party member called Winston Churchill.

The POLA was formed in 1909. So what did it do?

  • Some overdue dredging of shallow parts of the rivers.
  • Effectively nationalised the various dock companies.
  • Provided investment and modernisation.
  • Co-ordinated the port’s operations.

Ax a result London stayed as a successful port.

Today the Authority still looks after the river.

  • It looks after the Thames Barrier which guards against flooding by large tides.
  • Patrols the tidal river 
  • Surveys the bed of the river to find obstructions and where necessary, organises dredging.
  • Monitors river users for compliance with the various regulations.]

One service it provides is Pilotage. What is this?

Let us say that a container ship enters the Thames. The captain may not be familiar with the river’s features – its currents, hidden hazards such as sandbanks and perhaps not the exact location of where they are meant to dock.

To deal with this, they are met by a small boat, or even a helicopter, carrying an official called the Pilot who will board the ship and join the captain on the bridge. The Pilot is a skilled navigator, knows the river, and ensures that the vessel makes safe passage.