The Greenwich Foot Tunnel is 406 yards long, give or take a few inches. I went to school ‘over the water’, so I walked through the tunnel twice a day every school day for 7 years. Given that there are 195 school days per year in England, I walked through the tunnel for:
7 (years) x 195 (days) x 2 (times per day) x 406 = 1,108,380 yards
That’s approximately 630 miles, the distance from London to Prague, walking underwater……
[Some of you might be thinking “What about the days he was sick? Or didn’t go to school for some other reason?”. I also went through the tunnel on non-school days, and sometimes more than twice in a day, so I reckon that covers it.]
One of the earliest photos I ever took, in 1977, and one I am still proud of, was of the foot tunnel….
I’ve been chased into the tunnel by South London yobs. I’ve been involved in fights in the tunnel (occasionally with mate Mark Fairweather on the way home from school). I’ve had to make my way through a darkened tunnel because the lights had been vandalized after a disco boat full of Island teenagers had ended its journey at Greenwich Pier. I’ve cycled and skateboarded through the tunnel.
You could say that me and the tunnel go back a long way.
It was at the end of the 19th century that the LCC, the London County Council (remember that viciously-hard loo paper in schools with the text “London County Council – Now wash your hands please”?) first proposed to build a tunnel between the Island and Greenwich, as an alternative to the ferry.
A new free crossing would benefit working people on both sides of the river. Communications were so unreliable that some employers on the Island refused to allow their foremen and timekeepers to live on the southern bank because of delays at the ferry during foggy weather. The passenger steam-ferry from Greenwich Pier to North Greenwich Station was the only safe method of crossing the river at this point, but the penny toll amounted to an annual outlay of £2 12s – a considerable sum for the working men and women of the area. A new tunnel would also allow the inhabitants of the built-up industrial areas of Millwall and Cubitt Town to visit the more salubrious surroundings of Greenwich Park and Blackheath for recreation.
– Survey of London, Athlone Press
In 1896, the LCC accepted the tunnel plans proposed by their chief civil engineer Sir Alexander Richardson Binnie (1839-1917) whose Blackwall Tunnel engineering project was nearing completion (it opened in 1897). The construction contract was awarded to the firm J. Cochrane & Son, of Victoria Street, who tendered a price of of £109,500.
Thanks to an 1897 act of parliament which gave the go-ahead for the tunnel, the first physical act in preparation for its construction was the appropriation of an area of the recently-opened Island Gardens, officially opened by Councillor Will Crooks in 1895 (it is depressingly boring to hear that the Island experience of losing green space is more than a century old). This figure from “Survey of London” shows the extent of the loss; the original Island Gardens extended to the west wall of the present-day rowing club.
Contemporary newspaper reports envisaged the tunnel as follows:
A more accurate description was provided in an edition of “The Engineer”, published in 1902, the year of the tunnel opening:
The entrance building, which is now listed Grade II, has a porch of Stuart’s Granolithic cement. This Island firm had its main works on Glengall Road (now Tiller Rd). Ignore those two oiks in this photo:
The bronze tablet above the porch by J. W. Singer & Son commemorates the completion of the tunnel works in 1902. According to “Survey of London”:
The tunnel was opened to the public on 4 August 1902. The LCC had originally intended to open it formally, but much electrical work (including the tunnel lighting and the lifts) remained unfinished, and the idea of an opening ceremony was eventually abandoned. By February 1905 over 9,000 people were using the tunnel weekly. The total cost of the work was £179,705, including over £58,000 for the acquisition of property and compensation for owners of ferry rights. The success of the foot tunnel marked the end of the ferry services. In 1904 the LCC completed the purchase of ferry rights and associated freehold lands from the London and Blackwall and Great Eastern Railway Companies.
The interior of the entrance building was finished with a lining of white-glazed bricks, and the stairwell in the shaft lined with white-glazed tiles. Pedestrian access was provided by a 6ft-wide steel and cast-iron staircase designed to allow the central well of 20ft diameter to accommodate a passenger lift if required. By July 1901 the LCC had decided to install an electric lift in each shaft, and in November the tender of Easton & Company of Erith Iron Works, Kent, at £7,334 7s, was accepted. The mahogany-panelled lifts were completed and installed by November 1902, although the lack of a sufficient electrical supply prevented them from becoming operational until 1904.
The tunnel was damaged at the Island end by WWII bombing. I’ve not been able to confirm it, but some reports state that the tunnel was flooded due to the damage. In any event, what is certain, is that the tunnel was closed during the repairs (a free ferry was implemented), and that the repairs involved adding an extra steel internal sleeve.
The dome glass was also shattered during the war, and would not be replaced until 1948.
Architect Alex King has created some captivating images on his website, https://designstudioalexander.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/the-greenwich-foot-tunnel/.
But, despite the beauty of these drawings, most captivating for me was the comment on the website:
The Council surveyor for the tunnel informed me that the tunnel moves with the tide, “achieving a banana like shape when the tide is fully out”.
The tunnel has been open for 113 years now. Other than a couple of dramatic moments during WWII, it’s hardly changed at all (apart, perhaps, from the replacement of the lifts and liftkeepers). We just got older…..