Greenwich Foot Tunnel

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….

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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.

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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.

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Contemporary newspaper reports envisaged the tunnel as follows:

1901-foot-tunnel

A more accurate description was provided in an edition of “The Engineer”, published in 1902, the year of the tunnel opening:

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Illustration of shaft

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Tunnel cross-section

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:

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“The Management”

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.

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Early 20th century postcard

1937

1937

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.

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The dome glass was also shattered during the war, and would not be replaced until 1948.

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Architect Alex King has created some captivating images on his website, https://designstudioalexander.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/the-greenwich-foot-tunnel/.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel

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…..

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20 Responses to Greenwich Foot Tunnel

  1. Joe Blogs says:

    My partner works in Greenwich and has done ever since we’ve lived on the island which is 15 years now.. so she’s been through there many hundreds of times now.. what annoys here at the moment are the speedy thoughtless cyclists that tear through the tunnel.. A real shame the lift guys have gone (but at least they got rid of those stupid chicane gates in the middle, that caused everyone to bunch up and wait while all the bikes went through)
    Excellent post once again. Thanks for the wonderful drawings of the stairs and glass roof.. very nice.
    JB

  2. Thanks for another fascinating piece, Micky. Does the tunnel really move with the tides? (Your article is dated 1 April, after all…) Until quite recently there was a nicely alliterative notice in the tunnel: ‘No Cycling, Fouling of Animals, Skateboarding, Skating, Littering, Loitering or Spitting’.

  3. Tim Penrice says:

    Interesting stuff MIcky. Thanks for posting.

  4. Diane says:

    I never knew about the tunnel until we explored the Isle of Dogs on foot. It is a fascinating place. The domes are spectacular. (I am glad I didn’t know about it changing shape though!) I love that first photo and in my youth, I worked for “Izal” who made your toilet paper!

  5. George says:

    Does anybody know anything about Osborne House? I’m desperate to know what it was

  6. One of my happiest childhood memories is every summer holiday going out with mum and dad and my sisters and we would all run through this tunnel. Dad would teach us how it was built and the history and me and my sisters used to love spooking each other saying the wet patches on the floor where where the tunnel was caving in! Haha Then we’d be met by the lift man. It felt safe and an adventure. Shall we go through the tunnel today dad would say and we all scream yeah!! This was the 1970s the world seemed safe because my dad was there. I doubt very much I’d walk that tunnel now unless I was in a crowd. Happy memories 🙂

  7. Tina O'Shea says:

    My surname is above the tunnel distant uncle W Copperthwaite feel proud about this fact Tina Copperthwaite

  8. Micky – this is a great piece and it would be good to hear more. You probably know there is now a Friends Group (FOGWOFT – Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels http://fogwoft.com/) . I don’t know if you are aware of all the work which has been done on the tunnel, and some of the things happening with the lifts. People from the Island have been at our meetings – were you one of them? – and we have had events in Island Gardens. We also have people from Greenwich and Newham involved. Maybe you are already in touch – at the least it would be good to put a link through on the web site to your interesting posting.

  9. David Tracey says:

    My Mother and her sisters and brother lived on the isle of dogs before they got married, we used the tunnel every week-end to visit my grand mother, my cousin and I used to run through the tunnel screaming just to hear our voices echoing in the tunnel, and being told off by our parents and the lift attendant.

  10. Jas Haden says:

    I used the tunnel twice a day for school too & had many friends over Greenwich so often went there in the holidays & evenings. I went to Greenwich Swimming baths & Saturday morning pictures.
    My brother served his apprenticeship as a carpenter at Stuart’s Grenolithic so was interested that the stonework on the tunnel entrance came from there.

  11. Justin Lobb says:

    My granddad lived in Manchester Rd and his wife-to-be over in New Cross. They were courting at the time when The Blitz started. As a kid back in the 70’s I remember him telling me how they shut the Tunnel on the first night of the Blitz and he and Nan were carried over to the Island on boats to get home. Hobson’s choice I guess!

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