Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

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….

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 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. 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.

Tunnel Construction, 1901

Tunnel Construction, 1901

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 (click for full-sized version):

Tunnel cross-section

The entrance building, which is now listed Grade II, has a porch built by the Island firm, Stuart’s Granolithic, whose works were in Glengall Road (the section now named Tiller Road).

The bronze tablet above the porch commemorates the completion of the tunnel works in 1902. Named on the tablet, Sir John MacDougall was chairman of the LCC and a member of the famous flour milling firm. The later Sir John MacDougall Gardens would also be named after him.

There were plans to have a ceremonial and festive opening in 1902, but by the time of the opening the tunnel still had no sufficient electrical supply. This meant that the lifts were not operational and that the tunnel lighting was far less than desired. (It would be 1904 before a stronger electrical supply was connected.)

The tunnel was an immediate success, however. According to “Survey of London”:

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.

Early 20th century postcard


In the evening of 7th September 1940, the first day of The Blitz, serious damage was caused by a bomb which fell on the Island foreshore at low tide and penetrated the tunnel. The tunnel was closed during the repairs, which involved adding an extra steel internal sleeve.



Shortly after the bombing, some rowing boat owners offered to transport people over the Thames at 2/- per passenger – quite a steep price. A little later, a free ferry service was set up, operating between Johnson’s Draw Dock and Greenwich. A temporary pier was built across barges.

Temporary wooden pier

Temporary wooden pier

Temporary wooden pier

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



A notice at the tunnel entrance states that the tunnel is private property and not a public right of way. Ordnance Survey maps do not show a right of way on the route of the tunnel. The tunnel is accessible by spiral staircases and large lifts that were refurbished between 2010 and 2012. A 2016 survey showed that around 4,000 people use the tunnel each day.

Jan Traylen, 1976

Iron Maiden music video, 1980s

Prospects TV Series, 1980s

The tunnel lifts used to be attendant-operated “from 7 am to 7 pm on weekdays and Saturdays, and 10 am to 5.30 pm on Sundays, with no service on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.”

Greenwich Council started work to upgrade the tunnel on 19 April 2010, intending to reduce leakage, improve drainage and install new lifts, CCTV, communication facilities and signage. Completion was planned for March 2011 but this slipped to September 2011.

Recent years have seen a lot of discussion about people who cycle in the tunnel. Greenwich Borough Council, who are responsible for running the tunnel, have not been too clear about whether they would tolerate it or not – despite all their signs to the contrary.


Architect Alex King created some captivating images of the tunnel and included them on his website,

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 115 years now, and has hardly changed at all (apart, perhaps, from the replacement of the lifts and liftkeepers). In 2019, friends and family are still making their way through….