Woolwich Tunnel Opens
Woolwich Free Ferry provided from its opening in 1889 a vital link between the two sides of the Thames, but in foggy and smoggy conditions – a not uncommon situation in a London fuelled by coal fires - the service would be cancelled. Workers delayed by the interrupted service would lose pay, and in some cases faced dismissal; and sometimes even with the ferry working waiting for it to arrive meant unacceptable delays for those on urgent errands. The simple solution to this problem was a foot tunnel under the River Thames between North and South Woolwich, a scheme backed forcefully by Will Crooks, a working class politician who stayed true to his roots – hard to understand these days – when he worked as a union organiser, London County Council (LCC) member, and eventually the fourth Labour MP elected to Parliament.
Once approved the tunnel was built quickly, Sir William Fitzmaurice designing it and overseeing the construction: sinking the first shaft commenced on May 1 1910; tunnelling under the river started that December and finished the following October. The entire tunnel project cost a little under £79,000; lifts placed through the stairwells of both shafts added a further £5,000 to the bill, not bad for engineering that carries up to 40 people at a time, and for most of us preferable to the more than 100 steps of the spiral staircases.
The tunnel itself is 3m or more beneath the river bed, cast iron tubing lined with concrete and then faced with white tiles, the floor flagged with stone. The whole tunnel is a little more than 500m long. On Saturday October 26 1912 the Chairman of the LCC, Lord Cheylesmore, performed the official opening ceremony. The tunnel still operates, still provides a useful service, elegant in its simplicity and wonderful in its durability.
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