Saturday, 3 January 2015

Early Pedestrian Subway at Woolwich - by Peter Bone

The North and South Woolwich Subway.
On 11th September 2014, GIHS published some information about a proposal, previously unknown to the Society, in the 1870s to tunnel under the Thames at Woolwich. I was intrigued by this, and have found some additional material, which together with the information originally posted by GIHS, tells the story of the first attempt to construct a pedestrian subway under the Thames at Woolwich.  While researching this project I found reference to two other unfulfilled schemes to tunnel under the Thames at Woolwich and I have included some brief information about these as a postscript.

Tunnels under the Thames
The Woolwich foot tunnel was built by the London County Council  and opened in 1912, but more than a quarter of a century earlier, an attempt was made to create a foot tunnel under the Thames at Woolwich.   If it had been completed, it would have been only the 3rd tunnel constructed under the Thames, following Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe (1843) and Peter Barlow’s Tower Subway (1869).

Growing Need for a Thames Crossing at Woolwich
Cross section. (Courtesy Kent County Archive)
Eastern Counties Railway  opened a railway from Stratford to North Woolwich  in 1846. In 1847 the company began running a steam ferry service from near their North Woolwich station  to Woolwich. However, the service did not run in foggy weather. In the mid nineteenth century there was a growing need for a reliable way for people to cross the Thames at Woolwich; employment in manufacturing industries  grew on both sides of the river, employment in the Woolwich Arsenal expanded, and new housing was built at North Woolwich.  There are newspaper reports of people drowning when attempting the crossing in boats when the ferry was unable to run.

Plans For A Pedestrian Tunnel: 1873
In 1873 the North and South Woolwich Subway Company was formed.  Plans for the a pedestrian tunnel  between Woolwich and North Woolwich were prepared and deposited  with the Clerk of the Peace for Kent.  Copies of these are held by Kent County Archives (1) and the London Metropolitan Archives (2).  They show the tunnel starting just to the east of the old North Woolwich Station and terminating near the junction of Bell Water Gate and the High Street in Woolwich (just east of where the Leisure centre is now).  The proposed alignment was therefore about 25 metres east of tunnel completed by the LCC in 1912.  The profile of the proposed tunnel was also similar to the 1912 tunnel, with the footway sloping down from both ends towards a flat section about a third of the way through the tunnel.  It was designed for pedestrian only; contemporary newspapers describe it as being 12 feet high and 9 feet wide (3).The original plan was to dig the tunnel through the water saturated sand and gravel which forms the bed of the Thames. The company proposed to levy a penny toll for each crossing.

In 1874 parliament approved the North and South Woolwich Subway Bill which permitted construction of the tunnel.  Parliamentary papers report that the North and South Woolwich Subway Company Ltd had been incorporated and proposed to fund construction through issue of company shares for £60,000 and raising loans for £20,000.
The plans name F. Gilbert and J. Greathead as the Engineers for the project.  James Greathead had been a pupil of Peter Barlow, the engineer for the Tower Subway.  Barlow was the chief engineer for the Tower Subway and Greathead   the civil engineering contractor. Barlow had developed and patented Brunel’s “tunnelling shield” apparatus for tunnelling through saturated strata.   James Greathead further developed the shield tunnelling methodology while working on the Tower Subway, and was granted a patent for these improvements.  Many of Greathead’s innovations remain standard features of modern tunnelling through soft of saturated strata, for example in the recently completed Cross Rail tunnels.

The tunnelling shield that Greathead and Gilbert commissioned for the Woolwich Subway, provided space for four men to work simultaneously at the tunnel face. The shield supported the newly excavated tunnel walls. Air locks and use of compressed air prevented water seeping through newly dug walls.  Hydraulic powered screw jacks were to be used to move the shield forward. Immediately behind the advancing tunnelling shield, hydraulic powered lifting apparatus was to be used to line the tunnel with cast iron segments. Messrs. Collins and Thompson of Middlesbrough were commissioned to build the shield (4).  James Greathead records that the shield, air locks, lifting apparatus and large quantities of cast iron tunnel lining segments were constructed (5).
(Courtesy Kent County Archive)

Construction and  Failure 1876 – 1884
The contract for construction was let to Messrs Sharpe of Cannon Street in 1876, and construction started in August 1876 (6). However it appears that both the contractor and the North and South Woolwich Subway Company faced financial difficulties. Newspapers report the company was involved in a dispute in the High Court with the National Deposit Bank in 1877 (7), and with Mr Pym, a former  Director of the company,  in 1878 (8)about his financial liabilities for  the company’s debts.

In 1887 there was a new Bill in Parliament to extend the time limits for construction granted in the 1874 Act. This was passed unopposed in 1879, and in 1881, a third Act was approved to extend permission for construction until 1884.
James Greathead wrote  that Sharpe, the contractor, abandoned the contract “due to difficulties elsewhere”  , but does not give a date for this nor say what these difficulties were .  Another contractor, Mr T. A. Walker offered to undertake the work. Greathead says that Walker “did not believe in the shield method and expressed his willingness to work in his own way, driving the tunnel deeper through the chalk strata” (9)  .  Greathead says that the company accepted Walker’s offer to construct the tunnel because of “absence of financial strength” . Walker started work in 1879 (10) . An entrance shaft at North Woolwich was dug, but Walker found it impossible to proceed far with the tunnel even though compressed air, without a shield, was tried and the undertaking was subsequently abandoned. (11)

In June 1883 there was a fire in the wooded staging over the entrance shaft at North Woolwich.  Lloyds Weekly Newspaper reported that Henry Wilson aged 22 was killed during the fire falling down the shaft.  (12)  I think it is likely that this is when construction was abandoned. The North and South Woolwich Subway Company was wound up in June 1884 (13) and parliamentary approval for the tunnel also expired that year.
Why did the project fail ?
We cannot be certain of the reasons for the abandonment of the project, but  a number of possibilities are worth considering.

North Woolwich (Courtesy Kent County Archive)
1) Was the original civil engineering design inadequate ?.
Prior to designing  the Woolwich Subway project James Greathead had successfully completed the Tower Subway using the methods . Greathead went on to have a very successful career as a civil engineer , particularly in tunnelling for railways including  the Waterloo and City Line and the City and South London railway (now part of the Northern Line). His credentials for this project are excellent. The foot tunnel built by the LCC in 1912 used methods very similar to Gilbert and Greathead’s plan. So, I think it is unlikely that the original plans the reasons for the failure of the project.

2) Was Mr T.A. Walker to blame ?
Reading Greathead’s account, its tempting to imagine Mr Walker as some kind of nineteenth century cowboy builder who offered to do construct the tunnel cheaply but failed. However Thomas A Walker (1828 – 1889) was a very successful civil engineering contractor ; his later works included construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. In 1879 (around the time of his involvement with the Woolwich Subway) he was appointed to undertake most of the construction of the Severn Rail Tunnel. Work on the Severn Tunnel by an earlier contractor had resulted in catastrophic flooding. Walker successfully completed the 4 mile Severn Tunnel. This was a much bigger and more complex project than the ¾ mile Woolwich subway. However the Severn Tunnel  was through hard rock strata, and used a tunnelling method which did not require Greathead’s shield methodology.  Walker  was a very accomplished civil engineer, but its worth considering whether:

·         work on the Severn Tunnel distracted Walker from the smaller project at Woolwich ?

·         he not understand to difficulties of tunnelling through saturated soft strata, and wrongly reject Greathead and Gilberts methods ?

·          he under estimated the cost of the construction and subsequently abandoned the contract ?
3) Did the project fail for financial reasons ?
 The High Court cases in 1876 and 1877 suggest that the company had money problems, and Greathead says that Walker’s offer to take over construction was accepted “because of absence of financial strength”(14) .  James Greathead was not only  a civil engineer, but also a civil engineering contractor who had successfully completed the Tower Subway construction. I think that it is significant that he did not take on the construction contract when Sharpe abandoned work. Perhaps Greathead could see the financial weakness of the company.  There may be more information about the finances of the company in the reports of the High Court cases.
Parliamentary  papers report that the company had raised £80,000 through shares and loans. The Woolwich foot tunnel built by the LCC is reported to have cost £78,860 to construct (15) . So it appears that the company initially may have  had adequate capital for the project . However we do not know how much money was wasted  when Sharpe abandoned construction and Walker restarted using a different method of construction.

Woolwich Terminus (Courtesy Kent County Archive)
4) Was the project undermined by the public sector ?
In 1880 the Woolwich Board of Health promoted the idea that there should be a publically run free ferry river crossing at Woolwich. By 1883 this idea had been taken up by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and in 1884 parliament passed legislation for this.  New piers were constructed by  the MBA  opened the free ferry service in 1889 replacing the toll ferry services. The free ferry did not overcome the problems of an unreliability during foggy weather, but  would have undermined fee income from a  toll foot tunnel and made further investment in the subway project unattractive.

Post Script: two more uncompleted tunnel projects at Woolwich
In his book “London’s Lost Tube Schemes” (16), Anthony Badsy-Ellis identified two more failed projects to tunnel under the Thames at Woolwich.

In 1904 parliament considered legislation for the North and South Woolwich Electric Railway. This was to be a short line passing under the river, with a stations at Beresford Square and at the junction of Albert Road and High Street . The proposal was supported by both Woolwich and West Ham Councils. The London County Council supported the scheme, but asked for clauses in the enabling legislation. These would have prohibited the Railway Company from objecting to any subsequent council proposals for a tunnel, and would have disqualified the company from receiving compensation if a council tunnel opened.  These conditions were unacceptable to the scheme’s promoters, so the legislation was withdrawn and the scheme forgotten. Only eight years later in 1912 the LCC opened to Woolwich foot tunnel.
Badsey-Ellis has also discovered a proposal in 1919 for a tunnelled electric monorail service between Beresford Square and North Woolwich station.  It was the idea of the splendidly named Elfric Wells Chambers Kearney, who through the first half of the 20th century promoted the “Kearney High Speed Railway” as a solution to mass transport problems in cities around the world.

His patented railway was unusual in that it would run on a single rail with four double-flanged wheels under each carriage; wheels mounted on the roof would run along an upper guide rail above the train. He claimed that the upper guide rail, along with the carriages' low centre of gravity, would stabilise the train on the lower rail thus preventing derailments and allowing greater speeds.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Kearney promoted his plans for tube railways linking Cricklewood, and the Strand with Crystal Palace.  Later he promoted many more schemes deploying his patent system ,including for Boston, Sydney, Moscow, and Venice, Sheffield, Leeds, Monte Carlo,  and South Shields. Correspondence in the National Archives suggests that he continued to promote his schemes until his death in 1966. His proposal for Woolwich is mentioned in the Railway Magazine, but seems to have been one of his more fleeting ideas.  I have not found anything which suggests backing of any public body. None of his schemes were ever built. 

Peter Bone

(1) Kent County Archives, Q/Rum 631A
(2) London Metropolitan Archives, MBW/2632/17/15
(3)Chelmsford Chronicle 22 June 1877
(4)Daily Gazette, Middlesbrough, 1 Sept 1876
(5)  J. H. Greathead. The City and South London Railway. London.  1896
(6) Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser. 25 Aug 1876
(7) Morning Post. 20 Sept 1877
(8) Standard (London) . 5 Nov 1878
(9) Greathead. Op cit
(10) Portsmouth Evening News . 18th March 1879
(11) Greathead. Op cit
(12) Lloyds Weekly Newspaper. 3 June 1883
(13) House of Commons Parliamentary Papers.  1888
(14) Greathead. Op cit
(16) A Badsey-Ellis. London’s Lost Tube Schemes. Middlesex. 2005.



Peter Bone said...

I now have some more information about proposals by Kearney High Speed Railways to tunnel a monorail link from North Woolwich to Beresford Square. My original report said that this seemed to be just a fleeting idea among many of Elfric Wells Chambers Kearney’s plans, but he seems to have promoted this idea over a long period and had some local backing for it.

In July 1919, a House of Commons Select Committee investigating traffic problems in London visited Battersea to see working model of Kearney’s railway. A report in the Times (12th July) says that Kearney had plans for two lines; one from Cricklewood to Crystal Palace, and a second “from Woolwich, under the river to East Ham.” I have not been able to find any other documentation for the Woolwich to East Ham proposal.

In January 1925 a delegation, including representatives of County Councils and London Local Authorities met a parliamentary secretary of the Minister of Transport Colonel Moore-Brabazon to petition for more tube railways in London (Times 8th January 1925). The delegation was organised by “The Kearney Society”. Elfric Kearney attended to explain the benefits of his system, which included claims that construction and operating costs would be much lower than conventional tube railways and would not require public subsidy. The delegation asked the government to provide loan guarantees and enabling legislation so that a line could be built to demonstrate the benefits of the Kearney rail system. Woolwich to North Woolwich was one of two schemes discussed as suitable for this. Mr E Radford representing the Woolwich Chamber of Trade said that the scheme for Woolwich was “an urgent necessity” and asked that it be built first.

Moore-Brabazon seems to have given a suitably diplomatic response. He said that more tube lines were needed , but no more money could be found to extend the current tube system, so Kearney’s ideas for a cheaper system were welcome. He expressed concern that the Kearney rail system was incompatible with other rail systems in use, but said that the Trades Facilities Committee “would probably guarantee interest on the necessary capital” for an experimental line to be built so that the benefits of wider adoption of the system could be evaluated. I have not found any later documentation of this proposal for Woolwich and it is not clear whether plans were ever fully developed. The second pilot scheme; between North and South Shields continued to be discussed occasionally for the next 10 years, but like all of Kearney’s schemes was never built.

Peter Bone
16 January 2015

Unknown said...

Hi-interesting stuff. I understand William Fox-Hawes became a Director of this company in 1877 I am researching this family-do you know anything about his role in this?

Unknown said...

Regarding Messrs Sharpe do you know their christian names? I have been researching Messrs Robert Sharpe and Sons, railway contractors. After the death of Robert Sharpe some of his sons continued as Messrs Sharpe, public works contractors.
They were in financial trouble having lost Sharpe vs San Paulo Railway in 1873. Often contractors were paid in shares and liquidity was a great problem. Messrs Sharpe were involved in several railway contracts in Europe which they had withdraw from due to finances.