Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels

Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels.
(this article - with details and pictures - was published in Subterranea No.37 December 2014. Copies are available from their bookshop http://www.subbrit.org.uk/)
The Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels have been the subject of a great deal of local controversy and with Thames crossings being a major subject of public discussion at the moment, they are likely to become more so.As far as we are aware thesetwo Thames tunnels are one of only three or four sub-river pedestrian tunnels – all in Britain apart from one in Antwerp.They were built to allow access to north London jobs for south London residents and also to provide them with a free crossing. In an era when tolls had only recently been abolished on up river bridges it was seen as only fair that equally free crossings should be provided for residents who lived east of the Tower.   That crossing needed to go under the river rather than over it on a ferry or a bridge – which would essentially be obstructions on the busy commercial river.

The Greenwich tunnel was the earlier of the two and a great deal more has been writtenabout it than the later Woolwich tunnel.  It was intended that it should replace ferry services which had enjoyed a statutory existence since 1676 and which owned the rights for the transfer of foot passengers. By 1900 the ownership of these rights was with the Great Eastern Railway Company and they, and TheLondon County Council acquired an enabling Act of Parliament for the foot tunnel in 1897. This, the Greenwich  tunnel was designed by Sir Alexander Binnie - the second tunnel built by the County Council following on from the Blackwall, with which is hardly compares. The contractors were J. Cochrane and Sons and work began in 1899. It tunnel opened in 1902.

Construction began with the sinking of a shaft on the north bank of the River in Island Gardens and advanced under the river and it emerged in Greenwich by what was then the Ship Inn. GeologistDr. Jackie Skipper recently gave a presentation to Greenwich Industrial History Society which drew our attention to the complexities of the river bed which faced the engineers.  Much of the information which she is now able to provide to potential tunnel builders would have been unknown in 1900 and engineers would have had to handle problems as they encountered them.

The tunnel is formed of 32mm iron plates bolted together, lined with concrete and white glazed ceramic tiles..The tunnel itself dips towards the centre of the river with a gradient of 1 in 15.  The gradients were designed for the sake of economy as the enabling Act of Parliament required should allow for dredging of the river at 48ft at high water

It is accessed by lift and by spiral staircases descending in shafts – 88 steps on the north side and 100 at GreenwichThe stairs are of wrought iron with brittle non-polishing cast iron tread plates. The shafts are accessed via a brick entrance rotunda capped with a listed glass dome.  The walls of the rotundae are built over the outer edge of caissons which hold the shafts; the lift and stair structures hang from the caisson, and do not bear structurally on the horizontal surface at the base of the shafts.   The caissons themselves are of two steel skins 43ft in external diameter with four foot of concrete between outside and inside skins. A thick vertical stanchion stands in front of the lift doors and this runs the whole depth of the shaft and ties the stairs and lifts together.

. Great care was taken to make the jointing water proof.  Bolts had lead washers put on them completely filling any spaces and soft lead wire was hammered into the joints between castings.

The tunnelling shield used was 14ft 6 in in length with 13 segments at the cutting edge, each segment have two 6inch teeth. Care was also taken with the health of the men employed and new apparatus was designed to remove ‘carbonic acid’ from the air and also to ventilate generally.  It was noted that ‘only nine cases of caisson sickness occurred, mostlytrivial’ and ‘caused by indiscretion on the part of the sufferers’.   It was hoped that the County Council could use the results which emerged from the use of this new apparatus to improve future works. Messrs Leslie and Macmorran were the Medical Offices in charge.  A number of learned paper emerged from this paper as results were published.   However it is said that the ‘rate of progress has been exceptionally rapid’ – 10ft per working day.

During the Second World War the Greenwich tunnel was bombed but a strengthened section near the north end attests to the damage and repair work.  There is also shrapnel damage left unrepaired in the brickwork of the south rotunda.  It is thought that the bomb which caused the damage was on the foreshore of the north bank – but there were numerous hits on the south side, including rocket attacks.

Hundreds of people have daily used the tunnel to cross the River - and pedestrians have now been joined by many cyclists, for whom it is the major crossing point between Tower Bridge and the Woolwich Free Ferry.    The visible part of the tunnel is its small circular cupolaewith an entrance made of StuartsGranolithic cement and a ribbed glass dome above.  Over the doorways at the Greenwich end is a bronze plaque which commemorates the completion of the work. These are nowlisted Grade II.

The tunnels were built by the LondoncountyCouncil and passed in due course to the Greater London Council. When that was closed down Greenwich Council took over managementresponsibility of the tunnels on behalf of the three constituent boroughs – Greenwich, Towner Hamlets and Newham.

This article has been about the Greenwich Foot Tunnel – and sadly there is much less detail About the Woolwich one.  In Woolwich the tunnel entrance originally sat on the ferry approach – but access to the ferry was moved to allow for vehicle movements and a new leisure centre now cut the foot tunnel off from road and leaves it out of sight.   On the North Woolwich side the entrance is visible but isolated in the centre of roads jammed with traffic waitingfor the ferry.  The Woolwich tunnel is much less heavily used than the Greenwich one and many people prefer to use the Free Ferry.

It was surprise to discover that the existing Woolwich tunnel was n fact the second to be planned here.   Research on the Woolwich tunnel produced press cuttings of an attempt to build a tunnel twenty years earlier – hitherto unknown.  Investigations have failed to discover any research, or indeed mention of it.    It appears to have been begun in 1877 under Mr. Gilbert, engineer, with Messrs. Sharp as contractors.  It is said that it resulted from an accident on the Thames were eight people were drowned trying to cross the river. It was to run from near the Great Eastern Railway station in North Woolwich and terminate in Woolwich high street accessed by ‘an enclosed road.  The tunnel would be 1,800 ft. long and would lie 25ft-35ft below the river bed. It was to be made up of a circular tube of iron 9 ft. in diameter and about 12ft in height.  It should take four people walking abreast.   The press comment that it would be very useful to take troops and artillery guns across the river.  However by 1879 work was ‘in abeyance’.     The strange thing about the press reports on which this is based is that none of them are local.

The Woolwich tunnel was opened ten years after the Greenwich, in 1912. - by Lord Chesleymore the then Chairman of the London County Council. It was designed by Maurice Fitzmaurice who had taken over from Binnie as Chief Engineer to the County council in 1901. It was and built by Walter Scott and Middleton. It is said that the provision of the tunnel owned much to the efforts of Will Crooks, who had been Chair of the LCC Bridges Committee in 1898 when, it is said, the Greenwich Tunnel was planned.  From 1903 he was Member of Parliament for Woolwich, at a time when the Woolwich constituency covered both sides of the river and thus both tunnel entrances.

Construction began on the north bank in 1910 with workers digging by hand and the tunnel continued to be dug in this way and, like other tunnels, used the Greathead shield.  The tunnel id 1655 feet long and thetop is 10 feet below the river bed –covered by 38 feet of water at low tide and 69 feet at high tide.  It is a cast iron tube made of a series of connecting rings

Like the Greenwich tunnel it was lined with white ceramic tiles and the floor was York stone flags.   Lifts were not allowed for in the original scheme and they were added later in the project at an additional cost of £5,000 – and with manually operated gates. Like the Greenwich lifts they were replaced in the early 1990s with the original panelled interiors retained. They can carry up to 40 passengers.   The rotundas are red brick on a plinth of blue engineering brick, with sash windows protected by iron grilles and above the parapet is a conical roof with circular copper clad lantern. The entrances have glass canopies on cast iron columns. They were listed GradeII in 1989. 

Work started to upgrade the Woolwich tunnel in 2010 and the tunnel closed during the day as work proceeded.  However in 2010 the tunnel was closed completely as structural weaknesses were discovered in the stairways.  It eventually reopened in 2011 although the lifts were not completed.   The tunnel has a leaky feeder system to allow the use of mobile phones.

The tunnel is now over a hundred years old and feeling its age.  In 2008 it was agreed that it needed to be, at least, refurbished.  Work began in 2009 funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government    but it soon became clear that the project was running very late and was in trouble.   As 2012 neared, when the tunnel would be needed as a river crossing during the Olympics, public disquiet grew.The stairs at Greenwich reopened on time in 2011butwereheavily boarded so as to cause difficulty in use.  Various reasons were given for delays, promises were made on opening.  The problems clearly remained.   The homes and communities agency which had been overseeing the project was wound up, and another long delay with no information ensured. At this point FOGWOFT was launched – Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels.

In 2012 with works still in a complete mess the Royal Borough of Greenwich set up an inquiry into the refurbishment scheme.  FOGWOFT officers attended meetings where the tunnel was discussed and made representations. Meanwhile the original contractors were no longer on site and a new firm was undertaking unfinished work.   

The eventual consultant’s report to the Council commented that while work on the tunnel was a small job for the construction industry it was nevertheless unique and complex in a way that had not really been appreciated.  FOGWOFT has worked closely with Council officers and reported on work as it has been completed.  Officers have had several interesting visits to see the problems faced by the construction team – they can hardly be called tours of the works, since the area involved is small and cramped.  As work progressed problems with century old structures were uncovered as well as problems of drainage and with the formation of miniature stalagmites as condensation drips onto the floor.   The clear wired glass on the domes had the dirt of many decades on it and people assumed the murky look was traditional.  English Heritage agreed that the new laminated glass would have a feint white smoke tint to reproduce that unwashed look!  FOGWOFT helped with a public consultation as to whether the tunnel should be re-tiled or whether the traditional tile work should be cleaned but remain, however scarred.    It has however proved that however clean the tiles are that they are never going to return to their original bright white state.

The liftsat Greenwich were originally installed two years after the tunnel was opened and there are stories of gallant young men helping young ladies to descent the steps, sometime with bicycles.  The lifts were replaced in 1992 with an 80 person capacity and the beautiful original mahogany lift interiors r-installed.  These lifts were always attended with staff members at both and south lifts. It was decided to install lifts which did not need to be manned  and thus new state-of-the-art lifts are now in place, complete with the original mahogany interiors – but there have been problems of constant lift breakdowns.  The ventilation system allows hot air from the tunnel to be vented through louvres in the cupolae but solar heat builds up under the listed glass domes.  The electronic lift controls cut out at temperatures above 43deg.C. – The highest recorded temperature in the domes has been 56deg.C.   Initially it became a struggle to keep the new equipment cool; temporary air conditioned boxes were built round the control cabinets and industrial fans used.  Even so they could not cope and now permanent cool boxes have been installed as well as back up air conditioning units and fans put on new steel gantries below the cupola.   Since then the lifts have been more reliable – and it has been a lesson in how advances in technology can produce systems more vulnerable to environmental change than old mechanical systems.

The tunnelsare classed as public highways and are thus permanently open. They are also part of the UK NationalCycle Route I which linksInverness and Dover.

As the tunnels have returned to normal use FOGWOFT there are challenges to be met.  The by-laws – dating from 1902 – rule that there shall be no cycling in the tunnel, but this is ignored by many cyclists, and in particular a lycra-clad minority who hurtle through the tunnel to the danger of pedestrians.  FOGWOFDT had been asked by Greenwich Council to help participate in a pilot scheme which to monitor electronically – and hopefully regulate – movement in the tunnel.  It is thought that if this is successful that it could be used elsewhere –canal towpaths would be one obvious use. However, it has now emerged that funding for the scheme from the GLA is notforthcoming and as this article is written we wait for news from Greenwich Council Officers about new ideas and new initiatives to deal with this ongoing problem.Some problems have still not been completely overcome – the lifts at Greenwich failed again during the Tall Ships Festival, and it emerged that spare parts needed to be specially made, in Germany.

FOGWOFT will continue to monitor the tunnels and hopefully help to make them both better known but to enable them to become an important part of the Greenwich heritage which visitors come to see and provide not only a crossing place for them, and for locals, but significant local places which might have a variety of other uses - there is space, for example, for art works in the rotunda.

Thames crossings of all sorts have been proposed recently and there is current a consultationexercise being undertaken on behalf of Transport for London.  At FOGWOFT’s recent AGM it has been suggested that the problems of cyclists who want to speed over could be solved by the provision of other tunnels paralleling the existing foot tunnels but for the use of cyclisrs. In the context of some of the other propsoals this is cheap and cheerful..

Both tunnels continue to do the job they were built for a century ago, and do it efficiently, however modernising them, while maintaining their traditional features, has been more problematic than anyone thought – and provided some valuable lessons. .   This makes an important point about the tunnels – they seem so simple – and yet they were major engineering works of their day, and should be appreciated as such. To quote one report to Tower Hamlets Council ‘they represent a magnificent feat of Edwardian engineering – impressive ambition of the project  - the character is consistent and defined by the finest engineering techniques of the day  - the design throughout ... and fabric is coherent, logical and simple and the materials used are robust and designed to last’.

Mary Mills


Sources - the material for most of this article was obtained verbally from construction team members on site at the tunnels.   An article on the history of the Greenwich Tunnel by Myles Dove appeared in the September 2002 edition of the Greenwich Industrial History Newsletter. (http://gihs.gold.ac.uk/gihs27.html#foot) .   Other material has come from Dr. Skipper’s presentation to Greenwich Industrial History Society (also unpublished).Materialcan also be found in reports to meetings of the three LondonBoroughs concerned – sometimesburied in minutes or as appendices.

Article in Engineer 4th April 1902.

Institution of Civil Engineers 1901-1902. Minutes of proceedings. The Greenwich Footway Tunnel by William Charles Copperthwaite. M.Inst. C.E. (much of this paper describes the arrangements made to allow construction to proceed)

Press cutting file Greenwich Heritage Centre

London Borough of Greenwich. Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels. Feasibility Study for refurbishment



Dr. Mary Mills (incidentally Chair of FOGWOFT)


Paul T said...

Excellent update. Thanks, Mary.

wintow said...

Thanks for sharing, it was interesting to read!