Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Rotherhithe - "The Eighth Wonder of the World."

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Southwark, and having visited Bermondsey, can continue following the Thames eastwards into Rotherhithe. The area takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon Hryder-hyd, meaning a landing place for cattle, and was, for centuries, dominated by docks and shipyards, going back at least to the Sixteenth Century. The shipyards closed in the early Nineteenth Century, as steel replaced timber, and sail gave way to steam (a transition depicted on Turner's famous painting, "The Fighting Temeraire"); but the docks remained in active use until after the Second World War.

"The Fighting Temeraire," by J.M.W. Turner, 1839, National Gallery, NG524 (image is in the Public Domain). The view-point is from Rotherhithe.

Each of London's dockland areas had connections to different parts of the world: in the case of Rotherhithe, Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea; Russia; Greenland; and Canada. There is little to show for this today, apart from place-names (Canada Water, Greenland Dock, Russia Dock Woodland), and the churches that once ministered to Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian seamen.

Map of Rotherhithe, Ordnance Survey (Open Data License).

Prior to the construction of Tower Bridge, communication between London's northern and southern docks was a major problem for the managers of the port. Both labour and goods needed to be moved, but there was no crossing point east of an increasingly congested London Bridge. The Thames Watermen had an effective monopoly, but moving cargoes and people around by boat added both costs and time. London, as a port, was becoming less efficient each year.

A solution was proposed by one of the greatest engineers ever to have worked in Britain, the Frenchman, Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), a refugee from the French Revolution. His scheme was for a tunnel beneath the Thames, connecting Rotherhithe with Wapping. Thirteen hundred feet in length, thirty-five in width, and seventy-five feet beneath the Thames, it would be the first tunnel ever built beneath a navigable river, and would be able to accommodate carts and carriages. Early investors included the Duke of Wellington, and work commenced in 1825.

Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, by James Northcote, 1812-13, National Portrait Gallery, NPG978 (image is in the Public Domain). 

Brunel had worked with another engineer, Thomas Cochrane, to develop an innovative "tunneling shield," built of iron and wood, a movable platform on which miners could dig through the silt and clay, whilst, behind them, bricklayers constructed the vault that would support the overlying weight.

Work did not always go smoothly: there was a serious flood in 1827; and a second in 1828; the latter claiming the lives of six men. Marc's son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), who had joined the project as an engineer, was lucky to escape the 1828 flood with his life. Costs were mounting, and work stopped altogether between 1828 and 1834.

The construction of the Thames Tunnel, c 1830 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Thames Tunnel "shield" (image is in the Public Domain). 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett, 1857 (image is in the Public Domain).

When the project was completed in 1843, it was a triumph of engineering, but a commercial failure. It opened as a pedestrian tunnel, and it became a major tourist destination, attracting two million visitors per year. The American travel-writer, William Allen Drew, described it as "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Costermongers set up their stalls in the tunnel, and buskers performed; homeless people even paid to sleep there; but no carriages or goods ever passed through the tunnel, and investors saw little, if any, return.

The Thames Tunnel shaft in 1843 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Thames Tunnel in the mid-19th Century (image is in the Public Domain).

The Thames Tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway in 1865, and is still in use today: most passengers traveling on the London Overground service (formerly the East London Line) between Rotherhithe and Wapping are probably unaware that they are using the tunnel built by the Brunels.

The Thames Tunnel from Wapping. Photo: Andrew Rendle (licensed under CCA).

At the Rotherhithe end, just around the corner from the railway station, a former engine-house, staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, stands as a museum to one of London's most ambitious engineering projects.

The Brunel Museum at Rotherhithe. Photo: Bryan Jones (licensed under CCA).

We have now completed our exploration of the Borough of Southwark. From Rotherhithe, we can take the London Overground to Canada Water, changing onto the Jubilee Line, and alighting at Waterloo, to begin our exploration of the neighbouring Borough of Lambeth.

The London Borough of Southwark (image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. I used to be one of the commuters who had no idea that I was going through a Brunel tunnel twice a day. I'm glad I know now.