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Crossing the Thames by the Tower 3: subway and tunnel

Tower Bridge so dominates the landscape of that part of the river that it is very difficult to imagine it not being there. However, as London east of the city on both sides of the river, an area almost entirely dominated by the dock and marine trade, had grown to over a third the size of the whole of London, new crossings became vital.

Thames Subway to Thames Tunnel map
Thames Subway to Thames Tunnel map

While trying to date a Victorian, pre-Tower Bridge, map, I noticed a tunnel indicated between the Tower and the south bank – Thames Subway (sometimes called the Tower Subway). I’d never heard of this before so did some more research. Between 1825-43, Thomas Cochrane and Mark Isambard Brunel, father of the famous I.K.Brunel, had built a pedestrian river tunnel, the Thames Tunnel, further east, connecting Rotherhithe on the south bank with Wapping on the north bank. It proved very popular with paintings on the walls of the stairs, and shop stalls selling souvenirs in the alcoves of the tunnel. It also proved that a river tunnel could be built.

Thames Tunnel mid-nineteenth century
Thames Tunnel mid-nineteenth century

In 1869 it became repurposed as a railway tunnel. This gave the idea that a similar tunnel could be built under the river at the Tower. The resulting tunnel, the Tower Subway, finished in 1870 (the year of Dickens’ death), was very low, narrow (7 feet wide) and dark, with a single narrow gauge railway, and one carriage holding 12 passengers that was pulled by a cable car system. It was not very popular, proved uneconomic and was converted to a toll pedestrian tunnel, with over a million people a year using it until the toll-free Tower Bridge opened in 1894, a few hundred yards further down river.

Tower Subway carriage
The Tower Subway carriage

I could now date the map as some time between 1870 and 1894. The tunnel is now used for water mains. The Tower Subway, Tower Bridge, the Thames Tunnel and the railway crossings all helped hasten the demise of the wherrymen’s trade and their ferries, described in a previous blog and so vividly brought to life by Dickens and Mayhew.

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