Image courtesy of the Brunel Museum - people banqueting in the tunnel.
The Thames tunnel stretches between Wapping and Rotherhithe, and was THE place to promenade if you were an upmarket Victorian in the mid-19th century. It was the engineering brainchild of the Brunel’s, and the only project they worked upon together. When the tunnel opened people came from far and wide to walk through it and be entertained by the many side-shows that plied a trade under flickering gas-light.
Exactly under the middle of the river is a refreshment room, kept by an eccentric old man who has not been a half mile from the Tunnel since it was completed. Daylight to him is almost unknown. He does not sleep in the Tunnel, but he enters before day in the morning and does not leave until late at night. This old man on account of his many wonderful stories and jokes, in addition to good cakes and wines, has many visitors.
The sensations experienced as one sits here are very peculiar. A thin brick ceiling over head, covered with a few feet of mud, and many feet of water, with water trickling from the ceiling and through the walls; - and steamers, ships and barges sailing along far above you! Many bright eyes of timid beauties, and ominous glances of frightened old men, have I seen directed to the walls and ceiling as the crowd hurried along.
~ W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859
Back in the day it cost a shilling for the public to gain entrance. Tonight it has cost me £5 – there’s inflation for you! It seems public opinion was divided between those who thought this was an amazing feat of engineering, and those who thought it was a colossal waste of public money.
This great, but for many years comparatively useless, work of Sir Isambard Brunel was carried under the river from Wapping (left bank) to Rotherhithe (right bank) at a cost of nearly half a million of money. For about twenty years after its completion it was one of the recognised sights of London, and a kind of mouldy and poverty-stricken bazaar established itself at the entrance of the tunnel. The pence of the sightseers and the rent of the stalls proved wholly insufficient even to pay current expenses, and in 1865 the Tunnel Company were glad to get rid of their white elephant at a loss of about half its original cost. It now belongs to the East London Railway Company.
~ Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881
I shall update you more tomorrow! But I am taking my giant camera (nicknamed ‘the Beast’) which shuns digital and favours the old-fashioned film approach, so my photographs may take some time arriving on the blog.
Read more about the Thames Tunnel