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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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The Opening of Rotherhithe Tunnel

The building of the tunnel also took business from the watermen of the area. They were awarded compensation for this but of the 135 watermen who applied, only 58 of this number received compensation that totalled £1,835.

Rotherhithe Tunnel 6 Rotherhithe Tunnel 2 Rotherhithe Tunnel 5 Rotherhithe Tunnel 3 Rotherhithe Tunnel 4 Rotherhithe Tunnel 1

The later Victorians and Edwardians loved to install foundation stones and commemorative plaques on their structures, that their deeds and achievements were set in stone and not to be overlooked by history.  These two are affixed on the columns either side of the south entrance of the Rotherhithe Tunnel, more restrained and less decorative than the one mounted on the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. The Blackwall Tunnel, joining North Greenwich to Poplar, was opened in 1897, three years after Tower Bridge opened to provide another crossing over the River Thames east of London Bridge.  Still this wasn’t enough to cope with all the traffic wishing to cross the river and in 1900 a Private Members Bill was put before Parliament to allow the London County Council to build a tunnel, originally called the Rotherhithe and Ratcliff Tunnel, just under two miles east of Tower Bridge.  In particular, the new route would serve both the Surrey Commercial Docks and the Limehouse and West India Docks.


The construction of the tunnel took four years, commencing in 1904 and completed in 1908. It was designed by Maurice FitzMaurice, the Chief Engineer of the LCC and the work was carried out by Messrs Price and Reeves under the supervision of Resident Engineer Edward H Tabor.  Designed for the horse drawn traffic and the early automobiles of its day, it had pavements on either side for pedestrians.  It is just under 1.5km long and 14.5m below the high water level of the Thames, and used both the cut and cover construction method at the entrances and the tunnelling shield method which had been pioneered by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the nearby Thames Tunnel. As the left hand plaque above proclaims, the arch over the southern entrance is a segment of the cutting edge of the cutting shield.  Four shafts were sunk for ventilation and shaft numbers 2 and 3, those built on the river’s edge to the south and north of the river respectively, had spiral staircases installed for pedestrian access.  These were damaged during World War II and, though repaired, have not been reopened.  

Ventilation shafts number 1, in Brunel Road and number 2, overlooking the River Thames adjacent to the former entrance to the Grand Surrey Canal.

But there was protest about the building of the tunnel from those whose rented cottages were compulsorily purchased and demolished to make way for the tunnel. It was estimated that the building of the tunnel made approximately 3,000 people homeless, 1,707 of these on the Surrey side.  The LCC built new tenement blocks to accommodate the displaced in Swan Lane (now Road), Clarence Street and Albion Street, the largest of these estates being the Swan Lane estate with five blocks that was able to provide homes for 1,247.  The new blocks had more modern facilities but many preferred their old homes and many moved out of the area.  There were also complaints that the rents the LCC charged were higher than they had been paying.  

Part of the Swan Road estate, built by the London County Council to house those displaced by the building of the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

The completed Rotherhithe Tunnel was opened on 12 June 1908 by the Prince of Wales, later King George V.  He and the Princess of Wales drove in an open landau, drawn by four horses with postilions and outriders, accompanied by an escort of Household  Cavalry.  After crossing the River Thames at Westminster Bridge, the procession continued through St George’s Road, New Kent Road, Tower Bridge Road, Spa Road and Jamaica Road.  Rarely has Bermondsey seen such a spectacle and large crowds lined the streets where the procession passed.  The streets were decorated with flags and bunting, while residents also decorated their houses with flags, welcome messages and Chinese lanterns, while others had outlined their windows with paper roses.  All the school children in the borough, no doubt very excited, had been given a half day holiday and a contingent from each school, numbering 2,500 together with their teachers, were on the footways in the approaches to the tunnel.  The procession stopped at Bermondsey Town Hall where the Mayor of Bermondsey, Henry Harbord, presented an address of welcome to the Prince of Wales and the Mayoress presented a bouquet of red and white roses to the Princess of Wales. The band of the 21st Battalion County of London Regiment played the National Anthem as the Royal carriages approached.  


A short while later, the Prince of Wales arrived at the tunnel entrance where he was received by a large party that include Richard Robinson, the Chairman of the LCC, Maurice Fitzmaurice, the Chief Engineer who had designed the tunnel, and John Price who represented the contractors Price and Reeves.  A stand to the side had been erected where some of the men who had worked on the site were accommodated.  The Prince of Wales was conducted to the entrance gates which he unlocked with a gold key. The workmen were afterwards presented to the Prince who shook hands with the foreman, Charles Holloway, and congratulated him on the success of the work with so few accidents.  The Royal party then re-entered their carriage and travelled through the tunnel to similar celebrations on the northern entrance.  He was loudly cheered as the carriage disappeared into the Tunnel.

The Tunnel was immediately popular and soon after opening 2,600 vehicles were using it daily.  By its centenary in 2008, 34,000 vehicles were using it per day.  Whilst cycling and pedestrians are permitted, unsurprisingly this type of traffic is very low.  Here is an account of walking through the Tunnel   by a very intrepid man.