In 1863, an attempt to bridge the river failed due to ‘the great height required for the passage of ships’ A steam ferry service was also abandoned as it would have disrupted the heavy amount of shipping which used the river in the mid-19th Century.
|Tower Hill Entrance|
The Tower Subway ran between Tower Hill on the north side of the river, to Vine Lane, just west of where Tower Bridge stands now on the south bank. Built using a method similar to Isambard Brunel, i.e a wrought iron tunnelling shield bored through a layer of clay just below the river bed. Budget restrictions meant the tunnel was only 7 feet in diameter and 1320 feet long.
The tunnel progressed at a rate of 9ft every twenty four hours and was completed in just over a year, designed to take a narrow-gauge cable-hauled railway powered by a static steam engine. Passenger lifts to the surface and a cable car were powered by a 4hp stationary steam engine.
For the first hundred feet or so the omnibus was pulled by a rope fixed to a stationary engine; then descended by its own velocity down an incline and up the incline on the other side to the foot of the shaft.
|The Waiting Room|
Priority of ascent was given to first class passengers, who paid two pence, while the second-class passengers paid one penny. I am not sure if this means that the extra money meant you could jump the queue and leave the ‘Halfpenny’ crowd waiting a lot longer than the designated five minutes for the entire process, but that was probably how it worked.
Collins' Guide to London and Neighbourhood stated: Those, however, who are afflicted with chest complaints should not attempt to make use of it, owing to the extreme closeness of the atmosphere and the limited space in the tube, which renders stooping necessary. It is open from 5.30 AM. till midnight.
The service proved so uneconomical, it lasted only from its opening in August 1870, until the company went into receivership that November. The cable car and tracks were removed and the tunnel turned into a pedestrian walkway the following year. Gas lighting was provided, with stoneware tiles replacing the wooden planks. The lifts were replaced by spiral staircases; the one on Tower Bridge side was 96 steps. 20,000 people a week braved the dark, dank and claustrophobic tunnels to walk beneath the Thames at a cost of a halfpenny each way.
At its height, the subway carried a million foot passengers a year. The tunnel was sold to the London Hydraulic Power Company for hydraulic tubes and water mains which is what it is used for today.
During WWII, the tunnel was badly damaged when a German bomb landed in the Thames, although the tunnel lining was not penetrated.
The Tower Subway is not open to the public, but the northern entrance still exists at Tower Hill, next to the Tower of London ticket office. The entrance is not original, but a replacement built in the 1920's. Strangely, English Heritage does not feel Tower Subway does not meet the criteria for listing as an historical building.
Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879
.........A curious feat of engineering skill, in the shape of an iron tube seven feet in diameter driven through the bed of the Thames between Great Tower-hill and Vine-street. The original intention was to have passengers drawn backwards and forwards in a small tram omnibus. This, however, was found unremunerative, and the rails having been taken up the tunnel has since been open as a footway. Unfortunately, however, after subtracting from its diameter the amount necessary to afford a sufficient width of platform, there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty’s lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value. It has, however, one admirable quality, that of having cost remarkably little in construction.