Culture Magazine

Pedestrian Centenary

By Carolineld @carolineld
Pedestrian centenary
Happy 100th birthday to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel! There wasn't much of a party - the council are presumably too embarrassed about the botched refurbishment - but a small group of London Historians took a walk through this historic passageway to mark its centenary. (There was also a marathon starting in the tunnel earlier this morning - although in obedience to its 'no running' rule the first section was walked.)
A hundred years ago, the local riverscape was very different, edged with working docks and lined with industry. In consequence, thousands of people worked on one side of the Thames but lived on the other. However, getting across the river to work was a bit of an issue. A free ferry service (founded by Bazalgette and still running today) was very helpful but couldn't always operate - especially during London's then-frequent fogs
Pedestrian centenary
A weatherproof, cheap-to-use solution was needed. Luckily, there was a local champion: Will Crooks, working-class trade unionist, MP for Woolwich and former Mayor of Poplar. Thanks to his efforts, London County Council commissioned the tunnel which was designed by their chief engineer Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, who had already built Rotherhithe Tunnel and Vauxhall Bridge. It was dug by hand using the shield method; a tube of cast-iron rings was formed, then hidden by a concrete lining and tiles. There is also visible cast iron in the structure: the treads of the spiral staircases in each shaft.
Pedestrian centenary
Pedestrian centenaryOn 26 October 1912, the 504-metre-long Woolwich Foot Tunnel opened. Since construction had begun on 1 May 1910, the whole process took less time than the current refurbishment which began on 19 April 2010 but is still incomplete. The rotunda entrances are shrouded by scaffolding, the lifts are closed, and there is an air of despondency about the place. It currently feels very much the aging centenarian - quite undeservedly. 
Although the last hundred years have seen dramatic changes to the local area, so that thousands of dockers and factory workers no longer walk through to work each day, the tunnel continues to provide a valued local service. Hopefully, a completed refurbishment will soon reflect that. 

Pedestrian centenary

The rotunda in sunnier, scaffolding-free times.

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