The Tower Subway and London Docks

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'The Tower Subway and London Docks', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 122-128. British History Online [accessed 20 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "The Tower Subway and London Docks", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 122-128. British History Online, accessed June 20, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "The Tower Subway and London Docks", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 122-128. British History Online. Web. 20 June 2024,

In this section



London Apoplectic—Early Subways—The Tower Subway—London Breweries in the time of the Tudors-The West India, East India, and London Docks—A Tasting Order for the Docks—The "Queen's Pipe"—Curious "Treasure Trove."

It has long been a question with English engineers, whether, as the wealth and population of the City increase, London must not some day or other be double-decked. The metropolis is going plethoric, to use a medical metaphor—it makes so much blood; and if something is not done, a stoppage must ensue. A person disposed to fat sometimes grows larger the more depletive his diet; so increased railways (like the Metropolitan) seem rather to increase than lessen the general traffic. When that undertaking was opened in 1863 it was feared that the "buses" from Paddington and Oxford Street would be driven off the line, for in the first year the railway carried 9,500,000 passengers. A little later it carried nearly 40,000,000 passengers; and since it began it has carried 150,000,000 persons to and fro. Yet at the present moment there are more omnibuses on this line of route from the West to the City than there were when the railway started, and they are earning one penny per mile a day more than they were before it was opened. These facts seem almost astounding, but the surprise disappears when we remember the fact, that in dealing with London passenger traffic we are dealing with a population greater than that of all Scotland, and more than two-thirds that of all Ireland; a population, too, which increases in a progressive ratio of about 42,000 a year. But with all this increase of numbers, which literally means increase of difficulty in moving about, the great streets most frequented grow not an inch wider. Fleet Street and "Old Chepe" are just as narrow as in the days of Elizabeth, when the barrier stood at Ludgate; and Thames Street, which is no wider than it was in the days of Alfred, is congested with its traffic twelve hours out of the twenty-four.

A few years ago Mr. Barlow, a very practical engineer, came forward to meet this crying want, and offered, at a cost of £16,000, in less than a year, to bore a subway through the bed of the Thames. The idea was not a new one. As early as 1799 an attempt had been made to construct a tunnel under the Thames between Gravesend and Tilbury; and in 1804 a similar work was actually begun between Rotherhithe and Limehouse, which, after proceeding 1,000 feet, broke in; fifty-four engineers of the day deciding that such a work not only would never commercially pay, but was also impracticable. Brunel's scheme of the Thames Tunnel cost half a million of money, and took twenty-one years' labour to complete.

Mr. Barlow's tunnel, from Tower Hill to Tooley Street, was of course looked upon as chimerical. Mr. Barlow, with less ambition and genius, but more common sense and thriftiness than his great predecessor, took good care to remember that the crown of Brunel's arches, in some places, came within four feet of the river water. In the Tower subway the average distance preserved is thirty feet, and in no place is there less than eighteen feet of sound London clay between the arch and the tideway. The cardinal principle of Mr. Barlow was to sink deep into the London clay, which is as impervious to water as stone, and in which no pumping would be required.

The works were begun on February 16, 1869, by breaking ground for the shaft on the north side of the river; in February, 1870, numerous visitors were conveyed from one shaft-head to the other. The tunnel commences, as we have said, at Tower Hill, where a hoarding encloses a small square of ground, not larger than an ordinary sitting-room, for which, however, the Government made the Company pay at the rate of about £240,000 an acre. In the centre of this is a little circular shaft, about fourteen feet diameter and sixty feet deep, and at the end of this, facing south, a clean, bright, vaulted chamber, which serves as a waiting-room. At the end of this chamber is the tunnel, a tube of iron not unlike the adit of a mine, which, in its darkness and silence, heightened by the knowledge that this grimlooking road runs down deeply below the bed of the river, gives it at first sight anything but an inviting appearance. The length of the whole tunnel is about 1,340 feet, or as nearly as possible about a quarter of a mile. From Tower Hill it runs in a south-west direction, and, passing under Barclay's brewery, emerges under a shaft similar to that at entering, but only fifty feet deep, and out of this the passengers will come within a few yards of Tooley Street, close to the railway station. From the Tower Hill shaft to the centre of the river the tunnel makes a dip of about one in thirty. From this point it rises again at the same incline to what we may call the Tooley Street station.

The method of constructing the tunnel, we need hardly remark, from its excessive cheapness, was simple in the extreme. It has been built in 18-inch lengths of cast-iron tubing, perfectly circular, each 18-inch circle being built up of three segments, with a key-piece at the top, which, fitting in like a wedge, holds the rest with the rigidity of a solid casting. The cast-iron shield used for excavation was less than two and a half tons weight. In front of the shield, which was slightly concave, was an aperture about two feet square, closed with a sliding iron water-tight door, and at the back of the shield were iron sockets, into which screwjacks fitted, and, when worked by hand, forced the shield forward. The mode of advance was this. When a shaft on Tower Hill had been bored to a sufficient depth below the London clay, the shield was lowered and placed in its required position. The water-tight door we have spoken of as in the centre was then opened. Through this aperture sufficient clay, just of the consistency of hard cheese, was cut away by hand till a chamber was made large enough for a man, who entered and worked till there was room for two, and these soon made a circular space exactly the size of the shield and about two feet deep. This done, the miners came out, and with their screw-jacks forced the shield forward into the space which they had cut, but with the long telescope-like cap of the shield still over them. Under cover of this an 18-inch ring was quickly put in and bolted together; and while this was doing, the clay was being excavated from the front of the shield as before. Thus every eight hours, night and day, Sundays and week days, the shield went forward eighteen inches, and eighteen inches length of iron was added to the tube, which so advanced at the rate of 5 feet 4 inches every twenty-four hours.

The clay was so completely water-proof, that water had to be sent down to the workmen in cans to mix with the cement. No traces of fresh-water shells were found; but very large clay-stones and a great many sharks' teeth and marine shells. So perfect were Mr. Barlow's calculations, that the two opposite tunnels met within a quarter of an inch. The small interval between the iron and the clay was filled with blue lias cement, which coats the tube and protects it from oxidisation. The gain to the East-end of London by this successful and cleverly executed undertaking is enormous, and the intercourse between the north and south banks of the Thames is greatly facilitated; and the conception has been seized upon by Mr. Bateman as the basis of his well-known suggestion for a submarine tube to carry a railway from England to France. The Thames tube is 7 feet in clear internal diameter, and it originally carried a railway of 2 feet 6 inches gauge. On this railway formerly ran an omnibus capable of conveying twelve passengers. The omnibus was constructed of iron; it was light, but very strong, and ran upon eight wheels, and was connected with a rope of steel wire by means of a gripe that could be at any time tightened or relaxed at pleasure, and at each end of the tunnel this wire ran over a drum worked by means of a stationary engine.

If the carriage was stopped in the centre of the tunnel, the beat of the paddles of the steamers above could be heard, and even the hammering on board ships. In time there will be subways at Gravesend, Woolwich, and Greenwich. The next to be formed, however, is one from St. George's Church in the Borough to Cannon Street. The Tower subway is now only used for foot-passengers, at a charge of one halfpenny.

On the river side, below St. Katherine's, says Pennant, on we hardly know what authority, stood, in the reign of the Tudors, the great breweries of London, or the "bere house," as it is called in the map of the first volume of the "Civitates Orbis." They were subject to the usual useful, yet vexatious, surveillance of the olden times; and in 1492 (Henry VII.) the king licensed John Merchant, a Fleming, to export fifty tuns of ale "called berre;" and in the same thrifty reign one Geffrey Gate (probably an officer of the king's) spoiled the brew-houses twice, either by sending abroad too much beer unlicensed, or by brewing it too weak for the sturdy home customers. The demand for our stalwart English ale increased in the time of Elizabeth, in whose reign we find 500 tuns being exported at one time alone, and sent over to Amsterdam probably, as Pennant thinks, for the use of our thirsty army in the Low Countries. The exportation then seems to have been free, except in scarce times, when it was checked by proclamation; but even then royal licences to brew could be bought for a consideration.

From the old brew-houses of Elizabeth in London, that have long since passed into dreamland, we must now guide our readers forward, under swinging casks and between ponderous wheels that seem to threaten instant annihilation, into the broad gateway of the London Docks, the most celebrated and central of all the semi-maritime brotherhood. The St. Katherine's Dock, with its twenty-four acres of water, can already accommodate 10,000 tons of goods, while the capital of the Company exceeds two million pounds. But all this dwindles into comparative insignificance beside the leviathan docks we have now to decribe, which grasp an extent of 100 acres, and offer harbour-room for 500 ships and 34,000 tons of goods; the capital of the Company amounting to the enormous amount of four millions. Yet these again are dwarfed by the West India Docks, their richer neighbours, which are three times as extensive as the London Docks, having an area of no less than 295 acres, with water to accommodate 400 vessels, and warehouse-room for 180,000 tons of merchandise; the capital of the Company is more than six millions of pounds, and the value of goods which have been on the premises at one time twenty millions. Lastly, the East India Docks occupy 32 acres, and afford warehouse-room for 15,000 tons of goods.

The London Docks, built by Rennie, were opened in 1805. In 1858 two new docks were constructed for the larger vessels now built, and they have 28 feet depth of water. The wool floors were enlarged and glass-roofed in 1850. The annual importation is 130,000 bales. The vast tea warehouse, with stowage for 120,000 chests of tea, was completed in 1845, at a cost of £100,000. Six weeks are allowed for unloading a ship: a farthing a ton per week is charged for the first two weeks, then a halfpenny per week per ton. The great jetty and sheds, built in 1839, cost £60,000.

"As you enter the dock," says Mr. Mayhew, in a pleasant picture of the scene, "the sight of the forest of masts in the distance, and the tall chimneys vomiting clouds of black smoke, and the many-coloured flags flying in the air, has a most peculiar effect; while the sheds with the monster wheels arching through the roofs look like the paddle-boxes of huge steamers. Along the quay you see, now men with their faces blue with indigo, and now gangers with their long brasstipped rule dripping with spirit from the cask they have been probing. Then will come a group of flaxen-haired sailors, chattering German; and next a black sailor, with a cotton handkerchief twisted turban-like round his head. Presently a blue-smocked butcher, with fresh meat and a bunch of cabbages in the tray on his shoulder; and shortly afterwards a mate, with green paroquets in a wooden cage. Here you will see sitting on a bench a sorrowful-looking woman, with new bright cooking tins at her feet, telling you she is an emigrant preparing for her voyage. As you pass along this quay the air is pungent with tobacco; on that, it overpowers you with the fumes of rum; then you are nearly sickened with the stench of hides and huge bins of horns; and shortly afterwards the atmosphere is fragrant with coffee and spice. Nearly everywhere you meet stacks of cork, or else yellow bins of sulphur, or lead-coloured copper ore. As you enter this warehouse the flooring is sticky, as if it had been newly tarred, with the sugar that has leaked through the casks; and as you descend into the dark vaults, you see long lines of lights hanging from the black arches, and lamps flitting about midway. Here you sniff the fumes of the wine, and there the peculiar fungus-smell of dry rot; there the jumble of sounds as you pass along the dock blends in anything but sweet concord. The sailors are singing boisterous nigger songs from the Yankee ship just entering; the cooper is hammering at the casks on the quay; the chains of the cranes, loosed of their weight, rattle as they fly up again; the ropes splash in the water; some captain shouts his orders through his hands; a goat bleats from some ship in the basin; and empty casks roll along the stones with a heavy, drum-like sound. Here the heavily-laden ships are down far below the quay, and you descend to them by ladders; whilst in another basin they are high up out of the water, so that their green copper sheathing is almost level with the eye of the passenger; while above his head a long line of bowsprits stretches far over the quay, and from them hang spars and planks as a gangway to each ship.

"This immense establishment is worked by from 1,000 to 3,000 hands, according as the business is either brisk or slack. Out of this number there are always 400 to 500 permanent labourers, receiving on an average 16s. 6d. per week, with the exception of coopers, carpenters, smiths, and other mechanics, who are paid the usual wages of those crafts. Besides these, there are many hundred—from 1,000 to 2,500—casual labourers, who are engaged at the rate of 2s. 6d. per day in the summer, and 2s. 4d. in the winter months. Frequently, in case of many arrivals, extra hands are hired in the course of the day, at the rate of 4d. an hour. For the permanent labourers a recommendation is required, but for the casual labourers no character is demanded. The number of the casual hands engaged by the day depends, of course, upon the amount of work to be done; and we find that the total number of labourers in the dock varies from 500 to 3,000 and odd. On the 4th of May, 1849, the number of hands engaged, both permanent and casual, was 2,794; on the 26th of the same month it was 3,012; and on the 30th it was 1,189. These appear to be the extreme of the variation for that year."

There are few Londoners with curiosity or leisure who have not at some time or other obtained. "a tasting order for the docks." To all but the most prudent that visit has led to the same inglorious result. First there is "a coy, reluctant, amorous delay," a shy refusal of the proffered goblet, gradually an inquiring sip, then another; next arises a curious, half-scientific wish to compare vintages; and after that a determination, "being in for it," to acquire a rapid, however shallow, knowledge of comparative ages and qualities. On that supervenes a garrulous fluency of tongue that leads to high-flown remembrances of Spanish and French towns, illustrated by the songs of the peasantry of various countries. Upon that follows a lassitude and mute melancholy, which continues till the cooper seems suddenly to turn a screw which has long been evidently loose, and shoots you out into the stupefying open air. The chief features of such a visit are gravely treated by a writer in Household Words:—

"Proceeding down the dock-yard," says the writer in question, "you see before you a large area literally paved with wine-casks, all full of the most excellent wines. On our last visit, the wine then covering the ground was delicious Bordeaux, as you might easily convince yourself by dipping a finger into the bunghole of any cask; as, for some purpose of measurement or testing the quality, the casks were most of them open. This is, in fact, the great depot of the wine of the London merchants, no less than 60,000 pipes being capable of being stored away in the vaults here. One vault alone, which formerly was seven acres, has now been extended under Gravel Lane, so that at present it contains upwards of twelve acres. These vaults are faintly lit with lamps, but, on going in, you are at the entrance accosted with the singular demand, 'Do you want a cooper?' Many people, not knowing its meaning, say, 'No, by no means.' The meaning of the phrase is, 'Do you want to taste the wines?' when a cooper accompanies you, to pierce the casks and give you the wine. Parties are every day, and all day long, making these exploratory and tasting expeditions. Every one, on entering, is presented with a lamp, at the end of a lath about two feet long, and you soon find yourselves in some of the most remarkable caving in the world. From the dark vaulted roof overhead, especially in one vault, hang strange figures, black as night, light as gossamer, and of a yard or more of length, resembling skins of beasts, or old shirts dipped in soot. They are fed to this strange growth by the fumes of the wine. For those who taste the wines the cooper bores the heads of the pipes, which are ranged throughout these vast cellars on either hand, in thousands and tens of thousands, and draws a glassful. These glasses, though shaped as wine-glasses, resemble much more goblets in their size, containing each as much as several ordinary wine-glasses. What you do not drink is thrown upon the ground; and it is calculated that at least a hogshead a day is thus consumed."

In the centre of the great east vault of the wine cellars, you come to a circular building without any entrance; it is the root and foundation of the Queen's Pipe. Quitting the vault and ascending to the warehouse over it, you find that you are in the great tobacco warehouse, called the Queen's Warehouse, because the Government rent the tobacco warehouses here for £14,000 per annum. "This one warehouse has no equal," says a writer on the subject, "in any other part of the world; it is five acres in extent, and yet it is covered with a roof, the framework of which is of iron, erected, we believe, by Mr. Barry, the architect of the new Houses of Parliament, and of so light and skilful a construction, that it admits of a view of the whole place; and so slender are the pillars, that the roof seems almost to rest upon nothing. Under this roof is piled a vast mass of tobacco in huge casks, in double tiers—that is, two casks in height. This warehouse is said to hold, when full, 24,000 hogsheads averaging 1,200 pounds each, and equal to 30,000 tons of general merchandise. Each cask is said to be worth, duty included, £200, giving a sum total of tobacco in this one warehouse, when filled, of £4,800,000 in value! Besides this there is another warehouse of nearly equal size, where finer kinds of tobacco are deposited, many of them in packages of buffalo-hide, marked 'Giron,' and Manilla for cheroots, in packages of sacking lined with palmetto-leaves. There is still another warehouse for cigars, called the Cigar Floor, in which there are frequently 1,500 chests, valued at £100 each, at an average, or £150,000 in cigars alone."

The dock kiln, or "the Queen's Pipe," are objects of general curiosity not to be forgotten in our description of the London Docks. The kiln is the place where useless or damaged goods that have not paid duty are destroyed. It is facetiously called "the Queen's Pipe" by the Custom House clerks and tide-waiters.

"On a guide-post in the docks is painted in large letters, 'To the kiln.' Following this direction, you arrive at the centre of the warehouse, and at the Queen's Pipe. You enter a door on which is rudely painted the crown royal and the initials 'V. R.,' and find yourself in a room of considerable size, in the centre of which towers up the kiln, a furnace of the conical kind, like a glass-house or porcelain furnace; on the door of the furnace is again painted the crown and the 'V. R.' Here you find in the furnace a huge mass of fire, and around are heaps of damaged tobacco, tea, and other articles, ready to be flung upon it. This fire never goes out day or night from year to year. There is an attendant who supplies it with its fuel as it can take it, and men, during the day-time, constantly coming laden with great loads of tobacco, cigars, and other stuff, condemned to the flames. Whatever is forfeited, and is too bad for sale, be it what it will, is doomed to the kiln. At the other docks damaged goods, we were assured, are buried till they are partly rotten, and then taken up and disposed of as rubbish or manure. Here the Queen's Pipe smokes all up, except the greater quantity of the tea, which, having some time ago set the chimney of the kiln on fire, is now rarely burnt; and strange are the things that sometimes come to this perpetually burning furnace. On one occasion, the attendant informed us he burnt 900 Australian mutton-hams. These were warehoused before the duty came off. The owner suffered them to remain till the duty ceased, in hopes of their being exempt from it; but this not being allowed, they were left till so damaged as to be unsaleable. Yet a good many, the man declared, were excellent; and he often made a capital addition to his breakfast from the roast that, for some time, was so odoriferously going on. On another occasion he burnt 13,000 pairs of condemned French gloves." (Household Words, ii. 357.)


THE THAMES TUNNEL (as it appeared when originally opened for traffic).

"In one department of the place," says the same writer, "often lie many tons of the ashes from the furnace, which are sold by auction, by the ton, to gardeners and farmers, as manure and for killing insects, to soap-boilers, and chemical manufacturers. In a corner are generally to be found piled cart-loads of nails, and other pieces of iron, which have been swept up from the floors, or which have remained in the broken pieces of casks and boxes which go to the kiln. Those which have been sifted from the ashes are eagerly bought up by gunsmiths, sorted, and used in the manufacture of gun-barrels, for which purpose they are highly esteemed, as possessing a toughness beyond all other iron, and therefore calculated pre-eminently to prevent bursting."