The First Tube Line… sort of

If you’ve ever been to the Tower of London, and to be fair, most Londoners haven’t, you might have noticed this building near the souvenir shop:

Or you might not. It’s hardly the most notable building in the area, what with it being Tower Hill and all. You might have seen the words “THE LONDON HYDRAULIC POWER COMPANY” written at the top and thought, “Hmm.” And as random windowless brick shed things go, it’s not bad, architecturally speaking.

This is, however, the last visible remnant of a white elephant in the history of London’s public transport. It’s the entrance to the Tower Subway.

In the latter half of the 19th century, London was a very busy place (well, duh). People wanted to get across the river and there was no crossing between London Bridge and the Thames Tunnel. Another bridge wasn’t seen as an option, as it would interfere with shipping. So if someone could find a way to get people across the river without messing about with the boats, they’d have a licence to print money, right?

This would appear to have been the thinking behind the Tower Subway, authorised in 1868. This would go under the river, as the earlier Thames Tunnel had done. Unfortunately, the contractors remembered the Thames Tunnel all too well. They remembered that it had gone over budget, taken an awfully long time to build and had killed several workers during its construction. Fortunately for London, at this point James Greathead and Peter Barlow stepped in.

Statue of Greathead, The City

Greathead and Barlow proposed using a shield of their own invention to dig the tunnel. It improved on the one devised by Marc Brunel to dig the Thames Tunnel, but the principle was basically the same. It was an iron tube that was pushed through the earth by a series of screw jacks, sheltering the workers while they dug the clay out. Then they would reinforce the tunnel using rings of cast iron. Surprisingly, given the difficulties Brunel had faced, the tunnel was completed in under a year.

The subway opened for business on 2nd August 1870. There was an entrance on Tower Hill and another on Vine Street on the South Bank. Passengers were carried down to the subway in a lift. Thereupon, they would get into a narrow gauge railway carriage which was attached to a cable and get winched through the tunnel to the other side.

The carriage (or “omnibus,” as the Subway referred to it) was apparently very cramped – the gauge of the rails was 2′ 6″ and the tunnel was 7′ in diameter. The picture on the left would therefore appear to be somewhat flexible with the truth. I know people were smaller then, but damn. Oddly enough, it was also possible to buy first and second class tickets, despite the fact that there was only one non-compartmentalised carriage. All a first class ticket really meant was that you could jump the queue.

Unfortunately, not as many people as you might think were willing to pay a penny for the luxury of trundling through a narrow tunnel in a cramped carriage (tuppence to jump the queue), and the venture failed a grand total of three months after opening.

After some hasty refurbishment, the subway was reopened as a foot tunnel with a half-penny toll. In this form, it was rather more successful. Well, at least until 1894. That was the year when Tower Bridge opened, which a lot more people could cross toll-free and which, of course, didn’t interfere with shipping and allowed road traffic across.

And so the London Hydraulic Power Company bought it up and used it to hold their pipes and water mains. The tunnel survives to this day, albeit now carrying telecommunication cables as well. The building on the surface was constructed in the 1920s and replaces the original entrance. There was once a corresponding structure on the South Bank, but it has since been demolished.

However, I think it would be unfair to call the Tower Subway a failure. Well, in a certain sense, anyway. Prior to this, no one had constructed a public railway that ran entirely underground (the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways were built in trenches and covered over rather than built in tunnels). The same method of tunnelling has been used to construct the London Underground’s “deep” lines, and Greathead himself worked on the City and South London Railway, the Central London Railway and the Waterloo and City Railway (now the Northern, Central and Waterloo and City lines respectively). One of Greathead’s shields, improved from the one used to build the Subway, is preserved in Bank station.

So although the Tower Subway is these days an obscure footnote in London’s history, it deserves to be far better remembered – it was, after all, the direct ancestor of the London Underground.


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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, History, London, london bridge, London Underground, Thames, The City, Transport

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