During the 19th century the districts to the east of the City of London, on both sides of the river, became highly industrialized and densely populated, yet there was no dry crossing that linked each side of the Thames. Plans evolved in the 1880s for a road tunnel to carry traffic between each side of the river.
Until the early 19th century London’s metropolis had barely spread eastwards of the City of London. A vast network of docks and wharves was thereafter created along both sides of the river, as well as many factories and processing facilities. By the latter part of the century the urban area to the east of the City had a population of a million inhabitants, a third of that of the whole of London and larger than most British cities. There were many road crossings over the river but none east of London Bridge. To carry goods from docks or factories on one side of the Thames to a location on the other involved a long and torturous journey through narrow streets and over the congested London Bridge. It was said that to carry a cargo of skins from Wapping to the other side of the river cost more than bringing them across the Atlantic from Hudson Bay.
An obstacle to overcome in creating a crossing downriver of the bridge was that ships had to pass along the river. A crossing would have needed to be extremely high for them to pass underneath. Furthermore, the river widens east of London, making any bridge longer and more expensive to construct.
An unsuccessful attempt had been made by the entrepreneur Ralph Dodd to create a tunnel at the very beginning of the 19th century. The Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick made another unsuccessful attempt using Cornish miners as labourers.
In 1818 the engineer Marc Brunel took out a patent for a boring machine that could dig a tunnel, based on observations he had made while he was working at Chatham Dockyard of insects eating through timber. He formed a company and raised funds to construct the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping. Work began in 1825 but there were many difficulties and it was finally completed by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in 1843. It was, however, only a pedestrian crossing and remained so for the next 20 years. By that time the company had run short of funds and the venture was sold to the East London Railway Company who converted it for use by steam trains as part of their network. (It still exists as part of the London Underground network, between Wapping and Rotherhithe stations).
Another tunnel opened under the river in 1870. The Tower Subway passed from Tower Hill to Tooley Street near London Bridge station. Up to fourteen passengers were carried through the tunnel on a carriage travelling on a narrow-gauge railway. The tunnel’s ‘omnibus’ was initially pulled by ropes and then under its own velocity down an incline and up the far side. The journey-time was 70 seconds, or three minutes including the descent and ascent by lifts at each end. There were several accidents, however, and the service was withdrawn in 1894, the same year it anyway became redundant with the opening of Tower Bridge.
The impetus or the creation of the Blackwall Tunnel came from the Metropolitan Board of Works. Much of the governance of London outside of the City of London was undertaken by the many vestries and other local bodies until the mid-19th century. The capital was expanding rapidly, both in population and size but there were few bodies to oversee issues that affected the entire metropolis. In 1855 the government therefore formed the Metropolitan Board of Works to coordinate local infrastructure. Its committee of 45 was formed from representatives of vestries and the City of London. Its most important responsibilities were sewers, streets and bridges, the fire service, and parks and open spaces. Amongst other major initiatives, London’s sewer system was massively upgraded under the management of the MBW’s chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette. Between 1864 and 1874 that involved creating the Victoria Embankment, Albert Embankment, and Chelsea Embankment, as well as pumping stations at Abbey Mills and Crossness.
Most of the bridges that had been built across the river in the 18th and 19th centuries were by private companies who charged tolls. The only exceptions were London and Blackfriars Bridges, both of which were owned by the City of London Corporation, and Westminster Bridge that was under the control of the government’s Office of Works. The tolls on the private bridges were highly unpopular, and many people went out of their way to avoid them, causing congestion on the three toll-free bridges. In 1877 an Act of Parliament was passed enabling the MBW to purchase the privately-owned London bridges. Between 1878 and 1880 eleven bridges were thus made public and the tolls abolished. On Queen Victoria’s birthday in May 1879 the Prince and Princess of Wales (later to become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) spent an afternoon driving across Lambeth, Vauxhall, Chelsea, Albert, and Battersea Bridges to celebrate. A number of the bridges were then rebuilt or refurbished by the MBW.
The MBW was funded from rates payable by Londoners and the inhabitants of East London had therefore helped fund the purchase of the bridges of the City and West London. They were then agitating for their own crossings and Bazalgette studied the issue. There was a plan for a high-level bridge near the Tower of London and a tunnel three quarters of a mile downriver of London Bridge. Neither scheme initially progressed, although the former idea was taken up by the City of London, resulting in Tower Bridge, which opened in 1894. The MBW, however, were authorized to proceed with a toll-free ferry across the river between Woolwich and North Woolwich. Two new sites were also considered for a tunnel, at Shadwell and Blackwall. Bazalgette prepared plans and in 1887 the Blackwall Tunnel Bill was passed with almost no opposition, at a cost of one and a half million pounds. Bazalgette’s scheme was for three separate parallel tunnels, two for vehicles and one for pedestrians, between Blackwall and Greenwich.