By the time the Bill was passed the Metropolitan Board of Works was mired in controversy. As an unelected body, funded by rates paid by property owners, and with its decisions taken in secret, it was never popular. Its eventual downfall was a series of scandals in the 1880s that were uncovered by a newspaper and investigated by a Royal Commission. While the commission was undertaking its work, the government introduced a Bill into Parliament whereby elected county councils were to be formed throughout the country, with London being one of them. The MBW was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1888, to be superseded from 1889 by the London County Council.
Despite the knowledge of its impending abolition, at its final Board meeting in March 1889 the MBW declared its intention to award the contract for the Blackwall Tunnel. The incoming London County Council was so outraged that they approached the government to immediately dissolve the Board of the MBW. The Metropolitan Board of Works had done much to modernize and improve London, with major projects such as the Thames embankments, the sewer system, and the rebuilding of various Thames Bridges. The Blackwall Tunnel, however, brought it to an undignified end.
Frustration grew with the delay caused by the demise of the MBW. In October 1889 Sydney Buxton, MP for Poplar, chaired a meeting of local businessmen at the Town Hall. A letter was received from the LCC stating that £90,000 had already been spent on acquiring land for the tunnel works “but that it was necessary to proceed cautiously on account of the shallowness of the crust between the bed of the river and the top of the tunnel”. Buxton understood that the LCC had instructed the engineer John Wolf Barry, who had recently completed Tower Bridge, to investigate similar projects abroad. The meeting resolved “to press on the [London County] Council the urgent necessity for the completion of the tunnel, the absence of such communication being a serious impediment to the manufacturing business of Poplar, Bromley, Bow, and London generally, as well as a constant source of loss and inconvenience to the great masses of the population”.
The LCC were not against the basic idea of the tunnel and continued to investigate. Sir Alexander Binnie, their chief engineer, consulted the civil engineers Sir Benjamin Baker and Henry Greathead before finalizing his design. Baker is best known for his Forth Bridge in Scotland, as well as devising ways to create the tunnels for the London underground railway system. Greathead was jointly responsible for the aforementioned Tower Subway tunnel under the Thames, during the course of which he patented the Greathead tunneling shield. He went on to have involvement in the construction of many of London’s early underground railways. Before proceeding, Binnie studied compressed air working to hold back outside water pressure. It was a new process that had been used at the rail tunnels under the St. Clair River between Ontario in Canada and Michigan in the USA, and under the Hudson River in New York.
The LCC amended Bazalgette’s earlier plan and instead opted for a single-bore, two-lane tunnel between the East India Dock Road at Blackwall on the north bank to the Greenwich Peninsula on the south. The contract for its construction was awarded to Messrs. Pearson & Son of Westminster, who were constructing the Hudson River tunnel, at a cost of £871,000. Work began in March 1892 using a Greathead tunnelling shield and 600 men were employed for five years on the project. By 1896 it had progressed sufficiently that the contractor was able to hold a luncheon inside the tunnel, draped to appear as a marquee, for 2,000 invited guests.
The tube through which the tunnel passes was 27 feet in diameter and consisted of 1,200 iron rings manufactured in Glasgow, each composed of fourteen segments weighing a ton. The tunnel was kept watertight and rustproof by an outside lining of cement, and lined on the inside with white tiles.
The roadway was originally 16 feet wide. Unlike in modern times, there were pedestrian pathways three feet wide on each side. The writer George R. Sims casually mentioned in his Living London series of books, written just after the tunnel opened:
Having now arrived at Blackwall, we walk through that fine piece of engineering skill, the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames, and in a few minutes reach Greenwich…
Below the road surface ran gas and water pipes in a separate tunnel.
Together with its approach roads it was a mile and a quarter in length, with 1,220 feet being under the river. The approaches were lengthy and the incline on each side continued within the tunnel itself, ensuring it was without any steep gradient for horse-drawn traffic. It was designed with several sharp bends along its route to align with Northumberland Wharf on the north side and Ordnance Wharf on the south, as well as avoiding a sewer. It has often been said that the bends were to prevent horses becoming alarmed by the long tunnel.
The Blackwall Tunnel was opened by the Prince of Wales on behalf of Queen Victoria in May 1897. Over four million pedestrians and 335,000 vehicles passed through in its first year. Sims noted:
The constant stream of traffic which all day long passes through the Blackwall Tunnel shows how great was the need of a link between the northern and southern parts of the city beyond the region served by the bridges.
To further increase capacity across the river, in 1908 the London County Council opened the Rotherhithe tunnel to connect Limehouse with Rotherhithe, midway between Tower Bridge and Blackwall Tunnel.
Joseph Bazalgette died in 1891 and never lived to see the completion of the project he had instigated. By the 1930s road traffic had increased to the extent that Blackwall Tunnel was overly congested and a second parallel bore was proposed by the London County Council. An Act for its construction passed in 1938 but work did not start due to the outbreak of the Second World War. It finally began in 1960. The second two-lane bore, this time without bends, was opened in 1967 for southbound traffic and the original became the northbound lanes. By then work had already started on the Dartford toll tunnel further to the east.
Sources include: John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s River’; John Richardson ‘Annals of London’; George R. Sims ‘Living London’ (1902); Jerry White ‘London in the 19th Century’; Millicent Rose, ‘The East End of London’ (1951); ‘W. W. Hutchings ‘London Town Past and Present’ (1909); ‘The Queen’s London’ (1897); The Daily News, October 1889.