The Tower Subway: London's Forgotten 'First Tube Line' Is Over 150 Years Old

By M@ Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 18 July 2023

The Tower Subway: London's Forgotten 'First Tube Line' Is Over 150 Years Old

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Did you know that a forgotten tube tunnel runs under the Thames beside the Tower of London?

You've probably walked through the Greenwich foot tunnel, and possibly the Woolwich foot tunnel, but you've almost certainly never set foot in the Tower Subway. That's because this little-known Thames crossing closed to the public in 1898. It's still down there and, in April 2020, it turned 150 years old.

London's first tube railway

The quarter-mile-long Tower Subway was excavated in 1869, to connect Tower Hill on the north bank to Tooley Street on the south bank. This was the first tunnel in the world to be scooped out with the shield technology of James Greathead (with theoretical work by Peter Barlow), whose statue stands above Bank station. Remarkably, it took less than a year to excavate.

Image of the subway under construction from the Illustrated Times, 25 September 1869, in the British Newspaper Archive. © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.

The subway was built to carry a narrow-gauge passenger railway. Although it could only shift 12 passengers at a time, the operators still sold both first- and second-class tickets. All shared the same cable-pulled carriage, but the first-class passengers got first dibs on the lift back to the surface.

Sadly, the railway was prone to failure. It broke down twice during a press-only experimental run, which can't have helped the publicity. Then a man named Thomas Francis Jannang was killed in an appalling lift accident at the southern end — his head crushed between the top of the lift and the edge of the ground floor. The company went bust within months.

Interior of the Tower Subway carriage. Image public domain.

Though short-lived, the Tower Subway might be considered the world's first tube railway. The tunnel was excavated by iron shield, and specifically to carry passenger trains, just like the first true tube — what is now the Northern line — but 20 years earlier. The only real difference is that the Tower Subway car was pulled by cable, while the first tube lines were electrified.

The more famous Thames Tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe, by the Brunels, was built much earlier (opened 1843), but has a brick-lined, arched structure rather than a tube profile. The Brunel tunnel did, however, bag the title of the first railway to run beneath the Thames. It was converted to railway from pedestrian use just months before the Tower Subway opened. This railway is now the most inaccurately named part of the London Overground.

A dismal, pestilent tube

The trains stopped running through the Tower Subway in late 1870, but the tunnel remained open to paying foot traffic. Reports from the time did not paint a rosy picture. One commentator described it as a "dismal, nasty little tunnel", while another branded it a "pestilent tube". The following account comes from the Clerkenwell News, 30 June 1871:

The Tower Subway in 1870, with the rails still in place. Image public domain.

"[I] commenced groping my way through what looked like gigantic rats hole, lighted at intervals with gas jets. The narrow rails on which the carriage ran at one time are still down, and serve admirably to trip up passengers and knock their heads against the girders whenever two have occasion to pass each other. Here and there the footpath is wet and sloppy. This is, perhaps, unavoidable, but it is certainly an unpleasant feature. The safety of the structure is, no doubt, beyond question, but the leakage very forcibly suggests the idea that thousands upon thousands of tons of water are over head, and one is by no means sorry reach the other turnstile."

Robberies were common. A sensation was caused in 1888 when a man in false whiskers supposedly brandished a knife at the caretaker, while making reference to Jack the Ripper. Even so, the tunnel served as a damp, intimidating walking route for almost 30 years before the opening of Tower Bridge in 1894 significantly reduced the footfall. Closure soon followed.

What remains today?

The subway quickly found a fresh purpose with utility companies. Soon after the public were kicked out, the London Hydraulic Power Company adapted the tunnel to carry its hydraulic mains across the river. It had a narrow escape in 1940, when a German bomb exploded on the riverbed nearby. The iron tunnel buckled but did not give way.

Today, the tube houses water mains and telecommunications cables. It is, by all accounts, still physically possible to squeeze through the tunnel, but you'd have to be there on utility business.

The Tower Subway entrance... coincidentally next to a branch of Subway.

Remnants can be seen above ground, however. This handsome brick drum stands above the northern access shaft to the tunnel. It's not an original structure, but a replacement entrance from the 1920s. The cylindrical building is passed by millions of tourists each year, on their way to the Tower of London. What percentage realise that they're brushing past the entrance to an abandoned Thames tunnel?

The southern entrance is also marked by a structure, though not nearly so photogenic. Head behind the modern glass office blocks of More London and there, on Vine Lane, you'll spot an anonymous grey-and-blue structure.

London's first 'tube' railway was a dank and miserable experience, prone to failure. But its legacy lives on in the brighter, infinitely more efficient tube system we know and love today. Let's raise a toast to this remarkable feat of engineering on its 150th birthday — even if we can't ride through it.

Based on press reports, the 150th anniversary of the first trial runs through the Tower Subway was 29 March 2020, while that of the first true passenger services was 12 April.