A Brief History Of The Blackwall Tunnel

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2023

A Brief History Of The Blackwall Tunnel
A double decker bus heads into the entrance of the tunnel
The Blackwall Tunnel in 1946, when it was still a single bore tunnel - by now motor traffic was becoming a problem. Image: TfL

When it comes to river crossings, East London's always been shortchanged.

So even though Tower Bridge was already flexing its bascules a few years earlier, when the Blackwall Tunnel showed up in 1897, it was still kind of a big deal.

Sneery press reports from the official opening on 22 May describe 'lowly' East End residents coming out from their 'humble dwellings', waving their 'primitive' banners, as the-then Prince of Wales declared London's latest marvel open.

Thing is, Londoners genuinely were thrilled about the Blackwall Tunnel, which connected them to the south, and didn't charge a toll either. Certainly you wouldn't expect such jubilant scenes if our Prince of Wales opens the Silvertown Tunnel a few years from now.

A road sign for the tunnel
Image: M@/Londonist

"The entrance to fairyland"

LCC engineer Alex Binnie's design took its cue from Brunel's Thames Tunnel (completed 1843), the Tower Subway (1869) and the City and South London Railway Tunnel, aka part of the Northern line, (1886). And, while boring beneath the Thames had lost its novelty by then, at over 6,000ft long and with a diameter of 27ft (allowing a two-way road, with two footpaths either side — yes, there were pedestrians), this was the largest underwater tunnel yet. (While carrying out the works Binnie's team excavated an elephant's tusk, and a human skeleton with a stake through the middle. Nothing suspect there, there.)

The dramatic gateway to the tunnel in Poplar, This has long since been demolished, but the south gate survives. Image: public domain

Driving through today, you might see little but a utilitarian, slightly grim, tunnel getting you from Greenwich to Tower Hamlets (or vice versa). But a trip into the Blackwall Tunnel was quite the experience for Victorian Londoners; an account from 1898 waxes lyrically: "The scene was a most remarkable one. The glazed bricks of the tunnel gleamed under the illumination of a myriad incandescent electric lamps... suggesting the entrance to fairyland."

The only lasting 'fairyland' vibe now is the castle-esque, art nouveau inspired gatehouse at the tunnel's south entrance, designed by LCC Architect Thomas Blashill. Like all the twiddly bits on Tower Bridge, it's totally frivolous, and utterly brilliant. It sticks out like a beautiful sore thumb amidst the rest of North Greenwich. (The tunnel's north gatehouse was bulldozed in 1958, so you'll have to make do instead with Terry Farrell's space age ventilation shafts, fitted in 1964.)

the castle-like entrace to the blackwall tunnel on the south side of the river - bearing the date 1897
The surviving gatehouse, which sticks out like a beautiful sore thumb. Image: Londonist

A second tunnel

Traffic in the Blackwall Tunnel's early days was a heady concoction of buses, vans, barrows, cyclists, pedestrians and horses. You may have heard the rumour that the kinks and sharp bends in the tunnel (and others, such as at Rotherhithe), were put in to calm equine entrants. According to TfL that is true, although blueprints also show that Binnie was swerving a sewer and housing (though some buildings had to go).

Driving into the darkness of Blackwall Tunnel - cars ahead have their lights on
Image: Poliphilo in Creative Commons

While growing more mundane in nature, the rate of tunnel traffic swelled, and in 1967 a second tunnel was bored, taking on all southbound vehicles. (You won't hear anyone calling it the 'Blackwall Tunnels' though — and if you do, we'd like to meet stay well away from such a pedant.) Again, houses had to be demolished, and lives uprooted, as documented in Christopher Fowler's novel, Paperboy.

Terry Farrell's space age ventilation towers, added to the tunnel in 1964. Image: Tarquin Binary in Creative Commons

Silvertown Tunnel

No one exclaims 'Blackwall Tunnel!' with the same delight as 'Tower of London!', 'Big Ben!' or even 'Barbican!'. It's usually muttered through gritted teeth, and padded out with a barrage of expletives. The tunnel is notorious for causing the kind of tailbacks that might inspire Chris Rea to write another Christmas hit. In fact New Civil Engineer magazine claimed (£) that the Blackwall Tunnel closed a staggering 1,448 times in 2010 — almost four times a day.

So what's the solution? A third tunnel bore at Blackwall was mooted in the late 1980s, but never saw the light. Instead, the Silvertown Tunnel — a vast twin bore tunnel swerving from North Greenwich to the Docklands — is set to open in 2025. Unfortunately, the very idea of it has fomented ire among locals, climate campaigners and cyclists (who won't have access to the tunnel, which doesn't seem right in this day and age). While construction of the Blackwall Tunnel(s) caused some consternation both in the 19th and 20th centuries, this new 21st century tunnel has acquired such a bad rap, it might be spiked altogether.

a mock up of The Silvertown Tunnel, with buses driving into it
The Silvertown Tunnel - opening in 2025 according to TfL. Image: TfL

As it reaches its 125th birthday in May 2022, the Blackwall Tunnel remains an under-appreciated workhorse; unless you're a kid going through it for the first time, it won't elicit 'ooohhs' and 'ahhhhs'. But to the Victorians, it was yet another wonder of the world, opening before their eyes.

Next time you're passing through on your way into Greenwich or Poplar — as the radio signal in your car fizzles out — take a few seconds to appreciate just how special the Blackwall Tunnel actually is.