Since 1908 the Rotherhithe Tunnel in London’s East End has been providing one of the capital’s scariest pedestrian experiences. It’s one of the few road tunnels in the country you’re actually allowed to walk through, although goodness knows why you would. In 2003 it was judged the 10th most dangerous tunnel in Europe.
It was built between 1904 and 1908 to the designs of the splendidly named Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, Knight of the Golden Tunnelling Shield (I made that last bit up), for London County Council. It links Rotherhithe on the south of the River Thames to Limehouse on the north.
It has become thoroughly outdated since 1908, though. Its narrow (30-foot / 9.14m diameter) single-bore tunnel was designed primarily for horse traffic, which apparently accounts for the sharp bends at either end. This was to avoid horses bolting for the daylight out of sheer terror at being in the tunnel, and who can blame them? I’ve no idea if this is a genuine phenomenon, but it’s given by reputable people as the reason for the sharp bends, along with the more prosaic one that the sinuous route also avoided various basins of the docks in the area. Today, the narrowness of the tunnel, and the sharpness of the bends, means that traffic is restricted to 20 miles an hour within the tunnel, and drivers still occasionally suffer wing mirror damage due to the tight confines. It’s a horse tunnel that’s lasted into a world of cars. It has gained a road number all of its own; it’s the A101.
The pavements at either side of the tunnel, from which you can enjoy the sensation of cars whizzing past mere inches away, were originally provided to allow access for horse dung shovellers, but have also lingered on into an age when no road tunnel would be built with a pedestrian route in the main bore.
Underground tunnels require ventilation, and the Rotherhithe Tunnel is no different. Initially ventilation was needed to allow the exit of horse fumes, and now it is car, van and lorry fumes. The Rotherhithe Tunnel has four shafts, and three of them are quite splendid. Here is shaft number three, on the north side of the Thames, a testament to the vision of Fitzmaurice in making his tunnel not only useful, but beautiful too. This is a genuinely lovely ventilation shaft building:
It is circular, and made of red brick with Portland stone dressings. Brick pilasters separate pairs of windows, and a corbel-bracketed cornice at the top supports the roof. The windows have iron grilles which contain the London County Council monogram, and they look absolutely fabulous.
Originally shafts two and three, those closest to the banks of the Thames, were open to pedestrians. Metal staircases, still extant but now unused, led down to the footways in the tunnel, and they can still be seen from passing cars. Using these stairs cut a considerable distance off the distance that had to be walked within the tunnel. Today the footways are only accessible through steps down to the portals at the ends of the tunnel. Using the tunnel to walk under the Thames now requires pedestrians to walk its full length, which is just a shade under a mile. The doorways into the shaft buildings, through which pedestrians used to gain access, feature yet more lovely decorative ironwork, this time with a floral theme. But they’re now locked shut.
Shaft three is easily the best of the Rotherhithe Tunnel’s four. Shaft two, on the south bank of the Thames, is hidden behind fencing and stands alongside some other brick buildings which I assume contain some of the tunnel’s unfathomable support equipment.
Shaft one, the southernmost shaft, sports this helpful sign:
However, it’s completely wrong. This shaft is not listed at all (it’s easy to check on Historic England’s listed building map search). I suspect the reason is that it has gained a most ungainly modern roof to house additional ventilation equipment. Car fumes need quite some ventilating, as you can see:
Shafts two and three, however, are listed at Grade II, and have been since 1983. At that point, they were roofless (a photo here shows the lack of a roof beautifully, and also the quality of the ironwork on the staircases within), and apparently it was water damage to the staircases that forced their closure to pedestrians. There are roofs on all the shafts again now, though modern reproductions in an appropriate style; at least on shafts two and three anyway.
That leaves shaft four, and something of a mystery. Shafts one, two and three are nearly identical, or at least clearly would have been when they were built. So presumably shaft four was too. Not any more though; this modern building has replaced the original:
I always suspect bomb damage sustained during the Second World War when an incongruous modern building imposes itself in historic surroundings in the East End of London, but I have tried and tried to find out when shaft four gained its replacement building and had no luck so far. It’s fair to say it lacks the fine detailing of the other three shafts. It’s used partly to house the radio equipment used to monitor the tunnel, as this article explains.
Fitzmaurice’s tunnel has further listing citations, not least for the tunnel portals, which are finished in pink granite, and feature neat moulded stonework, though I still think the ventilation rotundas are by far the tunnel’s best feature.
The trouble with underground facilities is that they just won’t stay underground. Their support equipment stubbornly insists on breaking through to the surface, popping up all over the place. But Fitzmaurice’s attention to detail in the design of the Rotherhithe Tunnel’s ventilation shafts means that a potential drawback has instead become a benefit, granting Rotherhithe and Limehouse some terrific local landmarks. I sincerely hope his knighthood was due solely to that.
How to find the Rotherhithe Tunnel ventilation shafts
As Historic England’s map clearly shows the location of two of them, I’ve marked them on The Beauty of Transport‘s map too. Transport authorities are increasingly getting a bit funny about people knowing where ventilation shafts are, so I’ve left the other two off. That said, it’s not very hard to find them. They even have signs on them telling you what they are…
Bibliography and further reading
Historic England listing citation for one of the tunnel portals, here
Historic England listing citation for shaft 2, here
Historic England listing citation for shaft 3, here
Southwark Council’s history note Rotherhithe Road Tunnel Centenary 2008, here
Read an account of a journey through the Rotherhithe Tunnel on foot, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above will have informed this article.