White Tile Tunnels (Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, London, UK)

Travel delayed by fog. These days it’s aircraft and airports that struggle with it. But at the end of the 19th Century, you were likely to find your travel disrupted by fog if you lived in the south-east of London and worked on the other side of the River Thames. As if the life of a docker wasn’t hard enough, it was far too common an occurrence that the ferries carrying south London dockers to work on the north side of the Thames were delayed by the weather. London’s air was far dirtier then and particulates from coal burning and other industrial processes seeded pea-soup fogs all too well and all too often. With the water crowded by boats of all shapes and sizes, fog was a real problem for vessels trying to navigate their way across the river.

Chair of London County Council’s Bridges Committee Will Crooks was determined to do something about it. Despite the name of his committee, his plan had nothing to do with bridges. He set his sights higher by looking rather lower. Crooks, a working class politician who would later be elected as one of the very earliest Labour MPs, wanted pedestrian tunnels to link both sides of the Thames near the docks. Although digging tunnels is never an easy job, in operation they would be a simpler proposition than the bridges Crook’s committee might have been expected to pursue given its name. Thanks to the shipping on that part of the Thames, bridges would either have had to be tall enough to permit ships to move underneath (a daunting prospect), or to have incorporated some kind of opening mechanism (as Tower Bridge would later employ) which would interrupt movement across them. A tunnel, however difficult to construct, could remain open continuously, and wouldn’t be affected by the weather.

Crooks’s first tunnel would be built between Greenwich on the south bank and Island Gardens on the north (or perhaps the other way round, depending from which side of the Thames you were considering the matter). Opening in 1902, it was designed by engineers Sir Alexander Binnie and Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice. It cost the princely sum of £127,000, and £30,000 was paid to the Thames Watermen as compensation for loss of earnings.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel in 2019, dipping under the Thames. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

It is Binnie and Sir Maurice then that we have to thank for the most obvious architectural elements of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, the delightful entrance buildings on the north and south banks, still extant today and looking like steampunk interpretations of an astronomical observatory. The matching circular buildings are built of red brick and feature double entrances with moulded architraves. Inset panels help break up the expanse of brick, but you’ll most likely be distracted by the splendid domed glass roofs topped off with little cupolas, themselves sporting a smaller dome and finial.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel entrances. Greenwich in the foreground, Island Gardens entrance in the background. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The buildings sit at the top of vertical shafts which contain lifts (it took a couple of years after the opening of the tunnel for the lifts to be installed) and a spiral staircase down to the tunnel below. The shaft, and the 370m tunnel itself, are lined with plain white ceramic tiles, tending towards the Edwardian lavatorial. It is a functional finish, easy to clean and reflecting as much light as possible, but the architectural interest is definitely on the surface.

Dedication plaque over the Greenwich entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel was a roaring success, allowing dock workers (and anyone else) no-cost easy access across the Thames, whether foggy or not on the surface. Today, it is mainly used by tourists and leisure walkers, but is still used by 1.2 million people per year, according to its current custodian the Royal Borough of Greenwich. It is on National Cycle Network Route 1, although in theory cyclists are supposed to dismount and push their bikes through the tunnel, a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not a public right of way.

The success of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel ensured the go-ahead for Crooks’s second tunnel, further downstream at Woolwich. Although once again planned for dockers as its core users, the incentive here was a proposal from the North and South Woolwich Railway to build a cross-Thames railway. This was opposed by London County Council, who wanted dockers to be able to use a free pedestrian tunnel rather than having to pay to use a train. It opened in 1912.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel in 2020. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The Thames is wider here than at Greenwich and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel is some 500m in length. Despite its greater length, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel cost less to build than the one at Greenwich, coming in at £79,000. Apart from its length, the tunnel itself is remarkably similar visually to its forebear, lined once again with white ceramic tiles.

Again, the main architectural interest in the tunnel is to be found at its two circular entrance buildings. They were designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice (apparently on his own this time) who between construction of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel had been busy with another tunnel commissioned by London County Council, the Rotherhithe Tunnel of 1908 (The Beauty of Transport 8 March 2017). For the Rotherhithe Tunnel, Sir Maurice (Knight of the Golden Tunnelling Shield, in my mind at least) provided four ventilation shaft buildings, two of which allowed pedestrian access down into the tunnel. This explains the general similarity in appearance of the surface buildings for the three tunnels.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel, north entrance building. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The Woolwich Foot Tunnel entrance buildings are made of red brick, but stand on blue brick plinths rather than the Portland Stone plinths of the Rotherhithe Tunnel buildings. As on the Rotherhithe Tunnel buildings, there are wrought iron grilles over paired windows, but they are  somewhat less ornate than those at Rotherhithe.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel buildings lack the spectacular glass domes of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel entrances, instead featuring shallower conical roofs clad in copper with circular lanterns on top. The Rotherhithe Tunnel buildings were originally built with domed glass roofs very similar to those of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel (you can see a photo of one with its original roof at the City of London’s website, here), but these were later replaced with roofs very similar to those on the Woolwich Foot Tunnel buildings. I wonder if Sir Maurice decided the latter were more practical, and retro-fitted them to the Rotherhithe Tunnel buildings?

The prettiest bits of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel buildings are the entrances, which feature cast iron columns with verdant capitals, and barge boards with quatrefoil cut-outs.

Woolwich Foot Tunnel, entrance detail. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Not being situated in a tourist hotspot like Greenwich, the Woolwich Tunnel is today used by lower numbers of people than its older sibling; around 300,000 a year. It saw off the plans for a cross-Thames railway in Woolwich until 2009, when the Docklands Light Railway’s extension to Woolwich opened. Crossrail will provide another crossing of the Thames close by, at some time soon (we sincerely hope).

Both the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnel entrance buildings are now listed at Grade II, those for the Greenwich Foot Tunnel since 1975 and those for the Woolwich Foot Tunnel since 1989.

Greenwich and Woolwich aren’t London’s only cross-Thames foot tunnels, though they are the only two which are currently open to walkers. The Tower Subway opened before either, in 1870, as London’s (and indeed the world’s) first underground tube railway though it wasn’t London’s first underground railway (the cut-and-cover Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). The narrow gauge Tower Subway railway operated for only a few months before various mechanical mishaps put paid to the project and the subway was converted into a foot tunnel. That didn’t last long either, as the opening of nearby Tower Bridge in 1894 provided a more convenient – and perhaps more importantly free – alternative. The tunnel was then converted to carry hydraulic power mains, and a surface building dating from this period survives at Tower Hill, but it is nothing like as imposing as those of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, being a small brick cylinder with stone cornice, band and moulded architrave.

Tower Subway building. Photo by Phillip Perry / The Tower Subway, EC3 via this Wikimedia Commons page

Probably better known is Marc Isambard and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, which opened in 1843. Grade II* listed in 1995 and now part of the London Overground network between Wapping and Rotherhithe stations. It was the first tunnel excavated with the use of a tunnelling shield, the same basic concept which is still used to excavate long tunnels today. The Thames Tunnel was intended to carry both horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians but the project went badly over budget as tunnels under London often do, and enlarging the entrance shafts to permit carriages to descend and ascent would have added yet further costs. So the tunnel remained for pedestrian use only (as well as the undertaking of more, er, illicit activities) until it was taken over by the East London Railway in the 1860s. The entrance shafts are still impressively large though at 15.24m in diameter, and one remains in transport use at Wapping station, where staircases descend to the platforms through this impressive space.

Staircase at Wapping station, inside the Thames Tunnel shaft. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Another foot tunnel runs under the Thames Barrier in east London, but as that’s a service facility and has never been open to the public it probably doesn’t count. And I strongly recommend staying away from online conspiracy theorists and their suggestions of multiple secret tunnels all over the place under London which probably include a fair number under the Thames for use by Members of Parliament, the Royal Family, King Arthur, aliens and who knows who else.

Meanwhile, the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels remain as monuments to a lost London, products of their time in both conception and design. The docks and dockers are long lost from this part of London, and everything about the architecture of the surface buildings and the decoration of the tunnels themselves screams early 20th Century. Dedicated cross-river pedestrian tunnels are rare things in Britain, and it would be several decades before another one was built. That one, in Newcastle upon Tyne, is also very obviously a product of its time, and is extremely stylish with it. More on that, next time.

Bibliography and Further Reading

History of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels (and lots else) at Friends Of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, here

Woolwich Foot Tunnel north entrance listing citation, here

Woolwich Foot Tunnel south entrance listing citation, here

Greenwich Foot Tunnel north entrance listing citation, here

Greenwich Foot Tunnel south entrance listing citation, here

Thames Tunnel listing citation, here

Tower Subway details at Subterranea Britannica, here

…and anything else linked to in the text above.

How to Find the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels

Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map

8 thoughts on “White Tile Tunnels (Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels, London, UK)

  1. I have used the Greenwich foot tunnel a few times, but until a couple of years ago didn’t know there was one in Woolwich too. Of course that meant I had to do a geeky trip out there on a visit to London – DLR from Bank to King George V (you can never have too much DLR in your life), through the foot tunnel in one direction and then the ferry back. This was about two months before they took the old boats out of service. I also love the geographical quirk of North Woolwich being traditionally part of Kent despite being north of the Thames.

  2. I walked through the Woolwich Tunnel once. It was terrifying. I appeared to be completely on my own; there was the constant rumble of the Woolwich Ferry, seemingly about to break through into the tunnel; and then, out of sight, a dog started barking. The unearthly sound, ricocheting off the tiles, was unlike anything I’d heard before or since.

    Incidentally, can you not walk through the Rotherhithe Tunnel any longer?

    1. You can still walk through the Rotherhithe Tunnel – but I emphatically do not recommend it! When it opened, pedestrians used to be able to get into and out of the tunnel via stairs in ventilation shafts 2 and 3, the ones nearest the banks of the Thames. However, these are now closed off so pedestrians have to enter and leave via the tunnel’s portals and walk its full length. That’s a nearly a mile of asphyxiating car fumes, walking inches from cars on a very narrow pavement. No thanks!

  3. Have you got a picture of the older of the Greenwich Tunnel lifts? One of them was not spoiled by being ‘modernised’.

  4. Re the Greenwich tunnel “Today, it is mainly used by tourists and leisure walkers”
    Having lived a few minutes from the tunnel for over two decades, I’m not sure what statistics there are behind that assertion. I’ve never seen a survey or census to provide any hard data. My other half has used the tunnel every weekday as part of his commute for at least a decade, so if a survey was ever carried out, I think I’d be aware of it. You can’t tell from appearances whether a person on a bike is out for leisure or going to work – as many shower and change on arrival at the workplace.
    Certainly at weekends the tunnel is full of visitors but on (pre covid) weekday rush hours it was full of commuters. There are (or were, when office workers actually went to an office) large numbers of folk who cycle from across south London to Canary Wharf via the foot tunnel.
    Indeed – at the start of the covid crisis Greenwich Council (who manage the tunnel) closed it totally, but were persuaded to reopen it on weekdays, as the closure was preventing essential workers getting to their places of work. The (unfunded) proposal to build a bridge from Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf is predicated – partly – because the foot tunnel was so busy on weekday rush hours.

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