Blackwall Tunnel: The Epic Journey to Cross The River Thames

blackwall tunnel opened 1896

Over 120 years after it was built, the Blackwall Tunnel remains the main river crossing East of Tower Bridge, connecting the East End to South East London. It may be a surprise to learn, that a late Victorian Londoner, would have the same limited options to cross the river Thames as a Londoner today.

In the mid-1850s Londoners had 3 toll-free river crossing options, London Bridge, Westminster, and in the middle Blackfriars. Victorian planners saw the need for building additional river crossing capacity for the 40% of the London population that lived in the East of the city. The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), set up in 1855, worked over a 30-year period to solve the river crossing problem. The solution came in 1885 by way of an act of parliament to build what would be known as Tower Bridge and further down the river, a tunnel would be called Black Wall Tunnel.

Why was the Blackwall Tunnel’ Called ‘Blackwall’

The Blackwall Tunnel, located in East London, is named after the Blackwall area of the city where it is situated. The name “Blackwall” is believed to come from the 14th century when the area was a port and was known as “Blackewalle” or “Blackewell” due to the presence of a dark, tar-like substance that lined the riverbanks. This substance was likely either coal or pitch used for shipbuilding and waterproofing. Over time, the name “Blackwall” became associated with the entire area, including the tunnel that was built there in the late 19th century

The Blackwall Tunnel single Lane

Traveling southbound through the Blackwall tunnel today you will notice the engraved stone above the tunnel entrance bears the date 1967. Today’s northbound tunnel bears the date 1897. Victorian engineer Alexander Binnie designed a single tunnel with sufficient width for north and southbound traffic.

When you look back at our history, especially on matters of city planning, you get the sense that the time scales are counted in decade jumps. The Victorian city planners were building their tomorrow, and not their today. The decision to go with a single tunnel solution for the Blackwall tunnel would take another 80 years for a second tunnel to be built, ironically the original plan in 1885 by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was for a twin tunnel solution.

The approval for a Single tunnel was approved by the London County Council in 1891 with a tender going to S. Pearson & Son of Victoria Street, at a construction cost of £871,000.

Longest Tunnel in the world, Victorian London

At the time of planning, 3 other notable tunnels existed, City and South London Railway Tunnel (1886–90), the Hudson River Tunnel in New York (1879), and the St Clair Tunnel in Canada (1889). None of these were as big as the Blackwall tunnel project.

14 Blackwall Tunnel Facts

  1. The Blackwall Tunnel was the longest underwater tunnel in the world in the year they built it.
  2. Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages were the primary users until the motor car took off and nudged them out of the way
  3. It took 71 years to realise another tunnel was needed to ease congestion, the second tunnel was completed in 1967
  4.  The Blackwall Tunnel is free to use, with no tolls, and as yet no congestion zone or ULEZ
  5. Bus Route 108 runs through the tunnel
  6. 800 people took to make the Blackwall Tunnel
  7. Unfortunately, 7 people are recorded to have died on the project to build the Blackwall Tunnel
  8. The Northbound Tunnel Gatehouse is a Grade II listed building
  9. 2012 TFL announced they would TOLL the Blackwall Tunnel to pay for Silverton Link. This idea has not seen the light of day
  10. The tunnel is 1.2 miles (1.9 km) long and has two lanes in each direction. It carries around 50,000 vehicles a day.
  11. The Blackwall Tunnel was the first underwater road tunnel in the world to be designed for motor vehicle use.
  12. The tunnel has been closed several times due to accidents, including a collision between two lorries in 1967 that killed three people and a fire in 2018 that caused extensive damage.
  13. The tunnel was the site of a Guinness World Record attempt in 2019 when a group of 1,328 motorcyclists rode through it in convoy.
  14. The Blackwall Tunnel is also a popular filming location and has been used in several films and TV shows, including the James Bond film “Skyfall” and the BBC drama “Luther”.

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