Site Records

Site Name: Channel Tunnel - 1880 attempt

Shakespeare Cliff
OS Grid Ref: TR263384

Sub Brit site visits June 1984, June 1985 & December 1988

[Source: Nick Catford]

There had been numerous proposals for a tunnel under the channel throughout the 19th Century including one by Napoleon, but the first serious attempt to build a tunnel came with an Act of Parliament in 1875 authorising the Channel Tunnel Company Ltd. to start preliminary trials. This was an Anglo French project with a simultaneous Act of Parliament in France. By 1877 several shafts had been sunk to a depth of 330 feet at Sangatte in France but initial work carried out at St. Margaret's Bay, to the east of Dover had to be abandoned due to flooding. In 1880 under the direction of Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the South Eastern Railway, a new shaft (No. 1 shaft) was sunk at Abbot's Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone with a horizontal gallery being driven along the cliff, 10 feet above the high water mark. This seven foot diameter pilot tunnel was eventually to be enlarged to standard gauge with a connection to the South Eastern Railway.

Photo:Inscription on tunnel wall
Photo by Nick Catford

After Welsh miners had bored 800 feet of tunnel a second shaft (No 2) was sunk at Shakespeare Cliff in February 1881. This tunnel was started under the foreshore heading towards a mid channel meeting with the French pilot tunnel.

Both tunnels were to have been bored using a compressed air boring machine invented and built by Colonel Fredrick Beaumont MP. Beaumont had been involved with the Channel Tunnel Company since 1874 and had successfully bored a number of tunnels without the use of explosives and 3 ½ times faster than manual labour. It was not however Beaumont's boring machine that was used. Captain Thomas English of Dartford, Kent patented a far superior rotary boring machine in 1880 capable of cutting nearly half a mile a month and it was this not Beaumont's machine that was used on this first attempt at tunnelling under the channel. The tunnel was credited to Beaumont in 'The Engineer' magazine and despite letters of protest from English the editor refused to correct the mistake and Beaumont did nothing to clarify the situation. Even to this day this early Channel Tunnel trial is often credited to the Beaumont machine.

Photo:The Beaumont - English boring machine

The Channel Tunnel Company expected the pilot tunnel to be completed by 1886. Sir Edward Watkin applied to the government for public funds to complete the 11 mile section to meet the French mid channel. These funds were not forthcoming so Sir Edward formed a new company, The Submarine Continental Railway Company that took over the shafts and headings from the South Eastern Railway in 1882. The company prepared a new Bill to put before Parliament but by now the government were getting worried about the military implications of a link to Europe and a new military commission heard evidence from Lieutenant General Sir Garnet Wolseley that the tunnel might be "calamitous for England", he added that "No matter what fortifications and defences were built, there would always be the peril of some continental army seizing the tunnel exit by surprise." Despite assurances from Sir Edward that the defence against invasion was adequate by flooding the tunnel, cutting of the ventilation and forcing smoke into the tunnel and cutting the cables on the lifts in the shaft thereby trapping any invader at the bottom, the commission was not convinced.

Proposed route of the tunnel

Political instability in France didn't help the situation and the Anglo/French Tunnel Treaty which five years earlier had been warmly received was now looked on with opposition by the government and public at large who still had a lingering fear of their old adversary across the Channel. To counteract this fear Sir Edward conducted a series of visits to the tunnel inviting prominent businessmen including the Lord Mayor of London, the visit culminated in luncheon in a chamber cut into the side of the heading. Many such visits followed and an account of one of them in the Illustrated London News on 4th March 1882 was most revealing "The Channel Tunnel was again opened to another party of London visitors on Tuesday of last week. Under the guidance of Mr. Frances Brady, CE, engineer of the Channel Tunnel, and Col. Beaumont, RE, the visitors, six at a time, having put on rough overalls to save their clothes from dust, descended into the shaft by means of an iron cage, such as is used in coal mines.

The Beaumont English boring machine in 1880
The shaft is sunk in the chalk cliff at the foot of the Shakespeare Cliff, between Folkestone and Dover, and is about one hundred and sixty feet in depth. The opening is circular, with boarded sides, and the descending apparatus is worked by a steam engine. At the bottom is a square chamber dug in the chalk, the sides of which are protected by heavy beams; and in front is the experimental boring, a low roofed circular tunnel, about seven feet in diameter, the floor of which is laid with a double line of tram rails.

This tunnel is admirably ventilated, and on visiting days is lighted with electric lamps, the steam power at the mouth of the shaft being sufficient for all purposes. The stratum through which the experimental borings have been made is the lower grey chalk. This material, while perfectly dry, and very easily worked, is sufficiently hard to dispel any apprehensions of crumbling or falling in.

The length of the Submarine Continental Railway Company's Tunnel, under the sea, from the English to the French shore, will be twenty-two miles; and, taking the shore approaches at four miles on each side, there will be a total length of thirty miles of tunneling. The shaft goes down to the beginning of the tunnel, which is here 100 feet below the surface of the sea. A heading, now three quarters of a mile long, has been driven in the direction of the head of the Admiralty Pier [Dover], entirely in the grey chalk, near its base, and a few feet above the impermeable strata formed by the gault clay

Further information and pictures about the 1880 Channel Tunnel attempt click here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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