Site Records

Site Name: Tower Subway

Tooley Street, London S.E.1
Tower Hill, London E.C.3
OS Grid Ref: TQ333805


[Source: Andy Emmerson]


The waiting room

Several illustrations were lately given of the works in progress for the construction of the subway or tunnel under the Thames, from Tower Hill to Tooley­street, Southwark, designed and carried through by Mr. W. H. Barlow, the engineer. It is now complete and ready for traffic.

Entrance to the tunnel
The subway consists of a narrow tunnel uniting two vertical shafts, the mouth of one being on Tower Hill and the other in Vine Street, Tooley Street. The tunnel is lined with iron tubing, bolted together in short lengths by flanges projecting on the internal surface. This tube is 7 ft. in clear internal diameter, or 6 ft. 8 in. between the flanges, and carries a railway of 2 ft. 6 in. gauge. On the railway runs an omnibus conveying twelve passengers. The tube is about a quarter of a mile in length and sinks from both ends towards the centre with a gradient of about 1 in 30; the omnibus is of iron; light, but very strong, and runs upon eight wheels. It is connected with a rope of steel wire by means of a gripe that can be tightened or relaxed at will.

At each end of, the tunnel this wire runs over a drum, worked by a stationary engine. The declivity of the tunnel is such that, when once the omnibus is started, it requires only a small amount of traction, and the momentum acquired during its descent will carry it a. long way up the opposite slope. It is said that the strain on the rope will never exceed 2 cwt. The omnibus is provided with brakes, so that its motion is completely under the control of the man in charge. At each end of the tunnel it is received by buffers, or catches, which are connected with very strong springs of vulcanised indiarubber.

The shafts at each end of the tunnel are 60 ft. in depth, and are lined partly with brick­work and partly with iron tubing.

Omnibus carriage

Within the shafts are lifts, carrying six passengers at once, and these lifts are raised and lowered by the same engines that work the drums. Each lift has a counerpoise equal to its own weight and to that of three average passengers, so that the weight of three paseengers represents the maximum of work that will be demanded from the engine, either for raising or loweing. At the top of each lift is a contrivance by which a breakage of the suspending chain would close iron claws upon the lateral guiding-rails and would bring the machine to a standstill in the course of a few feet. The ascent of these lifts is checked by springs of steel and indiarubber, which the engine employed would not be strong enough to break. The wheel over which the suspending chain runs is also dragged, so to speak, by revolving fans; and too great rapidity ascent or descent seems to be rendered impossible.

Interior of the carriage

The arrangements visible from above are very simple. The upper opening of each shaft is covered by a small square building, at the door of which passengers take their tickets, then enter and descend in the lift.

On reaching the bottom they find a space of a few feet between the shaft and the buffers fitted up with benches, as a waiting room. When the omnibus arrives and has discharged 'its load', those who are waiting step in and start off for the other end.

The descent of the shaft occupies 25 seconds and the omnibus journey 70 seconds; so that a [passnger may descend into the shaft at Tower Hill and emerge in Vine Street in a minute and three quarters from the time of his descent.Allowing for all ordinary causes of detention; such as missing the lift at the moment of its decent, or being just too late for the omnibus. The journey from point to point cannot occupy more than five minutes. The lifts, as they can only carry half as many passengers as the omnibus, will make twice as many journeys; and it is intended to give priority of ascent to first class passengers, who pay twopence, while the second-class passengers pay one penny.


Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


Although the press launch of the subway was held in April 1870, problems involving the difficulty of signalling between the engine drivers in the shafts and the conductor aboard the 'omnibus' took time to be resolved. Public service did not commence until August. In the event the whole affair was not a success as conceived and operated for barely three months before the lift and 'omnibus' service were abandoned after a number of mechanical failures and minor accidents. The company went into receivership in November 1870 and from then on passengers walked up and down wooden spiral stairs and made their own way through the tunnel. Gas lighting was provided, with stoneware tiles replacing the wooden planks in 1876. A new entrance on Tower Hill was opened in 1871.

This shows the tunnel once it was used by people on foot. The rails are still in place. Image source: London Pictorially Described, no author given, undated but circa 1880.

Even this slimmed-down operation came to an end once Tower Bridge opened nearby in 1894. Given the opportunity to cross the river for nothing by bridge, people deserted the toll tunnel rapidly and either soon afterwards or two years later (accounts vary) the Tower subway closed to the public for good. In its heyday, however, the subway carried a million foot passengers a year, not bad going.

Further information and pictures of the Tower Subway click here

[Source: Andy Emmerson]

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Last updated: 04 01 2011
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