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.
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.
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.
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 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
The present heading is 7 feet in diameter. Machinery is being constructed by which this 7 feet hole can be enlarged to 14 feet by cutting an annular space, 3 feet 6 inches wide, around it. This will be done by machinery furnished with an upper bore head. One machine will follow the other, at a proper interval; and the debris from the cutting by the first will be passed out through the second machine, The compressed air, likewise, which is necessary to work the advanced machine, will be similarly passed through the machine coming behind; only two men are at present needed for each machine.
At the end of the tunnel the visitors found one of the Beaumont compressed air boring machines at work. The length of this machine from the borer to the tail end is about 33 feet. Its work is done by the cutting action of short steel cutters fixed in two revolving arms, seven cutters in each, the upper portion of the frame in which the borer is fixed moving forward 5/16ths of an inch with every complete revolution of the cutters, In this way a thin paring from the whole face of the chalk is cut away with every turn of the borer, A man in front shovels the crumbled debris into small buckets, which, traveling on an endless band, shoots the dirt into a skip tended by another man. The skip when filled is run along a tramway to the mouth of the shaft. At present these trolleys, each holding about one third of a cubic yard, are drawn by men; but before long it is hoped that small compressed air engines will be used for traction. The rate of progress is about one hundred yards per week, but will soon be much accelerated. As worked at present, the number of revolutions it makes is two or three per minute, which amounts to being nearly an inch a minute while the machine is at work. But Colonel Beaumont anticipates no difficulty in making the machine cut its way at the rate of 3/8ths of an inch per revolution, and getting five revolutions per minute, which would give a rate of advance of two inches per minute…
The boring has now advanced to the length of 1,250 yards and it is going on at the rate of three miles a year, which speed of working, as we said, will be increased. Simultaneous borings from the French side at the same rate would give six miles a year, or a complete tunnel underneath and across the Channel in three years and a half.
The shape which the completed tunnel will assume will probably be a circle, 14 feet in diameter, but flattened at the bottom to receive the rails. It will be lined with two feet thickness of cement concrete; not that this is necessary to ensure the stability of the work, but to prevent accidental falls of chalk. The concrete will be made of shingle from Dungeness, and of cement formed from the grey chalk excavated from the tunnel itself. In this manner, the tunnel will afford the means of its own lining at a cheap rate. The gradients will be 1 in 80, on each side, until the depth of 150 feet below the bottom of the sea is reached; after which the line may be said to be level, subject only to a very slight inclination from the centre outwards, to prevent the lodgings of water.
The ventilation of the tunnel is, perhaps, the simplest matter in connection with it, but as some doubts have been expressed upon this, it may be here shortly explained. During the construction of the tunnel, the air necessary for ventilation will be more than enough supplied by that used to drive the boring machines. When the tunnel is opened for traffic, the trains will run through by means of Beaumont compressed-air locomotives.
The Channel Tunnel locomotive will weigh from sixty to seventy tons, and will be charged with 1,200 cubic feet of air, compressed to the density of seventy atmospheres, the equivalent of which is over 80,000 cubic feet of free air. This will give power sufficient to draw a train of 250 tons gross weight (including the engine) the distance of twenty-two miles under the sea, Assuming that the rate of traveling be thirty miles an hour, the air discharged by the engine would give a supply of free and pure air to the amount of 2,000 cubic feet, approximately, which will be far in excess of what is needed by the passengers in the train. Reservoirs will be placed at convenient intervals, so that the engines, should they need it, may be replenished with compressed air. It will, therefore, be seen that Colonel Beaumont’s system of compressed-air engines affords equal advantages with the ordinary steam locomotives, and with no increase in weight.”
Later visitors to the tunnel included the prime minister and Mrs. Gladstone, the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury but the Military Committee were not convinced and two Bills submitted to Parliament did not receive their recommendation.
In an attempt to put a stop to the tunnel the Board of Trade invoked Section 77 of the South Eastern Railway Act of 1881 which forbade tunneling beyond the low water mark without specific authority and demanded the boring should stop; after protesting the company agreed to suspend the operation. Watkin informed the Board of Trade that by turning off the machine, which was also responsible for the ventilation in the tunnel, it would be putting the lives of the workforce at risk. The Board of Trade relented and tunneling continued pending an inspection by the Boards officials.
Watkin put various obstacles in the way of this inspection and eventually the Board of Trade applied for a High Court order giving them access to the Shakespeare Cliff heading; following this the tunneling stopped. Following the inspection the Board recommended that the work should cease but Watkin again ignored this request and continued boring the tunnel whenever there were no visitors.
By the end of 1882 the Abbot’s Cliff heading had reached 897 yards and that at Shakespeare Cliff was 2,040 yards in length. The Board of Trade paid a further visit and reported that a further 70 yards had been bored in breach of the injunction as a result the Board took out further court proceedings against the company despite the fact that they later admitted their calculations were wrong.
In the following years numerous Bills were put before Parliament both by the South Eastern Railway, the Submarine Continental Railway and other tunneling rivals but all were thrown out and this valiant first attempt at building a Channel was dealt its final fatal blow in 1898 when the South Eastern Railway and The Channel Tunnel Co. Ltd (which had by this time merged with Submarine Continental Railway Co) were permanently restrained from any further boring beneath the sea bed by the Chancery Division of the High Court.
Both shafts were infilled and the No. 2 heading lay forgotten until 1974 when another tunnel was proposed and work restarted at the Shakespeare Cliff site. As the 1882 tunnel was likely to be bisected by the new bore, the original No. 2 shaft was excavated and the tunnel dewatered to remove any iron lining that may have got in the way of the new boring machine. The shaft was found to be unlined down to solid rock and a circular steel ribbed and timber lining was installed. At the shaft bottom the access tunnel was found to be intact although some of the timber supports had fractured due to pressure and there were numerous chalk falls. The timber was replaced at shaft bottom, a new sump was constructed and the area generally made safe. 40 metres from the shaft, the circular bore of the 1882 tunnel was located. Having pumped out the first section of tunnel the condition was found to be poor with numerous collapses and broken ring linings. The falls were cleared, some linings repaired and new colliery type arches installed. Away from the cliff line the condition of the old tunnel improved although there were some falls to roof level leaving voids above that could be climbed through, these were cleared. A concrete bulkhead was installed at 810 metres and no attempt was made to reach the tunneling machine in the unsupported section of the tunnel beyond. With the abandonment of this channel tunnel scheme the shaft was backfilled but the 1882 tunnel was uncovered again in 1988 when it was bisected by the machine boring the present Channel Tunnel.
Access to the No.1 heading at Abbot’s Cliff has been maintained. It has been intersected by one of a number of drainage adits driven from the base of the cliff under the main railway line. Until the late 1990’s this adit was readily accessible but the portals of each adit have now been rebuilt and are secured by locked doors. The Channel Tunnel workings are accessed through Adit No 20 (Access is now controlled by Railtrack) where a timber lined square section tunnel (concrete lined where it passes under the railway line) meets the 1880 tunnel after 70 metres. At the junction, there is a short stub timber lined passage to the left; the original shaft would have been here with the boring machine assembled close to the shaft bottom. The bored tunnel is to the right and initially is in good condition with wooden boards on the floor. After 78 metres there is an inscription on the wall left by William Sharp, possibly one of the Welsh miners who bored the tunnel. Unfortunately Mr. Sharp made a spelling error, which he clumsily corrected and left, for posterity. The inscription reads ‘This tunnel was begubnugn in 1880 William Sharp’.
Beyond the point the tunnel begins to dip downwards, there are a number of chalk falls and the water gets deeper. There is some timber propping on the right hand side. At 180 metres there is a large chalk fall, which can be reached although the water is 3 feet deep at this point. Beyond here the water quickly comes up to roof level and no further exploration is possible.
- The Tunnel - The story of the Channel Tunnel 1802 - 1994 by Donald Hunt. Published by Imaging Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1 897817 34 7
- From Charing Cross to Baghdad by Paul Varley. Published by The Channel Tunnel Group Ltd ISBN 1 872009 23 9
- Chelsea Speleological Society Records Volume 6 - Caves and Tunnels in Kent by Harry Pearman