As part of our Saturday afternoon adventure in Docklands we made use of the Greenwich foot tunnel, which links Greenwich on the south bank with the Isle of Dogs on the north.
The tunnel was designed by civil engineer Sir Alexander Binnie for London County Council, and was constructed by contractor John Cochrane & Co. The project started in June 1899 and the tunnel was opened on 4 August 1902. The tunnel replaced an expensive and sometimes unreliable ferry service, and was intended to allow workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the London docks and shipyards then situated in or near the Isle of Dogs. Its creation owed much to the efforts of working-class politician Will Crooks.
Educated at a local Poor Law school, Crooks worked initially as a grocer’s errand boy, then a blacksmith’s labourer and then as an apprentice cooper (Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. The word is derived from Middle Dutch kūpe “basket, wood, tub” and may ultimately stem from cupa, the Latin word for vat. Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.)
A keen reader, Crooks learned about reformers such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, and was asked by his fellow workers to speak out about their working conditions. Consequently, he was sacked for being a political agitator. He remained a member of the Coopers Union from 1867 until his death in 1921.
After a short spell working in Liverpool, Crooks returned to London and found work in the docks. He also began to give political lectures, and his speaking abilities proved helpful in raising funds for 10,000 striking dockers in the 1889 London Dock Strike.
Earlier that year, Crooks, a candidate for the Progressive Party, successfully stood for election to the London County Council, and joined Sidney Webb and other labour movement leaders in the LCC. He also became the first working-class member, and later chairman, of the Poplar Board of Guardians. With support from friend and fellow member George Lansbury, Crooks set about reforming the local workhouse, creating a model for other Poor Law authorities.
A prominent local politician, he helped bring about many local improvements. On 3 August 1895, Crooks formally opened Island Gardens, a park at the south end of the Isle of Dogs, opposite Greenwich Hospital. He also campaigned for the first Blackwall Tunnel, and as Chairman of the LCC Bridges Committee in 1898, he helped provide the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels (completed in 1902 and 1912 respectively).
The entrance shafts at both ends lie beneath glazed domes, with lifts (installed in 1904, upgraded in 1992 and 2012) and helical staircases allowing pedestrians to reach the sloping, tile-lined tunnel at the bottom.
The cast-iron tunnel itself is 1,215 feet (370.2 m) long and 50 feet (15.2 m) deep and has an internal diameter of about 9 feet (2.74 m). Its cast-iron rings are lined with concrete which has been surfaced with some 200,000 white glazed tiles.
The northern end was damaged by bombs during World War II and the repairs included a thick steel and concrete inner lining that reduces the diameter substantially for a short distance.