Gaze into the darkness between Rotherhithe and Wapping, and you might just catch a glimpse of the past. Beneath the river, pale arches flicker in the glare from the train window, a ghostly reminder that the Thames Tunnel wasn’t built for modern commuters.
Isambard’s father, Marc Brunel, pioneered the tunnelling shield to construct London’s first under river tunnel. It still took floods, deaths and twenty years to complete. The Thames Tunnel opened in 1843 – not a highway as intended, but a market, which soon earned a reputation for robbery and debauchery. It was finally converted for rail travel in 1869.
One of the pedestrian-era Tunnel’s most famous detractors was the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here’s a taste, taken from an 1863 article for The Atlantic:
“(The Tunnel) is illuminated at regular intervals by jets of gas… with lustre enough to show the damp plaster of the ceiling and walls, and the massive stone pavement, the crevices of which are oozy with moisture, not from the incumbent river, but from hidden springs in the earth’s deeper heart…
All along the corridor, which I believe to be a mile in extent, we see stalls or shops in little alcoves… That you may fancy yourself still in the realms of the living, (stall holders) urge you to partake of cakes, candy, ginger-beer, and such small refreshment, more suitable, however, for the shadowy appetite of ghosts than for the sturdy stomachs of Englishmen”.
But it is what Hawthorne – or his editors – left out of the article which is of interest to PoL.
Passages within the original unedited manuscripts, which have long confused scholars, are now being seen in a new light. In them Hawthorne describes speaking to a stall holder about various ghost stories.
“Beside a table of cheap jet jewellery and multifarious trumpery, a mole-like woman engaged to assail me with phantasmagoric visions of the Tunnel after nightfall”
One story was corroborated by others in the tunnel. Several had seen the mysterious ‘phantom’ that passed through the tunnels at night, a rush of lights and wind and noise.
The woman, however, claimed to be alone in discerning it at a speed ‘as if it passed through water, not air’.
And it is what the woman saw that is of interest to those who study London’s fractured temporal throughways:
“It may be that the grime that adheres to every surface in these depths had incorporated itself also with her eyes, but she spoke – with singular clarity – of an orange and white-liveried omnibus, pulled by invisible horses, and abundantly laden with sombre men and women who at time time to time stared out at the poor woman from unnaturally illuminated windows”.
Commuters on today’s Overground trains – which use the Thames Tunnel line – will recognise the description.
- Candidate: The Thames Tunnel Phantom
- Type: Temporal Echo
- Status: Historic / Active