Echoes in the dark: The Thames Tunnel Phantom

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.

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The tunnelling shield method of preventing collapse | public domain

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’.

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An idealised depiction of the Tunnel | public domain

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

4 comments on “Echoes in the dark: The Thames Tunnel Phantom

  1. Fiona-Jane Brown

    Time slip! Yes!!


  2. Could that mole-like woman see into the future or was the train going so slowly as to be passing back though time..? Or both!?


  3. I know fantasies often start with “true story”, but this is at least a personal anecdote: in the 1990s a colleague and I were engaged to sample water leaking into the Thames Tunnel in order to try to identify its source with a view to designing works preventing any incipient flood and collapse of same.
    This gave us unfettered access to its entire extent at times it was out of use. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in mines and caves, not to mention over a decade commuting London’s Underground, yet the tunnel is an unprecedentedly dank, cold, odd-smelling place.
    One of the things that puzzles me to this day were the occasional strong smells of coal smoke, (fuel) coke and steam that would waft through when we were working, quite without any tangible source. Echoes of movement always hung at the periphery of vision, hearing and touch. All of these unsettling sensations were of course easily consigned to the comforting category of “imagination” at the time…

    FWIW, our study found that the water entering wasn’t the brackish murk of the Thames, not foul sewerage, nor leaking water mains, but clear, clean, stream water supporting thriving populations of uncommon freshwater molluscs, arthropods and similar.
    What was happening was that since the tunnel’s contruction, countless yard wells had been replaced by piped drinking water, and local tanneries, breweries, paper-makers, printers, laundries, &c had all vanished.
    Those water-hungry industries had once dropped the local water table, which had since risen back to pre-industrial levels, meaning what had been drains in Brunel’s time, had turned into freshwater springs in ours.
    Naturally, LU ignored our findings completely, and spent £millions shoring-up a perfectly strong and stable tunnel…


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