Blackburne Place ventilation shaft and the Wapping Tunnel

This red brick and sandstone tower on Blackburne Place is a beautiful ventilation shaft for a railway which once ran beneath it, and could be seen as representing the tunnel and railway in a nutshell.

The tunnel itself, Wapping Tunnel, is partly bored through the local natural sandstone, with brick lining above, mirroring the architecture of the Blackburne Place building. The arches on the ventilation shaft are suggestive of the tunnel entrances which can be seen all along the line of the railway – the original Liverpool & Manchester Railway – particularly around Edge Hill Station and Chatsworth Drive.

The building was originally one of five, with only three others – between Crown Street and Smithdown Lane and on Grenville Street South, remaining. Two were demolished, once having stood on Great George Street and Myrtle Street respectively. The shaft building on Crown Street is of a simpler, brick-only octagonal design, while that near Grenville Street South is square like at Blackburne Place.

When Wapping Tunnel was being constructed, vertical shafts were dug and the excavation of the tunnel was begun at these spots, heading outwards in two directions with the intention of meeting up with the other pilot holes. After some controversy surrounding the original survey calculations the surveyor Charles Vignoles resigned and was replaced with Joseph Locke, who re-did the work.

It has been suggested that the ventilation shafts like that on Blackburne Place sit on the position of those original holes, with the buildings above ground being constructed over those holes first dug in 1826.

Wapping Tunnel

Wapping Tunnel, begun in 1826 and opened in 1830, was an impressive feat of engineering. No other tunnel had been dug under a city before, and the 22 feet by 16 feet dimensions of the tunnel were unlike anything attempted before.

What is more, the tunnel was on a 1:48 incline, meaning that locomotives built in its early years were not powerful enough to pull trains up to Edge Hill from the river front. To get around this problem, carts were pulled up via ropes (and, later, cables) by stationary steam engines located close to the Chatsworth Drive exit of the tunnel.

Within the tunnel itself are signal gongs, which were placed near the end of the tunnel to warn drivers that they were approaching the tunnel entrance. A small number of accidents had happened at tunnel entrances in the past where drivers had become disoriented. These gongs are still in place in brackets on the Wapping Tunnel’s wall.

When opened, the interior walls were whitewashed, and the length of the tunnel was gas-lit. Pedestrians were allowed to walk through the tunnel for several years, even after it became operational, though eventually it was realised just how dangerous this was!

As the southern docks declined in use with the development of ships too large to use them, the Wapping Tunnel railway became unviable, and closed to traffic in 1965.

Image: Blackburne Place, by Martin Greaney


Site Name: WAPPING TUNNEL , Subterranea Britannica,, accessed 14th January 2016

4 Comments on “Blackburne Place ventilation shaft and the Wapping Tunnel”

  • Cath Taylor


    My great great grand father died in 11 Blackburn Place in 1866 obviously not the house that is now that address can you tell me what happened to the original house and would it have been the same as no’s 5 and 7?


    • Martin


      Hi Cath,

      A tricky one! Assuming 5 and 7 have always had those numbers, then the houses which used to be where the ventilation shaft now stands look identical on the map of 1850 to 5 and 7. There are so few houses on that street that there’s a good chance this numbering has survived like it seems.

      I had thought the ventilation shaft was built in the 1830s, but I can’t find a definitive date. If this is the case, then it’s difficult to pin down which house was No. 11 when your great great grandfather died there.

      Best wishes,


      • Cath Taylor


        Thank you Martin
        Yes I had thought that the street numbers might have been re arranged at some point,
        Number 11 is listed on the census returns until 1891, then seems to disappear !
        I had thought that it might be something to do with the ventilation shaft, but as you say the shaft seems to have been built far earlier than my relatives time at the address.
        Thank you for your interest


  • Robert White


    Hello Cath,
    Nos. 5, 7, 9 and 11 Blackburne Place was a four house terrace built 1844/5. Between 1859 and 1865, a William Temple, Teacher, was recorded as resident in No.11. Nos. 9 and No.11 were demolished to enable the Wapping Tunnel ventilation tower to be constructed. This was recorded in a number of publications as being completed in 1896. However No.11 was occupied by a Miss Elizabeth Herdman in 1896-7 and Nos.9 and No.11 went unrecorded in 1898 and subsequently, indicating their end. Today’s No.9 and No.11 were built sometime later with No.11 now being a B & B ‘Smuglers’ Cove Cottage’ apparently.


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