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, 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, http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/sites/w/wapping_tunnel/index.shtml, accessed 14th January 2016