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Thames Driftway, site of
Rotherhithe to Limehouse, London, UK
associated engineer
Robert Vazie
Richard Trevithick
date  1805 - 1809
era  Georgian  |  category  Tunnel  |  reference  TQ361806
Thames Driftway was an early and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to tunnel beneath the River Thames at London. It was hampered by lack of funds and poor ground conditions, which the technology then available could not combat. Sir Marc Brunel completed the first Thames Tunnel on a different alignment in 1843.
Ralph Dodd (circa 1756-1822) made the initial attempt to tunnel under the Thames, between Gravesend and Tilbury Fort. Construction began at Gravesend after a 1799 Act of Parliament, but was abandoned owing to water ingress.
The development of dockyards on both sides of the river around the Isle of Dogs indicated that a river crossing of some kind was needed. A tunnel from Rotherhithe to Limehouse had been suggested around 1803, at which time Northumberland engineer Robert Vazie (born 1758) became involved. Another Parliamentary Act, dated 12th July 1805, enabled the Thames Archway Company to start the construction — Vazie being both engineer to the project and one of the company’s shareholders.
The idea was to bore a pilot tunnel, or driftway, under the river from a shaft on the Rotherhithe side (south side of the river). The driftway would drain the surrounding bedrock and once completed could be enlarged to accommodate pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Unfortunately the firm strata anticipated were mostly sand and gravel with pockets of quicksand.
Vazie began by driving a 3.35m diameter shaft 96m from the Rotherhithe bank. After a year, the shaft was 12.8m deep and money was running out. The shaft diameter was reduced to 2.44m, it was fitted with caisson-type linings and a further 10.4m was driven before quicksand and water ingress halted the work.
The company sought advice from William Chapman (1749–1832) and John Rennie (1761-1821) but they could not agree so the company engaged Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) to work with Vazie from August 1807. Trevithick used Cornish mining techniques to drive the driftway as though it were an adit, using timber supports for the excavation. The cramped passageway was just 1.52m high and 0.76-0.91m wide.
A steam pump removed water from the tunnel. Vazie had asked for a 37kW engine and received instead a 12kW one but in September this was upgraded to a 22kW engine. By 12th September the driftway was 55m from the shaft.
In October Vazie was dismissed and Trevithick assumed sole control. By 19th October the tunnel was 120m from the shaft. On 21st December the heading had advanced to 289m and quicksand was found in the tunnel roof. Water broke in on 23rd December. The roof was supported with timber planks and iron bars and the quicksand was blocked with a layer of clay. Trevithick inserted a 50mm diameter iron pipe into the roof, to drain water from the quicksand, and work restarted.
By 26th January 1808 the driftway had reached beyond low water on the Limehouse side — 313m from the Rotherhithe shaft — when it was inundated again, though everyone escaped. The excavations were pumped dry and work resumed until 4th February. The pilot tunnel was then 317.6m long, some 54m from its Limehouse terminus.
The company directors were becoming nervous by this stage, alarmed at water breaking into the tunnel and harried by Vazie’s supporters calling for Trevithick’s dismissal. However, Trevithick was vindicated in April 1808 by two independent mining engineers — William Stobart from Durham and John Buddle (1773-1843) from Newcastle upon Tyne.
Still the Thames Archway Company dithered and, on 30th March 1809, decided to open the tunnel construction to public competition. They received more than 50 separate plans and called in various experts to adjudicate — among them mathematician Dr Charles Hutton (1737-1823), canal engineer William Jessop (1745-1814) and engineering inventor John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1854).
The experts’ combined opinion was that it would not be possible to build a tunnel beneath the River Thames, and the project was abandoned. Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) was to achieve the 'impossible' a decade after Trevithick’s death.
Resident engineer: John Urpeth Rastrick
Research: ECPK
"Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam" by Anthony Burton, Aurum Press Ltd, London, 2000
"The Cornish Giant: The Story of Richard Trevithick, father of the steam locomotive" by L.T.C. Rolt, Lutterworth Press, London, 1960
"Richard Trevithick: the engineer and the man" by H.W. Dickinson and
Arthur Titley, Cambridge University Press, London, 1934
"The Rastricks—Civil Engineers" by H.W. Dickinson and Arthur Lee, in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, London, 5th March 1924
"Life of Richard Trevithick, with an account of his inventions" by Francis Trevithick, E. & F.N. Spon, London, 1872
"The high pressure steam engine and Trevithick" by Henry Hyde Clarke, in Railway Register, Vol.V, pp.86-96, London, January 1847
"Memoir of Richard Trevithick" by Henry Hyde Clarke,
in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal, Scientific & Railway Gazette, Vol.II, pp.93-96, London, March 1839
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE1

Thames Driftway, site of