Site Unseen: Tower Subway

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without notice, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

At Tower Hill sandwiched between Starbucks and McDonald’s, those two behemoths of American culture, is to be found evidence of Victorian ingenuity, engineering, their class system and culture.

[T]his little brick drum-like structure is the only visible sign of the 1870 Tower Subway, a 1,340ft tunnel beneath the Thames. Using a method of tunnelling called a circular wrought iron shield, it enabled workers to dig a 6 foot 7¾ inch diameter tunnel whilst filling the gaps with lime or cement to prevent settling.


This entrance shaft then had a steam-powered lift to take passengers down to a single car railway track. With only 12 passengers (2d first class; 1d second, if only to maintain one’s status in life) per car, it proved unreliable and uneconomic forcing the business to collapse within a year.

The machinery was removed and a spiral staircase replaced the lift. Gas lights illuminated the tunnel.

For a flat entrance fee of ½d (no class barriers now), the tunnel became a popular way to cross the river at that point.

A million people a year would use this rather narrow tunnel with barely any headroom.

In 1894 the toll-free Tower Bridge opened, barely 100 yards down the river and that signalled the end of the Tower Foot Tunnel.

The tunnel was then used to convey hydraulic power for the next 70 years and the circular entrance was rebuilt during that time with the inscription that still exists today:


Today telecommunication cables now use this 150-year-old tunnel.

2 thoughts on “Site Unseen: Tower Subway”

  1. “In 1984 the toll-free Tower Bridge opened, barely 100 yards down the river and that signalled the end of the Tower Foot Tunnel.”

    In the quote above you appear to have got the 8 & 9 the wrong way round for the date of Tower Bridge opening. It was 1894 not 1984.


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