The Blackwall Tunnel was seen as one of the great wonders of the world when it opened in 1897. Hard as it may be to imagine now, it opened with a banquet held inside the tunnel, aimed at horse-drawn traffic. Legend has it that the many kinks in the tunnel were built to stop horses bolting towards the exits, which were adorned with ornate arches at its entrances in Poplar and Greenwich.
Championed by socialist MP Will Crooks, the new link was immediately popular with traffic heading to and from the docks. In those days, it was possible to walk or cycle through the tunnel. Blackwall’s popularity led to the building of the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the foot tunnels at Greenwich and Woolwich.
The second Blackwall Tunnel
But the arrival of the motor age overwhelmed the Blackwall Tunnel. Plans were drawn up in the 1930s to build a new tunnel, but World War II intervened and it finally got the go-ahead in the 1950s, along with new approach roads on both sides.
The construction of the second Blackwall Tunnel, which began in 1958, came at a human as well as a financial cost. South of the river, construction of the new tunnel and approach road uprooted the small community that had lived at the north end of the Greenwich Peninsula, while dozens of homes in Greenwich and Blackheath were bulldozed. Look closely around Westcombe Hill, and you can still make out where the old streets were. Christopher Fowler’s novel Paperboy documents the experience of growing up under the shadow of the approach road’s construction.
The Ringways scheme
Hard as it may seem now, we got off lightly with the A102(M), which opened in 1969, cutting a scar through our communities. It was due to be part of a motorway right around central London called Ringway 1, which would have torn through Blackheath Village. In the end, only three parts of Ringway 1 were ever built – the two approaches to the Blackwall Tunnel, and the West Cross Route in Shepherd’s Bush.
The A2 was also to be uprgraded to motorway standard, meeting Ringway 1 at Kidbrooke Park Road. Finally, a third Blackwall Tunnel was also planned, with the 1897 original becoming a crossing for “local traffic”.
The Ringways project was abandoned in 1973, although the A2 upgrades were carried out in the 1970s (through Bexley) and 1980s (through Eltham).
Part of Ringway 2 lingered on a while longer, though, in the form of the East London River Crossing, which would have cut a swathe through Oxleas Wood and Plumstead to a new road bridge at Thamesmead. This proposal was dropped in the 1990s.
Docklands Southern Relief Road
There was also separate proposal to build a crossing on the west side of the Greenwich Peninsula. The Docklands Southern Relief Road would have formed a bypass for Greenwich, running from Charlton, across the south of the Isle of Dogs – roughly at Millwall Outer Dock – before crossing the river again to end up at the Rotherhithe one-way system.
This idea was also finally dropped in the 1990s, with only one section – Bugsby’s Way – actually built.
Third Blackwall Tunnel becomes Silvertown Link
During the 1990s, proposals to build a third Blackwall Tunnel also reappeared, but in the early 2000s a long-term proposal for a bridge between the Greenwich Peninsula and Silvertown was put forward by then-mayor Ken Livingstone.
He envisaged it being built after another bridge at Thamesmead, the Thames Gateway Bridge. After a lengthy planning inquiry, plans for the TGB were turned down, and later abandoned by Livingstone’s successor Boris Johnson.
But in 2011 a Silvertown crossing was reprioritised by Boris Johnson, who opted for a tunnel rather than a bridge, with no other fixed crossings elsewhere. Bridges at Gallions Reach and Belvedere were added later.
If you look at the impacts… you’re mad to do the tunnel, especially because a tunnel would be much more expensive. I’m also not sure you want to dump all that extra traffic in the area around the Greenwich Peninsula.
The Silvertown Tunnel proposals mark a return to the age where roads were considered more important than people and their homes. The Ringways were fought off by angry local residents who realised their lives and their health were more important than demands to build new roads. The Silvertown Tunnel can be killed off too.