The Abandoned Victorian Passages of the First Channel Tunnel

original-1880-channel-tunnel-2 (Image: piratelukey, reproduced with permission)

When the Channel Tunnel connecting England and France opened in 1994, it heralded a new era of international travel between the UK and its European neighbour. But many people – including rail enthusiasts – remain unaware that this wasn’t the first effort to bore a passage deep beneath the English Channel. The first – and in many ways most ambitious – proposals came during the early 19th Century, while 1880 saw the beginnings of tunnel constructions which still exist today.

Early ‘Chunnel’ History

In 1802, French mining engineer Albert Mathieu became the first person to propose a tunnel beneath the English Channel. Mathieu suggested a deep-level passageway for horse-drawn coaches. The tunnel would be oil lamp-lit and required a purpose-built island mid-Channel for changing and stabling horses. Unfortunately his idea failed to get off the ground, or indeed go under it, but he’d set the wheels in motion for an engineering project almost 200 years in the making.

channel-tunnel-1856-Gamond-proposal (Image: via Wikipedia, public domain)

Another Frenchman, Aimé Thomé de Gamond, later surveyed the strait between Dover and Calais and in 1856 presented a 170 million franc proposal to Napoleon III. Gamond’s plan called for a railway tunnel between Cap Griz-Nez and Eastwater Point, with an airshaft on the treacherous Varne Bank (above). But it would be almost 10 years before the British would give serious consideration to the concept.

Finally, in 1876, an Anglo-French effort saw British railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin and French Suez Canal contractor Alexandre Lavalley launch exploratory works on both sides of the English Channel. A 7 ft diameter boring machine dug a 6,211 ft pilot tunnel from Shakespeare Cliff in Kent, the nearest point of Great Britain to France. French engineers, meanwhile, bored a similar tunnel of 5,476 ft at Sangatte, but political pressure and concerns over national security saw Britain abandon the project.

beaumont-english-boring-machine (Image: via piratelukey)

The idea, however, wouldn’t go away and similar schemes rose and fell during the early 20th Century, including one 1919 proposal advocated by British prime minister David Lloyd George himself. But it wasn’t until 1986 that today’s 31-mile-long Channel Tunnel linking Folkestone and Coquelles would get the go-ahead.

And when building work finally began, contractors uncovered the abandoned relics of the 1880 Channel Tunnel lurking silently beneath the fields and chalk cliffs of Kent.

original-1880-channel-tunnel (Image: piratelukey, reproduced with permission)

The Victorian Tunnel Today

Subterranea Britannica offers a wealth of information about the original 7 ft diameter pilot tunnel, which was intended to be enlarged to standard gauge and connected to the South Eastern Railway. According to Subbrit, it wasn’t uncommon for prominent businessmen of the time, including the Lord Mayor of London, to visit the tunnel in a bid to galvanise support for the proposal.

original-1880-channel-tunnel-3 (Image: piratelukey, reproduced with permission)

On March 4, 1882, the Illustrated London News wrote: “The shaft is sunk in the chalk cliff at the foot of the Shakespeare Cliff, between Folkestone and Dover, and is about one hundred and sixty feet in depth. The opening is circular, with boarded sides, and the descending apparatus is worked by a steam engine. At the bottom is a square chamber dug in the chalk, the sides of which are protected by heavy beams; and in front is the experimental boring, a low roofed circular tunnel, about seven feet in diameter, the floor of which is laid with a double line of tram rails.”

original-1880-channel-tunnel-4 (Image: piratelukey, reproduced with permission)

It may never have materialised, but this remarkable series of photographs by ‘piratelukey’ reveals the efforts of those Victorian tunnel pioneers.

original-1880-channel-tunnel-5 (Image: piratelukey, reproduced with permission)

Long forgotten beneath Kent, where it was abandoned more than a century ago, the tunnel is a clear reminder of Victorian railway ambition and a determination to connect two countries which had for centuries been bitter battlefield rivals. It may have been more than 100 years since the metaphorical train left the station, but it got there in the end.

original-1880-channel-tunnel-6 (Image: piratelukey, reproduced with permission)


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