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By David Rooney on

Fancy Fairs, Dawdling Dandies And Multifarious Trumpery In The Thames Tunnel

I loved our public health curator’s recent post about his expedition to sniff out London’s underground sewerage system. While Stewart was nosing around the drains, I spent last weekend in some rather less odorous tunnels.

Oldest first. I’ve mentioned the Brunel Thames Tunnel before. It was the first tunnel under a river, now forming part of the East London railway, and in advance of the line reopening in May, officials led two days of walking tours through this historic construction. I managed to grab tickets.

Detail of Thames Tunnel wall, 13 March 2010 (David Rooney)

It’s a railway now, but it started out as a pedestrian arcade linking Rotherhithe and Wapping, and was itself the subject of many depictions and souvenirs, being portrayed as the ideal spot for Victorians to promenade, perambulate and generally show off.

'A correct view of the Thames Tunnel' (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Annual ‘fancy fairs’ offered ‘fancy glass blowing’, ‘a ball room 150 feet long’ and ‘the mysterious lady’ (don’t ask). On any normal day, visitors could expect to see each little connecting alcove thronged with women selling ‘multifarious trumpery’.

Souvenir medal of the Thames Tunnel, 1843 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve lots more of this trumpery in our collections, much of which is now listed online. But the underground mall was a financial flop, and by the 1860s the tunnel was taken over by the East London Railway.

The trains will soon be running again, but as I dawdled along on foot, it wasn’t hard to imagine just how remarkable this tunnel must have been in 1850s London – and to realise how much we take for granted the remarkable world beneath our feet.

More about my underground weekend coming up…