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By David Rooney on

The Channel Tunnel

David Rooney, Keeper of Technology and Engineering, uncovers the Channel Tunnel objects in our collection.

It’s been a terrible few days for Eurostar and passengers trying to use the Channel Tunnel, following multiple train failures. As I write this (Monday morning) it’s still not resolved.

A tunnel under the Channel has been an engineering dream for more than two centuries. Tunneling under water brings a whole heap of technical difficulties, and the first successful underwater tunnel was not opened until 1843 when Marc Brunel completed his Thames Tunnel in London, now part of the East London Railway. We’ve a lovely Thames Tunnel peepshow on display at the museum, if you’re passing, and here’s an early print of the scheme:

Thames Tunnel, 1826 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
Thames Tunnel, 1826 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Through the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, many proposals for a tunnel connecting England and France were made, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the dream became a reality.

But the engineer’s dream was the politician’s nightmare. This print from our pictorial collection, dated 1798, depicts a French invasion of Britain by sea, air, and an underwater tunnel. With Britain at war with France at the time, these fears were real and pressing. As I’ll mention in my first post of the new year, the Channel had been crossed by balloon just a few years earlier. Truly, England was no longer an island.

Divers projets sur la descente en Angleterre, 1798 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
‘Divers projets sur la descente en Angleterre’, 1798 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve lots of fascinating stuff in our collections relating to the long history of channel tunnel attempts. You can find some of it in our online catalogue here. If you’re near York, it’s well worth calling in at the National Railway Museum, which has a Channel Tunnel train and display in its Great Hall. And if you’re caught up in the current problems, well, good luck.