Tag Archives: Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Will Crooks and the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Late last year, on a miserable rainy day I ran through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to get a little respite from torrential rain, the blog piece I wrote was mainly about the running. However, the tunnel and the man behind it are well worth returning to. 

The tunnel owed much to the vision of Will Crooks, a Progressive Party and later Labour Party politician. Crooks was a man of humble beginnings from Poplar, who in his youth spent time in the workhouse due to his family’s poverty and, with his friend George Lansbury, used his experiences to help reform the Poplar workhouse, which become a model for how workhouses should be run.

Crooks read widely in his youth and on Sundays lectured outside the dock gates on Polar where he was a casual worker. He oratory skills were later described by a fellow Labour MP John Robert Clynes

Will Crooks combined the inspiration of a great evangelist with such a stock of comic stories, generally related as personal experiences, that his audience alternated between tears of sympathy and tears of laughter.

He became active in politics and was elected to the London County Council in early 1889 as a Progressive Party member – which had been founded the year before by a loose grouping of labour movement leaders, Liberals and the Fabian Society, including Sidney Webb.

Source Wikimedia Commons

It was perhaps little surprise that he emerged as one of the leaders of the 1889 Dock Strike and he used his oratory skills in fundraising. He was also to become the first Labour mayor of the Poplar Borough Council in 1901. He also helped to set up the National Committee on Old Age Pensions believing that pensions were the only way to keep the elderly poor from entering the workhouse – this ultimately led to the first State Pensions in 1908.
Whilst on the LCC, Crooks chaired the Bridges Committee and it was on his watch that the decision to build the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was made to allow working class people in Greenwich were able to commute to the shipyards, docks and factories on the north bank of the river on a free and reliable basis. It replaced a ferry which was both expensive and frequently didn’t operate due to fogs.     

 The tunnel was designed by civil engineer Sir Alexander Binnie and was constructed by John Cochrane & Co. The building work started in June 1899, and the tunnel opened on 4 August 1902, although it users had to wait another two years for the first lifts to become operational.

The southern entrance is a glazed cupola close to the Cutty Sark, with the northern entrance in Island Gardens. It is just over 370 metres long and 15 metres deep, with a diameter of 2.7 metres, although this is slightly narrower at the northern end as an inner liner was added following WW2 bomb damage (see bottom right photo above).
Also when on the LCC he campaigned for the provision of parks – Island Gardens too was at least partly down to Crook’s efforts, he opened the park seven years before the tunnel. The park has the northern entrance to the tunnel plus a great view back towards Greenwich.

In the 1903 there was a Parliamentary by-election in Woolwich in what was then a safe Tory seat caused by the resignation of Charles William de la Poer Beresford, 1st Baron Beresford (an honorary title, as the younger son of a Marquis, so he didn’t have the same issues as Tony Benn) to become an Admiral. The Liberals agreed not to put up a candidate and Crooks was elected for the Labour Representation Committee – becoming their 4th MP. Crooks represented Woolwich, then East Woolwich when the constituency was split, until 1921, apart from a short inter-regnum during 1910.
He is sadly not remembered on the ‘plaques’ outside the entrances (he was no longer on the Bridges Committee when they opened) and, south of the river at least, his name only lives on a street facing an embankment to the A2 in Kidbrooke. However, he was ‘captured’ several times on British Pathé News including his funeral in Poplar when the crowds turned out to pay their respects

I’m certainly not the first to have run through the tunnel, the 100 Marathon Club organised a marathon to celebrate the tunnel’s 100th birthday on 4 August 2002 – 58 ‘laps’ of the tunnel during the night. You didn’t have to be Superman to compete but it clearly helped – the finishers included a Clark Kent.


Small Steps

I lasted posted about my recovery towards running after a serious accident in January a couple of weeks ago.  At that stage I was off painkillers, my movement had improved and had started some urban wandering.

My urban exploration has continued and as my fitness has improved the length of my wanderings increased up to around 5 miles at the beginning of the week – this included Greenwich and the Thames, both of which it seemed psychologically important to see; the sun glinting through the cupola of the Foot Tunnel was exquisite.

A few days earlier I realised that, had I been running, I would have missed some 18th century graffiti in St Margaret’s Passage, which I wrote about a few days ago, as well as the lines and patterns in the bark in Greenwich.

The light in Blackheath yesterday around Morden College and the Paragon were superb. 

I am now working again, a mixture of working from home, working in the office and a reducing amount of being ‘signed off’ as ‘unfit’.  My first half day back was very emotional, I was reduced to a blubbering wreck several times, and needed a wander around Crystal Palace Park under the watchful eyes of Joseph Paxton to recover.

Running is still at least a month off – I need the all clear from an x-ray – but in the meantime, as one of my friends keeps telling me – ‘keeping taking those small steps to recovery.’

Going Underground

It was a very soggy South London that greeted me this morning, it had been raining heavily all night and while it had eased slightly by the time I started my watch, it was still very wet.

The rain had brought down much of the remaining autumn colour and in places it was like running on a yellow carpet.

Greenwich Park was very quiet just a few other hardy runners, dog walkers some with rather reluctant hounds, although other canines embraced the rain, a few harassed looking parents with hyperactive offspring loving the flooded paths, plus a small number of rather dejected looking tourists who had clearly hoped for better weather on their trip to London.

I did plan the route to escape the rain for short interludes, covered colonnaded walkway to the rear of the Queen’s House, and by the Chapel and Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College.

I had hoped to have my spirits lifted by students practicing at the Trinity School of Music, I was once greeted by a loud fanfare from them, but this morning the courtyard next to the practice rooms was eerily quiet – rain stopped practice. The rain continued to pour down so, as I skirted around yesterday’s birthday boat, the Cutty Sark, I took an unplanned turn down the steps to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to get some respite – it was rather surreal running under the river but rather pleasant. The musical accompaniment that I had hoped for a few minutes earlier was oddly provided below the Thames with some beautiful sounds echoing through as a band, with a singer who sounded rather like Elena Tonra from Daughter, seemed to be shooting a video and taking photos – hopefully they’ll keep the image of an orange blur whizzing past (although in reality it will probably look more a plodding packet of Jacobs Cream Crackers).