The Greathead Shield


Some ideas seem destined for success from the start – the internet, sliced bread and Velcro were ideas waiting to happen. Some looked doomed from the beginning – the Sinclair C5 and the helicopter ejector seat, among them. And some, like the videocassette and the hot water bottle just get left behind by changing technology or changing tastes.
A citywide grid of hydraulic power? Believe it or not, that was the plan for London in the 1800s – a good idea superseded by electricity. While a cramped omnibus shuttle beneath the Thames, which could transport just a dozen passengers in conditions of unbearable claustrophobia, unsurprisingly went in the dumper straightaway.

But London has a remarkable ability to repurpose its old buildings into new uses – The East End is littered with old mission houses, factories and warehouses now pressed into service as posh flats and offices. More interesting by far are two idiosyncratic structures – one at Tower Hill, another at Wapping – which are all that is left of the London Hydraulic Power Company and the Tower Subway.

Railway mania was gripping London in the mid-19th century, as companies sprung up and investors sunk their money into the ground. The infrastructure of a growing capital would be pegged to Underground railways. They were right of course – but just like dotcom madness and tulip fever, sometimes the eagerness to make money overrides commonsense. An 1868 Act of Parliament authorised a tunnel beneath the Thames between Tower Hill and Tooley Street on the South Bank. A crossing was much-needed, but after the Brunels’ gruelling experience with the Thames Tunnel, there was hardly a queue of bidders.
Step forward keen young South African James Henry Greathead, just 24 but with his own patented improvement on the Brunels’ tunnelling shield. The Greathead Shield worked too – the tunnel was finished in less than a year and the railway began running in August 1870. The service was slow, cramped and the carriages held just a dozen passengers, and the business went bust three months later.
It proved much more successful as a pedestrian tunnel, with a million Londoners passing through each year, and paying a ha’penny a time. The 1894 construction of Tower Bridge, however, just a couple of hundred yards to the east, and toll-free put paid to that though, as traffic collapsed. In 1897, the tunnel was sold for £3000 to another company whose time had come – the London Hydraulic Power Company.


London was a hive of industry, with cranes, lifts, theatre curtains and the hydraulic machinery of Tower Bridge, all needing energy. Steam power alone wasn’t really up to the job, but the city had plenty of water. Pumped straight out of the Thames and heated in winter to stop it freezing, the water was soon coursing through a 200-mile network tunnels fanning out from five power stations (including the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station) as far as Earls Court Exhibition Centre, Pentonville Road and Rotherhithe. Coal-fired steam engines powered the turbines, which in turn pumped the water around London, and the company connected south London with the City and Wapping using the Tower Subway, now hidden from the public forever.

Hydraulic power wasn’t the future, alas. From the turn of the new century, electricity began to take hold. Yet the company didn’t die. From 1923, steam was replaced by electric motors, but still water was pushed around London at 800 pounds per square inch. Remarkably, the system lasted until 1977, when the Wapping station was the last of the five to close.

Again, a new technology was waiting in the wings. The London Hydraulic Power Company had the statutory right to dig up the roads to maintain its network of pipes. This made it attractive to the first of a new breed of company ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of British industry. It’s hard to imagine these days, when every one of us carries a mobile, and there are dozens of phone providers to choose from, but back in the early 1980s, the only way to make a phone call was from a telephone attached to the wall and operated by BT.

Mercury was BT’s first competitor, and it snapped up the LHPC’s network of pipes, running its telecoms cables along them. The claustrophobic tunnel that had once housed the world’s first tube railway now became a tangled mass of wires. For a while, Mercury tilted at BT, and its distinctive blue-and-white phone boxes sprouted on London streets. In time, it too would disappear, subsumed back into parent company Cable and Wireless, now it forms part of the DNA of T-Mobile. The cables, of course, remain. The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station would reopen in time as the Wapping Project arts centre and restaurant. New tastes, new uses, but the structures remain.

The bright young engineer Greathead would go on to be one of the major architects of what would become the London Underground (as well as the Blackwall Tunnel) constructing large parts of the Metropolitan and Hammersmith railways and then the City and South London Railway. Now part of the Northern Line, it was the world’s first underground electric railway. He would die young, at just 52, his final work being on the Central London Railway (now the Central Line).


About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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