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Early Channel Tunnel Schemes

by Greg Martin

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The Channel Tunnel railway became a reality when TML (Trans Manche Link) constructed the line from the Cheriton terminal, near Folkestone in England, to the Frethun terminal in France. However, there had been many earlier plans for bridges and tunnels.

This document lists some of the failed initiatives which, if they had been successful, could have produced a link between England and France long before the 1990s.

Year Event
1751 Plan of Demaretz. Can anyone give details of this ?
1802 Fighting between France and Britain had recently come to a halt as a result of the Treaty of Amiens when Albert Mathieu, a military mining engineer, proposed a single tunnel emerging at a staging post on an artificial island on the Varne sandbank. A city would be built at the staging post. Oil lamps would light the route for the horse drawn vehicles. Charles James Fox, British Secretary of State, discussed the proposal with Napoleon.
1803 Mottray suggested a rail tunnel formed by preparing cuttings and embankments on the sea bed and then lowering sections of tube onto it (known as submerged tube construction). Renewed war with France ended this scheme.
1836 De Gamond proposed a Channel bridge.

Hector Horeau proposed a railway in a submerged tube held in position by paddle steamers. Ventilation shafts were to run between the tunnel and each paddle steamer, ending above the surface in steel constructions shaped like medieval castles.

The paddle steamers posed a danger to shipping in the English Channel in poor weather conditions. Also, any collision on the surface could potentially damage the ventilation shaft and result in the flooding of the tunnel. The plan was dropped amid a storm of protest about it's safety.

1865 Welsh coal mine owner and railway engineer William Low proposed a twin bore railway tunnel with frequent connecting passages to aid ventilation.
1865 Hartsinck Day produced a map showing the probable positions of under water strata.
1866 Brunel took specimens from the sea bed and found that the Gault Clay was not where the 1865 map supposed.

Thome de Gamond published plans for a twin bore railway tunnel. He had surveyed the area and found solid beds of rock, ideal for construction purposes.

De Gamond's plan was, like the 1802 plan, to build an island staging post on the Varne sandbank. There would be a huge open shaft with a railway line spiralling down it's perimeter, linking the tunnel and a new port built on the surface. Half way between the Varne island and each shore there would be an artificial island, acting as a ventilation shaft.


Tunnel scheme backed by the Prince Consort, Lord Beaconsfield, and Mr Gladstone. Favourable engineering opinion from Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901), Bramwell, William Low (1814-1886), Brady and Sir John Hawkshaw (1811-1891). This may be same plan for a tunnel through the lower chalk that was prepared by Low, Brunlees and de Gamond, and was presented at the Paris Exhibition in 1867.

Sir Edward Watkin was a keen supporter of Channel tunnel schemes. He had railway interests in Northern France, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, London and Kent and he set about linking these together. The two missing links in his network were Yorkshire to London and across the English Channel. His Great Central Railway from Yorkshire to London was the last of the great main line schemes and was unfortunately an early casualty of the BR era route closures. There are now plans to re-open sections of this route as it was built relatively straight and flat for high speed running with structure clearances that could accommodate continental size trains.

1869 Sir John Hawkshaw published plans for a double track railway tunnel through the lower chalk, known by the French as the Cenomanian route. The Franco - Prussian war of 1870 ended this scheme.
1872 Channel Tunnel Company formed in the UK.
1873 Captain Tyler proposed placing gunpowder charges at points along the tunnel, to be detonated should a hostile army enter the tunnel from France.
1875 The Association du Chemin de Fer Sous-Marin entre la France et l'Agleterre formed in France. The Northern railway of France owned half of the new company and formed the Societe Concessionnaire du Chemin de Fer Sous-Marin.
1876 Lavalley and Larousse published a detailed report of the geology between Dover and Sangatte.

Trial tunnels were dug on both sides of the Channel. Sir Edward Watkin was involved in the workings on the English side. Gladstone was among the dignitaries who inspected the trial bores.

On the tunnel wall of No 1 Heading at Abbot's Cliff is the famous inscription with an interestingly original attempt to spell the word "begun";-






SHARP 1880

1883 The British government forbade the Channel Tunnel Company from proceeding with it's work, for strategic reasons. Tunnels from each side were by this time over a mile long.
1884 The French government turned down a proposal to build a Channel bridge due to the lack of data about the geology of the seabed and the potential danger to shipping.
1889 French engineers Schneider and Hersent working with the engineers of the Forth Rail Bridge put forward plans for a bridge on behalf of the Channel Bridge Company. This was rejected as a hazard to navigation.
1890s Proposal to build a tunnel at a cost of 4 million pounds, to be worked by compressed air engines.
1906 Sir Francis Fox and Albert Sartaux proposed an electrified railway in a tunnel, on behalf of the Societe Concessionnaire. Construction of a drainage tunnel was to be completed before boring the main tunnel. A narrow gauge railway along the drainage tunnel would allow access to many points along the main tunnel work, so a number of excavations could take place simultaneously.
1907 The bill in the House of Commons to build a tunnel to Fox's plan was withdrawn due to War Office opposition.
1914 Another bill for a tunnel was withdrawn from the House of Commons due to opposition from the War Office.
1917 Water began to seep into the unlined borings dated from 1881 to 1883, possibly as a result of a shock wave caused by a huge explosion on the Ypres Salient when the British mined the German trenches at Messines Ridge at 03:10 7th June (said at the time to be the largest man made explosion in history).
1924 Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald held talks about the Channel tunnel with four ex Prime Ministers (Balfour, Lloyd George, Asquith and Baldwin). After forty minutes of discussion they announced that they were unanimously opposed to any such scheme.
1930 Collard proposed a new broad gauge railway line from London to Paris via a tunnel formed of two main bores and a low level drainage bore. This was narrowly defeated in the House of Commons.
1930 A bridge proposal was rejected as a hazard to navigation. It was pointed out that illuminated piers and foghorns could not penetrate very far in foggy conditions, making the piers dangerous to vessels (especially dangerous to ships travelling with the tide).
1938 Marcel Boucher proposed a road tunnel based upon a design by Basdevant.
1938 The Comite du Tunnel Mixte sous le Pas de Calais proposed a combined road and rail tunnel.
1944 Soldiers were placed to guard the original UK tunnel mouth, as the Germans were working at the French end on the incomplete tunnel. In fact the Germans were using the area around the Sangatte tunnel mouth for building launching ramps for flying bombs (the revenge weapons).
1944 Channel Tunnel Company made a profit of #309 from money not spent on the Channel tunnel but invested elsewhere.
1955 Harold Macmillan, Minister of Defence, announced that there were no longer strategic objections to a Channel link.
1955  Sir William Teeling proposed a tunnel costing 75 million pounds but priority was instead given the multi million pound railway modernisation scheme in the UK.
1956 The Suez Canal Company were deprived of their canal when it was nationalised by Nasser and announced their interest in investing the compensation money in a Channel tunnel scheme.
1957 Brian Colquhoun submitted a technical feasibility of a tunnel.
1957 The Channel Tunnel Study Group formed in the UK.
1958 Basdevant, Mesnager, Guerin and Denis proposed a bored tunnel for both road and rail.
1959 Wimpey Central Laboratory took samples from the sea-bed in the Straights of Dover.
1960 A Channel bridge group formed in France.
1963 The Channel Tunnel Association was formed in the UK.
1963 Estimated cost of building the tunnel - 142 million pounds.
1963 On 19th September government white paper CMND 2173 was published recommending the construction of a Channel tunnel.
1964 On 6th February Ernest Marples, the Conservative Government's Minister of Transport, announced in the House of Commons that agreement in principal had been reached to construct the Channel tunnel at a cost of about 160 million pounds. The cost would to be met jointly by the British and French governments. The tunnel would open some time after 1970.
1964 Ernest Marples announced a Channel tunnel survey costing 1.25 million pounds, to be financed jointly by the French and British railways.
1964 Wimpey-Forasol started taking core samples.
1966 On 8th July the French Prime Minister, M Pompidou, and Harold Wilson, the Labour Government's Prime Minister jointly issued a statement announcing the go-ahead for the Chunnel at a cost of 200 million pounds. This was neither the first nor the last attempt to build the tunnel.



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©  Greg Martin 2020