Advertising the underground: London’s first Thames Tunnel

23 06 2012

1. Fair in the Thames Tunnel, 1855, as depicted by The Illustrated London News

The Thames Tunnel was the one of the first attempts to exploit underground space in a major urban centre. Running from Wapping to Rotherhithe in the East End, it was begun in 1825 by the engineer Marc Brunel but only completed, after many setbacks, in 1843. In its early days, the Tunnel was a fashionable space for promenading by both Londoners and tourists alike, and was the site of numerous popular entertainments throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

2. The Thames Tunnel after its conversion to a railway tunnel in 1865

3. One half of the Thames Tunnel today – part of the London Underground network.

The Tunnel gradually lost its sense of glamour and was eventually sold to the East London Railway in 1865 (2), and, to this day, Transport for London uses the tunnel as part of its network of trains (3).

4. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Tunnel souvenirs, like these commemorative watch papers (4 & 5), introduced a new iconography of underground space to London’s populace, reproduced on a wide variety of other goods such as cups, plates, snuffboxes, posters and guidebooks. Typical representations of the Tunnel were of the construction process, shown above (4). Here a split-level view depicts a scene on the river rendered in perspective, beneath which an outsized cross-sectional view of the twin shafts shows the tunnel being built by the miners, rendered in blue and red. Below (5) is a perspective view of the inside of the tunnel, its arches seemingly receding infinitely, their scale emphasised by the diminutive visitors. In the borders of both watchpapers are Tunnel statistics: above (4), explanatory text as to the location of the image; below (5), information on the cost of the project and the materials employed in its construction. These combination views of underground space – on the one hand, technological, on the other picturesque – would become commonplace as London developed its subterranean infrastructure of sewers, railways and subways from the 1860s onwards.

5. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Watchpapers were small printed round paper inserts placed in pocket watches to protect their inner workings from rust. They were also employed by watchmakers as product labels, that is, as a way of advertising their wares. The use of this medium for advertising the Thames Tunnel demonstrates how the popular appeal of a particular sight might displace conventional forms of advertising. Although not an organised advertising campaign as we understand it today, the marketing of the Thames Tunnel nevertheless represents an early example of ‘total’ advertising, one that organises itself around a particular spectacle in the city rather than an individual commodity.

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