A blog post by Nigel Buckley, graduate trainee 2012-2013, who catalogued the Channel Tunnel Association Archive over the summer.
I must confess a dirty secret: I’m a Channel Tunnel enthusiast. You need to believe me when I say I’m struggling to accept it myself. It’s very new to me, and I assure you all that if you spend even a few hours with this collection you will look at tunnels and trains, maybe even planes or just transport in general, in a whole new iridescent light. Modes of transport are fascinating things: I recently moved to South London where the air is full of planes circling around, treating the space above the houses and gardens like their car park, waiting for a place to pull in. Around this area it is easy to spend whole afternoons admiring the giant iron wonders of construction and precision in the sky, and their unimaginable ability to stay afloat on the particles of oxygen, nitrogen etc… So that’s my confession – but believe me; I haven’t always been this way.
Why do I love the tunnel so much now? Well, it’s the tenacity and determination of people, since 1802, who (sorry for the cliché) dared to dream. Mr. Albert Mathieu, a French engineer, proposed the construction of a tunnel, linking France with England, through the chalk under the Channel and using an artificial island on the Varne Bank to provide oxygen for horses and really just a pleasant resting stop. However this was largely impractical because Mathieu had little idea about construction and didn’t understand the geology at work under the sea bed. Napoleon, however, kind of liked the idea as a symbol of the friendship of the two countries during the Peace of Amiens. However, he had to scrap it when all hell broke loose yet again.
The following year an Englishman called Mottray suggested that a submerged tube would maybe be a better idea but all plans were short lived because hostilities were high. It wasn’t until 1872 that the Channel Tunnel Company was born in London and it took until 1878 for tunnelling to commence due to lack of funds. Tunnelling began on both sides of the Channel, at Sangatte and Shakespeare Cliff near Dover. Work was halted in 1882, when the tunnel had reached 2,000 yards under the sea, because military strategists imagined a French army marching while the English were defenceless on the over side of the tunnel.
Plans in the early years of the twentieth century had to be postponed due to the First World War, but during the 1920s the project was revived but ultimately not passed in parliament in 1930, despite a Royal Commission turning out in favour. It was in the 1970s that real work began but by 1975 work was abandoned due to escalating costs and not until 1984 did it begin again thanks to funding from Eurotunnel.
Not everyone was thrilled with the prospect of the tunnel, it was, of course, quite pricey and some groups had their own interests to think about. Here’s a funny (well, I think so!) poster from Flexilink, an organisation specialising in road transport.
But, building the Channel Tunnel did lead to excellent investment in the infrastructure of London: the Victoria Line (my personal favourite) was built to handle the large number of people needing to travel between north and south London.
Among the collection can be found very serious items, detailing the construction and engineering of tunnels and ticket halls, as well as military reports.
But there are also whimsical, interesting and charming moments of relief to be had:
In addition to the charming pieces, there are also just the out-and-out curious items.
So that is just a brief introduction to the collection. There is a description available on Archives Hub, and a finding aid available in Special Collections, which details fully the contents of the archival boxes. The book collection is currently being catalogued. Come to the third floor of the library and take a look and discover something interesting. Next year (2014) will mark the twentieth anniversary of the tunnel – come and see how it all began and admire the determination of some remarkable individuals.