The Channel tunnel between France and Britain was finally opened in 1994. It is a remarkable fact that the tunnel could have been operational over a century before this date. A tunnel was first proposed as early as 1750, and by the end of the nineteenth century engineering technology was sufficiently advanced that a channel tunnel could have been successfully constructed. However, the channel tunnel venture was entirely dependent on political and economic relations between France and Britain and the history of the tunnel's forestalled development is also the history of European diplomacy and trade.
The first serious proposal for a tunnel joining France and Britain was made in 1802. This plan, for two tunnels joining at an island mid-channel where horse-drawn transport would be refreshed, gained considerable support from Napolean Bonaparte during the brief Peace of Amiens, but foundered when the French Emperor resumed hostilities after less than a year.
The advent of passenger railways in the early nineteenth century expanded the public's vision of a Channel tunnel, but their fascination was matched by a strong fear that the tunnel would remove the nation's border and natural defence against invasion. To allay government and public concern, early plans included valves which could be released to flood the tunnel.
Pamphlets in The Nineteenth Century collection illuminate public opinion and interest in the Channel tunnel. The Channel Railway, connecting England and France (1861) by James Chalmers is an amateur's attempt at a detailed construction plan, including a full estimate of costs and revenues, written in a non-technical language in a bid to win over the general reader. Chalmers ridicules earlier schemes, one which involved submerging a pipeline from giant floating balloons, and another which proposed laying a tube along the sea bed with intermittent lighthouses to prevent ships dropping anchor on the tunnel. Chalmers also proposes laying an iron tube across the sea floor:
It is supported by its own buoyancy, having a powerful tendency to rise; and it is kept down by anchors or boxes attached to and surrounding it and filled with rough stone, both boxes and tube being covered by an embankment of similar material; and, as the current alternates up and down channel with the rise and fall of the tide, the silt at the bottom carried by it against and into this embankment will fill up the interstices, and in a few years convert it into a solid impermeable mass having the appearance of a ridge reaching from shore to shore.
This plan must surely have put off even the most intrepid of nineteenth-century travellers! Chalmers, however, predicts a massive increase in travel to the continent because passengers will no longer suffer from sea-sickness.
By 1860, a solution had been found for most of the engineering challenges posed by the tunnel, and a string of French and British business ventures came into being over the next century. However, work was ordered to stop during the 1860s, the 1880s, and again before World War One by the British Board of Trade in response to concerns by the military. This thwarted the endeavour until well after the Second World War.
Studying the nineteenth-century origins of the Channel tunnel reveals that the opening of the tunnel in 1995 by Prime Minister Thatcher and President Mitterand was not so much a feat of twentieth-century engineering as a major achievement of European diplomacy and a historic symbol of changing economic policies.
Other books on the Channel tunnel in The Nineteenth Century programme include:
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