One railway track on the towpath, one over the canal

The Strood-Higham tunnel is a remarkable piece of engineering. But its history has been touched by financial disaster and tragedy.

In 2004, Medway train journeys to London were interrupted for a year while urgent repairs were carried out. The tunnel, however, was not built for railways, but for barges plying their trade along the Thames and Medway Canal.

The canal was proposed in 1778 as a route for military vessels between Chatham and Woolwich dockyards without the need to travel the 46 miles around Hoo Peninsula. It would double as a toll tunnel used to transport local produce.

A contemporary account says: “The navigation of barges and other vessels on the canal would greatly facilitate and render less expensive the carriage of all kinds of wares, goods and articles, and would materially improve the agriculture of the circumjacent country, and would render unnecessary a long and circuitous and sometimes dangerous navigation on the open sea, and would otherwise be a great private and public advantage.”

The project needed permission of an act of parliament which, among other things, restricted the canal’s width to 40 yards. The canal’s owners could charge a fee, depending on the cargo, per mile. The fee was 1s 2d per ton of hay, oats or straw and 2s 6d per ton of hops or wool. An empty barge using the tunnel was a shortcut was charged 10s.

Strood tunnel, completed in 1801

The Gravesend to Higham section was completed by 1801, but then the canal had to get through the chalk hills between Higham and Strood. After various other routes were discounted, construction of the Higham-Strood tunnel began in 1819. It was then the largest in Britain, 11,790ft (2.25 miles) long and 35ft wide. It had an 8ft depth of water and a 5ft towpath and could accommodate 60-ton sailing barges, 94ft long and 22ft wide.

It was vital that the tunnel-builders got the route absolutely straight — otherwise the barges would have been scraping along the sides. It is thought that the tunnel is the first to be aligned with a scientific instrument, an astronomer’s transit telescope. Shafts were dug and two heavy plumb lines dropped down them and steadied in tubs of water. The telescope was then lined up on their strings and the exact line of the tunnel calculated.

The human cost, however, was appalling. The Higham historian and author Andrew Rootes has extracted these from the burial records at St Mary’s Church, Higham:

20 August, 1820 James Dellaway, 41, killed by falling down a shaft belonging to the Thames and Medway Canal

29 November 1821 Alan Cradock, 29, killed by a fall of chalk when working at the canal

2 September, 1822 Thomas Martin, 19, Thomas Croft, 21, and William Tuff, 25, were accidentally killed by a quantity of chalk suddenly falling upon them while at work in the tunnel of the canal

2 February, 1823 Thomas White, 19, accidentally killed by being entangled in a rope in going down the shaft, No 6, leading to the new tunnel in the canal

The tunnel opened in 1824, but soon leaked, so a pump was fitted; complaints then came from barge-owners that it was slow to use, so in 1830 it was shut for two months while a passing place was built in the centre. Not only could barges wait here, but the poor horses that pulled these sailing giants from the towpath could be fed and watered.

The tunnel opened in 1824, but soon leaked, so a pump was fitted; complaints then came from barge-owners that it was slow to use, so in 1830 it was shut for two months while a passing place was built in the centre. Not only could barges wait here, but the poor horses that pulled these sailing giants from the towpath could be fed and watered.

 Great engineering but a poor commercial prospect

For all its engineering brilliance, the canal was not a commercial success. Many barge-owners still preferred risk the toll-free peninsular waters.

The rail business was booming, however, so the canal company branched out — and in 1845 laid a single-track railway from Gravesend to Strood through the tunnel. One rail was on the towpath, the other supported above the water. It sounds terrifying.

The canal company plainly thought it should not be in the rail business and sold to South Eastern Railways the same year for £310,000 — a colossal sum. By 1847, the waterway was filled in and a second track laid and the canal towing contractor’s home was converted into Higham railway station.

The dock and locks were filled in 1986 and houses built over them

One great idea had failed — but had been taken over by another. The canal between Gravesend and Higham continued to be used by farmers who brought in produce and manure from ships — giving the Higham waterside the soubriquet Dung Wharf. Hop gardens around the village were gradually turned over to other uses, however, so the canal trade died and the rest of the waterway was abandoned in 1934.

The Strood connection is all but gone. The dock and locks at the end of Commissioners Road were filled early in 1986 and housing has now been built over them.

So why were the tunnel repairs needed? The tunnel was becoming dangerous, with a number of chalk falls from its roof. These are believed to come from six shafts that were driven vertically when it was first constructed.

The area above the tunnel around Frindsbury has always been riddled with holes and pits — some deneholes, some underground grain stores. One of these is believed to have been the cause of an appalling tragedy in 1967, when a woman fell into a pit that opened in West Street. Her body was never found.

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