Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s London Travel Diary

Mr Coolidge, Mrs Searle & myself visited the Thames Tunnel. I called at Chester Terrace in Regent’s Park for Mrs Searle & we went by way of the New Road to Bishopsgate St. where Mr Coolidge joined us about half past three P.M. when we proceeded to the Tunnel.

After paying the usual fee we were admitted into the Shaft at Rotherhithe, a sort of well fifty feet in diameter, and, amid a din of machinery which almost stunned us, looked down into the abyss below, a depth I believe of sixty five feet, where shone a few glimmering gas lights, each one appearing a small distinct star just visible in the surrounding blackness. The effect was all the better for this seeming darkness, but the Shaft is in reality lighted at intervals all the way down, and we descended by a circular stairway, with occasional landing places, sufficiently wide and easy & light enough for all purposes of safety and convenience. In the centre of the outer shaft was a smaller one where stood a pump of great size, the working of which contributed not a little to the noise which had surprised me at my first entrance.

Notwithstanding the easiness of the way there was something trying to the nerves in the descent to what appeared the bowels of the earth, and it was with a feeling of awe if not of alarm that I slowly wound my way into the depth of this subterranean tower, which seemed a fit entrance to the lower regions, to the palace of Pluto or the abode of Hela; and indeed, when having passed the last short reach of the staircase, the long vista of the Tunnel, with it’s double arches lighted with gas, came suddenly into view, the effect was altogether grand and imposing.

The Tunnel has now reached a distance of 790 feet from the shaft of Rotherhithe towards Wapping, but visiters are not allowed to go within fifty yards or more of the farthest point, for fear of disturbing the workmen. It forms a sort of covered way under the bed of the Thames, 38 feet wide & 22 f. 6 inches in height, divided into two parallel roads by a very thick wall which is, however, cut into a succession of open arches affording easy communication from one to the other of these carriage ways. When completed there will be raised sidewalks for foot passengers on both sides of each road. At present only the left hand one is passable for visiters & the footway is complete on the sides next the Arcades only. The right hand road forms a kind of rail-way along which the waggons for conveying earth out of the Tunnel, pass & repass with a thundering sound noise on their way to & from the shaft, where, as they come full, to return empty, they are raised or lowered by machinery. The appearance of the Tunnel as you first see it is a succession of double horse shoe arches, something like the old Norman Arches, running away into the distance & forming a grand perspective as you look along the receding lines. The horse-shoe form is produced by a thickening of the middle wall at it’s lower part & the sides of the Tunnel being excavated in the same semi-circular way they belly out like the mainsails of a man-of-war.

I walked heroically as far as the gate which bars the approach to visiters, and lingered enjoying the novelty of the scene all the more for the excitement of a vague feeling of uneasiness. I remembered, very distinctly, that the Thames with all it’s shipping was rolling far over head, that perhaps at the very moment, men-of-war, merchant vessels and steamers were floating above. I thought of the enormous weight & the rapid-flow of the waters, of the advance tide sweeping in from the Ocean, and I almost expected each moment to hear the earthquake shock of collapsing walls, and see the solid mason work tremble & shake as I looked at it’s massive arches. But no such convulsion of the elements ensued. Earth, air & water remained in their places. We walked out as we had walked in safe & well, and ascending the shaft to the light of day and to our carriage, proceeded very quietly to a place called Blackwall for the purpose of eating White Bait—a sudden transition from great things to small.

We found at Blackwall, where we were joined by Mr Searle, a good Hotel and an abundant supply of the fairy fish called Whitebait, too small, too delicately beautiful to be eaten. It is like feasting on Butterflies. But they are Epicurean morsels notwithstanding. They are from one to three inches long, shine with a white light like beaten silver, are boneless, or their bones intangible as their scales are invisible, have little black eyes, and should be eaten tail, head, little black eyes & all, at one mouthful, hot from the frying pan, with no sauce but a fresh-cut lemon, and are food for an ancient Roman, equal I am sure to the brains of nightingales or the tongues of thrushes. And to think what numbers are swallowed by coarse throats down which a sturgeon cutlet or salt cod fish would pass just as readily. How many pearls are thrown to swine! Whitebait might be served up to the Water Gods.

From the windows of the Hotel we had a fine view of the Thames covered with vessels of every description. Opposite was a low, green, marshy looking place called the Isle of Dogs, formed by a great bend in the river which here appears to retrace it’s steps and turn back as if loath to leave the Isle of Dogs.

I must not forget that Rotherhithe, pronounced, by the natives Redriff, is the birthplace of Capt. Lemuel Gulliver.

+Our dinner at Blackwall did not consist entirely of Whitebait; there were substantials & sweets & a bottle of Champagne. When the time for departure arrived & the bill was called for, (it was not an extravagant one,) we discovered with some laughing dismay, that our purses were all nearly empty. I had a gold sovereign in mine, the rest of the party only a little silver in theirs. There was however no difficulty. We had come in a handsome carriage with servants, and the landlord was too experienced a man not to know with whom he had to deal. We returned to our Hotel and his pounds, shillings & pence were forthwith transmitted to him.

MS (MHi: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Diary, Ms N-1027); in Coolidge’s hand. Published in Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. (2011), 57–61.

With capt. lemuel gulliver, Coolidge was referring to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels into several Remote Nations of the World [1726].