Channel Tunnel Visions, 1850-1945

By Bonavia, Michael | The Journal of Transport History, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Channel Tunnel Visions, 1850-1945


Bonavia, Michael, The Journal of Transport History


Keith Wilson, Channel Tunnel Visions, 1850-1945, Hambledon Press, London and Rio Grande (1994), 239 pp., L25.00.

This useful and well researched addition to the now substantial list of Channel tunnel historical material is not best served by its title, which suggests an excursion along a well trodden path. In fact it embodies the result of painstaking study of original material in, mainly, the Public Record Office, covering British government activity during the periods, or rather episodes, of active promotion of the tunnel. The episodic treatment is justified because the question of a tunnel - or other fixed link - was not a continuously burning one; it was a fire that smouldered and from time to time flared up, raising high hopes, only to be doused with quantities of cold water - the last dousing being in 1974, outside the time scale of this book.

Out of the ninety-five years specified in the title, fifty-five are covered in chapter 1, 'Prologue', involving the compression of a generally familiar story, with a bonus in a summary of the French Troisieme Bureau contingency plan for a possible invasion of England between 1897 and 1908. There is also in an appendix the actual text of the key passages in Sir Garnet Wolseley's famous memorandum of 1882, setting the tone of most War Office opposition to the tunnel for many years after. The author gets into top gear in chapter 2, with the creation in 1906 of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which, so far as the tunnel was concerned, was to be, in Humphrey Slater and Corelli Barnett's words, `the traditional wrecking crew'. Succeeding chapters deal with the second reference to the ColD in 1913, the desultory exchanges of views during the 1914-18 war; the 1919 Paris peace conference; the long and often rather unscrupulous tactics used by Maurice Hankey against the tunnel, even when Cabinet Secretary; departmental attitudes; the struggles to get a decision in the 1920s and the final blow of the parliamentary free vote of 30 June 1929 172 in favour but 179 against. The history ends with a note on the brief scare in 1941 about German digging in the Calais area - which had nothing to do with any attempt to start tunnelling.

The apparent imbalance between devoting one chapter to the first half-century and nine chapters to the second halfcentury can be justified, partly on account of the much greater wealth of documentation in later years, but also because soon after the turn of the century the tunnel ceased to be just a vision, a dream of a fixed link with the Continent, and became a relatively straightforward engineering project. …

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