Tania Parker, Search Engine assistant on the National Railway Museum’s Collections and Research team, delves into the archives to reveal some of the challenges faced by engineers and labourers working to connect the modern city.
If you’ve ever travelled on London Underground’s Northern, Central or Piccadilly Lines or driven through the Rotherhithe Tunnel you may well have set eyes on some of the many projects carried out by civil engineering contractors Price & Reeves. This London-based company operated around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although we’ve not been able to establish the precise dates, and it was a partnership between John Price & T J Reeves.
The Price & Reeves collection mainly consists of drawings for their various tunnelling and wharf construction contracts, including many for London Underground lines. Alongside the drawings there are 17 images that depict the construction of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (now part of the Northern Line) and the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The prints are in the form of stereo pairs, which when viewed with a stereoscope give the appearance of a 3D image.
These images give a fascinating insight into the hard, dirty and dangerous work that went into constructing London’s transport arteries which have become an integral part of the capital today. The image below is captioned matter-of-factly on the back as ‘No. 1 Shield where man’s finger was cut off’. Certainly, injuries seem to have been commonplace on tunnelling projects.
In addition to the many visible hazards that caused injury and death to workers, the methods used to construct tunnels under rivers posed serious risks to workers’ health. Price & Reeves used compressed air whereby the tunnel face work area was made into a pressurised chamber between a bulkhead and the tunnelling shield. The increased air pressure acted against the pressure of the water in the ground and was used in an effort to prevent flooding.
When this method was used on the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, gases escaped through the riverbed and caused the Thames to boil to a height of 3 feet. Unfortunately, the tunnelling work under the river coincided with a boat race from Putney to Charing Cross and compensation had to be paid out for damage to a competitor’s boat!
On a more serious note, working in a pressurised environment could cause ‘compressed air illness’ – now known as decompression sickness – which in modern times is most commonly encountered by divers. Barotrauma to air cavities in the body was another health risk. The chronic condition dysbaric osteonecrosis could also be suffered by tunnelling workers whereby nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream could inhibit the blood supply to bone causing it to die. There is reference to the low rate of ‘compressed air illness’ in project engineer Edward H Tabor’s report on the Rotherhithe Tunnel contract.
While working on the Central London Railway (that now forms part of the Central line) John Price developed his eponymous Price Rotary Excavator. This automated soft-ground excavating machine was manufactured by Markham & Co. in Chesterfield. The machine increased the rate of progress on the Charing Cross Euston and Hampstead contract significantly and reduced the number of workers at the tunnelling face. Price & Reeves also put the machine into service during the construction of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. After the First World War more than 40 of these machines were put into use during the inter-war period for further tunnelling work under London.
In addition to the tunnels and wharves that are documented by the collection, Price & Reeves were also involved in a wide range of other projects such as the construction of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit at Brooklands in Surrey in 1907. They were also involved in the reconstruction efforts in Flanders after the First World War. They worked on the Louvain (or Leuvan) Library, which was destroyed in both world wars, and also had a contract in 1923 with the Imperial War Graves (now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) in Ypres.
Many of the tunnels and wharves that Price & Reeves built still stand today, unfortunately details of the firm’s administrative history, such as when they were founded and ceased operation, have become buried with the passage of time. If you know of any details about the firm or are aware of any sources that might be useful for reconstructing their history then we’d love to hear from you, you can leave a comment below or email me directly at [email protected].
The Price & Reeves Collection can be found on our new archives catalogue here: http://archives.sciencemuseumgroup.ac.uk/Details/archive/110073967. You can access the collection through Search Engine, our library and archive centre, who can be contacted at [email protected].