Monday, July 08, 2024

More Than Just a Statue to a Great Man

James Henry Greathead statue
Greathead's tunnelling shield in action.

Across the road from the Bank of England, on Cornhill, there is a statue of a man, atop a tall plinth, which allows him to gaze down on to the street below. The man is wearing a fedora and appears to be holding some sort of map, giving him a kind of 'Indiana Jones' appearance. The man is James Henry Greathead, who was born in South African in 1844. 

So what is it about him that demands a statue on such a large plinth in this area of the City of London? 

Well. James Henry Greathead moved to England in 1859, where he studied under the civil engineer Peter W. Barlow. This was a great era for tunnel diggers, what with Marc Brunel and his son, Isambard, having tunnelled beneath the River Thames and created the first tunnel beneath a navigable waterway, in 1843.

Brunel had designed and patented an 'Iron Shield', for his tunnelling, which Greathead, along with Barlow, greatly improved upon. Their project would be London's second tunnel beneath the River Thames and was called, unsurprisingly, the Tower Subway, as it would carry 12 passengers along a narrow-gauge railway from Tower Hill to Tooley Street.

The tunnelling shield was an immediate success, considering that the majority of London's underground lines had been built with the 'cut-and-cover' method, up to this point.

Greathead made more improvements to the shield, in 1890, ready for the creation of the City and South London Railway. This service ran from King William Street to Stockwell and, although King William Street station is closed, the line is now part of the Northern line. Greathead was also responsible for the Waterloo & City line.

James Henry Greathead statue
The shield of the City and South London Railway.

Now, back to this 10-foot bronze statue, which is the work of James Butler RA and was unveiled in 1994. It depicts Greathead holding a map, which is actually a blueprint for what would eventually become the Northern line.

But, why was it placed here and why on such a high plinth??

Well, following the tragic loss of life at the King's Cross station fire, on November 18, 1987, a whole raft of new safety measures and regulations began to be implemented across the network. This involved the removal of wooden panelling and wooden escalators. Heat detectors and sprinkler systems were installed and new ventilation shafts were created, throughout the network, along with many other measures and regulations to make the underground safer.

So, this ventilation shaft, born out of necessity, for Bank underground station, also acts as a pedestal for the statue. 

And no place could be more perfect, for his statue, than above the underground line that this great man made a reality.

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