There had been numerous proposals for a tunnel under the channel throughout the 19th Century including one by Napoleon, but the first serious attempt to build a tunnel came with an Act of Parliament in 1875 authorising the Channel Tunnel Company Ltd. to start preliminary trials. This was an Anglo French project with a simultaneous Act of Parliament in France.
By 1877 several shafts had been sunk to a depth of 330 feet at Sangatte in France but initial work carried out at St. Margaret’s Bay, to the east of Dover had to be abandoned due to flooding. In 1880 under the direction of Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the South Eastern Railway, a new shaft (No. 1 shaft) was sunk at Abbot’s Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone with a horizontal gallery being driven along the cliff, 10 feet above the high water mark. This seven foot diameter pilot tunnel was eventually to be enlarged to standard gauge with a connection to the South Eastern Railway.
After Welsh miners had bored 800 feet of tunnel a second shaft (No 2) was sunk at Shakespeare Cliff in February 1881. This tunnel was started under the foreshore heading towards a mid channel meeting with the French pilot tunnel. Both tunnels were to have been bored using a compressed air boring machine invented and built by Colonel Fredrick Beaumont MP. Beaumont had been involved with the Channel Tunnel Company since 1874 and had successfully bored a number of tunnels without the use of explosives and 3 ½ times faster than manual labour.
It was not however Beaumont’s boring machine that was used. Captain Thomas English of Dartford, Kent patented a far superior rotary boring machine in 1880 capable of cutting nearly half a mile a month and it was this not Beaumont’s machine that was used on this first attempt at tunnelling under the channel. The tunnel was credited to Beaumont in ‘The Engineer’ magazine and despite letters of protest from English the editor refused to correct the mistake and Beaumont did nothing to clarify the situation. Even to this day this early Channel Tunnel trial is often credited to the Beaumont machine.