IMG 7939fi - A London viaduct with high & low lines!

These days there’s talk of high lines (Camden, Peckham) whilst London already has a low line which I have written about here. These are walking routes along the top or along the bottom of viaducts. This is one viaduct, a real historic one too that has both a ready made high and low line – but its not a railway viaduct – although there are plenty of working railways about and a fair bit of railway history too!
Indeed when this mysterious viaduct opened in 1934, it had a ‘high line’ and ‘low line’ readily available – though not essentially for the leisure purposes we mean by these. In those days the high route was the more public option – the low wasn’t quite as complete as a thoroughfare and would have been more for people going about their work. The decline of the area’s major industry which was shipping, has meant its docks, old warehouses, quaysides, have opened up new pedestrian routes and made this historic viaduct even more of a viable walking option these days although the docks immediately adjacent are no longer extant.
Where then is this mystery 1930’s viaduct? Its in East London and it’s the three-quarter mile long (3,911 ft/1.19 km) Silvertown Viaduct, stretching from Canning Town to West Silvertown. This was Britain’s first ever such example of a viaduct to be built specifically for the burgeoning roads system. It was the first modern vehicle by-pass to be opened in this country and is too acknowledged as being the UK’s first ever roads fly-over.
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The Silvertown Viaduct can be walked in its entirely along its top, there is a full pedestrian route the entire length of it. Most of it can also be walked along the bottom, however its not a continual route and one has to switch sides a few times to achieve this. The viaduct offers some good views of the Royal Docks, the O2 Centre, the Emirates Air Line, as well as the remaining industrial archeology of the area. Both ends of the viaduct are well served by public transport. The DLR and Jubilee Line at Canning Town and the DLR at West Silvertown. There is a double deck bus that runs along the full length of the viaduct with a number of bus stops en route. This is the 474 from Canning Town.
Silvertown was once one of London’s most industrious locations. Hugely populated with ships, factories, wharves, railways, and the many thousands of workers, the area thrived with every inch of it a workhorse dedicated to keeping London on the go. The many ships passing through the docks and the numerous freight trains meant traffic and pedestrians using the old roads were regularly held up. This had been a matter of great concern and ever since 1902 there had been calls for improvements to be made to prevent the area’s traffic seizing up.
In 1924 the Government came up with a plan for a series of viaducts linked to a new roads system throughout Silvertown. To that end it passed a bill in 1929 known as the Dock Approaches (Improvement) Act enabling these new elevated roadways to be built. What’s more is they were the first of their type ever to be built in this country.
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Silvertown Viaduct under construction 1930s. Source: Wonders of World Engineering
The section at the western end of the Royal Docks, designed to the same specifications and style as what would become its more famous (and now demolished) neighbour, was opened in 1934. It is known as the Silvertown (or Victoria Dock) Viaduct (though the road itself is called Silvertown Way) however contemporaries of the time described the new facility as Britain’s ‘Road to the Empire.’
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The new viaduct late 1930s. The docks entrance can be seen. Source: Abandoned Communities
The original plans included a swing bridge over the lock at the western entrance to the Royal Victoria Docks. This was soon dropped and a fixed span provided with sufficient headroom for smaller vessels. The large ships continued to gain access via the eastern side of the docks.
Work began in early 1930 and was completed in May 1934, with Messrs. Rendel, Palmer and Tritton the engineers. The minister of transport, Leslie Hore Belisha officially opened Silvertown Viaduct on 13th September 1934. When it first opened there was no speed limit. One could do 100mph if they so liked! Complaints ensued and eventually the Government imposed a limit of 30 m.p.h.
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1930s aerial view showing an extension which I think was never used. Source: Wonders of World Engineering
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Hybrid map showing the incomplete new 1930s roads system (inc a never built swing bridge on the viaduct.) Silvertown Viaduct is the subject of this post whilst the other bit, Silvertown By-pass, no longer exists.
Silvertown has been changing for the past few decades into something totally different from what it once was, much like the other areas of London’s docks, including Canary Wharf (aka West India and Milwall Docks) the Surrey Docks, and the London Docks at Wapping. This of course meant big differences and the old roads system was no longer suited for these modern uses. Unfortunately this meant the other bit of this roads scheme, the Silvertown (or Connaught) by-pass, became a victim of progress and it was demolished in the 1990’s. Today part of that former alignment is used by the Docklands light railway en route to City Airport. What follows are some pictures of that other bit:
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Trolleybus on the Silvertown by-pass prob 1950s. Source: East End Trolleys
The more famous Silvertown by-pass was clearly a twin to the bigger Silvertown Viaduct. It was completed earlier and indeed some records say it opened on 21st April 1934. I am not sure whether that was a full or partial opening – it could well have been the distribution roads to the north that might have been opened on this date. These distribution roads were indeed part of the scheme but could work independently of the by-pass.
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View of the by-pass with the Connaught tunnel beneath. Source: East End Trolleys
The actual opening of the by-pass with its iconic bowstring bridge over the entrance to the Connaught tunnel did not happen until 1935. It had been delayed many times with Belisha himself critical of the delays. Alas it was West Ham council who opened the by pass in July 1935 without any ceremony. In short this section was more famous because of its sharp bends, bowstring bridges, trolleybuses and roundabouts – no doubt far more fun than its bigger western twin! Sadly its no longer extant and therefore this leaves Silvertown Viaduct as the sole remnant of this once important modern road network of the 1930s.
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This is where the Silvertown By-pass bowstring bridge once stood. The location is west of City Airport. Docklands rail viaduct is on the alignment with Crossrail’s line (on left) in its cutting approaching the Connaught tunnel.
The problem with the Silvertown Viaduct, which this post is about, is its character wasn’t quite as endearing, being a little more brutal in style and visually less interesting compared to it’s famous twin. Even today very few take note of the present viaduct’s structure or even its historical importance – and practically no-one has blogged about it!
Starting from just outside Canning Town, hotels and the likes are already popping up so there’s every indication what the area is going to look like in the next year or two. Even a ‘mini Manhattan’ is popping up on the ‘peninsula opposite the tube station and the viaduct is going be found in a very different setting within the next few years. The scale and extent of it will not be visible as it is now.
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View from the Docklands railway at Canning Town with the Silvertown Viaduct rising into the distance. Eventually this scene will disappear and the scale of the viaduct will be lost for good
The Silvertown viaduct took traffic from Canning Town directly to Silvertown without having to take lengthy detours encountering all the rail and dock traffic. If one looks hard at the structure today its 1930s origins can be seen. In fact the same design was used in the more famous eastern counterpart. It seems elements of the design were also used elsewhere on other London 1930s road schemes, such as the Canning Town crossing over the Lea, and parts of the A406 North Circular road.
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The viaduct as it rises up away from Canning Town. The 1930s style of construction is clearly visible.
This end of Silvertown Viaduct, all 250 metres (or one eighth of a mile) is almost as it was originally, that is 1930’s design. Almost but not exactly. This section was very wide to begin with hence there’s been little change compared to the remainder eastwards and the 1930s design of structure can still be seen with little modification. However the side walls or balustrades alongside the roadway itself is 1990s built so that sort of spoils the historic aspect when one takes the whole structure into consideration.
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Subway under the viaduct which is probably 1930s by the look of it!
Even the viaduct did not escape progress. In the 1990’s it was essentially cut in half to permit a new roundabout to be built. Not only that it was widened to some extent with a full six lanes width enabled along a considerable section.
The first part of the viaduct has walkways on the upper level and covered walkways on the lower level. I am not sure whether this was the case along its entire length as no plans have been seen showing how it was built. The first bit out of Canning Town without a doubt does show what the viaduct must have looked like when first built.
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Covered walkway beneath the viaduct – the low line bit!
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Above and below: The different ways the viaduct was put together! Its lovely but at the same time a little quaint. To some extent it seems as if there had been some uncertainty how it should be built and in places there are tiny little bridging struts (such as in the above picture) which shows the architects of the time were dealing with an entirely new and novel way of building a viaduct and were probably not quite sure how it should be put together!
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The west side covered walkway, currently part is out of use due to development
There is a set of stairs from the upper level to the lower level (or high to low lines) and its quite an oddity as the other stairs mentioned later are. Both sets are similarly built but are quite curiously designed. Its best to actually walk up (or down) them to see what I mean, photographs don’t do it justice.
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Looking down the stairs
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This view shows how the stairs traverse the spaces between the viaduct’s supports
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Near the stairs in question this other quirk can be found! Pipelines cross through the arches
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The viaduct ends with a modern steel section over this derelict road and the adjacent Docklands railway tracks
The land to the south of the viaduct and the DLR is earmarked for the new Silvertown tunnel under the Thames. More development on the go hereabouts soon. Some locals don’t want the new tunnel, whilst campaign groups say it’ll bring a lot more traffic to the area. Whether it will affect the Silvertown viaduct is not known at this stage, however its probably quite fortuitous it was modified in the 1990s as its extra width and the roundabout built will become part of the new roads system leading to this latest Thames crossing. The viaduct itself will pass almost right by the entrances to the new Thames tunnel. See this report from the BBC.
The next picture show the exterior of the next set of interconnecting walkways/stairs between the upper and lower levels. This is located approximately opposite where the entrances to the new Silvertown tunnel under the Thames should eventually be built. The stairs are somewhat quirky in how its arranged but nevertheless shows how the designers of the time thought these things up! There’s a bus stop handy at the top of these stairs!
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General view of the connecting stairs upper to lower level – or if one prefers, from high line to low line!
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Area south of the viaduct, currently industrial use, for the new Silvertown Thames tunnel. Viaduct in distance
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Original approach ramp still in use. At the end of this ramp stood the popular Tidal Basin tavern, demolished c2010
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View of the viaduct, Royal Docks & Emirates Air Line from a DLR train
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View from Silvertown viaduct at the same spot towards the DLR itself (with Emirates air line visible)
As progress is made eastwards, the viaduct has been altered, widened, with new side access ramps added, and the spaces beneath have been taken over by numerous small businesses – thus its no longer possible to see easily how the viaduct originally looked. A bit of investigation can bring results however if one looks carefully into the viaduct’s depths where the original structure can be discerned with later sections added.
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The original 1930s viaduct can be seen with its distinctive arched styling – with the later modifications also visible
Where the western entrance to the Royal Docks once stood this is the point where one can be seen how the viaduct has been modified. Within the bridgehole that once housed the lock chamber coming up from the Thames, the 1930’s design and the 1990s additions to the viaduct can be viewed. Much of this work was done to enable a new connecting series of ramps from the nearby roundabout to be built. That was quite fortuitous work in fact as it means there will be a ready made access road direct from the new Silvertown tunnel onto the viaduct itself.
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The former lock cut bridgehole with the different styles (1930s/1990s) showing. The DLR viaduct can be seen
The top part of the viaduct was in fact bounded by quite thick concrete walls, balustrades if one prefers, rather than the much lighter styling seen today. The older blocky concrete styling wall was familiar throughout the area’s roads network and retention of the original would have made the Silvertown viaduct even more of a historic example of a early 20th Century roadway. Alas as we have already seen, it was considerably widened to accommodate ever increasing traffic demands. The work lessened its historical impact considerably and its quite possibly why few care to any extent whether this structure is of historic importance or not.
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Another set of steps leading down from the viaduct. Not sure if these are original or a later addition. One can continue via the ‘high line’ to the viaduct’s end or walk along its ‘low line’ instead…
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View from a Docklands train clearly showing how the viaduct is important to local small businesses
Plans for the area include a somewhat further revitalised viaduct. Currently service industries accommodate the spaces under the viaduct – under the new proposals these would instead become shops, or keep fit centres, or other facilities devoted to the local community. Another example of this mistaken idea that’s called gentrification. I think it would be more prodigious to retain these local businesses and develop the shops and other sundry elsewhere where there are flats that will actually be built. As some say, let’s not build more gyms for the few….
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The Docklands railway own viaduct and the Silvertown Viaduct run parallel for a considerable distance
The Docklands railway follows the course of the old Silvertown tramway for a good distance towards the Connaught tunnels. This ‘tramway’ (posh name for this former busy local goods line) was one of the original reasons for the construction of the Silvertown viaduct and its other section the Silvertown (Connaught) by-pass further east. This once very busy freight line was often a cause of major traffic hold ups in the area. Ironically both railways and shipping have vanished and the Silvertown viaduct stands with very little to show why it was originally built.
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Part of Silvertown’s tramway still visible alongside both viaducts on what can be considered the low line section
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The eastern end of the viaduct viewed from the Docklands railway at West Silvertown
Currently the entire Silvertown viaduct can be seen in its entirely from the Docklands Light Railway between Canning Town and West Silvertown stations. This wont be the situation for long with new development already underway at several locations between Canning Town and the point where the cable car crosses the viaduct, thus the viaduct will be hidden from the view of train travellers. In future just the easternmost section of the viaduct (thats 450 metres or quarter of a mile) will be visible from the Dockland’s trains running right alongside and the area is without doubt going to lose sight of a very important bit of its historic heritage. Thats progress. A sad one if other similar examples in London are anything to go by.