1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/English Channel
ENGLISH CHANNEL (commonly called “The Channel”; Fr. La Manche, “the sleeve”), the narrow sea separating England from France. If its entrance be taken to lie between Ushant and the Scilly Isles, its extreme breadth (between those points) is about 100 m., and its length about 350. At the Strait of Dover, its breadth decreases to 20 m. Along both coasts of the Channel, cliffs and lowland alternate, and the geological affinities between successive opposite stretches are well marked, as between the Devonian and granitic rocks of Cornwall and Brittany, the Jurassic of Portland and Calvados, and the Cretaceous of the Pays de Caux and the Isle of Wight and the Sussex coast, as well as either shore of the Strait of Dover. The English Channel is of comparatively recent geological formation. The land-connexion between England and the continent was not finally severed until the latter part of the Pleistocene period. The Channel covers what was previously a wide valley, and may be described now as a headless gulf. The action of waves and currents, both destructive and constructive, is well seen at many points; thus Shakespeare Cliff at Dover is said to have been cut back more than a mile during the Christian era, and the cliffs of Grisnez have similarly receded. Of the opposite process notable examples are the building of the pebbly beaches of Chesil Bank and near Tréguier in Côtes du Nord, and the promontory of Dungeness. The total drainage area of the English rivers flowing into the Channel is about 8000 sq. m.; of the French rivers, including as they do the Seine, it is about 41,000 sq. m.
From the Strait of Dover the bottom slopes fairly regularly down to the western entrance of the Channel, the average depths ranging from 20 to 30 fathoms in the Strait to 60 fathoms at the entrance. An exception to this condition, however, is found in Hurd’s Deep, a narrow depression about 70 m. long, lying north and north-west of the Channel Islands, and at its nearest point to them only 5 m. distant from their outlying rocks, the Casquets. Towards its eastern end Hurd’s Deep has an extreme depth of 94 fathoms, and in it are found steeper slopes from shoal to deep water than elsewhere within the Channel. Nearing the entrance to the Channel from the Atlantic, the 100 fathoms line may be taken to mark the edge of soundings. Beyond this depth the bottom falls away rapidly. The 100 fathoms line is laid down about 180 m. W. to 120 m. S.W. of the Scilly Isles, and 80 m. W. of Ushant. Within it there are considerable irregularities of the bottom; thus a succession of narrow ridges running N.E. and S.W. occurs west of the Scillies, while only 4 m. N.W. of Ushant there is a small depression in which a depth of 105 fathoms has been found. As a general rule the slope from the English coast to the deepest parts of the Channel is more regular than that from the French coast, and for that reason, and in consideration of the greater dangers to navigation towards the French shore, the fairway is taken to lie between 12 and 24 m. from the principal promontories of the English shore, as far up-channel as Beachy Head. These promontories (the Lizard, Start Point, Portland Bill, St Alban’s Head, St Catherine’s Point of the Isle of Wight, Selsey Bill, Beachy Head, Dungeness, the South Foreland) demarcate a series of bays roughly of sickle-shape, the shores of which run north and south, or nearly so, at their western sides, turn eastward somewhat abruptly at their heads, and then trend more gently towards the south-east. On the French coast the arrangement is similar but reversed; Capes Grisnez, Antifer and La Hague, and the Pointe du Sillon demarcating a series of bays (larger than those on the English coast) whose shores run north and south on the eastern side, and have a gentler trend westward from the head.
The configuration of the coasts is perhaps the chief cause of the peculiarities of tides in the Channel. From the entrance as far as Portland Bill the time of high water is found to be progressively later in passing from west to east, being influenced by the oceanic tidal stream from the west under conditions which are on the whole normal. But eastward of a line between Portland Bill and the Gulf of St Malo these conditions are changed and great irregularities are observed. On the English coast between Portland Bill and Selsey a double tide is found. At Portland this double tide corresponds approximately with the time of low water in the regular tidal progression, and the result is the occurrence of two periods of low water, separated by a slight rise known locally as “gulder.” But farther east the double tide corresponds more nearly with the time of high water, and in consequence either the effect is produced of a prolonged period of high water, or there are actually two periods of high water, as at Southampton. Various causes apparently contribute to this phenomenon. The configuration of the coast line is such as to present at intervals barriers to the regular movement of the tidal wave (west to east), so that reflex waves (east to west) are set up. In the extreme case at Southampton the tidal effect is carried from the outer Channel first by way of the Solent, the strait west of the Isle of Wight, and later by way of Spithead, the eastern strait. Finally the effect of the tidal stream entering the Channel through the Strait of Dover from the North Sea must be considered. The set of this stream towards the Strait of Dover from the east corresponds in time with that of the Channel stream (i.e. the stream within an area defined by Start Point, the Casquets, Beachy Head and the mouth of the Somme) towards the strait from the west; the set of the two streams away from the strait also corresponds, and consequently they alternately meet and separate. The area in which the meeting and separation take place lies between Beachy Head and the North Foreland, the mouth of the Somme and Dunkirk. Within this area, therefore, a stream is formed, known as the intermediate stream, which, running at first with the Channel stream and then with the North Sea stream, changes its direction throughout its length almost simultaneously, and is never slack. Under these conditions, the time of high water eastward of Selsey Bill as far as Dover is almost the same at all points, though somewhat earlier at the east than at the west of this stretch of coast. The configuration of the French coast causes a very strong tidal flow in the Gulf of St Malo, with an extreme range at spring tides of 42 ft. at St Germain, compared with a range of 12 ft. at Exmouth and 7 ft. at Portland. In the neighbourhood of Beer Head and Portland and Weymouth Roads the streams are found to form vortices with only a slight movement. On the eastern (Selsey-Dover) section of the English coast the maximum range of tide is found at Hastings, with a decrease both eastward and westward of this point.
Westerly winds are most prevalent in the Channel. The total number of gales recorded in the period 1871–1885 was 190, of which 104 were south-westerly. Gales are most frequent from October to January (November during the above period had more than any other month, with an average of 2.1), and most rare from May to July. It appears that gales are generally more violent and prolonged when coincident with spring tides than with neaps. The winds have naturally a powerful effect on the tidal streams and currents, the latter being in these seas simply movements of the water set up by gales, which may themselves be far distant. Thus under the influence of westerly winds prevailing west of the Iberian Peninsula a current may be set up from the Bay of Biscay across the entrance of the Channel; this is called Rennell’s current. Fogs and thick weather are common in the Channel, and occur at all seasons of the year. Observations during the period 1876–1890 at Dover, Hurst Castle and the Scilly Isles showed that at the two first stations fogs most frequently accompany anticyclonic conditions in winter, but at the Scilly Isles they are much more common in summer than in winter, and accompany winds of moderate strength more frequently than in the case of the up-Channel stations. (O. J. R. H.)
Salinity and Temperature.—The waters of the English Channel are derived partly from the west and partly from the English and French rivers, and all observations tend to show that there is a slow and almost continuous current through it from west to east. The western supply comes from two sources, one of which, the more important, is the relatively salt and warm water of the Bay of Biscay, which enters from the south-west and has a salinity sometimes reaching 35.6 pro mille (parts of salt per thousand by weight); the other consists of a southerly current from the Irish Channel, and is colder and has a salinity of 35.0 to 35.2 pro mille. As the water passes eastwards it mixes with the fresher coastal water, so that the salinities generally rise from the shore to the central line, and from east to west, though south of Scilly Islands there is often a fall due to the influence of the Irish Channel. The mean annual salinity decreases from between 35.4 and 35.5 pro mille in the western entrance to 35.2 pro mille at the Strait of Dover on the central axis, and to about 34.7 pro mille under the Isle of Wight and off the Bay of the Seine. The English Channel may be divided into two areas by a line drawn from Start Point to Guernsey and the Gulf of St Malo. In the eastern area the water is thoroughly mixed owing to the action of the strong tidal currents and its comparatively small depth, and salinities and temperatures are therefore generally the same from surface to bottom; while westward of this line there is often a strongly marked division into layers of different salinity and temperature, especially in summer and autumn, when the fresher water of the Irish Channel is found overlying the salt water of the Bay of Biscay. The salinity of the English Channel undergoes an annual change, being highest in winter and spring and lowest in summer, and this change is better marked in the eastern area, where the mean deviation from the annual mean reaches 0.3 pro mille, than it is farther west with a mean deviation of 0.1 pro mille. There is also reason to believe that there is a regular change with a two-year period, years of high maximum and low minimum alternating with years of low maximum and high minimum. Variations of long period or unperiodic also occur, which are probably, and in one case (1905) almost certainly, due to changes taking place some months earlier far out in the Atlantic Ocean.
The mean annual surface temperature increases from between 11° C. and 11.5° C. at the Strait of Dover to over 12° C. at the western entrance. The yearly range in the eastern area is considerable, reaching 11° C. off the Isle of Wight and 10° C. in the Strait of Dover; westward it gradually decreases to 5° C. a short distance north-west of Ushant. The mean maximum temperature, over 16° C., is found under the English coast from Start Point to the Strait of Dover about the 1st of September and off the French coast eastward of Cape la Hague about eleven days later. In the western area the maximum temperature is about 15° C. and occurs between September 1 and 11. The mean minimum surface temperature is between 5° C. and 6° C. at the eastern end, and increases to over 9° C. off the coast of Brittany. Owing to the thorough mixing of the water in the eastern area the temperatures are here generally the same at all depths, and the description of the surface conditions applies equally to the bottom. In the western entrance, on the other hand, the bottom temperature is often much lower than on the surface; the range here is also much less, about 3° C., and the maximum is not reached till about the 1st of October, or from three weeks to a month later than on the surface.
A detailed account of the mean conditions in the English Channel will be found in Rap. et procès-verbaux, vol. vi., and Bulletin supplémentaire (1908) of the Conseil Permanent International pour l’Exploration de la Mer (Copenhagen). (D. J. M.)
Cross-Channel Communication.—An immense amount of time and thought has been expended in the elaboration of schemes to provide unbroken railway communication between Great Britain and the continent of Europe and enable passengers and goods to be conveyed across the Channel without the delay and expense involved by transhipping them into and out of ordinary steamers. These schemes have taken three main forms: (1) tunnels, either made through the ground under the sea, or consisting of built-up structures resting upon the sea bed; (2) bridges, either elevated high above the sea-level so as to admit of the unimpeded passage of ships under them, or submerged below the surface; and (3) train ferries, or vessels capable of conveying a train of railway vehicles with their loads. A tunnel was first proposed at the very beginning of the 19th century by a French mining engineer named Mathieu, whose scheme was for a time favourably regarded by Napoleon, but it was first put on a practical basis more than fifty years later by J. A. Thomé de Gamond (1807–1876), whose plans were submitted to the French emperor in 1856. This engineer had begun to work at the problem of cross-Channel communication twenty years previously, and had considered the possibility of a submerged tunnel or tube resting on the sea-level, of steam ferries plying between huge piers thrown out from both coasts, and of a bridge, for which he prepared five different plans. He again brought forward his scheme for a tunnel, in a modified form, in 1867, and exhibited his plans in the Universal Exhibition of that year. About the same time an English engineer, William Lowe, of Wrexham, was also working at the idea of a tunnel. Geological investigation convinced him that between Fanhole, a point half a mile west of the South Foreland light, and Sangatte on the French coast, 4 m. W. of Calais, the Dover grey chalk was continuous from side to side, and he considered that this stratum, owing to its comparative freedom from water and the general absence of cracks and fissures, offered exceptional advantages for a tunnel. He and Thomé de Gamond joined forces, and their plans were adopted by an international committee whose object was to popularize the idea of a tunnel both in England and France. Its engineers on the English side were Lowe, Sir James Brunlees and Sir John Hawkshaw, the last of whom in 1866 had made trial borings at St Margaret’s and near Sangatte; and on the French side Thomé de Gamond, Paulin Talabot and Michael Chevalier. In 1868 they reported that there was a reasonable prospect of completing the tunnel in ten or twelve years at a cost not exceeding ten millions sterling. They admitted, however, that there was some risk of an influx of the sea, but pointed out that this risk could be determined by driving preliminary driftways, as suggested by Lowe, and for this purpose asked for financial aid from the imperial treasury. A commission of inquiry then appointed by the French ministry of public works reported favourably on the plans, though it declined to, recommend a grant of money; but the further progress of the scheme was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-German war.
The tunnel was by no means the only plan in evidence at this period for securing continuous railway communication between England and France. An iron tube, resting on the bottom of the sea, had been proposed by Tessier de Mottray in 1803, and had again been considered by Thomé de Gamond in 1833; but after 1850 projects of this kind might almost be counted by the dozen. Some of the structures were to be of iron, others of concrete or masonry, and some were to be floated a moderate distance below the surface. One of the most carefully worked out plans was that of J. F. Bateman and J. Revy, who proposed to construct a continuous tube, 13 ft. in internal diameter, of iron rings each 10 ft. long, each ring being built out from the completed portion of the tube by means of a horizontal chamber or bell, which slid telescopically over the last few rings previously put in place, and was moved forward by hydraulic power. About the same time Zerah Colburn produced plans for a tube constructed of 1000 ft. sections, which were to be built in dry dock and then successively attached by a ball and socket joint to the completed portion, the whole being raised from the bottom and dragged out to sea, by the aid of a large number of ships, as each section was attached and launched. Thomas Page, again, the builder of Westminster Bridge, proposed to place eight conical steel shafts at intervals across the Strait of Dover, and to connect them by long sections of tube lowered from the surface, the whole structure being covered with concrete when finished. No attempt was made to put any of these plans into execution, and the same was true of several bridge schemes propounded about the same time; in one of these, spans one-half or three-quarters of a mile in length were contemplated, while another required 190 towers, 500 ft. apart and rising 500 ft. above the water-level, which obviously would have constituted an intolerable nuisance to navigation. The case, however, was different with a train ferry which was vigorously advocated by Sir John Fowler. His proposal was to employ steamers 450 ft. long, with a beam of 57 ft. and a speed of 20 knots, having railway lines laid down on their decks on and off which railway vehicles could be run directly at each side of the strait. Dover was to be the English port, while on the French coast a new harbour was to be formed at Audresselles, between Calais and Boulogne. This plan in 1872 received the sanction of the House of Commons, but was rejected in the House of Lords by the casting vote of the chairman of the committee. According to another similar ferry scheme, which was worked out by Admiral Dupuy de Lôme in 1870, a new maritime station was to be constructed at Calais, so far off the shore that it would command deep water at every state of the tide, and connected with the French railways by a bridge.
After the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War, negotiations concerning the tunnel were resumed between the French and British governments, and in 1872 the latter intimated that it had “no objection in principle.” After some further communications between the two governments in 1874, settling the basis on which the enterprise should be allowed to proceed, a joint commission was appointed to arrange details relating to jurisdiction, the right of blocking the tunnel, &c., and this commission’s report was accepted as a basis of agreement between the governments. In 1875 the Channel Tunnel Company obtained an act authorizing it to undertake certain preliminary works at St Margaret’s Bay. In the same year the French Submarine Railway Company obtained a concession, with the obligation to spend a minimum of 2,000,000 francs in making investigations; in fact it took over 3000 samples from the bottom of the sea in the strait, and made over 7000 soundings, and also sunk a shaft at Sangatte and started a heading. The English company did not do so much, for it failed to raise the money it required and its powers expired in 1880. Moreover, it was not the only company in the field, and its programme was not universally accepted as the best possible. Some authorities, such as Sir Joseph Prestwich, doubted whether the tunnel should be attempted in the chalk because of the likelihood of fissures being encountered while others who thought the chalk suitable were dissatisfied with the actual plans and formed a rival “Anglo-French Submarine Railway Company.” In 1882 another tunnel company made its appearance. In 1874 the South Eastern Railway Company had obtained powers to sink experimental shafts on its property between Dover and Folkestone, and in 1881 to acquire lands, including the beach and foreshore, in that area in connexion with a Channel tunnel. These powers resulted, in 1882, in the formation of the Submarine Continental Railway Company which in that year sought parliamentary sanction for a tunnel, starting from a point west of Dover, at Shakespeare’s Cliff; and at the same time the resuscitated Channel Tunnel Company applied for powers to make one from Fanhole, instead of St Margaret’s Bay as in its former scheme. The whole question of the tunnel was then widely discussed and considered by various committees, the last of which—a joint select committee of the Lords and Commons—in 1883 expressed the opinion by a majority that it was “inexpedient that parliamentary sanction should be given to a submarine communication between England and France.” This decision for the time being disposed of the question of making a tunnel, and though Sir Edward Watkin, one of its most prominent advocates, brought bill after bill before parliament to authorize experimental works in connexion with it, all were rejected. In 1882 the government interfered with the operations then in progress, and they were ultimately discontinued. They included a driftway 7 ft. in diameter which was driven for a distance of about 2300 yds. eastwards under the sea at an inclination of 1 in 72 from the bottom of a shaft sunk to a depth of 164 ft. in the chalk marl at Shakespeare’s Cliff.
About this time the Channel Bridge and Railway Company took in hand the design of a bridge, the preliminary plans for which were exhibited in the Paris Exhibition of 1889. The terminal points were Folkestone and Cap Grisnez, and for the sake of facilitating the laying of the pier foundations it was proposed to take the bridge over the Varne and Colbart shoals. The main girders were to be nearly 59 yds. above the sea-level, the railway itself being more than 20 ft. higher still, and the spans were to vary in length between 540 and 108 yds. As the result of a survey of the sea bottom made in 1890, a modification in the line of the bridge was adopted, and it was taken direct from Cap Blancnez to the South Foreland. It was found that in this way an excellent bottom would be obtained for the foundations, and the length of the bridge would be 3 m. less, the number of piers, by employing spans of 434 and 542 yds. alternately, being reduced to 72. The cost of this structure was estimated at £28,320,000, exclusive of interest on capital during the period of construction, which was put at seven years. The same company also worked out plans for a moving chariot or platform, capable of holding a railway train and supported by long legs on a submerged causeway or track constructed of steel or armoured concrete 45 or 50 ft. below low-water level. No attempt has been made actually to carry out either this project or that of a bridge.
In 1905 the question of establishing a train ferry from Dover across the Channel was brought forward by the Intercontinental Railway Company, and in the following year the Channel Ferry (Dover) Act was passed authorizing the work. About the same period the Channel Tunnel Company, which had amalgamated with the Submarine Railway Company, awoke to activity and started a campaign in favour of its scheme; but the bill which it promoted was opposed by the government and accordingly was withdrawn in March 1907.
See Blue-book, Correspondence respecting the proposed Channel Tunnel, Commercial No. 6 (1875); Blue-book, Correspondence with reference to the proposed Construction of a Channel Tunnel, C. 3358 (1882); Blue-book, Report from the_Joint Select Committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons on the Channel Tunnel (1883); F. J. Bramwell, “The Making and Working of a Channel Tunnel,” Proc. Roy. Inst., May 1882; Tylden Wright, “The Channel Tunnel,” North of England Inst. Min. and Mech. Eng. vol. 33 (1882); W. Boyd Dawkins, “The Channel Tunnel,” Manchester Geol. Soc., May 1882, and Brit. Assoc. Rep. (1882, 1899); E. de Rodakowski, The Channel Ferry (London, 1905). (H. M. R.)
- 50° F. = 10° C.; 60.8° F. = 16° C.