Channelling the Tunnel Fear

In his seminal study Voices Prophesying War, the literary historian I F Clarke identifies future-war fiction as a political barometer.  The genre’s progress from the late-Victorian through to the Edwardian, he asserts, “presents a perfect mirror image of the international situation at the time of writing.”[1]  His argument is vindicated in part by book titles alone.  While The Coming Waterloo (1901) and A New Trafalgar (1902) highlight the longevity of Anglo-French antagonism, the later works Spies of the Kaiser (1909), The German Invasion of England (1910) and Saki’s symbolically titled When William Came (1913) nicely illustrate the shifting sands of European power-politics.   Indeed, some have suggested such literature was not purely reflective, but itself helped foster rampant xenophobia and a pronounced paranoia focused on German military and naval ambitions.  Alongside “the lies and half-truths of irresponsible journalists”, invasion-scare authors were later seen to have “encouraged militarism and promoted an unreasoning hatred of Germany.”[2]  Accurate or otherwise, Clarke is right in recognising the significance that, for the first time in history, thanks to universal literacy and the mass media, “the writing of popular fiction had begun to have a recognisable effect on the relations between countries”.[3]

The fiction did not only reflect long-term political trends, it equally responded to specific events and controversies.  An excellent example of the latter is the various publications that followed the furore over Sir Edward Watkins’s channel tunnel project.  Though exploratory work began in 1881, the project was abandoned the following year in controversy after public and political outcry.  As the Duke of Cambridge explained, years of naval precaution would be undone if a future tunnel was compromised, as Britain might “find an enemy in actual possession of both its ends, and able at pleasure to pour an army through unopposed.”[4]  Various fictional accounts including The Siege of Dover, The Seizure of the Channel Tunnel and How John Bull Lost London all played on such themes, adding the threat of an increase in French immigration creating a fifth column perfectly placed to affect such a scheme.  Britain, it seemed, was not yet ready to abandon her island status for the sake of technological modernity.     


Interestingly, these channel tunnel fears far outlasted the aborted scheme itself.  As late as 1901, Max Pemberton’s Pro Patria saw a story of foiled invasion based on familiar threats.  A Cambridge-educated journalist, Pemberton enjoyed a distinguished career.  Co-founding the London School of Journalism in 1919, he had earlier been the first editor of the boys’ weekly newspaper Chums in 1892.  Enjoying a long association with the media mogul Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) of whom he wrote a biography, Pemberton was close to the centre of Edwardian journalism during a time of dynamic expansion and influence.[5]   


The story follows the amateur espionage of Alfred Hilliard, a self-confessed “obscure officer of the Hussars” who, having recognised his former associate Robert Jeffrey masquerading as a French engineer, begins to suspect treason.  Accosting Jeffrey, or Monsieur Martel, at his construction site at Escalles, Hilliard is shown the real nature of the secretive project:

“He pointed out to me the mouth of a great inclined railway which appeared to dip down in a cast cutting straight to the bowels of the earth.”[6]

Managing to evade capture and fleeing to England, Hilliard loses no time in trying to convince his countrymen of the threat they face.  Appealing to one close friend that “the French are trying to make a tunnel  to England as we contemplated making to France some years ago”, he struggles to accept the disbelief with which he is met:

“If it is possible to build a tunnel from Calais to Dover, I don’t see why a nation, which from the days of Napoleon has invited madcap schemes for the invasion of England, should not turn to this scheme.”[7]


Endeavouring to discover the ‘English-end’ of the tunnel in and around Dover, Hilliard is captured by Jeffrey during one such reconnaissance mission, and imprisoned in the very location he was so keen to discover.  When all appears lost, however, the plot is foiled, and Britain lives to fight another day.   Though this redemption is largely thanks to several Anglophile French characters, Pemberton readily indulges in anti-French rhetoric.  Having brawled with a fellow train passenger in transit to Dover, Hilliard’s description to the police is certainly to the point, “he was a Frenchman with an absurd cravat and a deplorable hat.”[8]  Such rhetoric seems deliberately comical, but it masks a genuine horror at the dangers of this tunnel opportunism.  Later dreaming of a French army pouring through the completed tunnel, Hilliard is horrified by his own subconscious imaginings:

“the road of steel…France thrust out beneath the Channel-bed until it should touch the gardens of England and make her mistress of them.”[9]


Unlike many of its genre, Pro Patria enjoyed a largely positive reception.  The Academy applauded the work’s “sense of conviction”, a quality it considered “uncommon in such yarns”.[10]  Echoing this sentiment, The Saturday Review praised the narrative style for its “variety and vigour”.[11]  There is a sense, however, that the threat envisaged by Pemberton was no longer at the forefront of the public mind as it had been twenty years before.  As the less complimentary Athenaeum asserts, “there is a certain amount of ingenuity…displayed in elaborating the scheme by which England is to be invaded by France, but the motives which animate the plotters seem hardly adequate”.[12]  Pro Patria thus offers interesting insight on the dynamic of reflection and influence outlined above.  Though driven by a premise that had animated readers in the past, Pemberton’s story no longer reflected a popular concern.  If anything, he aimed to reignite Anglo-French animosity.

[1] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984, (Oxford, 1966), p108.

[2] A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: the advocacy of war and rearmament, 1896-1914, (London, 1984), p3.

[3] Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, p143.

[4] Ibid., p112.

[5] Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, p591,  Kemp, Mitchell, and Trotter, Edwardian Fiction, p312.

[6] Pro Patria, p70.

[7] Ibid., p137.

[8] Ibid., p213.

[9] Ibid., p238.

[10] PRO PATRIA. The Academy, 1869-1902, 0269-333X 1508 (Mar 30, 1901): p286

[11] “Pro Patria.” Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art91. 2373 (Apr 20, 1901): p508.

[12] Pro Patria. The Athenaeum 3835 (Apr 27, 1901): p525-526.

Images: M. Pemberton, Pro Patria, (London, 1901), p66 and 248.

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