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Twentieth Century


The advent of motorised transport created the need for a proper transport infrastructure in and around Dartford. As early as 1905 road crossings were constructed at Lowfield Street (Heath Lane), Hythe Street (Mill Pond Road), West Hill (Tower Road) and Dartford Road (Shepherds Lane). In 1934 local authorities were asked by the Ministry of Transport to submit schemes for the establishment of proper pedestrian crossings. Five sites in Dartford were recommended.

The construction of Market Street in 1926 provided a new focus for the town centre linking the High Street with Central Park, trees planted in the area reputedly gave central Dartford the atmosphere of a garden city. In the same year a government inquiry was held concerning plans for widening Shepherds Lane, Oakfield Lane and Lowfield Street. By 1922 the Town Bridge had been widened.

Dartford by-pass
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Periods of high unemployment struck Dartford for the first three decades of the twentieth century; useful job creation schemes utilising the skills and muscle-power of the unemployed were introduced. Some existing roads were widened and major new roads were built. Unemployed men were given work on the widening of Lowfield Street in 1906. The Dartford Southern By-pass was designed to provide employment in the 1920s for the large numbers of unemployed resident in and around the town, and to afford relief for through traffic in the congested main streets of the town. East Hill and West Hill were famous local traffic bottlenecks.
£120,000 was spent on this major road-building project and 63,500 days' work provided for the unemployed. The new road was opened on 19 November 1924 by the Prince of Wales (later the uncrowned Edward VIII).

Document 3: Click the link below to view the document

The opening of the Dartford by-pass in November 1924

Traffic problems got significantly worse in Dartford during the second half of the twentieth century. Car parking in the town was always a big problem. Ministry of Transport inspectors who visited Dartford recommended that side streets should be used for parking, as well as the Cattle Market site (when not in use) and the State Cinema car park. Complaints about through traffic reached a climax in the 1950s when it was claimed that congestion prevented bus services from running to schedule and stopped workers at local factories getting back to work at lunchtime resulting in a loss of pay and productivity.

In 1967 a major report on Dartford's future was produced by consultants working for the council. It was recommended that the future development of Dartford town centre should be in accordance with a plan "...based upon a traffic pattern utilising the most up-to-date engineering and traffic management techniques to progressively accommodate in stages the projected volume of traffic as the town develops...The centre should be planned so that shoppers and pedestrians can walk free from cars with rear servicing for shops and commercial premises."

This ambitious plan to pedestrianise the main part of the town centre and to set-up a workable traffic flow system was not achieved until the 1980s and 1990s. Phases 1 and 2 of a Northern Link Road were achieved in 1980. Many environmental improvements were carried out in the town centre. These included the closure to traffic of part of the High Street and its adoption as a pedestrianised area.

A Western Link Road running from West Hill to Home Gardens to take traffic away from the town centre was completed by 1988. The invention of the multi-storey car park was a real boon to Dartford. These high-capacity car parks were incorporated in the design of Dartford's two shopping centres, the Arndale Centre (later the Priory Centre) and The Orchards. Car parking was severely limited in and around the main streets of the town and traffic wardens employed to prevent illegal parking.

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The idea of creating a tunnel under the Thames linking Kent with Essex was first suggested in 1798 when work began on constructing a tunnel to link Gravesend with Tilbury. The project began with the digging of a vertical shaft. Unfortunately, the estimate was too low, the quality of the engineering work was poor, and the scheme was finally abandoned when the money for this privately financed tunnel ran out. The idea of constructing a tunnel was revived on many occasions in the nineteenth century but never gained much support.

A bill was first promoted for a Thames Tunnel in 1907 but was dropped. By November 1921 two schemes had been put forward, at Dartford and Gravesend respectively. The Dartford site had particular advantage in having wide open space near the Thames. A report of 1925 considered that Dartford offered the best site as links could more easily be made with the A2 and the A20. There was however a strong campaign to select the Tilbury-Gravesend option as this area was 'a natural focus point of industrial development'. A year later a royal commission recommended the Dartford-Purfleet line. Little progress was made until the 1930s. At this time, the estimated cost of digging a tunnel under the Thames was £3,200,000. It was agreed that The Ministry of Transport would pay most of the cost with the counties of Kent and Essex making smaller contributions.
By August 1936, a contract for a pilot tunnel was placed with Charles Brand and Sons Ltd. of Charles Street, London, whose bid of £341m was the lowest of the ten submitted. The time for completion was twenty months. The internal tunnel dimension was 12 ft. and the length was 900 yards with two ventilation shafts, one on each bank.

Tunnel construction
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After delays due to the construction of temporary access roads over the marshes on both sides of the River Thames, the work of sinking vertical shafts at both sides got underway. The Kent shaft of 95 ft. was slightly deeper than the Essex shaft. The workmen met at 80 ft. below the surface in October 1938, 25 ft. below the bed of the River Thames. The pilot tunnel was visited by many important officials from central government. At this point the estimated cost for the project had risen to £3,500,000. It was hoped that the full-scale tunnel would be ready for use by traffic in 1942.

Dartford Tunnel
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The outbreak of war in 1939 stopped any further progress until March 1957 when work on the tunnel from Dartford to Purfleet started again. It took years of day and night working to complete the project. The tunnel was finally opened on 18 November 1963 at a cost of £13m. It was estimated in 1963 that the 4,700 ft. tunnel would take at least 5,500 cars a day, relieving congestion at Blackwell and Rotherhithe tunnels and reducing considerably the distances for vehicles travelling between Essex and Kent. No sooner was the first tunnel opened than it was realised that a second tunnel was needed. Early estimates of 2 million vehicles a year were more than doubled in the first year of operation. A second tunnel was commissioned in 1972, and opened to traffic in May 1980 at a cost of £45 million pounds. The number of vehicles using both tunnels was soon to exceed 30 million a year.

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Queen Elizabeth II bridge & toll plazas
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The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge across the River Thames at Dartford opened with great festivities in October 1991 as the answer to increasing congestion at the Dartford Tunnel. The cable-stayed bridge, with a design life of 120 years and built at a cost of £184m, was the longest bridge of its kind in Europe and the third longest in the world, with a total length of 2.872 kilometres. The main span was 450 metres in length with the road deck 65 metres above the River Thames. 40 million cars were using the bridge each year by the end of the twentieth century.

Further information on Dartford River Crossing


Next topic: Dartford and the railway


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