|Marc Brunel apparently seated in the Thames |
Tunnel for this portrait by Samuel Drummond
in 1835. National Portrait Gallery, London
|Thames watermen ferried passengers across the Thames|
in wherries. Edward William Cooke 1829, National
|Thames Tunnel watch-paper|
showing the tunnel under
construction using the shield
Not content with filing the patent, Brunel wanted to apply his techniques to a real life situation and a Thames crossing seemed ideal. After promoting the idea for a few years and raising some interest for it in parliament, he gained tangible support following a lecture at the Institution of Civil Engineers and the following day, with the help of a parliamentary friend, a committee was formed to push the project through Parliament. In this he was assisted by the Duke of Wellington who, as previously mentioned, had military reasons for wanting a Thames crossing to the east of London Bridge. An Act of Parliament was ratified in June 1824, and the Thames Tunnel Company was born. Finance was raised and the new project was officially launched.
The new tunnel works were located very close to St Mary's Rotherhithe and Rotherhithe village. Work officially began in 1825. Marc Brunel laid the first brick and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, working as his assistant at the time, laid the second. Today the modern building that carries the name Thames Tunnel Wharf commemorates the site of the Thames Tunnel Company and the point at which construction materials for the Thames Tunnel arrived and from where tunnel spoil departed.
Once the survey was complete, the next challenge was the sinking of a vertical shaft, from which the tunnel would begin. It was started in March 1825, was brick-lined and built as a tower, made of an inner and an outer wall of brick filled with rubble, which was then forced down into the soft silty earth onto which it was built. Sinking a few inches a day, it became a tourist attraction. When complete, an opening was provided so that the shield could be installed, and a reservoir was dug for drainage. It was a remarkable plan and it worked. The shaft still remains next to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe village. Steam engine were added to remove water and earth from the tunnel, and the 21ft tall shield was installed, with 12 frames, each containing 3 cells, arranged over three levels. At maximum capacity it would hold 36 miners. Facing into the earth that needed to be moving, the shield was now ready to be deployed.
|The Thames Tunnel flood of 1827|
By May 1827 the tunnel had reached 549ft from Rotherhithe, but there continued to be difficulties. The tunnel workers went on strike in protest at a cut in their wages due to the rising costs of the project. Even worse, in the same month the first major breach occurred and the tunnel flooded, although with no loss of life. Isambard was lowered down to the bed of the Thames from a boat to inspect the damage and the breach was shored up with bags of clay laid on iron rods. The tunnel was pumped clear of water and the work resumed, albeit under even more appalling conditions due to the damage inflicted on the ventilators. In August of the same year, Marc Brunel suffered a stroke.
|The November 1827 banquet in the Thames Tunnel, |
probably by George Jones
|The diving bell that Isambard|
Brunel used to inspect the breach on
the floor of the Thames in 1827.
But Brunel did not give up. Whilst he travelled and engaged in other projects, he still campaigned for his tunnel and made slow headway, eventually achieving real success with the formation of a pressure group in 1834, the Tunnel Club (which met in the pub that was on the site where the Mayflower now stands). This was followed by the triumphant presentation of a petition to the Treasury for a loan for finishing the the tunnel in June of the same year. The first instalment of the £270,000 loan (£13,362,300.00 today) was £30,000 (£1,484,700.00 today), and this was paid to the Thames Tunnel Company on the 5th December 1834. The Thames Tunnel was back, a very real proposition once again.
To be as close as possible to the revived project Brunel and his wife Sophia moved to Rotherhithe, living in a house in Cow Court in the vicinity of the Tunnel works. There were three roads that made up Cows Court and today two of them are Tunnel Road and one is the eastern part of St Mary Street. The houses along Cows Court were all removed and replaced with warehouses and a housing estate, so there's no blue plaque opportunity there! The entombed shield was no longer usable and a new and improved version was commissioned. Before work on advancing the tunnel could start the new shield had to be built and installed and the tunnel itself had to be cleared of the wrecked remains of the equipment that had been abandoned when the tunnel was closed. Work resumed in 1836. The task was then to push forward towards Wapping again. Progress was unbelievably slow due to problems with the workforce, damage to the new shield, frequent incursions of water, illnesses caused by gases emanating from the water lying in the tunnel and a series of small gas explosions. A notebook of engineer Thomas Rumball, kept in 1836, indicates that engineering plans were changed on an ongoing basis, impacting the time it took to train and retrain the miners and other workers.
|The tunnel under construction in 1830. Unknown artist|
Brunel celebrated his 70th birthday in April of 1839. From August more men were moved from reinforcing the riverbed from above to tunnel work, and this combined with improved ventilation enabled much faster progress. In April 1840, as the tunnel approached Wapping, another breach occurred and was visible for the first time from above at low tide. It was a massive 30ft across and 13ft deep but no-one was injured in the resulting flood. Repairs again took place and work began on the shaft at the Wapping end. The tunnel once again began to exceed the projected budget, and matters were exacerbated by delays to the delivery of key components and the icing of the river. All personnel were laid off for the worst of the winter, including Brunel, but work resumed when the worst was over and on March 24th 1840 Mr Marc Brunel became Sir Marc, knighted by Queen Victoria, a major landmark in his personal life, a recognition of all his achievements even before the tunnel had been completed.
An important moment occurred in May 1841. A narrow tunnel was constructed between the main tunnel and the Wapping shaft, linking the two and providing an end-to-end underwater passage between Rotherhithe and Wapping. This was a matter for major celebration and the directors all filed out to experience it. Marc's three-year old grandson, another Isambard, was the first to pass through the entire tunnel. Even though it was still two years away from its opening, and it was not wide enough along its full length for a person to travel from one end to another, Brunel had done what no-one had done before - he had created a secure tunnel beneath the Thames. It was 1200ft long.
|A contemporary peep-show on display at the Brunel Museum.|
Continuing leaks caused problems well into 1842 when sightseers were able to access the tunnel from the Wapping end for the first time. In 1842 the engine house was built at the Rotherhithe end of the tunnel. It provided a steam pump for the Thames Tunnel, its role to transport the earth from the tunnel excavation to the surface, and to pump out water from the ongoing leaks. The building was rescued, restored and stands today as a museum, on which more later. In November of that year Sir Marc suffered another stroke. His son Isambard was fortuitously on hand to take over until his father recovered. Sir Marc was back at the helm by March 1843.
In 1843 the tunnel was ready to take pedestrian traffic, 18 years after it was begun. The opening ceremony was on March 25th 1843 at 4pm and no less than 10,000 people walked through it on its opening day. A cannon marked the opening ceremony and the band of the Fusilier Guards played for the occasion as Brunel, the Thames Tunnel Company directors and illustrious guests walked from Rotherhithe to Wapping and back again. At 6pm the public were admitted, and the tunnel was officially a success. Here's an excerpt from the Illustrated London News story:
This great work has been watched with anxiety throughout Continental Europe, and had not modem ingenuity extended “the wonders of the world” to seventy times seven, the Thames Tunnel would long rank as the eighth wonder; for this bold attempt to effect a communication between the shores of a wide and deep river, without any interruption to its navigation, has had, and probably will have, no parallel for many ages. In 1823, Mr. (now Sir M. I.) Brunel, completed a design, which received the sanction of many gentlemen of rank and science, among whom was the Duke of Wellington. The spot between Rotherhithe and Wapping selected is, perhaps, the only one between London Bridge and Greenwich where such a roadway could have been attempted without interfering essentially with some of the great mercantile establishments on both sides of the I river. . . . .The opening ceremony was on Saturday last. At the Rotherhithe shaft two marquees were erected, flags were hoisted, bells were rung, and the entire scene was a demonstration of triumph. At four o’clock a signal gun was fired, and the procession started from the directors’ marquee down the staircase, along the western archway of the Tunnel, and, on arriving at the shaft at Wapping, the procession ascended and crossed the landing, and then returned by the eastern archway to Rotherhithe. Sir M.I. Brunel, in his passage through the Tunnel, was cheered with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Brunel receiving applause at the Tunnel
Opening Ceremony in 1843. Illustrated London News
|Tunnel opening ceremony from the Illustrated London News|
It must have been the icing on the cake for Marc Brunel when, in July of that year, Queen Victoria visited what was becoming known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Sadly he was not there when she made the impromptu visit with Prince Albert, but she and her party were given a work welcome by Brunel's chief engineer Thomas Page. She walked the entire length of the tunnel and back again, and was impressed. Within a year of its opening the tunnel had attracted two million paying customers, some of whom used it to walk from one side of the river to the other, whilst others came for the attractions, including souvenir stands, shopping stalls of all sorts and and special attractions including fairs and festivals.
|A fair in the Thames Tunnel in 1855.|
Illustrated London News
|The tombstone of Marc Brunel and other family members |
at Kensal Cemetery. Sourced from Wikipedia.
The tunnel continued to be a novelty, with more fairs, sales stands and specially produced souvenirs. The Brunels' Tunnel (published by the Brunel Museum 2006) describes the first Thames Tunnel Fancy Fair or 1852 where entertainments included "tightwire artists, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, Ethiopian serenaders, Indian dancers, Chinese singers, electricity, and Mr E. Green, the celebrated bottle pantomimic equilibrist." What an earth is a bottle pantomimic equilibrist? I so wish I knew! An engaging account of the tunnel was provided by Max Schlesinger in his book Saunterings in and about London published in 1853.
1857 advert for the attractions of the
Thames TunnelLife in the Thames Tunnel is a very strange sort of life. As we descend, stray bits and snatches of music greet our ears. Arrived at the bottom of the shaft, there is the double pathway opening before us, and looking altogether dry, comfortable, and civilised, for there are plenty of gas-lights; and the passages which communicate between the two roadways, are tenanted by a numerous race of small shop-keepers, offering views of the tunnel, and other penny wares for sale. These poor people never see the sun except on Sundays. The strangers in London are their best, and indeed I may almost say, they are their only customers. As we proceed, the music becomes more clear and distinct, and here it is : a miniature exhibition of English industrial skill. It is an Italian organ, played by a perfect doll of a Lilliputian steam-engine. That engine grinds the organ from morning till night ; it gives us various pieces without any compunction or political scruples. The Marseillaise, German waltzes, the Hungarian Rakowzy march, Rule Britannia, Yankee Doodle, etc., does this marvellous engine grind out of the organ. Those London organs are the most tolerant of musical instruments that I know of; they appeal to all nations and purses. And what is more marvelous still, they are not stopped by the police, as they would he in Vienna or Berlin, even though the cosmopolitan organ-grinder might descend tens of thousands of feet below the bed of the Spre or the Danube. In the present instance, the organ and the engine are mere decoy-birds. You stop, and are invited to look at “the panorama”—at the expense of “only one penny.” You see Queen Victoria at that interesting moment in which she vows to “love, honour, and obey” Prince Albert. You also see a Spanish convent, which no panorama can be without; and the Emperor Napoleon in the act of being beaten at Waterloo—the chief scene of every London panorama, exactly as if the great Napoleon had passed all the years of his life in being beaten at Waterloo. The next view shows you M. Kossuth on horseback, arm an Hungarian battle-field, which looks for all the world like an English park ; and Komorn, of which the impregnability is demonstrated by its being, Venice fashion, immersed in water, with canals for streets, and gondolas for cabs. Of such like spectacles the tunnel has plenty, but we cannot stop for them. We hasten to the shaft, ascend the stairs, and feel quite refreshed by the free air of heaven.
Another account, equally appealing dates to 1859 and was published by W. O'Daniel in his Ins and Outs of London.
I have heard that the Tunnel has not answered the original purpose; what that purpose was, I do not know. One thing I do know - it is of no use except to foot passengers, and the expenses of gas and attendance are met by charging a toll of one penny on each visitor. One row of arches is divided into a number of apartments, each apartment opening on the other avenue. In these apartments are penny shows, refreshment rooms, and fancy stores. Considerable value is attached to anything bought in the Thames Tunnel, and almost every article sold there, even the cakes and confectionary, has some picture or sentence concerning the work. . . . . Exactly under the middle of the river is a refreshment room, kept by an eccentric old man who has not been a half mile from the Tunnel since it was completed. Daylight to him is almost unknown. He does not sleep in the Tunnel, but he enters before day in the morning and does not leave until late at night. This old man on account of his many wonderful stories and jokes, in addition to good cakes and wines, has many visitors. The sensations experienced as one sits here are very peculiar. A thin brick ceiling over head, covered with a few feet of mud, and many feet of water, with water trickling from the ceiling and through the walls;- and steamers, ships and barges sailing along far above you!- Many bright eyes of timid beauties, and ominous glances of frightened old men, have I seen directed to the walls and ceiling as the crowd hurried along.
|The Thames Tunnel at Wapping, the train having|
just crossed beneath the river from Rotherhithe.
In 1865 the East London Railway Company was formed to acquire the tunnel and to convert it for rail, providing a robust transport link for the first time between the south-eastern and northern rail networks. The idea had been first mooted in the mid 1840s and Sir Marc had apparently and unsurprisingly approved of the plan. As Tower Bridge didn't open until 1894 and the Rotherhithe Tunnel opened only in 1908, there was a pressing need for something more than a pedestrian tunnel. The company paid £200,000 for the company (£8,632,000.00 today), a fraction of what it had cost to build. The first passenger train passed through it in 1869, a truly remarkable thought. The tunnel was extended to both the north and south and was connected to the Great Eastern Railway. Electricity was installed in 1913. Writing in 1881, in his Dictionary of the Thames, Charles Dickens gave the foot tunnel a final depressing epitaph (and unhappily managed to misidentify the tunnel's designer as Isambard rather than Marc):
This great, but for many years comparatively useless, work of Sir Isambard Brunel was carried under the river from Wapping (left bank) to Rotherhithe (right bank) at a cost of nearly half a million of money. For about twenty years after its completion it was one of the recognised sights of London, and a kind of mouldy and poverty-stricken bazaar established itself at the entrance of the tunnel. The pence of the sightseers and the rent of the stalls proved wholly insufficient even to pay current expenses, and in 1865 the Tunnel Company were glad to get rid of their white elephant at a loss of about half its original cost. It now belongs to the East London Railway Company.
|The Thames Tunnel today, copyright The Brunel Museum|
The tunnel's engine house was restored in the late 1970s. It is now the Brunel Museum, a small but excellent insight into the creation of the Thames Tunnel that opened in 1980 and continues to be a great success. A replica of the original chimney was added in the early 1990s. In 2002 it was awarded the Freedom of the Ancient Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey and in 2005 became a Registered Museum. The construction shaft for the tunnel is immediately adjacent.
|Tunnel Wharf, 121-123 Rotherhithe Street,|
beneath which the Thames Tunnel runs,
now part of the London Overground.
Courtesy Google Maps.
Although Marc Brunel is mentioned in the numerous books about his more famous son Isambard, very few books have been written about Marc Brunel. The first was written by Richard Beemish, who replaced Isambard as the chief engineer on the project after the 1828 flood, and wrote a life of Marc Brunel in 1862, Memoir of the Life of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. In 2006 Heinz Wolff and Harold Bagust wrote The Greater Genius?: A Biography of Marc Isambard Brunel and in 2008 a new book about Sir Marc's life Marc Isambard Brunel, was written by Brian Clements. All are now unfortunately out of print. It is a great shame that Sir Marc was so thoroughly overshadowed by his son. I
|Tourists accessing the tunnel|
from the shaft. Illustrated
Principal sources for this post:
- Main source: The Brunel's Tunnel by Andrew Mathewson, Derek Laval, Julia Elton, Eric Kentley and Robert Hulse. The Brunel Museum. 2006 (Recommended)
- The Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel by L.T.C. Rolt. Penguin Books. 1989
- The Illustrated London News http://www.iln.org.uk
- Lee Jackson's Dictionary of Victorian London http://www.victorianlondon.org/thames/thamestunnel.htm
- The City of London website https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/london-metropolitan-archives/the-collections/Pages/Brunel-and-the-Thames-Tunnel.aspx
|The Thames Tunnel Shaft and well in 1825. Brunel had|
at the side of a nearby house painted with
an image of the tunnel bores for visitors.
Painting by George Yates, copyright Sough London Gallery.