I learn about the resourceful Brunels who tunnelled under the Thames

12 May 2013

During our time in London, I soon realised that Morton and his son Roy were fascinated by the Brunels. I did not know who they were at first. Luckily, my friends took me along on most of their outings, and even when I was tucked into their rucksack pocket because of the wet and windy weather, I kept my eyes and ears open and asked a lot of questions. You can learn a lot just by paying attention!

It seems that there were in fact three very important men with the name of Brunel in England.

Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769 – 1849) was a French-born engineer who settled in England was famous for constructing the Thames Tunnel between 1825 and 1843. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859) was an English mechanical and civil engineer who built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and numerous important bridges and tunnels. His designs revolutionised public transport and modern engineering. Isambard’s son Henry (1842 – 1903) became an important civil engineer too. (Info from Wikipedia)

This is the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe
This is the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe

We visited the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, which lies directly above the Thames Tunnel. Son Isambard was only 19 years old at the time that he began to help his father Marc to build this first tunnel underneath a river, anywhere in the world. Isn’t that remarkable?

We climbed down into a huge underground chamber known as the Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel. The Museum is intending to convert this vast echoing chamber into a performance space. I imagined being down here, listening to a concert of classical music, and I got quite goosebumpy!

It is located in the Brunel Engine House, which was designed by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel to be part of the infrastructure of the Thames Tunnel

It is located in the Brunel Engine House, which was designed by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel to be part of the infrastructure of the Thames Tunnel

We learned that the vertical shaft was constructed in an ingenious way: a very large metal ring was laid flat on the ground; a circular brick tower was built upon this, and as the tower rose in height, its weight forced the metal ring to sink into the soft ground. At the same time, workers were excavating the earth on the inside of the tower, which eventually became a shaft. A pump removed the water as it seeped upwards. A similar shaft was sunk on the opposite shore of the Thames, at Wapping.

Father Marc had designed a unique tunnelling shield, to enable up to 36 workers at a time to excavate the tunnel, two inches at a time, for the 1200 feet across – underneath – the River Thames. Bricks were used to line the tunnel, as it was being excavated. It was dangerous work, with water often seeping in from the river, and on occasion even flooding the tunnel. The air inside the tunnel was really bad, and workers often fell ill.

In the dark chamber below - I guess this must represent the great man himself?
In the dark chamber below – I guess this must represent the great man himself?

When the tunnel was finally opened in 1843, it was not used for horse-drawn carriages, as originally envisaged, but only for pedestrians. There was not enough money to build the spiral ramps that needed to be built within the vertical shafts on either side of the river, to allow the horse-and-carts to descend into the tunnel.

Nonetheless, because this tunnel under the Thames was regarded as a miracle of engineering, it was referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. On the day it opened, 50,000 people walked through the tunnel, paying a penny each! Within the first 10 weeks, an astounding 1 million people had walked through it – this is even more remarkable if you consider that London only had a population of about 2 million in 1843.

By 1869, the tunnel was taken over by a railway company, and steam trains began to travel through it – but because there were no ventilation shafts to allow the smoke to escape, the air in the tunnel was always filthy.

In 2010, the Thames Tunnel was reopened as part of the London Overground.

This false acacia tree is held together by steel bolts, and is known as the Frankstein Tree
This false acacia tree is held together by steel bolts, and is known as the Frankstein Tree

After taking in all this information, we relaxed outside on the terrace in the shade of some trees for a bit. Paula pointed out to me that one of the trees was held together with steel bolts and cement – so it is nicknamed the Frankenstein Tree, after the fictional monster created by Dr Victor Frankenstein in the story by Mary Shelley.

I also noticed that each of the three benches were in the shape of bridges. Morton explained that they depicted the Maidenhead Bridge, the Hungerford Suspension Bridge (which has since been knocked down) and the Royal Albert Bridge, all of which were designed and built by Son Isambard.

A model of the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash is used as a bench seat in the grounds of the Brunel Museum
A model of the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash is used as a bench seat in the grounds of the Brunel Museum

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