Geek's Guide

Bridge, ship 'n' tunnel – the Brunels' hidden Thames trip

Monument to a trio who left their mark on Blighty

By Brid-Aine Parnell


Geek's Guide to Britain When you mention Brunel to most people, they think of the one with the funny name – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A few folks will know that his father Marc Isambard Brunel was the first famous engineering Brunel, but not many will know that Isambard's own son, Henry Marc Brunel, was also an engineer and finished some of Isambard’s projects after his death.

Between the three of them, the Brunels created landmarks all over the UK; perhaps most famously the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in Somerset.

That bridge, which Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed and often called his “first child,” wasn’t actually completed until after his death and only came about at all because Isambard was nearly drowned in an accident at the massive project he was working on in London with his father: the Thames Tunnel.

It is this masterpiece of engineering, which invented new methods of tunnelling underground and is why the Brunels are credited with creating underground transportation – and by extension, the modern city itself – that you see if you go along to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, London.

The museum itself is in Marc Brunel’s Engine House, built in 1842, the year before the Thames Tunnel was opened, for the engines that pumped to keep the Tunnel dry. The small exhibition tells the story of the design and construction of the 396-metre-long tunnel, the first to have been successfully built underneath a navigable river. The display panels also detail the innovative tunnelling shield technique invented by Marc and Isambard that’s still used to build tunnels today, although these days it’s machines doing the hard work instead of men. Back then, labourers would spent two hours at a time digging, often while also being gassed and showered with shit.

The River Thames at that time was the sewer of London and the tunnel was constantly waterlogged, leading to a build up of effluent and methane gas. The result was that not only would miners pass out from the gas – even if they didn’t, men who re-surfaced were left senseless after their two-hour shift – but there were also explosions as the gas was set alight by the miners’ candles.

Although it’s a tidy and well-kept little exhibition, it is not really why you come to the museum. You come for the underground chamber below, which was only opened up to the public in 2010 after 150 years of being closed off by the London transportation system. This is the Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel, used in Brunel’s day as a concert hall and fairground and now in the process of being turned into a permanent exhibition.

As Transport for London was building the new Overground lines, it agreed to pour a concrete floor about halfway up the Grand Entrance Hall, giving the museum the top part of the Hall while trains run below. While the museum is working on turning it into something more permanent, you can get a guided tour through a very small four-foot entrance and down some scaffolding to stand in a room that no-one has been in for more than a hundred years.

In the summer, you can even attend the opera and other concerts in the underground chamber, whose walls are still lined with the soot of old trains and carrying the marks of the sweeping wooden staircases that once led people down into the tunnel.

Originally intended as a means of getting cargo across what was then a hugely trafficked river, the Thames Tunnel ran out of money before it was able to build the extended entrance necessary to get horses and carts underground. Instead, the tunnel was opened for pedestrian use in 1843. It quickly became a major tourist attraction, with two million people a year paying a penny to walk through.

The Brunel Museum, in Marc Brunel’s Engine House. Photo: mrbryanejones

It sounds pretty successful but folks were also paying a penny to use any of the other ways to cross the Thames and the tunnel. Being new and daring, this was seen as pretty scary. To try to scare up some more payback for the massive investment, the tunnel opened up some of the very first tourist tat shops, selling Thames Tunnel memorabilia and souvenirs like cups and plates – so you could prove you were brave enough not only to walk the tunnel, but to stop and browse along the way.

The seedier side of subterranean 19th century London

However, as time went on, the seedier side of Victorian London started to reckon a dark, underground tunnel might be the perfect place to conduct some nefarious business and the numbers of respectable tourists declined. Various projects to make more money out of it were tried, including turning it into what must have a been a fantastical underground fairground to attract even more visitors, before it was sold to the East London Railway Company in 1865. A part of the original tunnel is still visible today if you peer down the line from Wapping station towards Rotherhithe.

Part of the Thames Tunnel is used today by the London Overground system between Wapping and Rotherhithe. Photo: Brunel Museum

Although it was a financial disaster, the tunnel was a marvel of engineering and made underground transportation around the world a possibility, all because of the tunnel shielding method invented by Marc Brunel.

The Grand Entrance Hall to the Thames Tunnel, when the tunnel opened in the

1850s. Credit: Brunel Museum

Before his innovation, tunnels had been attempted twice before beneath the Thames, but had failed because of the soft clay, quicksand and flooding that collapsed the efforts. The tunnelling shield was a sort of cage structure that was pushed to the front of the tunnel. In the original design, men in the cages would dig forward a little, while those behind were shoring up the tunnel by building its walls. The design was later improved by engineers working for the railway companies building the London Underground and still forms the basic idea behind modern tunnel boring machines.

Despite the vast improvement in methodology, digging the Thames Tunnel was still a dangerous job; one in which Isambard himself, working as an engineer for his father, nearly died. He was the only survivor of the second major flood of the tunnel in 1828, when six men died. Half-drowned, he was sent to Bristol to convalesce and here he designed his first individual project, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Although it’s the most famous of his bridges, it’s by no means the only one that Isambard designed, which you’ll learn if you take the Museum’s boat tour of London, which finishes in the Grand Entrance Hall underground chamber.

The tour handily starts at Embankment Tube Station, where you meet your guide at 10.45am on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays. Be prepared, though - the tour is a long one and if you’re going to do it in the depths of winter, or you’re not the type that can last till a late lunch, you should eat a good fry-up before you set off. You take the ordinary river taxi (at a discount) with your enthusiastic guide, the museum director Robert Hulse.

He points out the remains of Isambard Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension footbridge, since replaced by the railway bridge for Charing Cross Station and the Golden Jubilee footbridges, with the suspension chains carted off for use on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. But he’ll also point out that Tower Bridge – arguably London’s most famous – and the Blackfriars Railway Bridge were designed by Sir John Wolfe-Barry, whose partner for many years was Henry Marc Brunel. Brunel worked on Tower Bridge and helped design Blackfriars Railway Bridge, which is now the world’s largest solar-powered bridge - and houses Blackfriars station.

There’s just time for a quick (and the only) toilet break before you get off the boat at Limehouse to visit the site where Isambard built and very slowly launched the biggest ship of its time, the SS Great Eastern. The colossal iron sailing and steam ship was by far the largest ever built: it was so huge that people in some ports in Asia apparently ran away when they saw it.

The underground chamber today – part of the Grand Entrance Hall, beneath the Museum. Photo: Brunel Museum

The ill-fated ship was another Brunel technical masterpiece and another financial disaster, failing to live up to its considerable potential. The ship seemed doomed from the start, with its long – and boring for spectators – sideways launch and the collapse of its engineer just afterwards. Isambard Kingdom Brunel suffered a stroke and died ten days later at the age of 53.

Money problems dogged the construction of the Great Eastern, which Isambard took on after his success with pioneering steam travel to North America on the Great Western and Great Britain. The Great Eastern was intended for longer voyages as far as Australia, and because coal had not yet been discovered on the continent, it was built to carry all the coal it would need for a round trip from Britain. The ship was powered and manoeuvred by single screw propulsion and paddle wheels, along with auxiliary sails.

Money money money...

Brunel reckoned he would need around £500,000 to build the ship, but the naval architect and shipbuilder John Scott Russell only tendered £377,200 for the project, which Isambard accepted. Because of the size of the finished ship, it had to be built sideways to the Thames and Brunel was planning a mechanical slip to get it into the water. However, Scott Russell went bankrupt, leaving the Eastern Company to finish the ship, despite the fact that three-quarters of the hull hadn’t been finished and there were 1,200 tons of iron missing.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel organised a lavish fundraising banquet in the tunnel to

convince investors it was safe in 1827. He almost drowned when it flooded a year later

Brunel agreed to launch the ship in November 1857, although he wanted to spend longer on her. He wanted a quiet launch, explaining that the sideways slip would be boring for spectators. He was horrified to discover that Eastern Company directors had sold 3,000 tickets for the launch and others who heard about it swarmed the area seeking vantage points to watch.

The first launch failed because the steam winches and manual capstans being used to haul the mammoth craft, nicknamed Leviathan, weren’t enough. The ship eventually managed to get into the water at the end of January the following year, after hydraulic rams were brought in.

The Great Eastern was in the water, but it still had to be fitted out and it was now the Eastern Company’s turn to be approaching bankruptcy. The directors quickly formed a new company, the Great Ship Company, and bought the ship for peanuts so as to have enough money left over to finish her. Finally, she set out on her maiden voyage at the end of 1859 but only made it as far as Hastings before there was a huge explosion, killing five stokers with superheated steam and injuring others. The accident was caused by a closed steam exhaust pipe, but luckily the ship’s strong bulkheads contained the explosion.

This wasn’t the only piece of bad luck the ship was to have, however. It had been built for trade and transport to Australia and the Far East, but its owners didn’t believe there was enough trade to send her that far. So the Great Eastern only ever sailed the Atlantic. The economies of scale and efficiencies Brunel worked out were for long trips around the world – as a transatlantic steamer, the Great Eastern just wasn’t worth its investment.

The ship was eventually broken up in 1890 and it was the SS Great Britain – also designed by Brunel and the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic – that survived to become a tourist attraction in Bristol.

After a walk along the river with a view towards Greenwich, the tour hops on the DLR and Overground lines to get to the Museum and the underground chamber, including a quick stop at Wapping to look down the original section of Thames Tunnel. Hulse will proudly tell you as you exit at Rotherhithe that the Brunels’ Thames Tunnel is the oldest section of the oldest underground network in the world and without it, modern cities would not be possible.

Brunel's Thames Tunnels (pictured here in 2014) were a financial failure and were bought up by the East London Railway Company in 1865. They now form part of the London Overground network

The tour ends with a nice frisson of excitement in the underground chamber with the tale of how Isambard Kindgom Brunel – voted second only to Winston Churchill in a television poll of the British public to find the 100 Greatest Britons – nearly drowned. The museum is worth a wander around, but the cafe isn’t really worthy of the name, consisting mainly of a chap with a kettle. However, Hulse may tell you he’s off to lunch at the nearby Mayflower, the oldest pub on the River Thames, where Brunel himself once supped, and you’re welcome to join him.

If you’d rather not, there’s the Old Salt Quay pub a little further along the river, or you can head towards Canada Water and Surrey Quays station for more pubs and restaurants. This is also, incidentally, one of the places where those in your group who aren’t enamoured of engineering prowess can hang out, as there’s a cinema here. Otherwise, Greenwich with all its museums and sights is not too far away.

GPS to The Brunel Museum

51.501581, -0.052950


SE16 4LF

Getting there

Train: Overground to Rotherhithe station, one hundred yards away or the Jubilee Line to Canada Water or Bermondsey for a ten minute walk.

Bus: Nos 381 and C10 stop outside Rotherhithe station, while 1 and 188 stop at Canada Water.

Boat tour

10.45am Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Meet at Embankment Station, which can be reached by Northern, Bakerloo, Circle and District Lines. The guide will be carrying a London Walks pamphlet.

Walking tour

10.45am on Sundays and 4.30pm on Wednesdays. From Bermondsey tube station on the Jubilee line.

Other resources

The Brunel Museum

London Walks

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