A Look Inside the Brunels' Thames Tunnel

May 23, 2017

A Look Inside the Brunels' Thames Tunnel

In a city that's famous for its tunnels, one stands out. The Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping was the first tunnel to be successfully constructed under a body of water. It was designed and built by the engineer Marc Brunel, whose soon-to-be-famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, also worked on the project. Among the new technologies involved was Brunel's innovative tunneling shield, which supported the structure of the tunnel as workers dug it out and paved the sides. This was the precursor to modern tunnel boring machines, such as those used to build Crossrail today.

Many of the great Victorian engineering projects attracted high levels of public interest, and the Thames Tunnel, being a complete novelty, was one of the most popular. The firm behind its construction, The Thames Tunnel Company, took advantage of this to sell a series of small, illustrated booklets chronicling the project. This example from 1829, Sketches of the Works for the Tunnel Under the Thames, contains fifteen different illustrations, including maps and cut-away diagrams. One of the most famous is that above, which shows the tunneling shield from the front - the reader simply lifted the flap to see the full contingent of workers:

Here we have a side-on view of the same scene:

This plate gives a full view of the tunnel's situation in comparison to the river:

And this one provides a full-length view with measurements and a wonderful flotilla of trading ships above.

Finally, this well-known illustration by Robert Cruikshank (brother of George Cruikshank, illustrator of Charles Dickens, ) depicts the completed tunnel from a pedestrian's point of view.

Unfortunately, the dream was still far in the future. Work had begun in 1825, but the project "encountered extraordinary difficulties, largely on account of the unexpected nature of the geology which comprised water-bearing sands and gravels where Brunel had expected clay. Moreover there was no experience of the complexities of successful operation of such a machine. Progress was in consequence slow. The river broke into the tunnel on several occasions, calling for considerable ingenuity and much courage in filling cavities in the river bed by clay and other materials, while restoring damage sustained to the shield. A major irruption on 12 January 1828 led to suspension of the work for more than seven years, the tunnel only half completed and the budget exhausted." (ODNB). This booklet was published about a year after the 1828 disaster, and it includes sections on that one and also an earlier cave-in, including illustrations of the damage and initial repairs.

After numerous stops and starts, the Thames Tunnel was finally completed in March 1843 and immediately became a tourist attraction, drawing about two million visitors per year who each paid a penny to walk through and browse the souvenir stalls set up in the arches. In 1865 it became a railway tunnel, and is now part of the London Overground.