Visit the Thames Tunnel at the Brunel Museum
In Rotherhithe, you can descend into part of the Thames Tunnel, a ground-breaking slice of engineering history.
Here you can step down into the world’s first tunnel dug under a navigable river, built between 1824-1843. Today it’s part of The Brunel Museum.
History of the Thames Tunnel
In 1825 the River Thames is one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world. As many as 13,000 boats travel pass Rotherhithe everyday, heading to the Pool of London (between London Bridge and Tower Bridge today).
With all this river congestion in mind, there was money to be made in a route that allows goods to cross the Thames more quickly than the continuous traffic jam of London Bridge.
The French engineer Marc Brunel has an idea. To build the world’s first underwater tunnel.
Construction of the Thames Tunnel
To achieve this feat, Marc developed a travelling shield. This protected the workers from the tunnel collapsing while they dug – by hand – through the earth.
Once the shield had progressed into new ground, the excavated tunnel behind them was reinforced with bricks.
Progress was slow (on a good week they’d only advance 8ft) and Marc’s initial prediction of 3 years was looking ridiculous.
The conditions were also horrific. Not only was it dark and cramped but the sewage-filled Thames above them is seeping foul and dangerous gases into the tunnel.
There was also the ever-present threat of flooding. The worst occasion was 12 January 1828 when six men died and Marc’s son, Isambard only narrowly escaped.
Due to Marc’s ill health, Isambard was appointed as Chief Engineer aged only 19. As well as overseeing the construction, he also had to step in during fundraising plans.
On 10 November 1827 The Standard reported that ”a most interesting occurrence took place”. Brunel Junior hosted an elaborate dinner for 40 was held in the Thames Tunnel with gas candelabra, crimson drapery and the band of the Coldstream Guards providing entertainment (think of the echoes!)
The Thames Tunnel was finally complete in 1843.
Success or Failure?
It took 18 years and cost £614,000 (a tad more than the £160,000 proposed!) It was also unable to function as the goods shortcut that was intended.
Originally, the plan was to have two huge access shafts with spiralling staircases that allowed a horse and carriage to walk up and down.
However, thanks to escalating expenses these plans were abandoned so the tunnel was only accessible on foot.
That’s not to say that the Thames Tunnel was a complete failure. It opened on 25 March to huge acclaim and public intrigue, with 50,000 visitors on the first day and hitting one million attendees within its first 10 weeks.
Londoners flocked to experience the unique feeling of walking under the River Thames.
Over the next few decades the novelty wore off and though the Thames Tunnel did continue to draw in daytime visitors with stalls and souvenirs, but it was rundown and gained a seedy reputation as a haunt of criminals and the homeless at night, nicknamed ’The Hades Hotel’.
In 1865 it was sold to the East London Railway and the first trains ran through the tunnels in 1869.
In 1884 the access shaft on the North side became Wapping Station and since 2010 passengers can once again travel under the Thames (confusingly on the London Overground line) between Wapping and Rotherhithe.
Look closely into the darkness at either of these stations and you can make out the horseshoe-shaped arches of the original Thames Tunnel.
Visit the Thames Tunnel
Aside from on the London Overground, the other way you can visit the Thames Tunnel today is via the Brunel Museum.
To descend into the Rotherhithe access shaft really gives you an appreciation of the mammoth task faced by Brunel and his team.
The space today is half the depth of the original, the rumble of trains still clearly audible under your feet.
Other details include the diagonal curve of the former pedestrian staircases that cut into the brickwork but have since been removed.
Also the dark, soot-covered walls reminding us of the Victorian steam trains from the late 1800s.
One of the most haunting details is a tiny window towards the top.
During construction flooding remained an ever-present threat. On one occasion water from the Thames started pouring in through the roof
Supposedly this tiny space was where an unconscious Isambard was dragged out by fellow worker during the disastrous flooding of January 1828.
The access shaft can be visited as part of the Brunel Museum and their opening times can be seen here. It costs £6 for adult tickets.
*It’s not really been a hot summer, but at least in the access shaft you can also shelter from the rain!
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