On the 2nd of March 1825 the Thames Tunnel Company began construction of what they hoped would be the first tunnel beneath the Thames. On the banks of the river at Rotherhithe, bricklayers and labourers began their work as the curious watched on. The project had been garnering a certain amount of attention ever since it had been granted royal Assent the year before, and its goal was an ambitious one – the construction of a tunnel beneath the river large enough for both people and horse-drawn traffic to use. It was a goal that many thought was impossible.

Over the next few months, London watched as the company’s workforce went about their business under the supervision of the energetic Frenchman who had been appointed to be the Company’s Chief Engineer.

He was, the papers said, an engineering genius. During the Napoleonic wars he had invented the first ever automated manufacturing process for making rigging blocks and thus the Navy, who got through a staggering 100,000 blocks a year, loved him (although apparently not enough to pay his invoices). He had also invented the first true production line process, which he put to use making cheap, quality, mass-produced boots for the army.

True, the Navy’s apparent inability to locate their chequebook and the fact that the sole had fallen out of the boot market after the war had seen him confined to debtors prison, but whilst there he had designed an impressive bridge for the Neva at St Petersburg on behalf of the Tsar, and the British Government had become so worried about the possibility that he might leave the country that they ultimately paid off all his debts from the national purse.

If anyone seemed likely to build the Tunnel, therefore, it was he. But as the weeks wore on and a fifty foot wide circular brick tower began to loom larger and larger on the Rotherhithe skyline, people began to wonder whether maybe someone should have a polite word with this celebrated figure because…


…Wasn’t he meant to be going down not up?

Contrary to perception, however, the chief engineer knew what he was doing. In order to dig, he knew, you needed a shaft. For a project like this it also needed to be a big one – a deep, wide shaft lined with solid walls to hold the earth back. The digging and shoring of this would have been a dangerous and expensive enough task in solid ground, let alone in the soft earth by the Thames.

But this engineer had an idea.

As the tower got taller it also got heavier and, inch by inch, with scientific inevitability, it began to sink into the soft riverside earth. In fact, by June 6th 1825 the 40ft tower had, with a little bit of help (and with men digging out the inside as it went), sunk completely into the ground.

Marc Brunel, Chief Engineer to the Thames Tunnel Company, had just invented the Caisson.

When most people hear the name “Brunel” today it is Isambard Kingdom who springs to their mind. Isambard’s legacy is huge, and he is rightly considered one of the Greatest Britons ever to have lived. Yet many do not realise that it is to his father, Marc that Londoners (and indeed the world) arguably owe the greater debt. Marc’s work on the Thames Tunnel – which, remarkably, is still in use today – would be the seed from which all London’s major subterranean railways would grow. Although it would ultimately take more than fifteen years to complete and extract a brutal cost in both money and men, the construction of the tunnel would see Brunel face, and largely conquer, all the problems that had until then prevented large-scale subterranean tunnelling.

Marc Brunel by James Northcote

That a tunnel was required at all was a consequence of the massive increase in traffic to London’s ports that had occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, London was the shipping capital of the world – the Thames packed with tall ships waiting to load and unload at all hours of the day. As London increased in size, and as more and more shipping unloaded on the south side of the river, the Capital’s existing river crossings to the heart of the City (London Bridge and Blackfriars) became increasingly overwhelmed.

By Brunel’s time the need for a way to reduce pressure on these bottlenecks was acute, but building a new bridge simply wasn’t an option. Ironically, the very vessels that made a new bridge necessary also meant it was impossible to build one. Any bridge would have to be large enough to allow tall ships to pass underneath – an engineering and financial nightmare. Other cities had addressed the problem by building bascule bridges that could be raised, but the size of the Thames meant that it would be some time before a bridge of this style would be technically possible in London (Tower Bridge, built almost 50 years after the Thames Tunnel was completed).

Given the above constraints, it is perhaps not surprising that Brunel was not the first to think of a crossing that ran below the river rather than above. In 1708 Ralf Dodd, who had been responsible for the Grand Surrey Canal, sank a test shaft at Rotherhithe but declared the geology unworkable. Then in 1805 the Thames Archway Company – the brainchild of Cornish Tin Mine engineer Robert Vazie – attempted to dig a 5ft high tunnel beneath the river.

In both cases, it was the ground that ultimately foiled the projects. The earth beneath the Thames was soft and thus prone to collapse. Worse, the presence of the river above meant that any large space excavated soon fell in and flooded under the pressure of the water above. This prevented the use of traditional mining techniques and the only man so far who had seemed to have a solution to this problem was Richard Trevithick, who had been brought in to try and finish Vazie’s tunnel after repeated collapses. Trevithick’s solution was an expensive one, however – to use a series of coffer dams to remove water from the immediate area and then drop in iron tunnel sections from above. This was too risky (and costly) for the Thames Archway Company’s directors and the tunnel was thus abandoned (although Trevithick’s idea was sound – it was later used in San Francisco with some success).

Brunel, however, thought he had a better solution. Tunnelling had been on Brunel’s mind for a while. He had originally considered a tunnel for his river Neva project, and had watched Trevithick’s efforts with interest. His nautical experience – both from his work with the British Navy and from his time as a young officer in the French Navy before the revolution – had also fixed in his mind an image from nature – the humble shipworm. He had observed that the shipworm dug into a ship’s timbers by using shell-like projections either side of its head to do the cutting, and then eating and excreting the pulped wood.

It was this approach that Brunel initially sought to emulate – he would design a device that would cut through the earth and funnel the detritus through itself. Its own weight and presence would thus provide the tunnel with support while bricklayers following behind built the tunnel lining. Sadly, however, Brunel soon discovered that this would prove impossible – neither manpower nor the steam engines then available proved sufficient to be able to power such a machine.

Undaunted, Brunel modified his plans. Instead of a machine, it was people that Brunel decided to place at the cutting face. He designed an iron and wooden frame which he called a “shield.” Assembled at the bottom of the Rotherhithe shaft in November 1825, this was a frame of thirty-six small chambers, each large enough to hold a single man. Each chamber was fronted by a number of six inch horizontal boards, which could be removed by the chamber’s occupant allowing the small section of earth behind them to be excavated. Once this was done, the board could be replaced and jacked forward, keeping the rest of the earth back.

Brunel’s Tunnelling Shield

When each of the thirty six miners had excavated all their boards, the whole apparatus could be jacked forward, with the frame itself supporting the weight of the roof and bricklayers following on behind to fill in a more permanent lining. This lining would be brick, at least 2ft 6in thick and held together with a new type of Roman cement that Brunel himself had helped create.

It was slow progress, but it worked. Marc Brunel had invented the Tunnelling Shield.

For two years, inch by inch, the tunnel crept forward. It was brutal work beset by constant difficulties. London Clay would become gravel with little warning, and even with the shield acting as a support, flooding was a constant worry. As it was, the tunnel leaked constantly and this was a major problem for the health of all involved. It is worth remembering that the Thames Tunnel pre-dates Bazalgette’s own engineering feats and thus Brunel’s Thames was not just a river. It was also an open sewer and repository for industrial waste.

The Tunnel under construction

As early as 1826, Marc Brunel had been forced to leave much of the day to day running in the hands of his senior engineers. Ill-health and stress also wrought havoc on their ranks, however, not to mention on the miners, labourers and bricklayers who worked for eight hour shifts amidst the seeping sewage and oppressive air.

Luckily for Brunel, engineering ran in the blood. As his own health faltered, he found that he could increasingly rely on his son to take up the daily management of the project – not yet twenty, Isambard Kingdom Brunel became his father’s presence on the front line of construction. It was on the Thames Tunnel that Isambard effectively learnt his craft, and here that he demonstrated his strength and talent for driving forward large projects.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, pictured later in life

By February 1827, the Tunnel had been driven forward about 300ft. This was a major achievement given the conditions of earth, water and air, but it was far slower than Brunel or anyone else had forecast. The project was already now well over budget and behind schedule. In an effort to do something to quell rising costs, the company’s directors ordered the workers wages reduced. This did more harm than good, and though later resolved, resulted in a strike that brought all work to a halt for a time.

The directors also decided, against Brunel’s advice, to open the works to public viewing at the price of a shilling a time. Brunel’s major objection to this was one of safety – the risk of flooding was still there, he insisted, and would only grow as the tunnel’s length increased. Brunel knew that the tunnel would soon be perilously close to the riverbed’s lowest point and by May workers were beginning to find debris such as coal and china in the leaks – suggesting that the tunnel was possibly even closer to the riverbed than they had planned. On the 18th May Marc was leading Lady Raffles and her party on one of the directors’ paid tours when he felt a feeling of real foreboding.

“[I was] most uneasy all the while,” he would later say, “as if I had a presentiment.”

That evening, as the tide in the Thames rose, the tunnel roof above the tunnelling shield broke. Water poured in, and the workers (and Isambard who was supervising them at the time) were forced to beat a hasty retreat to the Rotherhithe shaft.

With work now halted, Isambard went down in a borrowed diving bell to survey the damage. It soon became clear what had happened – gravel dredgers operating in the Thames had, contrary to the law, been dredging too deep. The tunnel had indeed ended up closer to the riverbed than expected, and this had led to the roof’s collapse.

Worse soon came for Marc. The damage was repairable and, under Isambard’s careful supervision, Marc had men lay iron roads across the breach and bags of clay dumped on top. When this had been completed, the tunnel was pumped dry and work began again (although the flood water left the air in the incomplete tunnel section even worse than before). All this put even more pressure on Marc’s health, however, and in August 1827 he suffered a paralytic stroke.

As he slowly recovered, with Isambard continuing to supervise the work, it soon became clear that the flooding had caused public confidence in the project to waver – potentially disastrous given the perilous state of the company’s finances. In an effort to restore faith, therefore, a rather effective public relations stunt was staged – in November 1827 a sumptuous banquet was held in the tunnel for the project’s backers.

George Jones’ famous painting of the banquet is the only picture featuring both Marc and Isambard together. Doubly impressive given that Marc didn’t actually attend.

The stunt worked. With the Coldstream Guards playing heartily in the background, and many notable guests in place (including the Duke of Wellington – who was a lifelong supporter of Brunel thanks to the Frenchman’s boot-making efforts) confidence was restored and work continued.

That confidence would not last long. On the 12th January 1828, as Isambard was supervising work in the tunnel, he noticed that two miners – Collins and Ball – were struggling with some shoring on the Tunnelling Shield. A hands on manager throughout his life, Isambard headed forward to help them out. Suddenly, as they worked, the three men were engulfed in a torrent of water.

The pressure threw the men back off the frame and shattered the wooden scaffolding behind on which the bricklayers worked. As water poured through the now-broken tunnel ceiling, men and material were thrown about like ragdolls. As the water sheeted down, Isambard found himself pinned beneath the remains of the broken scaffolding. Somehow, with the water-level in the tunnel rising quickly, he managed to free himself and crawled into one of the brick arches that ran down the centre of the tunnel bore. Sheltered briefly from the full force of the water, Isambard was able to pull himself up and survey for the first time the damage – he quickly realised that a major breach had happened. The tunnel was flooding – and fast.

Isambard ran.

As Isambard and the rest of the tunnel’s workforce raced towards the safety of the Rotherhithe shaft, the breach worsened. As the young engineer reached the shaft he realised the worker’s steps were crammed with those trying to escape. He turned and sprinted for the visitors’ stairs, but was suddenly swept off his feet by a vast wave of water that surged down the tunnel with such force that it pushed Isambard and several others who had not yet have reached the surface right up the shaft itself. Some – including a battered and broken Isambard – were lucky enough to be swept over the lip to safety. The unlucky ones were sucked back down to their deaths as the wave lost its force.

Six men died, including Collins and Ball. Unlike Isambard, they had been unable to free themselves from the wreckage of the scaffolding.

The flood had disastrous consequences for the tunnel. Not only was the damage greater than before, but it also robbed Marc of one of his most valuable resources – Isambard. His knee torn, his body bruised and (although he didn’t know it at the time) bleeding internally, Isambard had insisted on staying on site in the immediate aftermath and supervising the assessment of the damage by diving bell. Even Isambard’s capacity for feats of endurance had limits though, and he was soon forcefully packed off to Brighton and then Bristol to recover (he’d pass his time designing a bridge or two).

Deprived of his right hand, Marc went into overdrive. His days were spent supervising the repair efforts and speaking publicly in support of the project’s continuation. His nights were spent poring over the days’ work results and writing reports to the now-frantic company directors detailing the state of play.

Eventually the breaches were sealed, but just as work was about to begin on restoring the badly damaged tunnelling frames, the project’s finances finally reached critical point. The company needed an investment of funds to survive but despite the efforts of Marc and his ever-present supporter, the Duke of Wellington, who once again put his public reputation on the line and vocally supported Brunel, a subscription drive failed.

On August 9th 1828, the tunnel face, with the remains of the frames still in place, was bricked up. The Tunnel seemed finished.

Marc Brunel, however, wasn’t.

As soon as tunnelling ceased, Brunel began a relentless offensive aimed at securing the funds necessary to complete it – £250,000 all told. He lobbied financiers and businessmen, but soon realised that the only source of likely funding was the Government itself. Shockingly, in 1830 Brunel discovered that the Government itself had actually reached this same conclusion some time before, and had offered a loan to the company only to see it rejected out of hand by the Company’s then Chairman – a man who it now seemed had been almost willing the company to fail by the end.

By 1831 Brunel had, despite suffering a heart attack, managed to undo this damage and the Government now agreed that Brunel could seek to draw on the Treasury’s Loan scheme. At the Company’s AGM, Brunel had also seen the Chairman deposed.

Getting the Treasury to actually agree to a loan, however, proved incredibly difficult. The first proposal was rejected but Brunel continued to campaign, even lobbying the King himself. The second was approved only, heartbreakingly, for Brunel to see the Treasury Loan Scheme’s funding cut rendering the approval useless.

In 1834, after a third application had been rejected, a number of Fellows from the Royal Society decided to throw a dinner in Brunel’s honour. At the Spreadeagle & Crown Pub at Rotherhithe (now the Mayflower), they toasted the Engineer’s health and formed the “Tunnel Club” – a lobbying group determined to help Brunel bring his funding plans to fruition.

Finally, in June of that year, Parliament signed off on a £270,000 loan.

Work on the tunnel began again in 1835. The old, now rusted, shield was removed and a new one, its design improved by Brunel, installed in its place. The work of digging the tunnel proved to be even more brutal than before. Brunel had planned to transfer a significant amount of the effort to the Wapping side of the river, not least to allow ventilation to be taken over from there. The Treasury, however, refused to sign off the expense. The wording on the loan was very specific, they insisted – it was to complete construction that was already started and they would consider this as new work.

As a result, conditions below ground became positively horrific. The air was putrid, not helped by the fact that over 100 gallons of Thames filth was now seeping through the tunnel head every day, and gas was increasingly building up in the tunnel as well. This would lead to the occasional outbreak of explosions and small fires which would burn for days, rendering the tunnel even hotter to work in and leaving the iron-framed tunnelling shield sometimes scalding to the touch.

The government also rejected a plan by Brunel to buy his own diving bell. This, he’d determined, would have been the solution to the flooding problem – by having a diving bell above the tunnel head at all times Brunel hoped to be able to catch likely flood points in advance and reinforce them with clay bags before they broke. Brunel got his ship from which to distribute the clay, but not the diving bell and thus was largely reduced to throwing clay overboard blind in the hope that it would help.

Despite all this, the tunnel slowly progressed. Burned by flame, sickened by the water, vomiting and blinded by the gas, the cost to the workers was horrific. Lessons would be learnt for the future from the pains suffered by Brunel’s workers but that was little help to them now. Brunel repeatedly petitioned to be allowed his Wapping ventilation shaft, but was repeatedly turned down. Inch by inch, the tunnel crept forward and more and more the miners found themselves digging through mud rather than earth.

Then, on the morning of the 23rd August, the seemingly inevitable happened once again.

There had been some concern about the water levels in the tunnel since the night before, although nothing had come of it. Brunel himself had been at the site since 4am but left in the middle morning when nothing had developed. At lunchtime Thomas Page, Marc’s primary engineer now that Isambard had major projects of his own, was about to depart for a meeting with the company directors, but when he heard that the flow of water had increased slightly above one of the cutting frames something at the back of his mind told him not to go.

Instead Page headed down to the shield. All appeared under control but, still wary, Page ordered that a raft, clay and other breach-blocking supplies be readied. He also ordered the tunnel cleared of visitors and unnecessary personnel and that a note be dispatched to Brunel warning him that a breach may come at high-tide.

Page was correct – but it didn’t take until high-tide. By the afternoon water was rushing in and the workers, under the calm and controlled oversight of Page, were pumping out water and strengthening the tunnel to try and stem the flow. Ultimately it proved unsuccessful and Page was forced to order the evacuation, but his management of the situation meant that the breach was far less serious than it could have been. After the normal process of diving bell and clay bagging, work resumed on the 11th of September.

The Tunnel would flood three more times, the first of which happened whilst both Brunel and Page were ill and sadly cost a life. By now, however, the process of sealing breaches and cleaning the tunnel had become almost routine. Even during the third, when the water managed to take out all the lighting in the tunnel, the workforce remained composed and were able to minimise the damage. In all cases, work resumed with little delay.

Progress, however, was still painfully slow – just nine-tenths of an inch a day in some months – because the conditions below ground continued to worsen. Brunel, who turned 70 in 1839, was repeatedly bedridden. His condition was not helped by the fact that he would visit the site every two hours at all times of the day to check for potential breaches. Page too suffered.

Ultimately, however, it was the workforce who continued to suffer worst. Again and again Brunel lobbied the Treasury to allow him to build his Wapping ventilation shaft, but he was continually refused. As one newspaper at the time noted with morbid humour, the Government’s policy seemed rather “one-sided.”

On the 22nd August 1839 the tunnel reached the low-water mark on the Wapping bank. Work continued and on the 11th June 1840, work began on the main shaft at Wapping, to be constructed in the same way as the first at Rotherhithe. In May, as the Wapping shaft slowly sank and the main tunnel neared its final destination, a small drainage shaft was dug between the two. That June, Marc Brunel’s 3 year old grandson became the first person ever to fully pass under the river from shore to shore.

Finally, on November 16th 1841, Thomas Page climbed out of the Rotherhithe shaft and knocked on the door of Brunel’s house just a few metres down the road. On being ushered in, he presented the 72 year old engineer with a clod of earth. Brunel looked at it and smiled at Page, who smiled right back.

The clod was covered in red brick dust. The tunnel had finally reached the shaft. Brunel had successfully built a tunnel beneath the Thames.

The work did not finish there, of course, and it would not be until March 1843 that the Tunnel admitted its first paying customer. Even then, it was ultimately a financial failure. The money the Government had loaned the company proved enough to complete the tunnel, but not enough to build the huge descent ramps necessary for horse-drawn traffic to access the tunnel.

As a result, it could take foot traffic only. The tunnel was rightly recognised as an engineering marvel and became one of London’s biggest tourist attractions – 2 million people used it in that first year alone, but it had ultimately cost almost £500,000 to build. Without road traffic it could never repay that, and despite the company’s efforts to turn it into a bustling subterranean market and Christmas fair, it ultimately ended up as a refuge for the seedier side of London life.

The Tunnel shortly after its completion

In 1865, however, the tunnel finally found its use – it was purchased by the East London Railway and became a railway tunnel beneath the Thames. Since then the Tunnel has seen passengers, goods, armaments and even runaway sheep travel through its confines.

Indeed it is still at the heart of London’s railway network today – if you find yourself on the East London Line then look carefully as you pass through Wapping or Rotherhithe and you’ll see it.

The Tunnel in 1996 – before the massive renovation efforts that took place during the ELL rebuild. Courtesy English Heritage.

The Tunnel shortly before the revamped East London Line opened. Courtesy Caroline’s Miscellany

Almost two hundred years ago, Marc Brunel set out to do the impossible. At great cost in money, time and men he managed to accomplish something that no-one had ever done before, creating a tunnel that many then genuinely regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. In doing so he laid down the foundations for every major subterranean railway that would follow. Others would take the inventions he had created and the lessons he had learnt and improve on them, but to Marc Brunel goes the honour of proving that it could be done at all.

The Historian Peter Ackroyd once described Marc Brunel as “a lord of the underworld.” It is probably fair to say, however, that he is incorrect.

For both the engineering legacy he left behind, and the cost to both himself and others that it required, Marc Brunel wasn’t a lord of the Underworld.

He was its King.

This article first ran on London Reconnections in February 2011. We run it again here to mark the brief opening of the Thames Tunnel to walkthrough tours this weekend. Although tickets are (unsurprisingly) sold out, we thus hope to have photos of the current state of the tunnel next week.

jump to the end
There are 68 comments on this article
  1. Anonymous says:

    very interesting to read. You obviously put a lot of time and effort into this!

  2. mr_jrt says:

    Agreed, and excellent piece, thank you for putting it together.

    Just on a point of curiosity, would the dimensions of the tunnel enable OHLE to be used at all? Obviously 3rd rail is easier to use in confined spaces, but I am curious if the line could practically be able to be converted in the future.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good article, but you should really hide such long posts behind cuts – it's a long way to scroll down if you want to read previous posts!

  4. John Bull says:

    Good article, but you should really hide such long posts behind cuts – it's a long way to scroll down if you want to read previous posts!

    Yeah, given how much long form writing we do these days, I do wonder whether we should re-visit the whole "all posts in full on main page" policy.

  5. SImon_A says:

    A really interesting and well written article, thanks.

    Any idea how many lives were lost in the construction and how much the ELR paid for the tunnel?

  6. Dominic says:

    Thank you for this.

    There was a day of guided trips through the tunnel just before ELL trains started running through it. A once-in-several-lifetimes opportunity to see this engineering up close.

    Sadly all the trips were fully booked by the time I heard about it, despite me being a Friend of the London Transport Museum. I am still seething about the lost opportunity.

    So this article is bittersweet for me: a reminder why I wanted so much to see the tunnel for myself, and a reminder that I will never do so now.

  7. Neil says:

    Great piece. Thanks!

  8. jamesgoslingbass says:

    A beautifully written piece!!! 🙂

  9. Thornavis says:

    I'd like to add my thanks for this, thoroughly enjoyed it.

  10. Timbobean says:

    Great article – thanks!

  11. The Londoneer says:

    Were you, by any chance, at the talk a few weeks ago at the London Transport Museum on this subject? I thought it was fantastic – what a wonder the Thames Tunnel is 🙂

  12. John Bull says:

    @The Londoneer

    I was indeed.

    For obvious reasons I tend to show up at LTM talks a lot!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Really good read – a story very well told. Thanks.

    But… it didn't answer the question I always have about the Thames Tunnel. If the original spec was for horse and cart traffic, how come the Tunnel was built large enough for steam trains? One would have thought that the private finance behind the scheme would have kept costs as low as possible and hence the tunnel as small as feasible (eg City & South London Railway).

  14. Anonymous says:

    For those if you above who missed the Tour of the tunnels prior to ELL reopening, I'm sure one of the trains will oneday stall in the tunnel causing people to have to walk out – best carrry a torch with you when traveling through.

  15. Andrew says:

    What a dreadful state the Thames tunnel was in before it was repaired. In my opinion they should of repaired all of it rather than most of it.

  16. Pedantic of Purley says:

    Sorry to disagree but surely Trevithick was building a drift tunnel not a coffer dam solution? And one of the problems was he was applying Cornish mining techniques to the geology found under a London river.

    I think Trevithick’s considerable achievement has in later years been downplayed or simply forgotten. He managed to build a tunnel, admitted not much more than 2 ft 6 inches wide, all the way from Rotherhithe to the low water mark on the other side of the river. Furthermore he did this without loss of life unlike Brunel. The tunnel was described as a pilot tunnel indicating he had plans for greater things and with the knowledge learnt he may well have realised the benefits of going deeper for his next stage.

    Trevithick so nearly succeeded and no doubt if his backers had not got cold feet he almost certainly could have done. After all pumping out a flooded mine would have been something he would have excelled at.

    It seems opinions are divided as to the consequences of Treithick’s tunnel. Some say that it convinced others that a tunnel under the Thames really was impossible whereas others argue that this is what convinced Marc Brunel that it really was something that could be done – after all Trevithick so nearly succeeded.

  17. John Bull says:

    What are we disagreeing on? Coffer vs Drift?

    If so maybe, but I’d argue that broadly speaking the technique is the same (at least to start with).

    With regards to Trevithick’s achievement(s), I’d certainly agree they get downplayed – not just on this subject but also his role in the birth of the railways.

    Brunel gets the ultimate prize though for managing to finish his tunnel. Trevithick has to make do with a special mention!

  18. Pedantic of Purley says:

    Reading the link I provided a little further on I now see that Trevithick was proposing to complete the tunnel with a cofferdam construction after the flooding. But until then there had been no mention of cofferdams.

    Of course it all depends on how you define stuff. Trevithick did manage to succeed in building a tunnel under the Thames at low water albeit a small bore one.

    I think the criterion for success is that you must be able to enter the tunnel on one bank and exit on the other and in this Trevithick clearly failed.

  19. NLW says:

    The Treasury, however, refused to sign off the expense. The wording on the loan was very specific, they insisted – it was to complete construction that was already started and they would consider this new work.

    would NOT consider… ?
    [Correct as it stands. The treasury would consider this (i.e. categorise this as) new work. I can see there is potential for ambiguity but I suspect most people reading it would read it as intended. PoP]

  20. NLW says:

    scalding not scolding?
    [Clearly. I have amended it. PoP]

  21. Anonymous says:

    Off topic I think, but possibly related to the ELL at Rotherhithe. Right next to where the emergency exit to Rotherhithe Station has been built is a house that’s mostly been bricked up. Anyone know why and if there’s any plans to get rid of the eyesore? Did it get weakened during the ELL works? I don’t think that exit used to be there in the LU days.

  22. NLW says:

    The Treasury, however, refused to sign off the expense. The wording on the loan was very specific, they insisted – it was to complete construction that was already started and they would consider this new work.
    would NOT consider… ?
    [Correct as it stands. The treasury would consider this (i.e. categorise this as) new work. I can see there is potential for ambiguity but I suspect most people reading it would read it as intended. PoP]

    It’s certainly ambiguous. ‘As’ adds considerable clarity as an explanation – although not considered needed as an amendment.
    [I have added ‘as’. PoP]

  23. Anonymous says:


    It’s unlikely that the houses’ situation is due to the creation of the emergency exit as the line was built in a cutting next door; it’s just some stairs and a doorway. It’s possible, however, that the site may be planned for redevelopment—potentially involving covering up the railway, which would explain the hoardings. If the intention was to leave it open, it would have been more logical to put up something more permanent.

    Both Wapping and Rotherhithe are now expected to see platform extension work. It’s therefore possible that the bricked-up housing is to become a future access point to the work site.

    (Aerial imagery shows the emergency exit is set back quite a bit from the pavement, so there might also be plans for a second entrance at this end—possibly including lift shafts to provide “step free” access. This would avoid the need to modify the Listed station itself.)

  24. MikeP says:

    While we’re all in a correcting mood, I think Marc spent his nights poring over the days’ work results, not pouring. If he did, I think he would have rendered them unreadable.
    [Corrected. PoP]

  25. timbeau says:

    Fascinating article – I for one had no idea Trevithick had had a go.

    BTW, seeping, not seaping
    [Fixed that one too. PoP]

  26. Ian J says:

    @Anonymous: not quite answering your question about why they became bricked up in the first place, but according to Southwark Council: “Court action is underway to complete the purchase of three dilapidated and unsightly houses, 71, 73 and 75 Albion Street. Once we have control of the houses the site will be brought back into beneficial use.”

  27. Fandroid says:

    Just a thought about the previous drift tunnel almost completed by Trevithick. The word ‘drift’ indicates that the tunnel would have been built by cutting a gently sloping tunnel towards the river so that the spoil could be removed in wheeled trucks pushed or hauled (probably on rails) out to the surface. A typical coal mining technique of the time.

    In a flattish place like London, some form of cutting would have been necessary to start it off (just like the Crossrail portal at Royal Oak) and it would not have used the construction shaft technique that Brunel used. Brunel’s tunnel almost certainly needed cranes to get the spoil out and the lining bricks in, and left the tunnel access as a problem that was never solved until the railway took over. Although Trevithick failed (he seems to have been much less of an active promoter than Brunel), he did at least create one portal that horses could possibly have used !

  28. Southern Heights says:

    @Fandroid: Where was Trevithick’s portal? If anything still remains a campaign for plaque of some form might be an idea…

    Rotherhithe having been my local station for more than six years, I’m still kicking myself that I never went on one of the tunnel tours in the ELL days. I guess those are over now?

  29. Fandroid says:

    @Southern Heights. I have to admit that just about all that I wrote earlier is hogwash. My expertise in creating a massive analysis out of a few irrelevant strands of data is unrivalled.

    The following has actually been researched(!):

    If you follow this link (provided earlier by PoP), then you will see the plan and section of the Trevithick tunnel. The section shows the pilot tunnel (presumably that is the solid black line) starting at a shaft (ho ho -shame) at the back of Rotherhithe Street near Lavendar Lane. Rotherhithe Street certainly exists, as does a Lavendar Road. The shaft site would be somewhere to the west of Lavendar Pond Nature Park, possibly in St Pauls Sports Ground, or it could even be back past Salter Road.

    The target was the north bank of the river somewhere just to the west of the entrance to Limehouse Basin, near Horseferry Road, and amazingly close to where the current Rotherhithe Tunnel north entrance is. Horseferry Road’s name gives a clue as to what the tunnel proposal was about. Its intention was to replace the ferry. The south side ferry landing was at Horseferry Wharf , very close to the pilot tunnel route. There was an amazing amount going on in that first decade of the 19th century. The Surrey Docks were being expanded from the original Greenland Basin (still there now) to fill the entire land area northwards within the curve of the river, with one water access route where Lavendar Pond is now. The Grand Surrey Canal and Croydon Canal were opened between 1807 and 1809. The commercial driver for the tunnel was obviously the expansion of Surrey Docks.

    Regents Canal Dock was not opened until 1820, so would not have stood in the way of this proposal.

    Researching this bit has indicated that John Bull’s 1708 date for the Ralf Dodd shaft is wrong. He was born in 1756 and the first bit of the Grand Surrey Canal opened in 1807. I suspect that the correct date for that shaft is 1798.

  30. Southern Heights says:

    @Fandroid: I have a map of the Surrey Docks at home, dating from somewhere around the 1820’s. I know buying those original prints is sponsoring vandalism of old atlases, but at the time I wasn’t aware of that.

    I’ll have a look and see what I can see….

  31. Valentine says:

    Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Just in case there was any doubt about him being the head honcho, he goes and wears a whopping foot-tall hat, heh!

    I think after that photo was done he probably ate those chains for breakfast.

  32. Walthamstow Writer says:

    @ Southern Heights 1248 – prepare to kick yourself a second time. This Bank Holiday weekend TfL are re-running the tunnel tours as there is an engineering closure on the ELL. Unfortunately it is entirely ticketed and all the tickets sold out a few days ago (based on tweets from TfL). TfL are not allowing “turn up and wait for a tour” as they did the first time round. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I was lucky to do it the first time and it is an interesting thing to walk through and look at.

  33. Anonymous says:


    That rather well-known photo was taken by the launching chains of the ill-fated SS Great Eastern, in 1857, by which time Isambard’s health was starting to fail. The ship wasn’t actually launched and fitted out until 1859, the same year Brunel died of a stroke, aged just 53.

    Personally, I think his work on designing prefabricated hospitals for the Crimean War is deserving of more exposure—especially considering the many lives saved.

    Returning to the topic of Thames river crossings: it’s a little-known fact that the Blackfriars Railway Bridge (the later bridge that supports most of the rebuilt station today), was designed by both Sir John Wolfe-Barry and I.K. Brunel’s second son, Henry Marc Brunel, who were working together at the time.

    Henry Marc Brunel also made this.

  34. Mark Townend says:

    Great article thanks, a real ‘page scroller’.

    ‘Isambard Ran’ – I didn’t realise he’d had such a close shave. I wonder how different our world would have been had he not survived to accomplish his later work.

  35. Fandroid says:

    IKB is generally regarded as a ‘Great Engineer’ and there is no doubt that he achieved some incredible things. However, you would have to think hard to come up with much of his that has had lasting influence. His more workaday contemporaries were also building amazing railways, ships and bridges that have lasted. Much of what they achieved became the standards on which later expansion and improvements were based. IKB was most famous for always trying to take giant leaps forward. He sort of succeeded, but not many followed him. As this article demonstrates, his dad was the true pioneer whose ideas were followed later on by many others.

  36. @Fandroid,

    Sort of agreed. I hate to pour cold Thames water on the Thames Tunnel but in a sense it was a massive great stonking failure. It was a financial disaster. It was just very fortunate they subsequently found a use for running trains through it.

    Now for the really critical question: did anyone subsequently build a similar tunnel under the Thames using the same construction techniques ? Well as far as railways, at least, go the answer is no.

    Like a lot of things including the opening of the underground (1863) and the City and South London Subway (1890) an awful lot of the learning was how NOT to do it so that those who came along later were able to build on both the bits they got right and the bits they got wrong.

  37. Ian Sergeant says:

    Many of IKB’s ideas were original. Some were good, others not so. We could categorise:

    1) broad gauge: brilliant, but others thought otherwise. We still pay for this today;
    2) Maidenhead Bridge, great – people thought it would never fly;
    3) Clifton Suspension Bridge – an icon, even if they did nick the chains from Hungerford Bridge to build it;
    4) Dawlish Sea Wall – clever and beauiful, but the sea will always win in time;
    5) Box Tunnel, through which the sun rises on IKB’s birthday, rather than use an easier route to the north of the village – ultimately this cost the lives of about 100 people.

  38. Fandroid says:

    I wonder if IKB pushed things further with his ships than he did with the other projects, but I don’t know enough about shipbuilding history.

    Many folk in the rest of the world had the opportunity to build 7ft gauge railways, but didn’t bother. The biggest gauge that took on was 5’6″ in India. The Americans had the space and the opportunity, and tried several gauges out, but Standard stuck. So what was the great missed opportunity?

    No-one has bothered with atmospheric propulsion except for sending cash around in old department stores! Engineers in general, not just Brunel, were always extending the limits, so Maidenhead Bridge was not that exceptional. He built beautiful things, but he wasn’t the only one. He was obviously the Richard Branson of his day- famous for being famous!

  39. Fandroid says:

    Sorry to go on, but this comment is about Marc Brunel’s tunnel.

    @PoP. Agreed that the Thames Tunnel was a stonking great failure. However, Marc Brunel was too old (and unhealthy) when it finished to take on the task of developing his methods. He was probably the only one who could have done that (with the possible exception of his son). Once the railways got going, the need for more tunnels beneath the Thames faded until the very end of the 19th century, and by then tunnelling methods had been greatly improved by the likes of Greathead.

    There were two more underwater railway tunnels built- the Severn Tunnel constructed 1873-1886 and the Mersey Tunnel constructed 1881-1886. Both driven for the same reasons as the Thames Tunnel – the need to maintain navigation for sailing ships, which by then included the very tall steel-masted windjammers. However, the construction techniques would have been different to the Thames Tunnel as the underlying geology is rock in both cases (I think!) rather than the soft clay and alluvium under the Thames. The long delay to the Severn Tunnel was also due to a serious influx of water, but it was fresh water- groundwater from the Welsh side. That was eventually used for local industry -presumably including Lanwern steel works.

  40. whiff says:

    Co-incidentally this weeks Great Lives show on Radio 4 profiles Brunel; as well as mentioning the Thames Tunnel in passing it covers a lot of the same ground as the comments on this thread.
    For all that Brunel was undoubtedly an extravagant salesman, having grown up in Devon I have a tremendous sentimental attachment to him for his huge influence on the (for want of a better word) psychogeography of the West country.

    Ian Sergeant – you can add to the list the 5 tunnels in 3 miles immediately south- west of the infamous Dawlish sea wall and the often overlooked but absolutely stunning Royal Albert Bridge west of Plymouth.

  41. Graham Feakins says:

    @ Fandroid – “No-one has bothered with atmospheric propulsion except for sending cash around in old department stores!”

    And recent installations in our hospitals. One page pulled off the web:

  42. Simon says:

    If I might be pedantic too for a moment (!) I believe Brunel went to Bristol to recover, not Brighton? Thus the bridge reference – Clifton Suspension Bridge.

  43. Long Branch Mike (Junior Under-Secretary of the Acronyms and Abbreviation Portfolio ie Intern) says:


    “No-one has bothered with atmospheric propulsion”

    You apparently forgot about IKB’s design in Exeter:

  44. “No-one has bothered with atmospheric propulsion except for sending cash around in old department stores!”

    And many houses in North America which have a central vacuum system for sending dust other detritus to the waste bin.

    And Tesco which uses it today for cash and installs it in new stores.

    Although not quite the same there is also the London Underground which uses pneumatic tubes for its train stops and older ticket barriers gates and point motors that haven’t yet been converted to electric motors.

  45. Fandroid says:

    My flippant atmospheric propulsion comment was really about its use as a system for driving trains. I know it’s still in use as a small gauge system within and between buildings, but I suspect those were not Brunel’s invention and putting people through them might prove tricky! And LBM; the failure of its use by Brunel on the South Devon Railway was exactly what I was referring to.

    My overall point was that it is very difficult to identify anything that IKB developed that was taken up by succeeding generations of engineers. I know he was/is a legend, but that seems to be due to the boldness and grandiosity of his schemes, (and the survival of many of his creations) not due to his innovations being taken up by his successors. (As I said before, the ships may be an exception -someone else may know more about those).

  46. Fandroid says:

    Mr Wiki tells me that indeed Brunel’s ships were pioneers that led to developments that we can see even today. His vision was that bigger steam ships would revolutionise the crossing of the Atlantic. To quote:

    Great Britain is considered the first modern ship, being built of metal rather than wood, powered by an engine rather than wind or oars, and driven by propeller rather than paddle wheel. She was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean

  47. Anonymous says:


    You’re both right: He convalesced in both Brighton and Bristol. Though presumably not at the same time.

  48. Greg Tingey says:

    Tom Rolt’s biography of IKB is well worth a read, if you can get hold of a copy.
    [ As are the companion volumes on Telford & The Stephensons’ ]

  49. Mark Townend says:

    I.K. Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, launched in 1858 was more than six times larger in volume than any ship built before, and was not surpassed in length or displacement for over 40 years. After an unsuccessful passenger career the ship was used for laying numerous undersea telegraph cables including the first successful trans-Atlantic example, her unprecedented size allowing sufficient cable for an entire crossing to be stowed aboard. Although cable laying was never anticipated by the ship’s designer, and he had died shortly after it’s construction was completed, Great Eastern made a significant contribution accelerating the establishment of the modern connected world of instantaneous global communications.

  50. Graham H says:

    @Fandroid – Perhaps IKB’s contribution was to show that engineers could have and – more importantly – deliver, a vision even within the limited technology available. (The world is littered with inventors whose innovative technologies have been overtaken, but at the time… Think Bell, Babbage or Montgolfier) Perilously close to steampunk here.

  51. 1956 says:

    Went on the Thames Tunnel walk today (the 2.10pm Saturday 24th May session). Rotherhithe to Wapping in one “bore” and then Wapping to Rotherhithe in the other “bore”. Very interesting. The tunnel and associated railway infrastructure seem in excellent condition.

  52. John says:


    The water from the Severn Tunnel supplied a paper mill at Portskewett many years before Llanwern. The pumping station is very close to – and visible from – the eastbound M4 Second Severn Crossing

  53. Graham Feakins says:

    Severn Tunnel still has some 13m gallons daily pumped out of it:

  54. Mike says:

    Re atmospheric propulsion, its use on the London & Croydon Railway (by Clegg and Samuda rather than Brunel) led to the world’s first purpose-built grade separation, at Norwood.

    (and breach, not breech, just above the banquet photo, and not sure why Diving Bell, Clay Bagging and Nineteenth Century are capitalised – they’re not proper nouns.)

  55. Anonymous says:


    “Nineteenth Century” can be a proper noun, depending on context. I agree with the other points though. (German-style capitalising of proper nouns seems to have been a fad for a while in 19th Century writing, so perhaps some of it rubbed off.)

    @Greg Tingey:

    I second the LTC Rolt biographies. Damned good reads. (His book on the Stephensons has a particularly evocative opening.)

  56. Greg Tingey says:

    One of the classic BR films, re-released on DVD looked at the old Severn Tunnel pumping stations, just before their replacement.
    Ah – “Under the river” 1959.
    Ian Visits has walked through the Rotherhithe Road Tunnel – rather him than me!

  57. Steven Taylor says:


    I was on the 1130 walk yesterday. I too found the Thames Tunnel to look to be in an excellent condition with little sign of water ingress, although the pumps sounded busy.

    It just as well it was dry as I was surprised to see the 33,000 volt supply cable running along the tunnel wall near the cess.

  58. Mark Townend says:

    When I was a young boy in the S&T design office in the 1980s I was sent out on a night shift with a colleague to do a cable survey for a proposed safety system in the Severn Tunnel. Walking in through the Welsh portal we had to measure the distance between each of the safety recesses thoughout the entire length, and we were escorted by lookouts from the PW gang at Severn Tunnel Junction whilst traffic was running. The local men had a knack of telling when a train had entered from either end, and apart from the vertical curve section around the deepest point, visibility was actually quite good, an approaching headlight often being visible long before I could even hear the train. After reaching the English portal we returned back through the tunnel to the pumping shaft and returned via lift to the surface at Sudbrook.

  59. John Bull says:

    Ian Visits has walked through the Rotherhithe Road Tunnel – rather him than me!

    Pretty much my exact words to him when we were sitting in the pub after doing the Thames Tunnel yesterday and he announced his intention of doing Rotherhithe as well!

  60. Latecomer says:

    An interesting read, thank you.

    As one who drives through each time I’m at work it can be a little disconcerting on occasion to see a bit of collected water at the lowest point! I believe however that this has normally run down from Rotherhithe following heavy rain rather than any leak from above! I wonder though, given the near disasters during construction all those years ago (and no serious problems since), is there any inspection of the riverbed above the tunnel these days – does anyone know? Perhaps the riverbed is deeper than it used to be from the days when gravel extraction obviously went too far?

    Occasionally, when I’m driving empty coaching stock back to the depot late at night I do stop in the tunnel as a means of avoiding sitting in Rotherhithe with the possibility that any late passengers would want to board. The signal post telephone is down on the right hand side with a little platform where the driver can stand part in one of the arches. It’s quite a good test of driver skill to stop the train accurately at the SPT given it is on a gradient and with the restricted view on the 378’s so that you lose view of the SPT for perhaps some 20 feet or so until it is right outside your right hand cab door. A foot or two too far and you are unable to use it. It’s a good one for instructors to test out their trainees once they’ve got a few hours under their belt.

    It’s quite a unique feeling under there, alone with the ghosts of 170 years!

  61. CdBrux says:

    it seems some film of the tunnel walk will be on BBC London local news this evening

  62. Graham Feakins says:

    One visitor has put up this You Tube 9-min clip of the walk:

    He requests that you read his narrative first, especially apologising for the poor quality. It starts with stills and then some somewhat eery filming. One can certainly detect the water still entering the tunnel at the far end of the walk. At a couple of points, he shows what look like the bare pair of copper tunnel wires in traditional LT Underground practice to pinch together to cut off current supply and to which a driver’s handset can be clipped to speak to Control. Are they there for that purpose?

  63. Latecomer says:

    @ Graham Feakins

    Yes indeed that is what the copper wires are for. All 378’s have a red phone with wire clips that can be attached in the event of emergency and the GSM-R isn’t working. It cannot be used for ordinary train failure because, as you say, it also switches off the traction current (as happens if you pinch the wires together). It’s another reason why practise stops at some of the trickier SPT’s down there are worthwhile.

    I have heard that the wires may be stripped out because GSM-R is considered reliable enough. I’m not so sure about this as we still get drop-outs of signal here and there.

    I have t viewed it yet but I see a video of the tunnel is now quite prominently featured on the BBC home page.

  64. MikeP says:

    I was a tad surprised to see the famous LU bare pair of wires in the tunnel. Presumably left-over from the LU days – was there perhaps some safety rules that would have been hard to derogate ? Or was it thought handy to keep it as it was already installed ?

    Keeping to the S&T theme, there was black plastic wrapped over the running rails where, presumably, the track circuit insulators were located. But in the eastern tunnel, there was also a long length (10m or so) that was wrapped. Never got round to finding out why that was done. The signals were wrapped up too.

    Also, there were notices on the platforms over the AWS magnets asking us not to tread on the bit that was still sticking out. Unfortunately these weren’t visible until you’d stepped off. I’m sure everyone had the brains not to do it, anyway.

    Finally, Midnight Apothecary cocktails are highly recommended.

  65. 378 Driver says:

    The wires are still used for switching off the current in an emergency in the tunnel sections, just touch them together and the current will switch off and the emergency lighting will come on. Using them for communication via clip on handsets was stopped last year.

    There aren’t any track circuits, it would have been the sensitive axle counters that were wrapped.

    It’s very weird seeing it from these angles, as when we’re driving through, the lights on the side of the tunnel are at driver’s head height in the cab.

  66. Martin Smith says:

    “Ian Visits has walked through the Rotherhithe Road Tunnel – rather him than me!”

    You really should do it. It’s very noisy, and the air is vile with exhaust fumes, but there’s plenty to see – I did it a few years back to do Limehouse to Canada Water on a day with no Jubilee or ELL.

  67. stationless says:

    Not exactly off-topic, but distinctly off-London, but this link might e of interest to those interested in modern tunnelling:

  68. stationless says:

    Also, for those who missed it, IanVisits was being a naughty boy on Wednesday:


Leave a Comment

In order to make LR a pleasant place for discussion, please try to keep comments polite and, importantly, on topic! Comments that we feel do not meet these criteria, or that contain language that could cause some people trouble at work, may be moderated or deleted.

acceptable tags

* (This won't be shown, but you can link it to an avatar if you like)

Recent Articles

Friday Reading List – 17 March


As anyone looking to properly understand London’s transport needs and network knows, context, background and best-practice are important. As readers might imagine, behind the scenes here at LR Towers we thus spend a lot of time sharing links and reading

Read more ›

LR Magazine Issue Five: Overgrounded


With print copies now being prepped for dispatch to subscribers at LR Towers, London Reconnections Magazine Issue 5: Overgrounded is now available to purchase in our online store. Transport is politics, politics is transport You don’t get transport without politics.

Read more ›