Story of London takes a trip inside the Thames Tunnel and mind of Isambard Brunel

By Kathleen McIlvenna | 12 October 2010
A photo of a street sign
Tunnel Road, home of the Brunel Museum
Festival: Story of London, various venues, London, October 1-10 2010

The annual Story of London Festival is a week-long series of events celebrating the history and discussing the future of London. This year the festival focused on innovation, boasting more than 100 events across the capital promising to give participants a new insight into London’s story.

Events ranged from architectural tours of the British Museum and debates on the future of the Olympics at the British Library to film screenings at the Museum of London and Beer Master Classes at the Old Royal Naval College.

A photo of a tower at dusk
The former pump and engine room used to build the Thames Tunnel is at the Brunel
I had the pleasure of attending two talks at the majestic Burlington House and a tour of the Thames Tunnel hosted by the Brunel Museum. The first talk was held by the Society of Antiquaries and looked at how their collections have recorded London's history since its establishment in 1717.

Their historic collection of art and artefacts tell the story of a constantly changing city, shaped and moulded by catastrophic events, rebuilding and development.

Many of the Society's artworks preserve the lost faces of London, including early Tudor Royal Palaces that were once dotted around the capital; they also continue to tell us new stories.

The Society's symbol, the Lamp of Knowledge, was once thought to be Roman; however, ten years ago it was identified as a 14th Century Jewish Sabbath lamp and, consequently, was a symbol of London’s Medieval migrant population – a reminder that London's story is and will always be made up of the many different people and cultures who settle in the capital.

A photo of a blue plaque on a brick wall
The plaque for the Thames Tunnel inside Rotherhithe Station
The second talk was at The Geological Society of London and focused on the origins of Geology as a science and the role of the Society in establishing and promoting it.

The Society was created in London by a group of pioneers including Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood and James Watt in 1807.

Being in London brought them respectability and a central location for debates and discussions on the subject but, as the origins of the men who established it suggests, this was not just a story of London, but also of the wider Industrial Revolution and those centres of industry in the Midlands and the North.

A photo of the inside of a warehouse shaft
The shaft was the original pedestrian entrance to the Tunnel in 1843
The final event I went to was a tour of the Thames Tunnel hosted by the Brunel Museum. The Thames Tunnel was both the first tunnel built under the Thames and the first of its kind in the world.

With our museum guide we travelled through the tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping and back on one of London Transport’s Overland trains, which use the tunnel today.

We then made an ominous climb into the enormous shaft, which was the original pedestrian entrance to the Tunnel in 1843, to hear a more detailed and colourful history; one of fires, floods, banquets and carnivals.

Billed as the eighth wonder of the world, the tunnel and shaft tell the story of ingenuity and pioneering techniques used by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son, Isambard. It is truly a monument to the engineering might of the Victorians.

Through these events I discovered a story and history – not just of London, but of people and ideas which could inspire the innovators of today and give us more stories to look forward to at next year’s festival.

Visit the Festival online to find out more.

Images: Kathleen McIlvenna
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