Poems, Painting And Plaque To Brunel Unveiled At Thames Tunnel

By Jon Pratty, Editor, 24 Hour Museum | 19 May 2004
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shows a photo of poet John Hegley - thin face, short hair, glasses and an incisive wit.

Photo: John Hegley versifies about Brunel. © 24 Hour Museum.

On May 18 1827 the first tunnel under the River Thames, being built by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard, flooded.

When work began again the visionary engineers, who narrowly escaped death, held a banquet under the murky water of the capital's main artery and the moment was captured in oils by artist George Jones.

Exactly 177 years, on May 18, 2004 the painting of the banquet was unveiled at The Brunel Engine House in Rotherhithe where the world's first shield-driven underwater railway tunnel was built. Now most tunnels are built this way.

The small painting has been loaned to the historic attraction from the Elton Collection at Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

As the painting was handed over, Anglo French poet John Hegley declaimed a few celebratory verses about the Victorian master engineer. Later a blue plaque was unveiled, as representatives from the French embassy and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office looked on.

Shows a photograph of two men shaking hands. A representative from the Ironbridge Museum is handing a canvas by George Jones to Colin Kirkland of the museums' trustees.

Photo: George Jones' painting of the tunnel banquet is handed over to Colin Kirkland, who was a key figure in the building of the Channel Tunnel. © 24 Hour Museum.

Colin Kirkland of the Engine House Trustees explained to invited guests the loan of the painting should allow Engine House staff to raise funds and hopefully attract extra visitors.

Trustees are planning a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to allow a museum extension to be built, possibly even down into the ventilation shaft of Brunels' Rotherhithe tunnel, which is still used today by underground trains.

Taking place during Museums and Galleries Month with its theme of Travel and the Art of Travelling, the occasion offered the chance to celebrate the birth of underground metropolitan travel.

The Jones painting symbolises the determined nature of the Brunels and their fellow engineers whose feats changed the course of civilisation in the 19th century.

Accompanied by the band of the Coldstream Guards, the Brunels and other survivors of the 1827 tunnel flood dined in the face of such criticism as came from the Curate of Rotherhithe who described the flood as: "just judgement on the presumptious aspirations of mortal men."

Amazingly, the modern event on May 18 attracted the attention of today's parish priest - he enjoyed the event and this time praised the genius of Brunel!

Shows a photograph of a man in glasses, the excellent John Hegley, raising one hand and pointing to the Brunel blue plaque.

Photo: Colin Kirkland, chair of the trustees of the Brunel Engine House Museum celebrates the blue plaque with Anglo-French poet John Hegley and curator Robert Hulse. © 24 Hour Museum.

On the day, poet Hegley recited a specially written poem celebrating the great man's achievements.

Performed in French, with an instant translation by a volunteer from the audience, Hegley's words had an even greater resonance since 2004 marks 100 years since the signing of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France.

Many members of the Victorian Society as well as professional engineers and historians attended, as did a French descendant of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Shows a photograph of a blue plaque erected on a pale-coloured wall to honour Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Photo: © 24 Hour Museum.

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