MGM 2005: Brunel's Thames Tunnel and its Objects of Desire

By Daniel Frost | 03 June 2005
Shows a photo of a grey brick building with a large red wooden door and a tall chimney

Brunel's Engine House in Rotherhithe, London, the site of major engineering breakthroughs. Photo courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum

Walking east from Tower Bridge along the south bank of the Thames, the narrow streets weave around old dockyards and warehouses. Small parks line the route, with views across the river to the imposing north bank wharves.

Through Bermondsey and into Rotherhithe, this area of Southwark is steeped in history, the warehouse shells emotive reminders of a once-vibrant shipping trade. Small water inlets hint at the marshy, disease-ridden slums that used to house the city’s poorest, and nestled among the waterfront wharves sits the Mayflower pub, built in 1721 and named after the famous ship that sailed from a nearby quayside.

One of Rotherhithe’s most laudable claims to historic fame cannot be seen on this picturesque walk, however, for it lies more than 15 metres (50ft) underground.

a photograph of a man wearing a large top hat and smoking a cigar

Isambard Kingdom Brunel - great name, great hat, even better inventions. © Institution of Civil Engineers

In Victorian times the Thames Tunnel was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. On its opening day in 1843, 50,000 people walked through it and two million had visited within the first year. Serving as an underwater walkway, as well as shopping arcade and fairground, the tunnel soon became the city’s greatest tourist attraction, drawing more visitors than the Crystal Palace.

The structure was also a triumph of civil engineering. Running from Rotherhithe to Wapping, it was the first tunnel to be built under a navigable river, using pioneering technology that revolutionised tunnel building. It was also the greatest achievement of Marc Isambard Brunel and the first job of his more famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The tunnel now serves London Underground as part of the East London Line, but the original eighth wonder of the world – from its difficult 18-year construction to the vibrant Victorian attraction that it became – is celebrated at the Brunel Engine House, in Rotherhithe.

a painting depicting a banquet in a tunnel

The tunnel was opened to great fanfare, with an underground banquet, and soon became London's premier attraction. Photo courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum

The small museum has a very welcoming feel, with helpful staff and a tidy, compact exhibition. As part of Museum and Galleries Month 2005 there is a small Objects of Desire display, featuring artefacts that were bought and sold from the tunnel stalls, including hand-painted ceremonial plates, glasses and coffee cups, snuff boxes and gin flasks. Although there are old posters on display advertising the tunnel and its many attractions, this understated part of the exhibition is the most effective indicator of its popular appeal, with each souvenir a testament to the tunnel spectacle.

The rest of the museum is concerned with the construction story, looking at the engineering technology, the Brunel father-and-son partnership, the lives of the tunnel workers and the considerable hardships suffered by all involved in the project.

Beginning by explaining the need for a Thames crossing in the East – the London docks had developed into one of Europe’s largest trading centres, but progress was constricted by the absence of a permanent river crossing, with London Bridge as the nearest – the museum continues with a brief look at the life of Marc Brunel, followed by his pioneering tunnelling techniques. His most crucial invention was the tunnel shield, which supported the tunnel face and allowed workers to brick-over the digging as it moved forward. This principle is still used in tunnel building today.

Shows a bust of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

This was the first major project Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked on, along with his father, Marc. Photo courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum

Despite the advancements in technology, the project was still mired by tragedy and setbacks. Seven deaths, countless injuries and illnesses, several floods, strikes and persistent financial complications – leading, at one point, to a seven-year suspension of the project – all plagued the construction. The museum follows the tunnel story through these difficulties, with testimonies from various miners and excerpts from Isambard Brunel’s diary.

Ultimately, the 1,200ft Thames Tunnel never achieved its original purpose, as access for road transport was never built, making it an ineffective river crossing for traders. Furthermore, its initial tourist popularity soon faded and the tunnel became a hive for prostitutes and vagrants. It was eventually sold to the East London Railway Company in 1865, for a fraction of what it cost to build. But this does not detract from Marc Isambard Brunel’s achievement and his enduring importance is firmly established in this well-structured and inspiring exhibition.

Walking back from the museum, past the old warehouses and factories that are now all luxury apartment compounds, the fate of Brunel’s tunnel seemed particularly apt. For just as the old buildings that surround it have evolved into homes for the city’s richest, the Thames Tunnel has also been adapted and refurbished for use in a different way to its initial conception.

This is indicative of how London’s historic sites have been treated. Although some have been knocked down and built over and others devotedly preserved in their original states, more often than not they have been revised, renovated and remodelled to suit the city’s changing needs. It is easy to lose sight of London’s history under these circumstances, but at the Brunel Engine House the Thames Tunnel is still very much in view.

Shows the Museums and Galleries Month logo.

Daniel is participating in the 24 Hour Museum/ MGM Arts Writing Prize 2005.

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