The tunnel under the Thames was the first major engineering project Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked on. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum.
A £50,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant will help the Brunel Engine House Museum in Rotherhithe, south London take its fascinating story to a wider audience.
As well as creating a new exhibition, the new funding will enable the museum to develop an outreach programme for schools, organise festivals and heritage events and raise its profile locally and nationally.
The news was announced during a special event to commemorate the 1827 Thames Tunnel Banquet, which saw Sir Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel celebrate the completion of the first tunnel built under a river.
Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Brunel Engine House Museum Curator, Robert Hulse explained just what the funding will mean to the institution.
"Some very dedicated founding trustees saved this important building from dereliction," he said. "It’s now our job, with this grant and with a very talented board of trustees, to widen access to this important site."
It was a very Victorian scene as the Brunels, father and son, celebrated their unprecedented achievement. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum.
Situated in a conservation area and designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the engine house offers a unique insight into the first tunnel built under a river anywhere in the world.
The new funding will pay for a series of projects at the museum over the next two years and will help it play a central role in the celebrations of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s centenary in 2006.
Outreach work in schools and the local community, as well as the possible re-launch of the Thames Tunnel Fancy Fair, will help take the museum’s story to a wider audience.
Working with his father, Sir Marc, the tunnel was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first engineering project and an unprecedented feat. Originally intended for moving cargo, it operated first as a foot tunnel and was then bought by a railway company eventually becoming the basis of the London Underground.
Local children joined artists to create Brunel's Ship of Blueprints, an outdoor sculpture in the museum's grounds. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum.
Following a flood in May 1827, the engineers were keen to restore public confidence in their creation, so they threw a vast and extravagant banquet in the tunnel.
Dignitaries toasted the King, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Wellington as the band of the Coldstream Guards played the national anthem, Rule Britannia and See the Conquering Hero Comes.
The occasion was recreated on November 9 2004, with the musical accompaniment supplied by the Southwark Children’s Foundation Primary Brass Ensemble, while the museum took the opportunity to unveil Brunel’s Ship of Blueprints.
Funded by Southwark Community Council with help from Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, Avondale Construction and Travis Perkins, this outdoor sculpture was created by local children working alongside local artists during a summer play scheme.
The sculpture now provides an outdoor working space and picnic table. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum.
Guests were also led on a guided journey down Brunel’s original shaft and through the tunnel that still connects Rotherhithe on the south bank of the River Thames to Wapping on the north.
"The wonderful thing about this site is that it isn’t just an extraordinary feat of civil engineering," explained Robert Hulse, "it’s the eighth wonder of the world – that’s what the Victorians called it."
It’s one of only six International Landmark Site’s in the country and of a mere 200 in the entire world. According to Robert: "This is the most important, because it is the birthplace of modern urban transportation."
Robert’s intention is to see the site expanded to tell more than just the story of the tunnel under the Thames.
And the band played on... Southwark Children's Foundation Primary Brass Ensemble. Courtesy Brunel Engine House Museum.
He wants to see Brunel and Victorian ingenuity celebrated at a site situated neatly between the great engineer’s first project and his last - the Great Eastern, built and launched just down the river at Millwall.
It will provide a national and international base for those interested in Brunel’s work at what was once one of the busiest ports in the world.
But it won’t just be a place for those interested in engineering. It will be a community base for people of all ages and all backgrounds.
"This is a dream," he said, but the principle of accessibility is something he strongly believes in: "We are committed to opening this place up," he added.
"I would like to see this museum at the centre of its community in Rotherhithe and also as a world class visitor centre and a place which has the widest possible audience and deals with the widest possible of themes."