The Thames Tunnel is an underwater tunnel, built beneath the River Thames in London and connecting Rotherhithe with Wapping.

1798 First proposal for a 900-yard tunnel from Tilbury to Gravesend by Ralph Dodd

Second attempt by Robert Vazie and continued by Richard Trevithick in 1807 but this failed just short of completion and the Thames Archway Co folded

The successful tunnel by the Thames Tunnel Co measures 35 feet wide by 20 feet high and is 1,300 feet long, running at a depth of 75 feet below the river’s surface at high tide. It was the first tunnel known successfully to have been constructed underneath a navigable river, and was built between 1825 and 1843 using Thomas Cochrane and Marc Isambard Brunel‘s newly invented tunnelling shield technology, by him and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The tunnelling shield, built at the Lambeth works of Henry Maudslay and assembled in the Rotherhithe shaft, was the key to Brunel’s construction of the Thames Tunnel.

The first resident engineer was John Armstrong but he resigned in August 1826 and after that the work was managed by Richard Beamish and William Gravatt

The composition of the Thames river bed at Rotherhithe was often little more than waterlogged sediment and loose gravel, and although the extreme conditions proved the ingenuity of Brunel’s tunnelling machine, the work was hard and hazardous. The tunnel was often in imminent danger of collapse due to the instability of the river bed, yet the management decided to allow spectators to be lowered down to observe the diggings at a shilling a time.

For the workers the building of the tunnel was particularly unpleasant because the Thames at that time was still little better than an open sewer, so the tunnel was usually awash with foul-smelling, contaminated water.

Two severe incidents of flooding halted work for long periods, killing several workers and badly injuring the younger Brunel. The latter incident, in 1828, killed the two most senior miners, Collins and Ball, and Brunel himself narrowly escaped death; a water break-in hurled him from a tunnelling platform, knocking him unconscious, and he was washed up to the other end of the tunnel by the surge. As the water rose, by luck he was carried up a service stairway, where he was plucked from almost certain death by an assistant moments before the surge receded. Brunel was seriously hurt (and never fully recovered from his injuries), and the event ended work on the tunnel for several years.

1828 Financial problems followed, leading in August to the tunnel being walled off just behind the shield. The tunnel was abandoned for seven years.

In December 1834 Marc Brunel succeeded in raising sufficient money (including a loan of £247,000 from the Treasury) to continue construction.

Starting in August 1835 the old rusted shield was dismantled and removed. A new tunnelling shield (improved and heavier) was made by Rennie Brothers; it was assembled in place in March 1836 and boring resumed.

Impeded by further floods (23 August 1837, 3 November 1837, 20 March 1838, 3 April 1840), fires and leaks of methane and hydrogen sulphide gas, the remainder of the tunnelling was completed in November 1841, after another five and a half years.

The Thames Tunnel was fitted out with lighting, roadways and spiral staircases during 1841–1842. An engine house on the Rotherhithe side, which now houses the Brunel Museum, was also constructed to house machinery for draining the tunnel. The tunnel was finally opened to the public on 25 March 1843

The first underwater tunnel had been built, and is still in operation on the London Underground East London Line between Rotherhithe and Wapping.

The building that contained the pumps to keep the Thames Tunnel dry was saved from demolition in the 1970s by volunteers and made a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It now houses the Brunel Museum, which documents not just the Thames Tunnel but also the two Brunels’ other achievements.

Additional Resources

The Thames Tunnel, in The Life Of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer


The Brunel Museum

See Also

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