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Thames Tunnel (continued)

May 8.—At half-past three in the morning, an irruption took place, bringing down the deposits of the bottom of the river—lumps of clay, stones, bones, wood, nails, &c., &c., with water. The pumpers and men on the stage (Irish) all ran away, some exclaiming, ‘The Thames is in! The Thames is in!’ Ball and Rogers stood to their post, and soon stopped this most formidable attack.

May 10.—Great difficulties present themselves, that oppose our progress; the chief, however, is the lodgment of water above our heads. There it loosens the silt or sand, and runs out, leaving cavities that cause the clay above to break, and run down in lumps and disturbed streams. This is very awful! This opens the way for the river.

May 12.—In moving No. 6, they left by some unaccountable neglect the top staves behind, and in that state two top polings were taken down. The ground being very bad, and high water at the same moment, the ground began swelling. Attention was called to several points, and Gravatt continued in No. 6. He drew out at the front of the top staves a shovel, and also a hammer, that had come through the ground above. They are the same which Isambard left at the bottom of the river, when he went down in the diving-bell. [marginal notes: Consequences of want of care more terrific and mischievous than any preceding ones.]

May 13.—Notwithstanding every prudence on our part, a disaster may still occur. May it not be when the arch is full of visitors! It is too awful to think of it. I have done my part by recommending to the directors to shut the Tunnel. My solicitude is not lessened for that: I have indeed no rest, and I may say have had none for many weeks. So far the shield has triumphed over immense obstacles, and it will carry the Tunnel through. During the preceding night the whole of the ground over our heads must have been in movement, and that too at high water. The shield must have therefore supported upwards of six hundred tons: it has walked for many weeks with that weight twice a day over its head. What flippancy and inconsistency in some individuals, who, without any knowledge of the subject, without so much as examining the state of the work, will without the least reflection and hesitation obtrude their suggestions upon every case. What shallow conceit for such to pretend they can know better than those that have already the experience that must result from years of deep thought, from days and nights of incessant attention; who have the advantage of the combined talents of several ingenious men, who devote their undivided study, the whole resource of their well-stored minds, to the enterprise; and to add to this, the benefit of the skill of one hundred miners and excavators. Among this class of men, some have been employed in the most perilous enterprises, when each individual must have acted upon his sole judgment, where, in fact, there is no room for an engineer to instruct and direct their efforts. How easy it is to attack everything, to detract from the merits of the best plan. There is always some weak point which may be open to the penetration of the shallowest mind. Then comes the exulting expression, That I always said would never do, &c., and all the consequences with it. [marginal notes: Triumph of the shield.] [marginal notes: How easy to detract.]

May 15.—The water increased very much at 9 o’clock. This is inquiétant! My apprehensions are not groundless. I apprehend nothing, however, as to the safety of the men, but first the visitors, and next a total invasion by the river. We must be prepared for the worst. I have had no rest for many weeks on this apprehension. Should it occur we must make the best of it, by improving our situation.

May 17.—There is no doubt of the ground having improved very materially since last Saturday. Very cheering indeed.

May 18.—Visited by Lady Raffles and a numerous party. Having had an intimation by Mr. Beamish of their intended visit, I waited to receive and to accompany them, not only from the interest I felt at being acquainted with Lady Raffles, but also from motives of solicitude, knowing that she intended to visit the frames. Indeed, my apprehensions were increasing daily. I had given some instructions for enquiring where we could obtain clay, that we should have some barges full of clay to be in readiness. I was most anxiously waiting for the removal of the tier of colliers that was over us, being convinced that we should detect some derangement then. I attended Lady Raffles and party to the frames, most uneasy all the while, as if I had a presentiment, not so much of the approaching catastrophe to the extent it has occurred, but of what might result from the misbehaviour of some of the men, as was the case when the Irish labourers ran away from the pumps and the stage. I left the works at half-past five, leaving everything comparatively well: Mr. Beamish continued on duty.[1]

Mr. Gravatt’s account is as follows: I was above with I. Brunel looking over some prints, Beamish being on duty. Some men came running up and said to Isambard something I did not hear. He immediately ran towards the works, and down the men’s staircase. I ran towards it, but could not get down. I leaped over the fence, and rushed down the visitors’ stairs, and met the men coming up, and a lady, who I think was fainting. Met Flyn on the landing-place, who said it was all over. I pushed on, calling him a coward, and got down as far as the visitors’ barrier. Saw Mr Beamish pulled from it. He came on towards the shaft walking. I went up to him to ask him what was the matter. He said it was no use resisting. The miners were all upon the staircase; Brunel and I called to them to come back. Lane [2] was upon the stairs, and he said it was of no use to call the men back. We stayed some time below on the stairs, looking where the water was coming in most magnificently. We could still see the farthest light in the west arch. The water came upon us so slowly that I walked backwards speaking to Brunel several times. Presently I saw the water pouring in from the east to the west arch through the cross arches. I then ran and got up the stairs with Brunel and Beamish, who were then five or six steps up. It was then we heard a tremendous burst. The cabin had burst, and all the lights went out at once. There was a noise at the staircase, and presently the water carried away the lower flight of stairs. Brunel looked towards the men, who were lining the staircase and galleries of the shaft, gazing at the spectacle, and said, ‘Carry on, carry on, as fast as you can!’ Upon which they ascended pretty fast. I went up to the top and saw the shaft filling. I looked about and saw a man in the water like a rat. He got hold of a bar, but I afterwards saw he was quite spent. I was looking about how to get down, when I saw Brunel descending by a rope to his assistance. I got hold of one of the iron ties, and slid down into the water hand over hand with a small rope, and tried to make it fast round his middle, whilst Brunel was doing the same. Having done it he called out, ‘Haul up.’ The man was hauled up. I swam about to see where to land. The shaft was full of casks. Brunel had been swimming too.

The first alarm, as I heard it, was as follows: Goodwin, in No. 11, said to Roger, in the next box, ‘Roger, come, help me.’ Roger said, ‘I can’t, I have my second poling down, and my face will run in.’ In a little time Goodwin said, ‘You must come,’ which Mr. Beamish directed him to do. Roger turned round and saw Goodwin through a sheet of water. Corps, a bricklayer, went to help Goodwin: he was knocked down. Roger made his way alone, calling to Mr. Beamish, ‘Come away, sir, ‘tis no use to stay.’ Roger saw Corps fairly washed out of his box like a lump of clay.

Sir Isambard’s journal continues:—

May 19.—Relieved as I have found myself, though by a terrible catastrophe, of the worst state of anxiety, that which I have been in for several weeks past, I had a most comfortable night. Isambard and Gravatt descended with the diving-bell, and stood upon the tails of Nos. 10, 11, and 12.

May 20.—Having descended into the hole and probed the ground, I felt that the staves were in their places, and that the brickwork was quite sound. It is evident that the great hole has been a dredging spot. A large mass of bags full of clay, and united together with ropes, was let down. The Rotherhithe curate, in his sermon to-day, adverting to the accident, said it was a fatal accident, that it was but a just judgment upon the presumptuous aspirations of mortal men, &c.! The poor man!

May 23.—Went with the diving-bell to examine the ground and the bags, which do apparently well, but it is working rather in the dark. It cannot, however, fail of making a much better stratum than that we had before. The plan is therefore good.

On the 30th a raft was sunk over the shield, and the water in the shaft was brought so low that the last flight of steps was visible. However, on the next day the river broke in again; and as it was found that the raft was open at the west side, it was raised and towed on shore.

[1] Sir Isambard’s journal of this eventful night consists—as he was not himself present—of Mr. Beamish’s journal, with a few words in warm commendation of that gentleman’s ‘judgment, coolness, and courage,’ followed by observations upon the stability of the shield. He then gives a statement made by Mr. Gravatt, and taken down in shorthand. No extracts are given in the text from Mr. Beamish’s narrative, as he has already inserted it in a condensed form in his Life of Sir Isambard Brunel, pp. 244-248.

[2] Mr. Michael Lane, at this time foreman bricklayer, became one of Mr. Brunel’s most valued assistants, and was employed by him on the Monkwearmouth Docks and the Great Western Railway. After filling various posts in the service of that company, he was in 1860 appointed their principal engineer, an office which he held till his death, in February, 1868.

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