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Thames Tunnel (continued)

June 5.—There is much danger in getting out of the diving-bell, the bags are so loose in some places. One might sink and be swallowed, which had very nearly happened to-day. Isambard and Pinckney being down, the latter lost his hold. The footboard being accidentally carried away, he could not have recovered himself had not Isambard stretched out his leg to his assistance.

June 17.—Visited by Charles Bonaparte. Isambard took him into the arch with the yawl. Isambard fell overboard. [1]

On June 19, a general meeting of the proprietors was held, to consider the position of the company. Sir Isambard addressed the meeting, and also presented a long report, in which he entered very fully into the circumstances of the recent accident and the causes which led to it. He then described the means he had taken to restore the works by sinking bags of clay and gravel. He adds: ‘I have already succeeded in closing the hole through which the water first penetrated, and feel confident that the second opening which afterwards appeared is also stopped, but a short time is necessary to elapse for the new ground over the shield to settle and consolidate. It has already supported a head of water of thirty-five feet.’

June 25.—At 7 P.M. made preparations to re-enter the shield. Isambard, mustering the men who had been the last to quit the frames, told them they would be the first to take possession of them again—a precedence due, as he said, to them. Rogers, Ball, Goodwin, Corps, and Compton, were accordingly ordered to trim themselves for the expedition, provided with a phosphorus box, and dressed in light clothes, to be fit for a swim.

At about ten o’clock, Isambard and Mr. Beamish, accompanied by Ball and Woodward (miners), went down with the punt, and got to the large stage, the head of the crane just emerging. It was found impossible to get into the frames, as a mound of clay and silt closed the entrance. The centering was in place and quite sound, and of course the brickwork. Finding that they could not get nearer, they gave three cheers, which were rapturously answered by the men at the mouth of the Tunnel. Having placed candles upon the ground that closed the entrance, and upon the head of the crane, they returned. Isambard, having promised that the men who had left the frames last should be the first to re-enter, returned with them. This is a great day for our history!

June 27.—Mr. Beamish was able to get to the frames, which he found firm and undisturbed.

A small tarpaulin was now spread over the frames, and operations commenced for cleaning them. This was a most difficult and dangerous work, especially as the water was still so high that the frames could only be approached by boats. The men, even the best hands, were at first greatly alarmed at the danger they were in; but the example set by Mr. Brunel and Mr. Beamish produced, as Sir Isambard notes, the best effect, and they soon became reconciled to their situation.

July 7.—Very uncomfortable in the frames; the candles cannot burn, the ventilation cannot act. Isambard went several times to-day down in the diving-bell. On one occasion the chain slipped through the stoppers, but most providentially it jammed itself tight before being altogether run out. The consequence might indeed have been fatal. Can there be a more anxious situation than that which I am constantly in? Not one moment of rest either of mind or body. Mr. Beamish always ready. Poor Isambard always at his post too, alternately below, or in the barges, and in the diving-bell.

On July 11, Sir Isambard thought that matters had so far advanced that a large tarpaulin, which it was proposed to sink over the frames, ‘would have its full effect.’ It was accordingly sunk on the following day, under the superintendence of Mr. Brunel. Sir Isambard adds to his account of the operation—‘This reflects great credit on Isambard, and the apparent facility with which it was effected evinces his presence of mind, for a single faux pas would have spoilt the whole.’ [2]

July 21.—During the early part of the night an alarm was given, by Fitzgerald calling for clay wedges, and exclaiming that the whole of the faces were coming in altogether. Rogers collected a quantity of wedges to go to the frames, but no boat was to be seen. He called to the men in the frames, but received no answer. Taking the small boat in the east arch, he reached the frames, but found nobody, nor any appearance of derangement in the ground. Conjecturing they might be drowned, he explored further, and saw the four men stretched on the small stage, not drowned, but sound asleep!

July 26.—Water nearly out of the arches. For the first time we could walk to the frames—a most gratifying circumstance indeed! Two months and eight days.

September 30.—How slow our progress must appear to others; but it is not so, if it is considered how much we have had to do in righting the frames and in repairing them; what with timbering, shoring, shipping and refitting—all these operations being in confined situations, the water bursting in occasionally, and the ground running in: in short, it is truly terrific to be in the midst of this scene. If to this we add the actual danger, magnified by the re-echoing of the pumps, and sometimes (still more awful warning!) the report of large pieces of cast iron breaking, it is in no way an exaggeration to say that such has been the state of things. Nevertheless, my confidence in the shield is not only undiminished—it is, on the contrary, tried with its full effect, and it is manifest now that it will soon replace us in good ground, and in a safe situation. No top staves have given way. That is our real protection.

October 17.—At 2.15 A.M. Kemble, having first called upon Gravatt, came to Isambard in a hurry, and, quite stupefied with fright, told him that the water was in. Says Isambard—‘I could not believe him. He said it was up the shaft when he came. This being like positive, I ran without a coat as fast as possible, giving a double knock at Gravatt’s door in my way. I saw the men on the top, and heard them calling earnestly to those whom they fancied had not had time to escape. Nay, Miles had already, in his zeal for the aid of others, thrown a long rope, and was swinging it about, calling to the unfortunate sufferers to lay hold of it, encouraging and cheering those who might not find it, to swim to one of the landings. I immediately, I should say instantly, flew down the stairs. The shaft was completely dark. I expected at every step to splash into the water. Before I was aware of the distance I had run, I reached the frames in the east arch, and met there Pamphillon, who told me that nothing was the matter, but a small run in No. 1 top, where I found Huggins and the corps d’élite. They were not even aware that any one had left the frames. The cause of the panic was one of the labourers; hearing the man in No. 1 call for Ball, he ran away, jumping off the stage, crying, “Run, run, murder, murder; put the lights out.” His fellow-labourers followed like sheep, making the same vociferations.’

November 10.—Isambard gave his entertainment to nearly forty persons, who sat at table in the Tunnel. Nothing could exceed the effect for brilliancy. About 120 men partook of a dinner in the adjoining arch.

As the year drew to a close, the difficulty of working the silt increased, and with this difficulty increased also the expense of maintaining the staff of men required. On December 18, Mr. Brunel, writing for his father, who was absent from town for a few days, thus describes the nature of the soil through which they were then passing.

The state of the ground over Nos. 1, 2, and 3 top has caused considerable delay, particularly this week, although not such as to give any cause of anxiety as to our future rate of progress, or to have any serious effect except the increased expense incidental to this delay. My father desired me to describe to the Board the causes of these difficulties. There is a considerable spring at this point, and a corresponding soft part in the bed of the river, which seems to indicate the rising of the spring. The ground in the neighbourhood is affected by this spring in rather a peculiar manner: at the half-flood tide the pressure is greatest: dry hard clay oozes with great force through openings hardly observable, the silt and water running by starts. At high-water the pressure and quantity of water begin to diminish and on the ebb-tide the ground is hard and dry, and can be worked with ease. On the flood-tide there are as many as twelve and fifteen of the best hands, besides myself (or one of my assistants) and the foreman, engaged entirely at one face.

[1] On this occasion an amusing incident occurred. Mr. Brunel was exceedingly unwilling to permit his visitors to make this expedition into the arch; but on the assurance that they could all swim perfectly well, he consented to take them, with the understanding that, if he jumped overboard, they were immediately to follow his example, and swim after him to the shaft. While they were in the arch Mr. Brunel (as Sir Isambard mentions) fell overboard. As soon as he recovered himself, and turned to swim back to the boat, he remembered that he had unwittingly given to his companions the signal to jump out into the water. He was much amused, on looking up, to see that they were not swimming after him, but were still sitting in the boat clinging to the gunwale, with faces expressive of blank despair.

[2] Mr. Brunel’s comment in his diary is as follows:—’Without ascribing any particular merit to myself, I cannot help observing, for my future guidance, that being alone, and giving few but clear orders, and those always to the men who were to execute them, I succeeded in an operation not altogether mean, and which a very trifling want of precaution or order might have caused to be a total failure.’

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