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Thames Tunnel (continued)

On January 1, 1828, Sir Isambard returned to London; and on the 12th, when about 600 feet of the Tunnel had been completed, a second irruption occurred, which put a stop to the works for seven years.

The particulars of this accident are thus described by Mr. Brunel, in a letter to the Directors of the Company:—

I had been in the frames (shield) with the workmen throughout the whole night, having taken my station there at ten o’clock. During the workings through the night, no symptoms of insecurity appeared. At six o’clock this morning (the visual time for shifting the men) a fresh set or shift of the men came on to work. We began to work the ground at the west top corner of the frame: the tide had just then begun to flow; and finding the ground tolerably quiet, we proceeded by beginning at the top, and had worked about a foot downwards, when on exposing the next six inches, the ground swelled suddenly, and a large quantity burst through the opening thus made. This was followed instantly by a large body of water. The rush was so violent as to force the man on the spot, where the burst took place, out of the frame (or cell) on to the timber stage behind the frames. I was in the frame with the man, but upon the rush of the water I went into the next box (or cell), in order to command a better view of the irruption, and seeing that there was no possibility of then opposing the water, I ordered all the men in the frames to retire. All were retiring, except the three men who were with me, and they retreated with me. I did not leave the stage until those three were down the ladder of the frames, when they and I proceeded about twenty feet along the west arch of the Tunnel. At this moment the agitation of the air, by the rush of water, was such as to extinguish all the lights, and the water had gained the height of our waists. I was at that moment giving directions to the three men, in what manner they ought to proceed in the dark to effect their escape, when they and I were knocked down, and covered with a part of the timber stage. I struggled under water for some time, and at length extricated myself from the stage, and by swimming and being forced by the water, I gained the eastern arch where I got a better footing, and was enabled by laying hold of the railway rope, to pause a little, in the hope of encouraging the men who had been knocked down at the same time with myself. This I endeavoured to do by calling to them. Before I reached the shaft the water had risen so rapidly that I was out of my depth, and therefore swam to the visitors’ stairs, the stairs for the workmen being occupied by those who had so far escaped. My knee was so injured by the timber stage that I could scarcely swim, or get up the stairs, but the rush of the water carried me up the shaft. The three men who had been knocked down with me were unable to extricate themselves, and I am grieved to say, they are lost; and I believe also two old men, and one young man, in other parts of the work.

This statement Sir Isambard embodied in a report to the Directors of January 28, which was circulated among the proprietors.

As soon as the first excitement caused by the irruption had ceased, Mr. Brunel directed the diving-bell to be prepared in order to ascertain the state of the shield and the extent of the disturbance of the bed of the river caused by the rush of water into the Tunnel.

He was, however, so seriously injured that he could not actively superintend the preparations, but his orders were given with his usual clearness, calmness, and decision; and as soon as the barge containing the diving-bell was properly moored over the Tunnel, he was carried out and laid upon a mattress on the deck of the barge, that he might direct what was to be done.

As evening came on he became so much worse that he was taken into the cabin; but everything which took place was reported to him.

At length, the bell being ready, it was lowered early on the Sunday morning, but the chain not being long enough, proceedings were delayed until a longer chain could be obtained.

As, however, a chain of the right size and length could not be obtained, the strongest cable which could be procured in the neighbourhood was substituted for the chain. A controversy then arose between the assistant engineers and the foremen as to the sufficiency of the strength of the cable; and it was agreed to consult and to abide by the opinion of Mr. Brunel, who was then lying in great pain in the cabin.

No answer could be obtained from him for some minutes, and then he only said, ‘Don’t go down.’ This not being satisfactory to the advocates of the sufficiency of the cable, it was agreed to lower the bell empty, which was done, and it was brought up safely; but just as it was swung over the barge, the rope broke and the bell fell on to the stage.

The next day Mr. Brunel was taken home, when it was found that, besides the injury to his knee which he received while endeavouring to save the lives of the three men who were with him, [1] he had received serious internal injuries, which kept him under medical treatment for several months.

When he was able to return to Rotherhithe all hope of continuing the works was for the time abandoned. When they were resumed, in 1835, he was entirely engrossed in the independent pursuit of his profession; and, with the exception of a few occasions when he acted for his father, he had no further connection with the Tunnel.

It is not, therefore, necessary to continue the narrative in detail; but a brief summary of the subsequent history of the enterprise may be interesting to those who are unacquainted with it.

The Tunnel was cleared of water, and efforts were made, unfortunately without success, to raise funds for the completion of the undertaking. Great enthusiasm was exhibited by the general public and by many eminent persons, including the Duke of Wellington; but the money was not forthcoming, and nothing was left but to brick in the shield, and wait for more favourable times.

It was not till the beginning of 1835 that the Company was able, by the aid of a loan from Government, to recommence the works. The old shield was removed and a new one substituted, in which considerable improvements were introduced. Slings connecting the frames were added, which enabled each frame to support its neighbours when necessary, and important alterations were also made in the arrangements for keeping the frames at the right distance from one another, and for giving greater facility of adjustment to the various parts.

Before the Wapping side was reached there were three more irruptions of the river, namely, August 23, November 3, 1837, and March 21, 1838; but in October 1840 the shaft on the Wapping shore was commenced. It differed from the Rotherhithe shaft, in being sunk the whole depth without underpinning, and was made of a slightly conical form, to reduce the friction in sinking, and had a larger quantity of iron hoops introduced into the brickwork, in order to increase its strength. When this structure had been sunk to the required depth (70 feet), the excavation of the Tunnel was resumed, and at last the shield was brought up to the brickwork of the shaft. The operation of making the junction between the Tunnel and the shaft was one of much difficulty, but it was at length satisfactorily accomplished, and the Tunnel was opened to the public on March 25, 1843—eighteen years and twenty-three days after the commencement of the work. [2]

Sir Isambard Brunel, whose health had for some time been failing, now retired altogether from his professional labours. After passing a few years in peaceful and happy seclusion, surrounded by those he loved, and watched over by their affectionate care, he died on December 12, 1849, in his 81st year, having been spared to carry to completion his greatest work, and to see his son following in his footsteps with a success which must have exceeded his most sanguine expectations.

The education Mr. Brunel received from his father was well calculated to form the foundation of his future career. During the later and more arduous part of the contest, which was ended by the irruption of January 1828, he held both the nominal and actual post of Resident Engineer of the Thames Tunnel; but from the commencement of the works, when he was only nineteen years old, he had been, as stated by Sir Isambard, ‘a most valuable coadjutor in the undertaking.’ While placed in this responsible position he acquired habits of endurance and of self-reliance, and learnt to act with promptitude and decision in the application of those measures which experience had shown to be effective in each particular class of emergency. But beyond all other advantages, he had before him the example of his father’s character, in which a rare degree of gentleness and modesty of disposition was joined to unflinching energy, and a determination to overcome all difficulties.

[1] On January 15, 1828, the Directors of the Thames Tunnel Company passed the following resolution, which they ordered to be advertised in the Times, New Times, Herald, Ledger, and Courier:—‘That this court, having heard with great admiration of the intrepid courage and presence of mind displayed by Mr. Isambard Brunel, the company’s resident engineer, when the Thames broke into the Tunnel on the morning of the 12th instant, are desirous to give their public testimony to his calm and energetic endeavours, and to that generous principle which induced him to put his own life in more imminent hazard to save the lives of the men under his immediate care.’

[2] The Thames Tunnel was not successful as a commercial undertaking; but it has always been considered, especially by foreigners, one of the most interesting sights in London, and has been visited by several millions of persons. In 1865 it was purchased by the East London Railway Company, and trains now (March, 1870) run through it. The possibility of using the Tunnel as a railway had been considered in Mr. Brunel’s lifetime, and the idea was approved of by him.

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