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The Thames Tunnel–Sinking of the Rotherhithe Shaft–Description of the Shield–Extracts from Sir Isambard Brunel’s Journals from the Commencement of the Thames Tunnel to the date of the Second Irruption of the River, January 12, 1828

The history of the Thames Tunnel will be told, as far as possible, in Sir Isambard Brunel’s own words, as given in his journals. [1] Although these extracts do not relate to works for which Mr. Brunel was personally responsible, they have been inserted in the belief that they are valuable, not only as showing the nature and extent of his duties as his father’s assistant, but also as displaying, in the most interesting and authentic form, Sir Isambard’s character and genius at a time when his son was brought into hourly contact with him, and under circumstances which would cause the influence of his example to make a deep and lasting impression.

Original plans for the Thames Tunnel
Original Plans for the Thames Tunnel

Previously to the year 1823 there had been several plans suggested for the construction of a tunnel under the Thames; and it would seem that a great demand was supposed to exist for some such means of communication between the two sides of the river eastward of London Bridge; for after the failure of the operations undertaken by Mr. Vasie in 1805, and Mr. Trevethick in 1807, [2] a high level suspension bridge was proposed, although it was not intended to be used for heavy traffic. [3]

The first reference to the Tunnel in Sir Isambard’s journals is dated February 12, 1823. ‘Engaged on drawings connected with Tunnel;’ and on the 17th and following days of the same month, ‘Isambard was engaged on Tunnel.’ These entries become more and more frequent in the pages of his diary, until it is evident that Sir Isambard’s whole time and thoughts were absorbed in this work.

The spring of 1823 was occupied in preparing drawings and models of his plans, and in enlisting the sympathy and assistance of various influential persons. By the close of the year the designs were matured sufficiently to enable the promoters of the scheme to commence the task of organising a company for carrying it out; and in January 1824 they resolved to call a general meeting of their friends, and invite public subscriptions.

On February 17, Sir Isambard explained his plans at the Institution of Civil Engineers, and on the next day a meeting was held at the City of London Tavern, under the presidency of Mr. William Smith, M.P., more than a hundred persons being present. Resolutions authorising the formation of a company were passed unanimously, and the share list was opened. In the course of an hour one-third of the subscriptions was filled up, namely, 1250 shares; and before the end of the day the number of shares taken was 1381.

Borings were then commenced in order to ascertain the nature of the strata through which the Tunnel would pass. A bed of gravel was found over the clay, which gave Sir Isambard great anxiety. A large pipe or shaft was sunk on the side of the river, and in it the water rose to within three feet of the surface of the ground, and fell about eighteen inches with the tide. ‘It is manifest (Sir Isambard writes) from this that unless the Tunnel is enclosed in the stratum of clay, it would be unsafe to drive through the bed of gravel. The Tunnel must, therefore, begin with the substantial clay.’

However, the result of thirty-nine borings in two parallel lines across the river, to the depth of from 23 to 37 ½ feet, seemed to prove that there was below the gravel a stratum of strong blue clay of sufficient depth to ensure the safety of the Tunnel.[4]

A report to this effect was made to the shareholders at their first general meeting in July, and it was also stated that the works would be completed in three years.

[1] This history has been written by Mr Beamish in his Life of Sir Isambard Brunel, pp. 202-304, and also, up to the year 1828, in the very valuable work by Mr Henry Law, C.E., entitled ‘A Memoir of the several Operations and the Construction of the Thames Tunnel’ and published by the late Mr Weale in his Quarterly Papers on Engineering.

[2] For an account of these earlier attempts see Law, pp. 3-7.

[3] This expectation does not seem to have been realised, as there was never any considerable traffic through the Thames Tunnel. Perhaps, however, it would have been otherwise had the large descents for carriages and horses been constructed.

[4] The results obtained by these borings were no doubt fallacious, but not to the extent which has sometimes been imagined. At a meeting of the Institution of Civil Engineers, in November 1819, Dean Buckland called attention to ‘the evils arising from the ignorance of the engineers who reported to Sir Isambard Brunel, previous to tho commencement of the Thames Tunnel, that the whole of ‘the bottom of the river at that spot was London clay.’ Whereupon Mr. Brunel rose and said, that he ‘agreed that knowledge of every kind was most desirable, and that it would be well if engineers were generally much better informed on many subjects which would be useful, and more particularly on matters connected with geology; at the same time he could not admit that they were deficient in that knowledge of the surface of the earth which was necessary for the purpose of guiding them in their work. It might be true that many members of the profession were, like himself, not perfectly well acquainted with the minute geological characteristics of the soils they had to deal with, but he thought the education and the practical experience of the profession generally rendered them well acquainted with those features and characteristics which were necessary for their guidance in the design or execution of work. He must also say a few words in defence of those persons (new nearly all dead) who made the borings in the Thames, and were stated to have mado so fallacious a report previous to the commencement of the Tunnel. Now, although that statement had by constant repetition become a sort of historical fact, it was really only one of those popular fallacies which obtained too ready credence in the world. The position of the Tunnel was not determined by any report, or by the result of any borings, but with a view to establishing a communication between particular localities for encouraging the traffic which was anticipated from the facility of access to the docks, and for other local reasons, such as the general direction of the roads and streets on both shores. After the position was settled, and not until then, borings were made to ascertain what soils might be expected in that part of the river. It must be remembered that these borings were made full twenty-five years ago, when boring in the bed of a river through a depth of water of nearly thirty feet was not an ordinary occurrence. The tool then generally employed was the worm, and tubes were not even used in such cases. The borings showed the existence in that spot of something which, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, might have been inadvertently called London clay, but he had no recollection of its geological designation having ever been thought of. It was reported and shown to be a very fair clay for working in … . The errors which were made in giving the results of the borings did not, in fact, arise from ignorance, but from mechanical defects in the tools, for it was subsequently discovered that the worm frequently carried a portion of the upper tenacious clay through the softer strata beneath, and brought it up again. The tenacious clay might have been called London clay, but no value was attached to that particular designation; they cared little in engineering for its denomination, provided it was of a good tenacious quality. This mistake in terms (supposing it to have occurred) could not have had any influence on after proceedings; for, before the Tunnel was far advanced, he conducted with great care a series of borings extending across the Thames, and, as he used improved tools and worked through tubes, the holes were kept so dry that a candle was frequently lowered down to the bottom in order to see the amount of infiltration. By this means he was enabled to construct a correct section of the bed of the Thames at that spot, showing every layer of shells and gravel as well as every variation of the surface of the silt, &c. He entered more at length into these details than might perhaps appear necessary, because he ‘felt it was incumbent upon those who had the conduct of works to show that they did not proceed so ignorantly or so recklessly as had been assumed, in the design or execution of large undertakings.’

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