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The Thames Tunnel (continued)

Brunel’s shield (from original patent)

Before entering upon the history of this undertaking, some account must be given of the machine which Sir Isambard Brunel devised for effecting its accomplishment.

In order to avoid a quicksand of considerable depth and extent, the Tunnel had to be carried but a short distance below the bed of the river; and, as in all tunnelling through soft soil, [1] the top and sides of the excavation bad to be supported until the brickwork was built in; and the front or face had also to be held up as the miners advanced. This support was given by means of a machine called ‘the shield,’ described on one occasion by Sir Isambard as ‘an ambulating cofferdam, travelling horizontally.’ [2]

The main body of the shield consisted of twelve independent structures or ‘frames’ made of cast and wrought iron. They were each 22 feet high, and rather more than 3 feet wide; and, when placed side by side, like books on a shelf, against the face of the excavation, they occupied the whole area of the face, and also the top, bottom, and sides for 9 feet in advance of the brickwork. Each frame stood on two feet resting on the ground, and was divided in its height into three cells by cast-iron floors. In these cells, of which there were thus thirty-six in all, the miners stood, and worked at the ground in front of them.

The duty which the shield had to perform was to support the ground until the brickwork was built within the excavation; but it was essential that this should be done in such a manner as to allow of the mining operations being carried on; and it was also necessary that the machine itself should be capable of being moved forward.

The first point, therefore, which has to be explained in the action of the shield is the manner in which the earth was supported by it.

It has been already stated that each frame rested upon two feet, or large iron plates. These two feet together covered the ground under the frame to which they belonged, and thus the whole of the earth beneath the frames was pressed down by the feet.

The earth above was supported by narrow iron plates, called staves, laid on the heads of the frames parallel to the line of the Tunnel, the ends resting on the completed brickwork behind it. The earth at the sides was kept up by staves resting against the outermost frames.

The arrangement for holding up the earth at the face of the excavation was necessarily of a more complicated character. Each frame supported a series of boards called poling-boards, by means of small screw-jacks or poling-screws, two to each poling-board, which abutted against the frames, and pressed the boards against the earth. The boards were 3 feet long, 6 inches wide, and 3 inches thick, and were arranged horizontally. These polingboards, more than five hundred in number, covered the whole surface in front of the frames.

To resist the backward thrust of the poling-screws against the frames, each frame was held forward by two large screws, one at the top of the frame, and the other at the bottom, abutting against the brickwork of the Tunnel. The brickwork was completed close up behind the shield as it advanced.

The way in which the earth was excavated, and the shield moved forward, has now to be explained.

The plates or staves which supported the ground at the top and sides of the shield were pushed forward separately by screw-jacks; but in order to advance the polingboards in front, it was necessary that that portion of the ground against which they pressed should be removed.

The miner, standing in his cell, took down one, or, at the most, two of the poling-boards, commencing at the top of the cell, and having excavated the earth a few inches in advance, replaced the poling-boards against the newly-formed face, pressing them against it with the poling-screws. Thus the excavation was carried on without depriving the ground of the support it received from the shield, except at the point where the miner was actually at work.

The operation of advancing the frames was effected in the following way. When everything was ready for a move, one of the feet which carried the frames on jointed legs was lifted up, and advanced forward a few inches, and then pressed down on to the ground, until in its new position it again bore the weight of the frame. This done, the other foot was lifted, moved forward, and screwed down in the same manner, and then the frame itself was pushed ahead by means of the large abutting screws, which kept it top and bottom from being forced back on the brickwork.

It is, however, evident that these abutting screws would have been unable to push on the frame, while the ground in front was pressing back the poling-boards against it; therefore, during the process of moving a frame, it had to be relieved from the thrust of its poling-screws. Accordingly, when it was desired to advance any one of the frames, the butts of the poling-screws of the tier of boards in front of it were shifted sideways, so as to rest, not against the frame to which they belonged, but against the frames next it on either side. This done, the frame itself was advanced, and was then ready to receive again its own poling-screws, and also those belonging to the adjoining frames, so that they might in their turn be moved forward. It will thus, be seen that the whole shield was not moved forward at one time, but that the frames were advanced alternately.

There were many other ingenious arrangements in the design of the shield, which need not be referred to in a description intended only to give such a general idea of the machine as may make the history of its operation intelligible. [3]

[1] Professor Rankine, in his work on Civil Engineering, p. 599, describes the Thames Tunnel works under the significant heading “Tunnelling in Mud”.

[2] Proceedings Inst. C. E. i. 34. The circumstances which led Sir Isambard to conceive the idea of a shield, and the earlier designs he made for it, are described with illustrations by Mr Law, pp. 7-10.

[3] Mr. Law’s memoir contains a detailed description of every part of the shield, illustrated by careful drawings.

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