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The Thames Tunnel (continued)

When the frames had been completed in Messrs. Maudslay’s factory, they were conveyed to Rotherhithe, and lowered down the shaft. An opening had been left at the bottom of the wall, about 37 feet wide by 22 feet high, and against this the shield was erected. It was then ready to commence its progress through the ground below the river.

On November 25, 1825, the shield made its first start. Sir Isambard was unfortunately unable to witness what was in fact the actual commencement of the Tunnel, as he had three days before been seized with a sudden and alarming attack of illness, which kept him at home till December 6. The works were left under the direction of Mr. Brunel.

December 8.—The great shield is advancing very slowly, meeting with much interruption by the water, which still runs within the cells, and also by the difficulty of forming abutments for the frames. [Temporary abutments were necessary until the shield was sufficiently advanced to allow of its being pushed forwards from the brickwork built up behind it.]

December 29.— The frames are very much out of level in the transverse line of the Tunnel. This would be attended with serious inconvenience if I had not provided for the means of recovering any irregularity that might take place, and which, as it appears, cannot perhaps be prevented; but having foreseen this, I have provided the remedy by being able to take down the top of each frame, and to remove the top staves in parts, or the whole, at pleasure—a very important provision it proves to be.

January 16, 1826.—Too much precaution cannot be taken, in the management of the frames, to have the leg-screw particularly well secured, as every foot-run of the arch of the Tunnel sustains 82 tons. Each frame carries as follows:—

The two end frames each 65 tons = 130

Ten others, each .         .    52 ½  ” = 525

655 tons

January 21—The ground at the top and sides very good; same in the front. In breaking the ground out of the limits of the shield on the right a great deal of ground fell in. This indicates that, if it was not for the protection of the shield, nothing could be done. This accounts also for the occasional breaking of the ground in making the drift in 1809. The brickwork of the entrance being carried as far as directed, the body of the Tunnel was begun to-day. [marginal note: Tunnel begun]

January 26.—Isambard went down to Rotherhithe; the water had broken in in great abundance upon the work over Nos. 4 and 5. [The twelve frames were distinguished by numbers.] A 4-inch pipe was driven over the shield from inside the shaft, but the water did not follow it, and the stream augmented very rapidly. The frame No. 5 was moved forward, and it checked the water for a moment, but it came again with violence. A heading was immediately ordered by Armstrong [John Armstrong, the resident engineer] from the east well, in which Isambard concurred. [marginal note: Water broke into the works.]

February 3.—Ordered a pit to be opened and made by sinking a curb 8 feet diameter and 18 inches thick, well bound with bolts. [This pit was a well sunk from the surface to enable the gravel containing water, into which the head of the shield had penetrated, to be removed, and clay substituted.]

February 6.—The shaft begun last night, and was sunk 20 feet to-day, and remarkably true. Had we known the ground as we now know it, we might, by having opened a well contiguous to the great shaft, have sunk the shaft in a week; but for that purpose we must have had two steam engines, one for pumping the water, and the other for taking up the ground.

February 10.—Went very early to the Tunnel for the purpose of giving directions to prop up the back of the staves, which, for want of weight at the new shaft, might be overbalanced by the pressure of the ground at the back. I could not rest a moment until it was done, for the consequences might have been fatal, at this moment in particular. What incessant attention and anxiety! To be at the mercy of ignorance and carelessness! No work like this. [marginal note: Unremitted attention wanted.]

February 12.—The ground having been opened carefully from under the curb of the pit [see above on date February 3], the greater part of the gravel was removed, and stiff clay substituted for it. This was done by driving first some wrought-iron flat bars, which kept the ground up. This shows that the shield is a most powerful protection, and would enable us to penetrate through a bed of gravel. Though the breaking in of the water had somewhat terrified the man in No. 5, he soon returned to his post, and the others have acknowledged their full confidence in the security afforded by the shield. The boring ahead had not yet been attended to: it is owing to the want of this precaution that this accident is chiefly to be ascribed; for had we known as much as we now do, we might have passed through without the pit being opened. [marginal note: Observations on the mode adopted to check the water.]

March 1.—Water at the back of the frames, but less than before. The men show a great deal of spirit in overcoming the present difficulties. Isambard was very busy yesterday and to-day in the frames, and about the works, He was severely hurt in the leg by a piece of timber falling against it. [This accident prevented his attending again at the Tunnel until the 24th.]

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