Tag: Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers

An Account of the Thames Tunnel

By Marc Isambard Brunel

The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1837

April 11, 1837

Mr. Brunel gave an account of the Thames Tunnel. Having described the nature and difficulties of the undertaking, and the previous attempts which had been made by others to effect a similar work, he explained, by reference to sections, the nature of the strata below the river. He had adopted the rectangular form of the present excavation, because the work would set better than if it had been of any other form, and it also had a better sustaining surface. The necessity of supporting the ground, and of having a sufficient shelter, had led to the adoption of the shield, respecting which so much had been said. The construction of this would be most easily understood, by conceiving twelve books set side by side on their ends. These would represent the parallel frames which, standing side by side, but not in immediate contact, filled up the excavation. Each frame was divided into three boxes or cells, placed one above the other, the adjustment of the floors of which, and other details, were minutely described by Mr. Brunel.

Each frame was furnished with two large slings, by which it might derive support from, or assist in supporting, its neighbours; it had also two legs, and was advanced, as it were, by short steps, having for this purpose an articulation which might be compared to that of the human body. The frame rested on one leg, and then one side was hitched a little forward; then resting on the other leg, the other side was hitched a little, and so on. Hence the shield might be called an ambulating coffer-dam, travelling horizontally.

The brick-work was built in complete rings, and the advantages of this system of building had been fully proved, by the fact of two dreadful irruptions of the river having produced no disruption. Such was the violence of the irruption, that the brick-work had in one part been suddenly reduced in thickness by one-half, and in one place there was a hole, as if pierced by a cannon-ball. At a few feet beneath the tunnel was a bed of quicksand 50 feet deep, and above it were strata of most doubtful consistency, some of which fell to pieces immediately they were disturbed. Still, however, the progress was certain, and only required patience, to allow the ground above to acquire sufficient density. He found gravel, with a mixture of chalk or clay, extremely impervious to water; in some cases he contrived to let out the water from the sand above, and thus obtained ground of sufficient density. The progress had been considerably retarded by land springs, which produced cutaneous eruptions, and destroyed the finger-nails of the workmen.

April 18, 1837

Mr. Brunel continued his description of the works of the Tunnel. He explained how the ground above had suddenly sunk down, owing to the run of at lower stratum of sand. This running sand, which was a great annoyance, consisted of five parts of water to one of sand. Bags of clay and gravel were not so effective, where there were many stones, as the interstices did not become properly filled up; in such cases the coarsest river sand was a better material; the water ran through it at first, but it soon stopped ; a mixture of gravel and clay was nearly impervious to water, but not so impervious as gravel and pounded chalk.

The Ventilation of the Tunnel was provided for by a pipe 15 inches square, passing out under the fire-place of the steam-engine boiler.

Mr. Gibbs stated, that he had found bags filled with clay and tow-waste, exceedingly impervious to water. Being called upon to build a sluice, in a place where piling was impossible, in consequence of the stony nature of the ground, he had formed a coffer- dam, by laying down bags full of clay and tow-waste, in tiers, on the top of each other, up to the surface of the water.

Notice Concerning the Thames Tunnel

By Richard Beamish, M. Inst. C.E.

The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1837

April 4, 1837

The paper states that several attempts had been made in former years to effect a communication betwixt the opposite shores of the Thames by means of a tunnel, all of which, however, failed. In 1798, Dodd proposed a tunnel at Gravesend; in 1804, Chapman projected one at Rotherhithe; and in 1807, Vazie commenced the construction of a shaft, II feet diameter, at a distance of 315 feet from the river. With Vazie was associated Trevethick, a man of great practical knowledge as a miner, and by indefatigable labor, a drift-way 5 feet in height, 2 feet 6 inches in breadth at the top, and 3 feet at the bottom, was carried 1046 feet under the river. In the spring of 1808, having first ascended from under a rocky stratum, though with a depth of at least 25 feet betwixt them and the bed of the river, the Thames broke in upon them, and not a single brick having been laid, the work was irretrievably lost.

In 1823 the subject of a tunnel was again agitated, and a company was formed, to carry into execution the plans of Mr. Brunel. The first proceeding was to sink a shaft. Twenty-four piles, with a shoulder on each, were first driven all round the circle intended for the shaft. One side of a wooden platform, or curb, was then laid on this shoulder, whilst the other side rested on an iron curb, having an edge below to which it was attached. Through this curb ascended forty-eight wrought-iron bolts, 2 inches diameter, to the height of 40 feet, the height to which it was proposed to raise the shaft. The regular building of the tower on the curb, with bricks laid in cement, was proceeded with, and yet farther bound together by twenty-six circular hoops of timber, half an inch thick, as the brick-work was brought up. At the top of the tower was placed another curb, and the long iron bolts passing through it, having their ends formed into screws, the whole was screwed solidly into one mass, and completed in three weeks. In a week after it was finished sixteen of the piles having been driven, two by two, opposite each other, the whole structure was sunk half an inch, carrying down with it the remaining eight piles, on which it was brought to a rest uniformly and horizontally, thus permitting the sixteen piles to be abstracted by opening the ground at the back. The whole weight supported by these eight piles was about 910 tons (the weight of the shaft). Having been left for three weeks to dry, and gravel having been heaped under the curb, the remaining eight piles were removed, two by two, till the mass rested on a bed of gravel. The machinery, viz., the thirty-horse high pressure steam engine, with gear for raising the excavated soil was now fixed on the top. The miners were placed inside, and by excavating from around the bottom, the whole descended by its own gravity.

Mr. Beamish then describes the peculiar difficulties which were experienced, previous to the first irruption.

The chasm in the bed of the river, formed by the irruption of 1827, was stopped by bags filled with clay, with hazel rods passed through them, the interstices thus formed being filled with gravel. The irruption of 1828 was met by similar means; but the funds of the company not being then sufficient for proceeding with the work, the shield was blocked up with bricks and cement, and a wall 4 feet in thickness was built within the Tunnel.

The work was then abandoned, and remained untouched for seven years. In 1835 a Treasury loan was granted, subject to the condition, that the most dangerous part of the Tunnel should be executed first. On resuming the works, the first object was to provide a drain for the water from the shield, for which purpose two reservoirs were formed under the middle pier, from which drifts were formed to the bottom of the great excavation and shield. The water was abstracted from the shield at the lowest point, and the pipes of two pumps, worked by the steam engine, being brought into the reservoir, all the difficulty of the drainage was overcome.

The removal of the old and the introduction of the new shield, was a work of no ordinary difficulty. The bricks and cement had, by the strong oxide of iron which the water contained, been converted into a mass harder than most rocks ; and not less than 1646 feet of surface, 342 feet of which constituted the ceiling, had to be supported, on the removal of the brick-work, previous to the introduction of the new shield. The means, however, adopted by Mr. Brunel, and which are described in the paper, were perfectly successful.

Obituary of William Froude

The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1880

William Froude, LL.D., F.R.S., the fourth son of the Ven. R. H. Froude, Archdeacon of Totnes, was born at Dartington Parsonage, on the 28th of November, 1810.

He was educated at Westminster School, and went thence to Oriel College, Oxford, being for some time a pupil of his elder brother, R. Hurrell Froude, an advantage to which he often referred. He took a first class in Mathematical Honours in 1832.

In the beginning of the year 1833, he became a pupil of Henry Robinson Palmer, V.P. Inst. C.E., then Resident Engineer of the London Docks. Mr. Froude was afterwards employed under Mr. Palmer on some of the early surveys of the South Eastern Railway and on other undertakings.

In 1837, Mr. Froude joined the engineering staff of Mr. Brunel, V.P. Inst. C.E., upon the Bristol and Exeter railway, where he had charge of the construction of the line between the Whitehall Tunnel and Exeter, and remained until it was opened in May, 1844.

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Obituary of William Pole

The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1901

William Pole was born in Birmingham on the 22nd April, 1814, his father being Thomas Pole, of that town.

At the age of fifteen he was articled for six years to Mr. Charles H. Capper, an Engineer in Birmingham who represented the Horseley Company, at whose extensive works the pupil was enabled to lay the foundation of the extensive knowledge of engineering which he afterwards attained.

One of his early experiences was a visit paid to the Horseley Company by the Princess Victoria, then eleven years of age, who was much interested in seeing one of the old copper coins, weighing an ounce, forged to an ingot and then rolled out to a strip nearly 25 feet long, with a thickness of about inch. In 1836, a year before the Princess became Queen, young Pole came from Birmingham to London, and, as he died three weeks before Her Majesty, there was a marked coincidence in the duration of their life-work.

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Obituary of William Bell

The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1892

William Bell was born at Leith on the 21st of September, 1818. He was educated at the High School, Leith, and afterwards at Edinburgh University, where, in 1839, he gained the gold medal and prize for Natural Philosophy, and was second in Mathematics.

On leaving the University in the following year, he became a pupil of the late John Hammond, then Resident Engineer on the Great Western Railway at Reading, where William Bell had many opportunities of making practical experiments on the working of locomotive engines, and on other subjects connected with mechanical engineering.

In 1842 he was placed by Mr. Hammond with the late John Thornhill Harrison on the Bristol and Gloucester Railway, and was subsequently Resident Engineer on the Cheltenham extension and on the Dawlish contract, which he measured up.

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Obituary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 19, 1860

MR. ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL was the only Son of the late Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, whose mechanical genius and originality of conception he largely inherited. Young Brunel was born at Portsmouth, in the year 1806, at the period when his Father was engaged on the block machinery for the Royal Dockyard. He received his general education at the College Henri Quatre, at Caen, where, at that time, the mathematical masters were particularly celebrated, and to his acquirements in that science may be attributed the early successes he achieved, as well as the confidence in his own resources which he displayed throughout his professional career. On his return to England, he was, for a time, practically engaged in mechanical engineering, at the works of the late Mr. Bryan Donkin, and at the age of about twenty, he joined his Father int he construction of the Thames Tunnel, where he attained considerable experience in brickwork and the use of cements, and more especially, in meeting and providing for the numerous casualties to which that work was exposed. The practical lessons there learned were in valuable to him; and to his personal gallantry and presence of mind, on more than one occasion, when the river made irruptions into the Tunnel, the salvation of the work was due. One of his first great independent designs was that selected for the proposed suspension-bridge across the River Avon, from Durdham Down, Clifton, to the Leigh Woods, which he owed to the fact, that upon the reference of the competing designs to two distinguished mathematicians for the verification of the calculations, his alone was pronounced to be mathematically exact. Want of funds prevented, at that period, the carrying out of the design, which there are now some hopes of seeing executed, by transplanting to that site the present Hungerford Suspension-bridge, which is itself the work of Mr. Brunel.

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Observations on the effect of wind on the suspension bridge over the Menai Strait, more especially with reference to the injuries which its roadways sustained during the storm of January 1839


[Editor’s note: Cowper, Edward Shickle; Brunel, Isambard Kingdom; Seaward, Samuel; Rendel, James Meadows; Donkin, Bryan]

Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 1, 1841

February 16, 1841

In the month of December 1825, when the original construction of the bridge was nearly completed, several severe gales occurred, and considerable motion was observed, both in the main chains and in the platform of the carriageways. It appeared that the chains were not acted upon simultaneously, nor with equal intensity; it was believed, therefore, that if they were attached to each other, and retained in parallel plains, the total amount of movement would be diminished.

On the 30th of January, and on the 6th of February, 1826, some heavy gales again caused considerable motion of the chains and roadway, breaking several of the vertical suspending rods, and of the iron bearers of the platform.

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