Thames Tunnel tour: Discover the Victorians’ Eighth Wonder of the World
A rare walk through Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe.
The Thames Tunnel, once one of Victorian London’s greatest attractions, hasn’t been open to the public for nearly 150 years. While thousands pass through it every day on a London Overground train, many wouldn’t be aware they are travelling through an impressive feat of engineering. In May 2014, the London Transport Museum hosted special tours for people to follow in the footsteps of Victorian Londoners by walking the tunnel as it was originally used for.
As you may have noticed, after Tower Bridge going east there is no bridge crossing the River Thames until you reach the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, Kent. In Victorian London, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the docks and factories east of the city were booming and it became apparent of a growing need for a river connection between docks on north and south of the river. Various ideas were considered over the years, but it wasn’t until 1823, Anglo-French engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) produced a plan for an underwater tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping using his and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (1806-1859) new tunnelling shield patent, which revolutionised tunnel building.
With the tunnel originally planned for use by horse-drawn carriages, Marc found funding from the Duke Of Wellington, among others, and construction began in February 1825. Brunel’s team started building a shaft at Rotherhithe – which is still there today and forms part of the Brunel Museum – which is where pedestrians and (ideally) horse and carriages would enter the tunnel. In November 1825, the shaft was complete so the tunnelling could begin. Using the Brunels’ tunnelling shield, work progressed slowly, with only about 8-12 foot of tunnel being built a week. Conditions were horrible, with many workers falling ill from the sewage strewn water seeping into the tunnel. Marc’s son Isambard ended up taking over the project at just 20 years old when resident engineer William Armstrong fell ill in 1826. At one point, they started allowing visitors in to see the shield in action, charging a shilling each, to boost the spiralling budget.
In November 1827 – while the tunnel was still being built – the Brunels hosted a banquet in the tunnel for 50 guests with music provided by the Coldstream Guards. In May 1827 and January 1828, the tunnel flooded, with the later incident resulting in the loss of six men and Isambard himself narrowly escaping death. Following this, there was loss of confidence in the project and it was put on hold for seven years. However, by December 1834, Marc managed to raise enough money – including a loan from the Treasury – to resume the project. Despite more floods, fires and gas leaks, construction was finally completed in November 1841. It measured 35 feet wide, by 20 feet high and 1,300 feet long, at 75 feet below the Thames surface. It was swiftly fitted out with lighting, staircases and roadways. An engine house was built next to the shaft for machinery used to drain the tunnel, which can now be visited as the Brunel Museum. The tunnel had taken so long to build, there was no money left to construct two further shafts to transport the horse and carriages down to tunnel level. So with the original design brief unfulfilled, it was opened to pedestrians in March 1843, who entered via the Grand Entrance Halls in the shafts using spiral staircases.
After hearing so long about the delays and dramas of the tunnel construction, unsurprisingly Londoners and those from further afield were curious to see the engineering wonder. It was initially hugely popular with tourists, with 50,000 people visiting on opening day, with a total of 1 million visiting in the first three months – equivalent to half the population of London at the time. Billed as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, visitors paid a penny to pass through the tunnel and soon found plenty of occupy them as stalls were erected in the arches between the adjoining east and west tunnels. Among the products on sale included snuff boxes, paper weights and gin flasks. In 1852, organisers hosted the Fancy Fair, the world’s first underwater fair, featuring entertainment such as tightrope artists, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and magicians. Despite the initial popularity, the novelty soon wore off and 10 years after opening, the tunnel was home to some very unsavoury characters, including thieves and prostitutes.
Investors were relieved when the East London Railway Company purchased the tunnel in 1865, with trains eventually running through it four years later after they had extended it further south. In 1884, a disused shaft was used to create Wapping station. Eventually the line came into ownership of London Underground for the East London Line and then in 2010, became a line used by London Overground.
- The London Transport Museum very rarely conducts tours to the Thames Tunnel, but keep an eye out on their events page for further openings. The Brunel Museum is open all year round, with regular tours to visit the Grand Entrance Hall. Brunel Museum, Railway Ave, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF. Nearest Overground: Rotherhithe. For more information, visit the Brunel Museum website.
Metro Girl Likes: When you’re in the area, check out the nearby 17th century Mayflower pub with a deck overlooking the River Thames.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused Aldwych tube station, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s London history posts, click here.