How the Brunel Dynasty engineered the City of London: Liveryman Martin Knights

The Thames Tunnel built during the first part of the 1800’s is an international landmark project which celebrates the world’s first subaqueous tunnel; and is the birthplace of tunnelling that has shaped cities all over the globe. The huge 18m diameter machines that now build our urban underground infrastructure are based on engineering inspiration and innovation pioneered by Sir Marc and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Thames Tunnel Cross-section
Thames Tunnel entrance shaft

Martin’s colourful presentation combined historical and political context, technical challenges, heroic and ‘bloody minded’ determination, how the tunnel was built, Queen Victoria’s afternoon visit, the world’s first underground shopping mall and circus, the legacy for London and the world and the museum that commemorates this historic landmark and its significance in the world of engineering achievements.

Brunel Museum is a museum in the Brunel Engine House, Rotherhithe, London Borough of Southwark, UK. The Engine House was designed by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel to be part of the infrastructure of the Thames Tunnel.

The Brunel Museum commemorates Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first and last projects. An exhibition celebrates the Thames Tunnel as the birthplace of the tube system, and the Great Eastern steamship as the first modern ocean liner. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and International Landmark Site above the oldest tunnel in the Underground. Watercolours, engravings, and models explain this epic feat of engineering and tell the story of the men who worked in the dark, dodging flames and raw sewage every day. The Brunel Museum is located close to the south bank of the River Thames, and near to the London Overground station at Rotherhithe. It is housed both in the Sinking Shaft and the adjacent Engine House, a simple brick building with a pitched, clay pantile roof and a slender iron chimney.

The buildings were originally constructed to support the construction and working of The Thames Tunnel, a project designed by Marc Isambard Brunel and the first project of his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The tunnel was opened to the public in 1843 and provided a pedestrian crossing of the River Thames nearly two miles downstream of London Bridge, at that time the lowest crossing point of the river.

Brunel’s Engine House museum
Brunel Museum plaque

Originally built to house steam powered pumps to extract water from the tunnel, this use ceased in 1913 and the building was used for storage space until it fell into disrepair before it was restored and became the home of the Brunel Museum in 1980.

Immediately to the east of the Engine House is the vertical access shaft – sometimes known as The Grand Entrance Hall – that was constructed to facilitate the digging of the tunnel and which subsequently provided access to the south portal of the tunnel from 1843 onwards. Rather than being dug in the traditional manner, a circular brick tower was constructed above ground on top of an iron hoop and this was simply allowed to sink into the soft ground through the downward force of its own weight as miners dug out the shaft. This was a technique pioneered by Marc Brunel.

In 1865, the tunnel was acquired by the East London Railway Company as part of a new railway link, subsequently known as the East London Line, between the railway networks on the north and south sides of the River Thames. The shafts were retained to provide ventilation to the tunnel – essential in the days of steam – and the shaft on the north side of the river became the access to Wapping Station. The tunnel was closed to traffic in 2008 to enable the relaying and re-signalling of the track as part of East London Line extension programme and, as part of this work, a concrete slab floor was constructed near the bottom of the shaft above the tracks to facilitate the Museum’s long-held ambition to give the shaft a beneficial use.

The Thames Tunnel – including the access shafts – is included in The National Heritage List for England at Grade II* and the former Engine House is included in the List at Grade II: It is also designated as Scheduled Monument.

Martin Knights, Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers

(based on his talk to the Worshipful Company of Engineers of 1st September 2020. The full talk can be viewed here: Engineers YouTube Channel Video)