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The Brunel Museum

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by Dominic Simpson (subscribe)
Freelance writer based in East London. Check out more of my writing at
Published January 29th 2013
Tunnel back in time at the Brunel Museum
According to Wikipedia, there are over 240 museums in London. This ranges from the obvious ones (the Tate museums, the V&A, National Gallery, etc.) to such bizarre, lesser-known places as Shirley Windmill (a museum in a windmill in Croydon); Kirkaldy Testing Museum ("materials testing machines used by engineer David Kirkaldy"); British Airways Heritage Centre; and the terrifying sounding Anaesthesia Heritage Centre.

Brunel Museum sign
Brunel Museum sign

Then there's the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, one of those lovely little places, housed in a beautifully bricked interior, that remains off the beaten track, yet endearingly so. The Museum charts the story of the Thames Tunnel, the oldest tunnel which goes underneath a navigable river in the world. As part of the broader picture, it draws in the story of the tunnel's engineer, the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose father Marc established the building (The Brunel Engine House) where the Museum is.

Photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, photographed in 1857 by Robert Howlett (public domain image)

A mechanical and civil engineer, whose designs revolutionised public transport in London in the early 1800s; Isambard had a very impressive CV indeed. He designed the nearby Hungerford Bridge, Crystal Palace's water towers – and Paddington, gateway to the Great Western Railway. Isambard's legacy led to him being portrayed by Kenneth Branagh at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony last summer, as well as coming second (after Winston Churchill) in a 2002 BBC poll of the "100 Greatest Britons". Not bad for someone who died at the age of only 53.

Brunel Museum entrance
Entrance to Museum

Right next to lovely, winding narrow cobbled streets leading to the river, as well as The Mayflower Pub (named after the first ship from Britain that set sail for America in 1620, and which happened to be on this site, fact fans), the Museum recounts the torturous process of just how they established the first tunnel to go under navigable water. They employed a rectangular tunnel shield, with twelve digging positions across its width and three digging positions on top of each other, thus allowing thirty-six miners to work simultaneously, building through the soft soil (captured in the artists' diagram below).

Thames Tunnel artists' impression of tunnel shield
Artists' impression of construction of tunnel shield; probably featured in the Illustrated London News (artist unknown; public domain image)

The work was incrementally, mind-numbingly slow, advancing inches at a time (for a total distance of 1,200 feet) from one side of the Thames to the other under the river.

Brunel Museum upper platform and basement level
View of basement level and upper platform

Brunel Museum upper platform
Upper platform of Museum

More than that, though, the Museum gets across just how dangerous, smelly, and downright hellish the work must have been: conditions were damp and terrifying, with the water from above dangerously seeping in (at one point so much that the whole project had to be temporarily abandoned, with Isambard nearly drowning along the way); the only light was from candles; the air quality in the tunnel was horrendous, with a number of deaths reported; and sewage entered the tunnel (remember that this was before an adequate sewerage system had been designed for London), giving off methane gas that was then set alight by the candles. A fun time had by all, then.

When it finally opened in 1843, at a huge cost far outstripping initial estimates, the Thames Tunnel was described as the Eighth Wonder of the World, with tourists coming from as far as France and Germany. On its opening day, 50,000 people walked through, paying a penny each (quite a contrast from paying over £20 to go up The Shard).

Thames Tunnel artists' painting
Artists' painting of Thames Tunnel, mid-19th century (artist unknown; public domain image)

Trains ran through the tunnel, and for a while it was a success, yet by 1995 it had decayed enough to close for long-term maintenance. It was finally reopened in 2010, used as part of the London Overground rail network.

Brunel Museum Rotherhithe shaft
The Rotherhithe Shaft, next to the Museum

The Brunel Engine House that hosts the Museum, meanwhile, was an extension of the tunnel, holding steam-powered pumps used to extract water from the tunnel, as well as the Rotherhithe Shaft (photo above) – the access shaft to the tunnel adjacent to the Museum. The Shaft has occasionally opened briefly to the public (including on Valentine's Day in 2010 as the 'Tunnel of Love') for sightseeing. Since then, the Museum has vowed through fundraising to convert the shaft, with its projected use as an exhibition and performance space. Meanwhile, if the various exhibits aren't enough in the cosy upstairs platform, there's also a video in the basement explaining the construction (below).

Basement level of Brunel Museum
Basement level of Museum

There's also a nice small bookshop and Café too (all presided over by an authentically grumpy woman, which only makes me like the place even more), who tells you about related special events taking place. These range such as those in the picture below, to "unusual metro journeys" (where you can see the part of the tunnel itself that flooded), to boat ride tours along the Thames of all things Brunel.

Brunel Museum event flyer
Dare you attend this soirée?

The Museum will also be celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Thames Tunnel this year, with events (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund) including guided walks through the tunnel, music concerts and theatre, and all kinds of other shenanigans, all of which will be announced on their website. Well worth looking out for.
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Why? Because it's the 170th anniversary of the world's first underwater tunnel, right here in London
When: 10am - 5pm daily (later for events); late opening on Tuesday until 9:30pm for cafe bar and guided walking tour from Bermondsey tube station
Phone: 020 7231 3840
Where: Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 4LF
Cost: £3 (children under 16 free of charge)
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