Tunnel Vision – The Genius of Marc Brunel

If you ask a random selection of people to name the greatest British engineer, the almost certain reply would be Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He certainly was the most famous and his genius can be in no doubt, with his phenomenal output including bridges, dockyards, railways and steamships, during his short and productive life. However, not so many people will have heard of his father, Marc Isambard Brunel, whose own unique genius paved the way for his more famous son.

I first came across Marc Brunel nearly 25 years ago, in another life, when I was part of a team working on the refurbishment of the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, which had been one of the greatest engineering projects of the Victorian age. Unfortunately, it was tired and sad and needed a well earned facelift, but more of that in due course.

Marc Brunel was a French citizen and how he ended up on the shores of this country is a tale that’s definitely worth the retelling, involving as it does romantic love, revolution, flight and a happy ending in exile. He was born in 1769 in Normandy and from an early age was fascinated by mathematics and drawing and was soon a prolific inventor with a great aptitude for engineering.

While living in Rouen, Normandy, he met an English Governess, Sophia Kingdom and they became engaged in 1793. Unfortunately, this coincided with the height of the French Revolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Reign of Terror”, when Robespierre sent thousands of people to the guillotine. Because of his Royalist sympathies, Brunel was in imminent danger and had to flee the country on a ship bound for America.

Sophia was arrested and accused of being of an English spy, facing almost certain execution, but thanks to the fall of Robespierre in 1794, she was released and was eventually able to return to England.

Meanwhile, in America, Brunel wasted no time in establishing his reputation and, amazingly, by 1796, he was appointed Chief Engineer of New York City, designing houses, docks, commercial buildings, an arsenal, and a cannon factory. He had also come up with a proposal to automate the production of pulley blocks for the Navy and in 1799 he decided to sail to England to put his idea before the Admiralty. This was an incredibly risky thing to attempt, leaving a prestigious position in New York, on the off chance of a Contract with the British Government.

However, this was also his opportunity of being reunited with Sophia and one can’t help thinking that this was the real motivation for the journey. The gamble paid off, he was awarded the contract and by November 1799, he and Sophia were married and he settled in Britain for the rest of his life.

During the following few years Brunel was involved in many projects, many successful but also a number that were unprofitable and by 1821 he was deep in debt, culminating with his imprisonment in the debtor’s prison in Southwark. Following the possibility of Brunel’s debt being paid by the Russian Tsar on condition that he move to Russia, the British Government paid all his debts on condition that he abandon his plans to emigrate.

Below is a portrait of Marc Brunel painted in 1812/13, which shows Brunel looking thoughtful with a sheaf of engineering drawings on his knee, the archetypal Victorian man of vision looking to the future.

Marc Brunel painted by James Northcote in 1812/1813 (National Portrait Gallery)

Brunel’s greatest invention had already taken place in 1818, when he had patented a tunnelling shield of cast iron in which miners were able to work in separate compartments, digging at the tunnel-face. Once a certain amount of tunnel had been completed, large jacks would then push the shield slightly forward, and at that point the exposed tunnel surface behind it would be lined with brick protection.

This invention became the prototype for the construction of his greatest triumph ‘The Thames Tunnel’, both the world’s first shield driven tunnel and first major underwater tunnel. A diagram below shows part of a sketch for the shield used for the Thames tunnel construction.

A tunnel under the Thames had previously been attempted in 1805 using traditional mining methods, but was abandoned in 1807 as being impossible. Now, following Brunel’s radical invention, the decision was made in 1824 to make another attempt and in 1825 construction started in Rotherhithe, commencing with the sinking of a vertical access shaft, followed by the assembly of the tunnelling shield underground. Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was now 18 years of age and already showing great engineering promise and so he became an assistant to his father from the very beginning.

The Tunnel was fraught with difficulties from the outset, with difficulties steering the shield, poor air quality, financial problems and poor ground conditions , which eventually led to numerous inundations of the Thames, resulting sadly in the deaths of a number of the workers. In 1826, the Resident Engineer became ill and resigned his post and a very young Isambard took over as Resident Engineer, thus launching his prestigious career.

The first major inundation took place in in May 1827 and again in January 1828, where Isambard nearly died, having been dragged out unconscious from the tunnel. These problems took their toll and money finally ran out, resulting in the bricking up of the tunnel in August 1828 at the halfway point .

The tunnel remained closed until 1834 when the Government loaned the company enough capital to continue and following many trials and tribulations, including more major inundations and serious health problems for both father and son, the tunnel was eventually completed in 1843. The Chronology below lists in greater detail the events of those many tumultuous years of its construction.

On the 25th March 1843, the tunnel was opened to a great fanfare and celebration, with the production of many souvenirs to commemorate the opening; on that first day 50,000 people descended below ground each paying one penny entrance fee. A typical cheap commemoration medal produced for the occasion can be seen below:

Although the tunnel had originally been intended for wheeled vehicles, this was quickly dropped due to financial constraints and during its first few years it was open to pedestrian traffic only. In the early days it was a tremendous success, attracting about 2 million people a year, many from overseas, who had heard about this 8th wonder of the world. It became a gigantic market-place attracting all sorts of hawkers and entertainers plus less reputable company once darkness had descended. An American tourist, William Allen Drew gave a graphic description of the tunnel in 1851 in his book “Glimpses and Gatherings During a Voyage and Visit to London and the Great Exhibition in the Summer of 1851, Homan & Manley, 1852″

Now look into the Thames Tunnel before you. It consists of two beautiful Arches, extending to the opposite side of the river. These Arches contain each a roadsted, fourteen feet wide and twenty-two feet high, and pathways for pedestrians, three feet wide. The Tunnel appears to be well ventilated, as the air seemed neither damp nor close. The partition between these Arches, running the whole length of the Tunnel, is cut into transverse arches, leading through from one roadsted to the other. There may be fifty of them in all, and these are finished into fancy and toy shops in the richest manner – with polished marble counters, tapestry linings gilded shelves, and mirrors that make everything appear double. Ladies, in fashionable dresses and with smiling faces, wait within and allow no gentleman to pass without giving him an opportunity to purchase some pretty thing to carry home as a remembrancer of the Thames Tunnel. The Arches are lighted with gas burners, that make it as bright as the sun; and the avenues are always crowded with a moving throng of men, women and children, examining the structure of the Tunnel, or inspecting the fancy wares, toys, &c., displayed by the arch-looking girls of these arches … It is impossible to pass through without purchasing some curiosity. Most of the articles are labelled – ‘Bought in the Thames Tunnel’– ‘a present from the Thames Tunnel‘”

Unfortunately, within a few years the tunnel fell further into disrepute and became a no-go area frequented by prostitutes, thieves and muggers by which time the pedestrian traffic had all but ceased. Eventually, the tunnel was purchased in 1865 by the East London Railway Company, which was eventually incorporated into the London Underground network, where it became part of the East London Line, where it continued until March 1995, which is where I became part of the story.

Site investigations carried out during 1994 and subsequent analysis demonstrated that the tunnel was in urgent need of strengthening and additional waterproofing and Taylor Woodrow Civil Engineering Ltd, who I was working for at the time, won the Contract for this refurbishment. The state of the existing tunnel in 1995, following removal of the track, can be seen below.

The preferred solution for London Underground Ltd. was just to line the tunnel with a sprayed mesh reinforced concrete, with an expected closure of about 7 months, in order to minimise disruption.

However, there was a strong backlash from English Heritage and many other conservation groups, who felt that Brunel’s great achievement needed to be preserved in a more meaningful way. Three days before the contract was due to commence, the Heritage Secretary designated the tunnel a Grade II* listed structure and immediately suspended all work until a new solution could be found.

Following protracted discussions between the parties, in late 1995 a compromise solution was eventually agreed, which preserved 30 metres of the original tunnel at the Southern end and contained an agreement to reline the remainder, while retaining the original 64 cross passages and replicating many of the original features. A comparison between the original tunnel with the 1990’s repair work shows that the refurbishment stayed true to Brunel’s original concept; I’m sure as an engineer, he would have approved of the final result.

In the end, the various delays meant that the East London Line did not re-open until the Autumn of 1997, almost 2 years later than planned, no doubt purgatory for the thousands of people using the line for their work, but a triumph for conservationists and architectural historians.

Following the first major inundation in 1827, a celebration banquet had been held in the tunnel for the great and the good, when the tunnel was almost halfway completed. As the work was stopped for 7 years shortly afterwards, it may have been somewhat premature for a celebration.

To commemorate the original celebration and in tribute to Brunel and his achievement, Taylor Woodrow hosted a black tie dinner to celebrate the success of the project in March 1997, sensibly this time at the end of the works, by recreating the previous banquet 170 years previously. I was honoured to have attended and as we took our seats we were accompanied by a string quartet. The VIP’s were seated closest to the camera, while my work colleagues and I were at the other end of the table, a distant blur in the background of the photograph. I feel privileged that I am one of the few people in the world that can claim to have dined in a tunnel beneath the Thames.

Marc Brunel died in 1849, at the age of 80; he was a modest man and his work was his passion, but his achievement was enormous, his inventions were legion and his revolutionary tunnelling shield paved the way for the London Underground network, the first in the world, and finally, of course, he sired Isambard, arguably the greatest Civil Engineer of them all.

It would also be remiss not to mention the role of Marc Brunel’s wife, Sophia Kingdom, a formidable woman who spent two periods in prison, one fearing for her life and the other in a debtors prison supporting her husband. They were devoted to each other and she supported him through thick and thin. Brunel stated that without Sophia there would be no tunnel and there can be no doubt that their’s was a true love match.

Today, Marc Brunel’s legacy is safe in the hands of the Brunel Museum , which is housed in the old tunnel engine house in Rotherhithe. The original shaft down to the tunnel has now been opened to the public, who can now visit where the tunnel first began its life.

And for me, the tunnel will always be with me; I mean this quite literally, as I have a piece of the original tunnel, sealed in perspex, sitting on my desk at home as a memento of my time working on the Thames Tunnel, two of the most interesting and happiest years of my working life.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

4 thoughts on “Tunnel Vision – The Genius of Marc Brunel

  1. Dear Mr Bostock,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog and for sharing your professional involvement – an absolutely captivating read.

    I am a lead on a platform known as ‘Nextdoor’ and I have a few groups within the platform; Nature and Wildlife, Throwback – history and NHW.

    Two days ago, I posted a photo of Blackwall Tunnel; the famous 108 double decker crawling along with a conductor hanging out viewing the twists and turns ahead.

    Well, this photo received many comments and likes, neighbours starting debating, reminiscing and communicating.

    When I read your fascinating blog this morning I realised how much I didn’t know about the area I grew up in – Greenwich.

    With your permission, can I share your blog with so many other inquisitive readers please?

    Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

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