Last chance to walk through Brunel’s 1843 Thames Tunnel
TODAY is the last time anyone gets the chance to walk through Brunel’s magnificent Thames Tunnel—the world’s first tunnel built under a river—before Underground trains start running through it again. I followed where Isambard Kingdom Brunel trod a-thousand times during the 18 years it was painstakingly excavated, inch-by-inch, from 1825 to 1843
TODAY is the last time anyone gets the chance to walk through Brunel’s magnificent Thames Tunnel two miles east of the Tower of London—the world’s first tunnel built under a navigable river—before Underground trains start running through it again.
I followed in the footsteps where Isambard Kingdom Brunel trod a-thousand times during the 18 years it was painstakingly excavated, inch-by-inch, from 1825 to 1843, long before the first steam passenger trains roared through in 1871.
This was a special trip for the media arranged by London’s Brunel Museum, just before the public was allowed through, herded in groups by health and safety marshalls on the walk-through from Rotherhithe to Wapping and back.
London’s Mayor Boris Johnson scooped us all by 24 hours, on a VIP walk through the tunnel followed by the band of the Coldstream Guards!
The Victorian press called Brunel’s tunnel the eighth wonder of the world,’ justified as our tour guide Robert Hulse, the Brunel Museum’s proud director, enthused. Some 50,000 people walked though on the first day in 1843, each paying a penny a time.
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A million people had walked through in the first 10 weeks, at a time London’s population was just two million.
The 1,200ft long Thames Tunnel, lined with Victorian engineered brick arches with supporting classical pillars, was opened in 1843.
But not before it was flooded five times with stinky water from the breached riverbed above.
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The Thames was like an untreated sewer back then, before Joseph Bazaljette’s London sewer network two decades later.
The miners, working on the tunnel in groups of 16 under excavation sheilds inching their way along with hand-picks and shovels, would have been drenched in foul water whenever this happened.
The air was usually putrid from the build-up of methane and the miners would break every two hours to get back up to the surface for a gasp of fresh air.
Finally the great day arrived in 1843 when Queen Victoria opened the tunnel 18 years after work first began.
But the money ran out before the spiral ramps could be added at either end to take horse-cart traffic.
The Tunnel company raised cash charging pedestrians 1d to walk through and licensed souvenir and food stalls along the tunnel to raise what meagre revenue they could. Posh dinners were held under the Thames for the movers and shakers of the day.
But the glamour soon wore off and it sank into depravity when it became the haunt of whores and cutpurses, our guide points out. They lurked in the arches and the honest traders soon lost heart and quit.
But in 1852, all that changed—briefly—with the first Thames Tunnel Fancy Fair staged with musicians, fire eaters, sword swallowers, jugglers, tightrope walkers, clowns, performing horses, waltzes played on steam organs, coconut shies and freak shows. The Victorians really knew how to rave, our guide enthuses.
This rebirth, however, was short-lived. The Tunnel Company finally gave up the ghost in 1865 when it sold out to the East London Railway Company.
An underground line was built from Bishopsgate to New Cross which opened to regular passenger traffic in 1871, using Brunel’s tunnel to cross under the river.
Today is the last chance to walk under the Thames without getting your feet wet—to soak up the atmosphere our Victorian ancestors created a century-and-a-half ago.
The East London Line reopens April or May after a three-year shut-down while it was being seriously modernised to become part of London’s new Overground orbital network and being extended north from Whitechapel and south from New Cross.
Soon Brunel’s Thames Tunnel will rumble to the sound of fast commuter trains from Dalston Croydon. He would proud, 167 years on.
WALKING TOURS of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel start from and return to Rotherhithe station in Brunel Road (where else?), London SE16, lasting about 40 minutes. Wear sturdy shoes and a coat—it’s cold down there.
1824: Parliamentary Bill defining powers of Thames Tunnel Company for “making and maintaining a tunnel under the Thames” receives Royal Assent
1825: Formal start of work on the shaft at Rotherhithe
1843: Queen Victoria opens the tunnel to pedestrian traffic
1852: First Thames Tunnel Fancy Fair with entertainment under the river which becomes a social hub
1865: Tunnel is formally handed over to East London Railway Company
1871: Regular passenger trains pass through Thames Tunnel, from Bishopsgate to New Cross
1914: Tunnel comes under Metropolitan Railway management with London’s Underground railway rationalisation
2007: East London Line closes for conversion to London Overground Network and extension
2010: East London Line due to reopen April or May, extended to Dalston and Croydon