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Thames Tunnel
Rotherhithe to Wapping, London, UK
Thames Tunnel
associated engineer
Sir Marc Isambard Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  February 1825 - 25th March 1843
era  Victorian  |  category  Tunnel  |  reference  TQ350800
ICE reference number  HEW 177
photo  PHEW
The Thames Tunnel is the world's first major sub-aqueous tunnel. To construct it, Marc Brunel used the cast iron tunnelling shield he invented its successful deployment was also a world first. Originally for pedestrians, then trains, the tunnel remains in use as part of London's railway system.
Though this was the first tunnel to be completed under the River Thames, it was the third to be started. In 1799, Ralph Dodd (c. 1756-1822) was the first person to try but water leaks foiled the attempt. Robert Vazie (b.1758) and Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) tried to construct a driftway (TQ361806) in 1805-09, from Rotherhithe to Limehouse, east of the present tunnel. Water ingress and poor ground conditions led to the works being abandoned, only 54m from the Limehouse end.
The idea for the present Thames Tunnel originated in January 1818, when Marc Brunel (1769-1849) obtained a patent for a circular tunnelling shield of cast iron designed to protect miners digging by hand behind it. The Thames Tunnel Company was formed in 1824. The project was immensely difficult and hazardous. On its completion, Marc Brunel was knighted in recognition of his achievement.
Work on the 366m long tunnel began in February 1825 at the Rotherhithe end. A 15.2m diameter brick shaft, 12.2m high, was built at ground level and sunk into position. Then a rectangular version of the tunnelling shield was installed and began its work in November that year.
The shield sat at the face of the cut and provided tiered access and protection for the 36 men digging in three rows of 12. It had a hood that extended behind it to shelter the miners, who excavated successive sections of the face within their areas. Each column of three areas could move forward independently, powered by screw jacks. The exposed surface was lined with bricks set in mortar and the shield was moved forward in 115mm steps (the width of a standard brick).
Great difficulties were encountered owing to the nature of the ground under the river. Poor air quality within the unventilated tunnel was made worse by water and raw sewage seeping in. The Thames was very polluted in the first half of the 19th century London's sewerage system was not installed until after the 'Great Stink' of 1858. Methane gas in the sewage was often ignited by the candle-lamps used by the miners.
Water first broke into the construction works in May 1827, when the tunnel was 167m long. Attempts were made to seal the leak using a diving bell and placing clay-filled sacks on top of the tunnel. Water poured in again in January 1828, when six men were killed. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), who was working for his father on site, was severely injured. The shield was damaged and work stopped.
Despite Isambard Brunel organising a banquet inside the tunnel in November 1827, investors were becoming nervous about its safety. The tunnel was bricked up in August 1828 because of financial difficulties but a government loan in 1833 enabled work to restart. A new iron shield was built and tunnelling recommenced in February 1836. The shield was moved forward using hydraulic jacks.
Two more instances of flooding occurred the tunnel was only 4.3m below the river bed at its lowest point before work reached the Wapping shaft in June 1840. In 1842, a new engine house was built next to the Rotherhithe shaft to house machinery for draining the tunnel. The finished tunnel has two horseshoe archways, joined by a series of cross arches, all encased in a rectangular mass of brickwork 11.4m wide and 6.8m high. It cost more than 630,000 to construct.
On 25th March 1843, the tunnel was opened to foot traffic, with spiral staircases at each end providing access. Lack of funds had prevented the original plan of allowing horse-drawn transport, reaching the tunnel via spiral access ramps in 61m diameter shafts. However, the tunnel proved popular. On opening day 50,000 people walked through it, and one million people (about half the population of London in 1843) visited during the first 10 weeks, all paying a penny each. Shops were set up in the cross arches.
In September 1865, the Thames Tunnel was sold to the East London Railway Company 200,000. Track was laid and the first steam train ran through it on 7th December 1869. The line was electrified, and on 31st March 1913 the Metropolitan Railway began a service on the East London Line. The line was incorporated into the London Underground system on 29th January 1914 and goods trains used the tunnel into the 1960s.
The Rotherhithe engine house was restored in 1979 and now houses the Brunel Museum, which opened in June 1980. The tunnel was Grade II* listed in March 1995.
In December 2007, the tunnel was closed for refurbishment. In March 2010, it re-opened as part of the London Overground network.
Resident engineer (1826): William Armstrong
Resident engineer (1826-43): Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Consruction of otriginal shield: Maudslay, Sons & Field (Lambeth)
Construction of second shield: Albion Ironworks (Rennie) of London
Research: ECPK
reference sources   VicEngCEH Lond

Thames Tunnel