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The Brunels and the Thames Tunnel

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The Brunels and the Thames Tunnel

Katie Avagah

Brunel and we immediately think of Isambard; railways; steamships; but first a potted history of his  father, Marc.  Marc Brunel was born in 1769 on a Normandy farmhouse.  From an early age he was constructing mechanical devices; one of which was a musical machine combining both the flute and the harpsichord.  Not willing to enter the church he started  his adult career in the French Navy.  As a royalist he soon fell foul of the French Revolution and its leader Robespierre.  He went into hiding, escaping to Rouen where he had friends; and it was here Marc met and fell in love with a young English girl,  Sophia, visiting France to improve her French.  Rouen was soon in the hands of the revolutionaries and again Marc was forced into hiding; he then escaped to America in 1793.  Meanwhile Sophia was arrested as an enemy alien and incarcerated in a prison  at Gravelines.  In 1794 she was suddenly released; extremely ill and emaciated; and eventually was able to return home to England.

In America, still only 26 years old, Marc was making his name as an engineer.  He received the backing of Thurman, a New York merchant, to cut a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Champlain, so linking New York and the St. Lawrence River.  By 1796  Marc had become an American citizen; but with things developing in Europe he decided that was where his fortune lay; and also a young lady called Sophia.  He sailed for England in 1799 and within a few days of arriving he was reunited and engaged to be  married to Sophia.

He met up with Henry Maudsley and Marc was virtually the founder of the ‘Machine-tool Industry’.  Then, seeing veterans returning from the Battle of Corunna with unshod, lacerated feet, bandaged in rags, he set about designing new boots  for the army, and the machines to make them; employing disabled soldiers to produce them.  1814 disaster struck, his factory burnt down; and with peace between France and England he soon became insolvent.  1821 both Marc & Sophia were arrested and sent  to King’s Bench Prison.  He didn’t waste his time in prison, he wrote to friends and business contacts; including Alexander 1 st Tsar of Russia.  The Duke of Wellington  and the Prime Minister intervened and the Government offered to pay off his creditors.  After 3 months Marc & Sophia were released; Marc had already started on his next great project – a tunnel under the Thames.

1806 in Portsea, Sophia had given birth to their third child, a boy named Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  In 1807 the family had moved to Chelsea, London and Isambard regarded himself as a Londoner.  Tutored first by Marc, then to boarding school in Hove; then  in order to obtain a ‘technical education’ which was not possible in England, he went first to Caen College in France and then to Lycee Henri 1V in Paris.  Returning home in 1822 he immediately joined his father’s drawing office designing  bridges for London and Liverpool to relieve the congestion developing in these two large cities.  However there were technical problems for bridges spanning the rivers – due to the height of the masts of the Tall Ships.  Just 19 years old and Isambard  was to join his father building ‘a tunnel under the Thames’.

A Chronology of the Thames Tunnel
1825 the brick tower is sunk below ground level and the boring begins.  1827 the miners go on strike because of  cuts to their wages and the first major flood happens.  Marc suffers a stroke; still recovering he organises a ‘celebration banquet’ down in the tunnel to raise funds. 1828 second major flood and six men are drowned; Isambard is washed out  of the tunnel, he survives but is injured. He is ill for several months and suffers a series of haemorrhages.  Later that year the tunnel is bricked up because of lack of funds.  1834 on Marc’s 65 th  birthday The Tunnel Club is founded by Fellows of the Royal Society at the Spreadeagle & Crown Inn; now called The Mayflower.  The Treasury agree a loan to the Company, and in 1835 work restarts.  In 1837 & 1838 see three more major floods and another  man is killed.  1839 the tunnel reaches the Wapping shore.  1840 Marc is knighted by Queen Victoria; and by 1841 the Wapping shaft has been sunk and the tunnel reaches the Wapping shaft.  1843 The Thames Tunnel is opened to pedestrians and Queen Victoria  visits.  1852 the first Thames Tunnel Fancy Fair is held; 1865 the tunnel is handed over to The East London Railway; 1869 the first passenger train passes through.

During flooding it was not just water – this was a period when all sewage and industrial waste, a stinking, highly toxic mix, was flushed into the River.  Throughout the work this mix would seep through and down the walls, covering the men with  a noxious, stinking mess; the conditions underground were so extreme they could only work two hour shifts.  At times the ventilation was damaged so the men were breathing in foul air; it would leave a deposit of black grime around their nostrils.  The  project was plagued by financial troubles throughout.  Brunel had hoped to finish it in 3 years, what optimism; it was 18 years before Londoners would stroll from one side to the other; most of the delay caused by lack of funds.

At first it was the place to be seen as well to-do Londoners strolled along the Tunnel in their finery. However with its many ‘nooks and cranies’ it became a favourite for courting couples with much ‘hanky-panky’ in dark corners;  later it was to become no more than a ‘knocking-shop’ for the local ‘ladies of the night’.

It is said to be – ‘The most rhymed about, danced about, sung about and painted about construction site in the world.’  It is in fact one of the wonders of the world.  This was the start of the Underground, a system which enables  all the millions of inhabitants of the cities around the world to travel, in relative comfort and speed, from place to place, be it for work or pleasure. Without Brunel’s Tunnel our cities would have long plunged into chaos. It stand’s with  Bell’s Telephone; Stephenson’s Rocket; Wright Bros’ Aeroplane; Babbage’s Computer; and all such great inventions which changed our world.                 

The Volunteers Go Underground.

Katie Avagah

But I must tell you what this tunnel is like, or at least try to do so.  You enter by flights of stairs, the first door, and find yourself on a circular platform, which surrounds the top of the well or shaft, of about  two hundred feet in circumference and five hundred feet in depth.  This well is an immense iron frame of cylindrical form, filled in with bricks; it was constructed on level ground, and then by some wonderful mechanical process, sunk into the earth.   In the midst of this is a steam engine, and above, or below, as far as your eye can see, huge arms are working up and down while the creaking, crashing, whirring noises, and the swift whirling of innumerable wheels all around you, make you feel for the  first few minutes as if you were going distracted.  Edmund Marks 1835

Not quite what we were to experience for a Volunteers visit to Brunel’s Tunnel. Meeting at Barking Station we alight at Whitechapel for the Overground to Rotherhithe,  then realise two of our group are missing – ’ll not divulge whom! Making our way up a long flight of stairs we wait on the walkway in the hope they will reappear.  They say they had been unable to get off the train because someone was  crowding the door – well, any excuse covers senior moments!  Up more stairs on our way to the Overground we see an elderly gentleman struggle desperately up the stairs, he then stops, looking most distressed and lost.  ‘Can we help?  ' we enquire; ‘I want the entrance for the hospital.’  One of our group helpfully tells him he is in the wrong place; he needs to go back down all the stairs, then up those on his right...he staggers off.  We turn the corner finding our  destination, and also the exit to Whitechapel Road and the hospital!  Is that an ambulance I hear?

The train soon arrives at Rotherhithe – this is a great rail line; round the corner and there is Brunel’s Museum and the rest of our group. We are warmly greeted on the forecourt, taken to their Community garden and offered free beverage.   This is a marvellous little garden, amidst all the grey, grim, tall buildings.  Built over the entrance to the top of the shaft of the tunnel, it was completed just a year ago, with the help of the local Community.  Circular in shape, it is already thriving  with a host of herbs, inter-planted with native flora, and here and there ripening strawberries.  On Friday evenings they hold musical ‘get-togethers’ with the neighbours, sampling home-made tipple.  What a congenial idea –take note  Valence.  We are, however, only offered tea/coffee on this occasion.

Then, on this exceptionally warm and sunny day we join a Primary school-group, looking over the River, comparing the craft on the River now, with how it would have looked in Brunel’s time.  Robert, our Guide then suggests we make our way to the  Shaft. We receive the usual ‘Elf ‘n Safety’ talk before he demonstrates how one is to enter the tunnel.  This is when we begin to wonder what lies ahead!

‘You need to climb up these stairs; put your left leg over onto the first step; then your right foot onto the next step; turn round to the left and put your left foot onto the stone steps; twirl around again and starting with your right foot come  down the stairs;’ (‘Can we do that to music?’) ‘In front you will see a small tunnel – if you suffer from a phobia of being closed in don’t be concerned, it is only a few steps along, wait until  the tunnel is clear and you will see the light ahead.  Then to your left you will find the steps down’.
Easy, what!  Up the stairs, put my r...– no left..., left leg over- where is the step – I peer over – way down there is a small piece of metal, some 3 by 4inches, sticking out of the wall, and some long way further down  a similar piece of metal! Okay, now turn left and left foot onto the step – they are a bit narrow – now do a twirl!!  Right, down the steps and there is ... a small tunnel!  Well, I am what is referred to as ‘vertically challenged ' yet I need to coopy down, almost double, with knees bent – and it is DARK – my eyes and my glasses have yet to adjust from the bright sunshine. Wednesday June 19 th  was Summer this year!  Quasi Modo style I shuffle forward to find those stairs.  In the dim light I can just make out a gap to my left, feeling with my hands I manage to grasp some metal framework; I now need to step over onto stairs which I cannot see,  and gingerly make my way down, and down, and down........  Finally I reach terra firma and can relax enough to look around.  I appear to be in a giant ‘pipe’ the walls of which are covered with soot, and it extends high above me.  The Shaft  is apparently 200ft deep and 500ft across – that is a lot of space.  It is beautifully cool and suddenly my itchy eyes and sniffles disappear – perhaps I can live here during the hay-fever season.

Chairs are set out for our comfort and soon both we and the children are seated ready for Robert’s talk.  He keeps both us and the children spellbound as he takes us through the building of the shaft here, then the tunnel and finally the shaft  at Wapping.

The talk is not without its humorous moments.  When the Tunnel first opened to the public it was the place to be seen; folk would stroll along in their finery and even the Queen made a visit.  However in time courting couples discovered it’s dimly  lit ‘nooks and crannies’ and Robert says much ‘hanky panky’ took place – here the adults are heard to chortle and giggle, while the children look at us with puzzled faces.  Later still the Tunnel’s reputation  sunk even lower; he says it became a ‘knocking shop’ for the local ‘ladies’ – again the giggles and chortles; again the puzzled faces.  Then Robert quickly explains it was a place where you ‘knocked on doors' – even more puzzled faces.
Later, chatting to him he wonders if he had perhaps been too explicit – I say I just wonder what their parents will make of it all when the children relate their day.  Earlier, talking to Colin about ‘Isambard Kingdom’ we wondered  about the origins of his name; Colin said he could imagine the Vicar at the baptism:  ‘Isambard Kingdom’ can’t you just call him ‘John’!  I ask Robert if he knew the ‘history’ of the name –Yes,   'Kingdom’ was his mother’s maiden name; ‘Isam’ means iron, and ‘bard’ German for beard/a man - so you have ‘The Iron Man’.  What more appropriate name could you choose for Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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