In 1843 the Thames Tunnel opened to the public and within twenty seven hours fifty thousand people had visited what was variously dubbed ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ and ‘The Beautiful Road to Hades’. In the first year two million people descended the spiral staircases, this at a time when the total population of London was only two and a quarter million. In August 1851 when the Great Exhibition was at its height, twice as many people visited the Tunnel as visited the Crystal Palace.
Visitor numbers have since declined! However, the Trustees of the Brunel Engine House Museum, keenly aware of old traditions, have launched a new programme of Community Events to tell the whole story. We now hold what has to be the most extraordinary fair of all time, and the only fair to be held underwater. One hundred and sixty years ago there were stalls and novelty acts: tight ropewalkers, Ethiopian Serenaders, Indian and Chinese exhibitors, and, of course, Mr E Green, the celebrated bottle pantomimic equilibrist… This year, for added comfort, The Thames Tunnel Annual Fancy Fair took place above the water. The Fair was a climax and celebration for the whole programme:
- A Summer Playscheme to design a Public Art installation by the River Thames
- An Artist’s Residency at a local secondary school to design Great Industrial Achievements
- An Artist’s Residency at a local primary school to build Parade Giants
- A New Gallery with watercolours & peepshow of the Thames Tunnel
- A Schools Outreach Programme launched in Museums & Galleries Month, using an actor in role, and supported by a Teacher’s Pack for
KS3 and KS2
- The Annual Tunnel Fancy Fair itself, with samba, percussion and lanterns
The focus of events was Brunel’s original shaft, once a proud entrance to ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ but latterly a sad, scruffy graffiti-daubed stump that deters would be visitors. These events all drew new visitors to a museum that has historically appealed to specialist interest groups.
1) The Summer Playscheme
An after schools activity funded by the Bridge House Trust through the Education Extra Project. Under the direction of Liz Leyh (who made the Concrete Cows in Milton Keynes) local children made mosaic fishes, set in coloured concrete. These fishes now ring the shaft. Volunteers included Art Therapy Students from Finland.
2) The Great Industrial Achievements Residency
Funded by The Amicable Trust. Under the direction of Martin Cottis, students from Bacon’s City Technology College designed lettering for the top of the shaft. The letters spell ‘Museum’; each letter is a student’s image of Brunel’s achievements.
3) Parade Giants Residency
Funded by the South East London Community Fund. Children from Alfred Salter Primary School built a giant Isambard Kingdom Brunel and a moving version of Old Hungerford Bridge, the first suspension bridge over the Thames. These huge structures were designed to fit on wheelchairs, which were propelled by children from Alfred Salter School and Bacon’s College; both schools where children with special needs are integrated into mainstream education. The giants were paraded at the school carnival, the Bermondsey & Rotherhithe Carnival, the Rotherhithe Festival, the Thames Tunnel Annual Fancy Fair and the Thames Festival- this last to loud acclaim from thousands of spectators.
4) New Gallery with watercolours, peepshow and Thames Tunnel memorabilia
The museum previously housed a technical display on tunnelling which never proved accessible to non-specialist visitors and children. The new exhibition has put this right. The National Art Collections Fund and The Pilgrim Trust funded the acquisition, restoration and conservation of works of art (one by Brunel himself) including a modestly interactive peepshow that has proved very popular.
A dramatic new case donated by Steam Museum houses a collection of gin flasks, cheroot cases, pincushions and nursery ware, once sold under the water and all with the Thames Tunnel pictured. This collection loaned by a Friend of the Museum.
5) Schools Outreach Programme with actor in role
Funded by engage during Museums & Galleries Month, Brunel in person visited local secondary schools with a Teacher’s Pack funded by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Brunel demonstrated the noble art of bridge building, and described the less glamorous but pioneering business of digging tunnels in soft earth whilst being showered with raw sewage and dodging ignited marsh gas.
The programme has been extended to primary schools, complete with a touring exhibition describing the Life of the Miners. The Parade Giant Brunel looks on and the children pass underneath Hungerford Bridge to enter their classrooms.
6) The Thames Tunnel Annual Fancy Fair
Funded by Sir John Cass Foundation, the Fair was launched with parade, music and song. Local schools and local families joined in samba, percussion and lantern making workshops. The Giant Brunel came, and ‘Play On Words’ Theatre Company performed a comic piece called ‘Love In A Tunnel’, the story of two lovers helped to a tryst by Brunel. The Museum was open to parents for art and refreshments.
New exhibits, inside and out, have been presented in an original way. The project has attracted new and repeat visitors for the Summer Playscheme and Community Fair. We have launched a new educational outreach programme at Primary and Secondary level, and worked with children with Special Needs. We have trebled our audience and our pool of volunteers. We have attracted volunteers from abroad for the first time. We have transformed the museum inside and out, and re-located a specialist museum, with dwindling support, firmly within the local community who now support and visit. Engineering has embraced the arts. General interest visitors are arriving.