The Brunel Engine House - the Miner's Life Exhibition

The Working Day


The Working Day

The workmen operated in eight-hour shifts - emergencies excepted - the early shift starting at 6 a.m., even in mid-winter. Each shift consisted of thirty-six miners with pick-axes and shovels manning the shield, bricklayers working concurrently to make the tunnel safe, and an even greater number of labourers helping remove spoil out of the tunnel, bringing supplies to the craftsmen and miners and stocking the boilers. Teams of men worked under the authority of foremen and 'gangers'.

Both 'gentlemen' and 'working-men' worked extremely hard. During the construction of the shaft, bricklayers were laying 1000 bricks a day and subsequently miners battled with stinking, semi-liquid mud and river detritus seeping through the frames of the shield, and poisonous, inflammable gasses. Isambard Brunel had an office in the shaft and was known to sleep in the shaft. Once he stayed for 36 hours without sleep and then snatched a couple of hours of rest on the bricklayers platform behind the shield

The men were given half an hour to eat their lunch and drink. The miners would normally eat down the shaft. The food was provided for the men. The alcohol was provided by the Thames Tunnel Company and included whisky and porter. Porter - a type of stout was considered a great fortifier.

At times the length of shifts were reduced to 6 hours - for example, when noxious gases were causing problems.

Brave, Rough and Tough

It is likely that the men gained social prestige amongst other working people for doing such heroic work, and, despite the dangers, they might well have felt pride in being involved in such an innovative project. The labourers and the craftsmen must have been intrepid, tough, rough, hard-working, hard-drinking men, full of bravado, and vying with one another as to who could display the most strength and endurance.

Drunk and Disorderly

In an age when large amounts of alcohol were often consumed - especially by the upper classes and the lower - drunkenness on site was not tolerated. But it proved hard to control; some men were often drunk. 'Disorderly' men were sacked, but some drinking on site was allowed. During times of special hardship extra rations of porter were dispensed.

Tunnelling - an unlikely spectator sport!

Given that the project was so fraught with danger it is incredible that the management allowed the presence of spectators - including society ladies - who were lowered down at a shilling a time. The Brunels argued against admitting the public, but the Company saw the sightseers as a valuable source of revenue and publicity.

That none will killed or injured is a matter of complete luck!



Email the Museum. Page Last Updated on 20 April 2002. Designed by Kevin Flude of Cultural Heritage Resouces