The Brunel Engine House - the Miner's Life Exhibition




On the 21st of February 1839, shortly after midnight, Thomas Page, acting engineer, was awoken with the news that a fire had broken out in the clothes drying loft. This was above the steam engine, and this was mounted on a timber framework at the top of the shaft, the entire structure weather-proofed with inflammable tar. The fire threatened the steam-engine, the timber supports and the gasometer in the yard; if it took hold, tons of red-hot iron would fall into the tunnel shaft. Unless the fire was beaten, not only the machinery would be destroyed, but also the yard buildings: offices, workshops, and sheds.

The Floating Fire Ship

A crowd had gathered as the fire illuminated the cold night. By the time that some of the Company's own workmen had been able to get up onto the burning roof, a floating fire engine - manned by forty-six men - was sailing towards them on the Thames. After this had moored, police and watermen went on board to help work the pumps. Also assisting was the Rotherhithe parish hand-pumped engine. But the men on the roof were lifted into the air by the force of the water from the hoses, and had to cling to their ladders to stop being dashed to the ground by the jets of water. More fire engines arrived, some by water, and some through the cobbled streets. To some it seemed that the tunnel would this time be flooded from above ground.

The Fire Quenched

After the fire was put out it was discovered that Jonas Tillet, an eighteen-year-old who tended the boiler fire, had bravely crawled through the first billow of smoke to lift the weights from the safety valves on the steam engine boilers. Because he had shown this presence of mind, the engine had been safeguarded. No lives had been lost. The buildings were by and large saved. By three o' clock a.m. the crowd had dispersed, the water had been pumped from the boiler house, and normal work could resume on the shield.




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