The Brunel Engine House - the Miner's Life Exhibition


  April 1827: warnings of the danger ahead -  broken glass, coal, and old boots were coming into the frames of the shield. Marc Brunel was told by some Thames watermen that he was tunnelling into an underwater quarry from which gravel had been dredged out. If this was the case, the riverbed above the shield would collapse, and the Thames would burst through. On May the 18th, as the tide was rising in the evening, water suddenly came roaring through one of the frames of the shield, but luckily everybody escaped unhurt.

'Subaqueous Adventurers'

The riverbed was surveyed by Marc's 21 year old son Isambard Kingdom, now appointed Resident Engineer. Having no fear for his own safety or that of anyone else, Isambard, with his intrepid mother, brother-in-law, sister, and a girl-friend, descended to the riverbed in a candle-lit diving-bell, whilst a crowd of journalists watched from small boats alongside. The breach in the layer of gravel was found, and later sealed with a mixture of rocks and 19,500 cubic yards of bagged clay. The pumps were started, and the tunnel cleared of water, but the worst was still to come.


On January the 2nd 1828, rocks were coming through the frames. Isambard, spurred on by his obsessive nature and determination, believed that if the work progressed quickly enough the shield would reach beyond the danger point and further flooding would be avoided. Although water was now gushing through the frames, he kept his men working, risking their lives and his own. Before 6 a.m. on Saturday the 12th of January, he was on the shield, assisting two of the best miners, Collins and Ball. Suddenly a huge column of water swept in, knocking everybody out of the frame and extinguishing the lights. A gigantic wave ploughed along the pitch-black tunnel, sweeping Isambard up the 42ft shaft.

Swept back by the Descending Wave

Later it became clear that the men had been trying to get out of the shaft, and had been sucked back by the force of the wave as it descended, and were drowned. And the bodies of Collins and Ball were also recovered, crushed under the wooden stage located behind the shield. News of the tragedy soon spread to the workmens' dwellings. In the words of a press report -

'Wives and children in a state of nudity, the accident happening at such an early hour, were seen in the utmost state of distress, eagerly enquiring after their husbands and fathers.'

Isambard Brunel, who suffered internal injuries, convalesced in Brighton, keeping a diary that contains a vivid account of the flood -

'When knocked down I certainly gave myself up…The roar of the water in a confined space was very grand, cannon can be nothing to it …'




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