The Brunel Engine House - the Miner's Life Exhibition
Men and Gentlemen
Judging by their names the workforce appears to have been mostly English or Irish. There is a tradition that some were Cornish tin miners, and that others were from Durham. In the 1820s there was much unrest in the Durham coal mines, the miners objecting to the 'bond' system of labour in place there. Once a miner had signed the bond, he was liable for imprisonment if he rescinded it - no matter how wages or conditions might have deteriorated! Absconding to far-off London may have been an attractive alternative. Some of the men may have previously been employed in canal construction: the Regent's Canal and Dock was completed in 1820.
Many of the work force were not miners as a whole army of men worked above ground: carpenters, smiths, pumpers, and stokers. Etc.
Gentlemen and Men
The workforce of the tunnel was divided into two groups, the first 'gentlemen'; chief engineer, acting engineer and assistant engineers, etc., the second 'working people'; the miners, bricklayers and the labourers, or unskilled workmen. There was an in-between category; the foremen, who were not classed as 'gentlemen' but who were still 'commanders of men', and very highly skilled. Today, these demarcations persist when the architect visits a construction site wearing a collar and tie along with a hard hat.
Key men working on the project included 'corps elite' miners - Collins and Ball, who tragically were drowned in 1828, and foreman bricklayer Michael Lane, who worked with Isambard Brunel for many years - for example, as resident engineer on the Monkwearmouth docks. After Isambard's death, Lane succeeded him as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway.
Craftsmen and Labourers
It is likely that the workmen were employed and paid as two categories, skilled craftsmen, and unskilled labourers. The first, miners, bricklayers, carpenters and smiths, can perhaps be classed as belonging to a 'lesser aristocracy' of working men. Some were said to be ill-trained and damaged the shield, which was unfamiliar equipment.
The second, the labourers, took the 'spoil' from the excavation, lime-washed the brick walls, mixed the cement, carried building materials, or stoked the boilers. Sheer physical strength was an important requirement for both categories, though some are described as 'old' or elderly. Some are described as 'boys', and would have been 18 years old or younger.
Email the Museum. Page Last Updated on 20 April 2002. Designed by Kevin Flude of Cultural Heritage Resouces